(Coup’s Note: Both SJ and I wrote our pieces separately, so when something gets repeated that would be why.)
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2008-09 Record: 54-28
Key Losses: Sergio Rodriguez, Channing Frye, Shavlik Randolph, Michael Ruffin, Raef LaFrentz.
Key Additions: Andre Miller, Juwan Howard, Jeff Pendergraph, Dante Cunningham, Ime Udoka/Jarron Collins/Patty Mills.
1. What were the team’s significant moves this offseason?
Coup: The Blazers used their heavily-watched summer money on Hedo Turkoglu, then Paul Millsap followed by a brief flirtation with David Lee before finally settling with Andre “I know all your plays” Miller. Through six preseason games, Miller has made it painfully obvious that he is the more dynamic and better playmaker than incumbent PG Steve Blake.
The worry at the time of Miller’s signing was his limited range, but he’s quelled much of those thoughts with his willingness to make risky passes that lead to easy buckets. Brandon Roy’s slow preseason has led to some questions about his ability to play off-the-ball with Miller — Roy has said he is more comfortable with Blake — and that is something to keep an eye on, but the “Who Should Start?” discussions have become tired. A certain No. 1 pick has been proving himself the deserving starting center and Miller should be on the court with Greg Oden as much as physically possible.
But the most significant move of the last year has likely been the non-move to make a major trade with expiring contracts/cap space/young talent. Sergio Rodriguez was traded to Sacramento for a second-round pick (Jeff Pendergraph) but the Blazers have had the chips to cash-in for a talented player and, other than adding Miller, have chosen to hold on to what they have. With European cap holds coming off the books soon and just under $9 million in expiring contracts between Blake and Travis Outlaw, there will be a plethora of options through the trade deadline, though GM Kevin Pritchard has not proven to be a fan of mid-season deals.
SJ: The Blazers signed Hedo Turkoglu. Wait, no Paul Milsap. Wait, wait signed David Lee. Jokes aside, there was much ado over Portland’s off-season. For Blazer fans it was full of rumors, ups and downs, head scratching, fury and relief. I’m sure I experienced every emotion this summer as the various sagas came and went. And it wasn’t just missing out on Turkoglu and Milsap it was the time periods in between. Agonizing. The Blazers off-season gave me all the drama I was missing while The Hills was off.
Many labeled the summer a disappointment but the Blazers still managed to address needs. Portland added Andre Miller (and his bad attitude, zing) and rookies Jeff Pendergraph and Dante Cunningham. They also waved bye bye to Channing Frye, Sergio Rodriguez, Shavlik Randolph and the man we turned into a piece of paper, Raef LaFrentz. Frye and Sergio’s departure means I won’t have anxiety attacks during games anymore. Miller filled the PG upgrade that was oh-so-coveted. Also the Blazers drafted two youngsters will attempt help fill the void at the backup 4 spot.
2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
Coup: Adding a passer like Miller to the most efficient offense in the NBA should, in theory, only increase Portland’s effectiveness, but Nate McMillan has experimented with tempo and lineups in the preseason, leading to offensive inconsistency thus far. Much of the Blazers’ success with the ball last season was tied to them being the best offensive rebounding team in the league thanks to having centers with the No. 1 (Joel Przybilla) and No. 8 (Oden) rebound rates in the league.
It’s tempting to say size, youth or depth is Portland’s greatest strength, but it *should* be versatility. As the Blazers found out against Houston last year, matchups are key in the playoffs and by adding Miller and getting a healthy Martell Webster along with the natural progression of the younger players McMillan should have a specific lineup available for any situation.
SJ: At times I worry if I overrate this team sometimes, but it’s legitimately deep. When a talent like Jerryd Bayless is fighting like crazy to crack the rotation you know you’ve got a good thing going. You could make an argument for each member of the second unit that they could be starting somewhere else in this league.
3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
SJ: Chemistry (for now), toughness and defense. These are the only three things that I’m iffy about with this team. The chemistry should obviously come as the season goes along but as of right now it seems as if things are still in an awkward phase. Miller and Roy are going to have to get used to each other. Roy and Aldridge may have their rhythms altered with all of the talent. Guys are going to have to buy in for this to work. The toughness factor is something that has bothered me since I allowed myself to remember the Rockets series.
Simply put if this Blazer team doesn’t defend all of the hype is for nothing. All the pre-season noise will be for nothing if the Blazers don’t step it up defensively. Not to reach into the cliché drawer but we all know that elite teams know how to get it done on both ends. Portland struggled defensively last year and it was that sometimes-leaky D that hurt the Blazers in the post-season.
Coup: McMillan wants his team to play defense but word is — games haven’t been on television, only radio — that the Blazers have been lacking in that department. Just as they are the lynchpins of Portland’s rebounding efforts, Oden and Przybilla are 1A and 1B to its defense. Nic Batum is the Great French Hope on that side of the ball, but though it’s tough to judge based on preseason reports, it appears as though Nate wants everyone playing on a defensive level they have yet to reach.
4. Goals for the season?
SJ: Last year it was just get to the playoffs. This year it’s to win the division and at least get out of the first round. I’d like to see the Blazers improve on the road. The Rose Garden is one of the better home court advantages in the NBA but the Blazers need to learn how to become road warriors. And if they learn how to do that I’ll be very confident in their ability to achieve the above goals.
Coup: Win. Win. Win. Last season the Blazers exceeded most projected win totals and met the common goal of making the playoffs. That was fantastic. Now it’s time to move on to the big boy goals.
Under McMillan, the Blazers have been consistent at making incremental improvements every season. As such, the season goals have been made on a step-by-step basis. “Find Character” > “Draft Well” > “Don’t Suck” > “Have a Winning Season” > “Make Playoffs”. From there we are supposed to move to “Win a Playoff Series” > “Make Conference Finals” and so forth. But before all the goals were geared towards simply being a good team. Portland is good now and everyone believes it. Now you’re fighting to be the last team standing. Sure, at the end of the season they can hang their hats on advancing in the postseason, but the real next steps are to prove they are contenders and then contend. And once you’re a contender, you’re contending for one thing.
But if we must set a goal for the young team that’s proven itself to be good, it’s simple: Be Great.
5. All Things Greg Oden.
Coup: If you haven’t heard, Oden is having a fantastic preseason. He’s in good shape, staying on the floor, displayed better offensive skills and playing more mobile defense. The consensus is that he looks like a completely different player. We’ll all see this in due time. Let’s talk about Oden the story.
For some reason — partly the fact that he’s a well-known No. 1 pick — there have been many in the national media that took no pause in jumping all over every one of Oden’s struggles. In fact some, along with many, many NBA fans, have seemed to enjoy his apparent failures. After one season following microfracture surgery, sweeping statements were made and advanced statistics were blatantly ignored. I’m not pointing fingers here, as it’s a very easy thing to do. All of us have pointed out a player in the past and said simply “He Sucks”. And we have all been wrong at some point. It’s the people that admit when they are wrong that you should really pay attention to.
So if Oden does start proving himself, pay attention to how the story is handled. He’ll be the “Big Credibility Check” for a lot of online space. And lets hope Kevin Durant has a great season as well, because better basketball is good for everyone.