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Know thy enemy: Portland Trail Blazers

October 25, 2009 |  6:14 pm

Last Season: 54-28, First in Northwest, Fourth in the Western Conference.
Key Additions: Andre Miller, Juwan Howard
Key Subtractions: Sergio Rodriguez, Channing Frye

During our most recent 710 ESPN PodKast, BK and I analyzed the Western Conference with ESPN The Magazine's Chris Palmer, and arrived at the same conclusion.  Of all the teams gunning to take out the Lakers, the best equipped, at least on paper, would be the Portland Trail Blazers.  No team has as much length to counter the Lakers' length.  No team has as much depth to match the Lakers' depth.  Had Kobe Bryant been traded to Chicago back in '07, Brandon Roy (one of my biggest NBA man crushes) would be the Western Conference's best shooting guard, hands down.  Throw in an arena that continually brings out the worst in the Lakers and Portland's fearless attitude while dueling the formidable champs, and you have a team theoretically ready to take a serious stand.  (For that matter, when it comes to being built to compete now and down the road, the Blazers also match up very well against the Lakers.  This could shape into quite the rivalry over the impending decade.)

Having said that, like most things in life, there are uncertainties.  The Blazers just wrapped up a middling preseason and Andre Miller, their "splash" acquisition of the summer, isn't immediately gelling with Roy and may be cool with a role off the bench, but he doesn't seem to like it.  And collectively, the squad is playing D that's making Coach Nate McMillan rather perturbed.  The only downside to big expectations is having to meet them.  Could the bar have been set too high?  The question is so daunting, it required not just a second but a third opinion, co-courtesy of co-writers/co-editors Steve Jones and Couper Moorhead of Rip City Project.  Check out the discussion below.  

Andrew Kamenetzky: I really liked the signing of Andre Miller, among the NBA's more underrated players.   However, it hasn't been very smooth sailing since arriving.  The failed conditioning test (of sorts).  Claiming to have been told he'd definitely start and if he knew that wasn't necessarily the case, he wouldn't have signed.  Not blending immediately with Roy.   It's still early, but this likely not what Kevin Pritchard had in mind.  A) Did you like the signing?  B) How concerned are you, if at all, and what do you see as the main on-court issues?

        Steve Jones: I was vehemently against signing Andre Miller. Numerous times I wrote that if that was "the move" Andre Miller passes of the summer I would be disappointed. It took me a long time to swallow it after the Hedo/Millsap mishaps (ha), but I've accepted that Andre Miller was a good move for this team. Whether he starts or he comes off  the bench, he's infinitely better than Sergio Rodriguez and I cannot stress that enough.  On paper he seems to be exactly what the Blazers need. He brings a veteran presence to a young team. His ability to create not only for himself and for others should be huge as he can take some of the offensive load off of Roy.

         All that said, I'm still concerned. It's going to take time for the chemistry to get there, but beyond that I'm worried. Andre Miller has tended to have success in a fast, up-tempo type game. If Miller can run, watch out. The problem is Coach Nate doesn't really run at that kind of pace. I cringe when I think of what happened when Mike Dunleavy and Baron Davis mismatched last year and pray this won't be the case this year. And sometimes I wonder, "Will he dribble too much?" Do we really want him taking the ball out of Roy's (our primary playmaker) hand that much? I just want to see it with my own eyes -- in the regular season -- before I declare any semblance of gloom and doom. 

        Couper Moorhead: At the time of the signing my response was, essentially, that all of Miller's skills will make up for his poor shooting, but that judgment must be reserved until we see what other move the Blazers make. They've got nearly $9 million in expiring contracts between Travis Outlaw and Steve Blake to play with this year and while Kevin Pritchard isn't known for in-season trades, this is the last of the major cards the Blazers will have since the "Raef LaFrentz Expiring Contract" days. 

On a scale of 1-10, I'm about a 4 on "how worried I am about Roy and Miller playing together," but that's the only thing that has given me pause. Word is that Steve Blake is going to be the starter, which I don't entirely agree with, but if Miller is finishing games and gets plenty of time on the court with Greg Oden, it's a moot point.


        I will say this, however. As much as I like Miller -- who is very, very good -- if all you get from all that cap space is 2-3 years of Andre Miller and that's it, then that will be a missed opportunity on a monumental scale. Sure, championships could make that irrelevant, but at this point that's putting something that hasn't happened up against something you could have done to make things happen.

Miller's also a pretty big loner, which makes him a potential outsider on a team noted for its closeness.  This has always been Miller's rep (and full disclosure, something I forgot about when giving the deal my thumbs up).  Obviously, the roster needn't be 12-15 BFF's, but is there any hint of chemistry problems growing?  Especially with a point guard at the center, when that position is always assumed to be a leader? 

        SJ: I think the whole "Andre Miller is a Sour Patch Kid" was one of the more overrated stories I've ever 301-Sour-Patch-Kids.a.zoom heard. I'm not concerned about that at all. He's a veteran who has been starting longer than some people have been alive; Of course he's going to want to start. Marc Spears article aside, he's consistently said all the right things about playing whatever role is given to him. No teammate has complained about him and it seems as if he's getting the job done on the floor so to me it's a dead issue. He just happens to be a private person on a team not known for having too many of those so he sticks out like a sore thumb, particularly to the media.

        I don't think PT/shots will be an issue. Essentially we're bringing back the same team from last year so guys are pretty clear on their roles. On a team with so much talent the main issue is making sure that everyone buys into the team concept. Nate didn't have much of a problem doing it last year and I don't anticipate him having trouble this year. Why? Because I don't think there is a guy on this team who can afford to not buy in and cost themselves a chance at PT. I'm sure there will be grumbles here and there but nothing that would be deemed unprofessional. 

On the positive side, I've read great preseason reports on Greg Oden, both on the court and learning to relax a little more.  What have you seen from him and do you think he can make bigger strides this season?

        Coup: Since none of the games were televised, all I've seen of Oden this preseason has been in highlight packages and practice videos. But almost everything I've seen and read has been very positive. As a rule I don't base analysis on short clips of a player, but we have seen a relatively smooth face-up jumper, a more balanced jump-hook that last season's iteration and a number of quick spin moves on the block. He's always had a soft touch around the bucket, but Oden's body last year just never let him get his balance and footwork to where it should be.

  Being in better shape will help all of that, just as it will his well-chronicled foul troubles (mostly good news on that front in the box scores). Based on what we saw last year -- which was one of the very best rebounders in the league -- a quicker, stronger, more confident version of that is going to surprise a ton of people that didn't, or refused to, pay close attention to the success he has had.

        SJ: I avoid Oden preseason news like the plague. I want to see it with my own eyes before I believe it, because we've been here before. It's great to see that he's found his sense of humor, though. His mental state of mind was half of the battle.

It's easy to forget Martell Webster after he missed all of last season, but he's expected to provide solid contributions.  How much does his presence make Portland a better team, and why?

        SJ: I'm halfway tempted to leave this answer for Coup since he's the President and CEO of the Martell Webster Fan Club, but I won't. He can only make this team better. When you look at this team's offense his skill-set is what you could call the 'prototype'. He can stroke it and he has the ability to attack so he's not completely dependent on others. The big question has always been, "Can he put it together?" At times he's shown flashes of brilliance and at other times he faded into just being a spot-up shooter. If he shows an ability to attack the basket and create his own shots he could be help the Blazers in a big way. The great thing about it is we have a ton of talent at the 3 so we're not completely depending on him to breakout.

        Coup: It's true, I have a soft spot and its name is "Martellus Websterus". That hardest thing to swallow about Webster's injury last year is that he looked fantastic in the preseason and appeared to be making a concerted effort to get to the rim and the line more. Now we just don't know if that perfect timing of offseason-work and in-season results is going happen again in order to give Martell the "What He Needs" to maximize his potential, but even if he develops into a role player he can be very useful. His shot is a thing of beauty, but he's never shot 40% from beyond the arc and his defense has sometimes been very good, but never consistent. Basically, we could get anything from a 5 to a 10 version of what Webster could be, but with his talent anything in the top half of the scale will have value.

Brandon Roy defends Shane Battier Brandon Roy said he wants to focus on D (which works out well, since Nate called him out to be a better defender).  Have you seen an uptick along those lines and do you think that mindset will spread throughout the team?

        SJ: Well, that defensive mindset needs to be spread throughout the team. If the Blazers don't improve defensively it's going to be tough to make the kind of noise in the spring that people are expecting. Nate has clearly put an emphasis on this going into the season. Its great to see Roy embrace it for two reasons. 1.) He knows he needs to be better on that end. 2.) It's a trickle-down effect. How can you not want to play D when your star does?

        Coup: So far, the defense hasn't been anywhere near where it needs to be, but nothing in general has been up to par for Portland. Any defensive improvement is going to start with Oden not only protecting the rim, but fouling less and being a quicker defender on pick-and-rolls. If he can do that he'll affect how everyone is playing their man, allow McMillan to devise schemes that funnel attackers to Oden and give perimeter players the necessary room for error to take some risks and score more with their D. We know the offense is there, and I'm sure that 75% of my early season notes are going come from defensive analysis.

Is there any Blazer you expect to see break out this season?  Rudy Fernandez?  Nicolas Batum?  Oden?  Webster?  Outlaw (who took it on the chin during the playoffs)?  Even Roy (if you think he's not quite yet truly "elite" or can just be "elite-r")?

        Coup: Oden is the easy choice, but Rudy Fernandez seems to have earned the trust of his coach and will be handed the playmaking duties that come with that trust. While most Rudy plays last year began with him running baseline-to-baseline off staggered screens and ended with a three, I wouldn't be surprised to see him initiate more pick-and-rolls and attack the basket with more regularity. Plus, if you look at the numbers of many European guards -- Ginobili and Calderon among them -- they tend to have their biggest jumps in PER between their first and second seasons.

        SJ: I'd point towards LaMarcus Aldridge taking another big step in the right direction. Assuming Roy continues his ascension to the elite, I think the Blazers will be as good as he is for them. I refuse to do any sort of predictions on Greg Oden for obvious reasons. It's hard to look at anyone and envision them taking a step backwards. At least it is in October.

Are there any particular weaknesses to this team that haven't been addressed or could be a recurring issue?

        SJ: I'm only concerned about the chemistry issues (that will be fine with time) and defense. Some people may wonder about the toughness of this team, as do I at times. We've got to be better on the road and in adverse situations. We can't play down to our opponent's level as we did at times last year.

        Coup: Any weaknesses this team shows are weaknesses they bring on themselves, not weaknesses brought on by the makeup of the roster. They have the size, talent and depth to match up with any sort of lineup and any shortcomings, particularly on defense, are on them. Like the Lakers, some teams can do anything they want because they have that ability but some teams, like the current Kings, will probably have weaknesses regardless of play.

I thought the Blazers would take a big step last season (they did) and assuming everyone is on the Oden holds a basketball same page, I think another step forward is coming.  What are your expectations for the season?

        Coup: My expectations are that they will either remain very good or climb somewhere closer to great. I'm done setting goals like "Make the Playoffs" or "Win a Series". It's time to be done with being an up-and-coming contender and just be a contender. That doesn't mean they have to win a championship this season, but like Boston or Cleveland last year or Utah or New Orleans the year before -- and on down the list -- I want them to be a team we can say, "If a few more things go there way, that team was good enough to win it all." And once they get there, I expect them to get quite comfortable.

Good stuff, Maynard.  I happen to be of the opinion- and not simply because I'm predicting a Lakers-Blazers Western Conference Finals- that any kinks currently experienced will get smoothed out.  This crew has gotten a taste of winning and understands how good they can be (as I noted in last season's KTE, Roy and Aldridge seemed quite aware even before they broke the playoff drought).  It's a collectively young crew, but the group mind appears to reside inside a head well screwed on, so I imagine the October's slow start isn't an omen.  Particularly with an opening month and change largely pitted against inferior competition, an ideal scenario for tuneups on the fly.  I'd be very surprised to see the Blazers failt to take a very big step this season.

PREDICTION: 56-26.  Tied for first in the Northwest.  Second in the Western Conference.


As a reference point, here are all the KTE's together on one page: Spurs.  NuggetsMavericks.  Rockets.  Hornets.  JazzSunsWarriors.  GrizzliesThunderClippersKings.                     

Photo: Andre Miller throws a pass.  Credit: Brent Wojahn/The Oregonian
Photo: Brandon Roy defends Shane Battier.  Credit: AP
Photo: Greg Oden palms a basketball.  Credit: AP