Well, Blazers faithful, the season has come to an end. Despite the fiery condemnations of the refereeing I've read in places, I really don't think they're to blame for Portland's loss.
The Blazers had chances to take a game in Houston earlier, but they failed like the young, inexperienced team they are.
Travis Outlaw, Greg Oden, Steve Blake, and Nicolas Batum, key cogs to this team, did not play well. In fact, Outlaw and Oden in particular were awful in the first two games, though I hate to say it.
Let this team sit in the cooker, like that side of pork we made into pulled pork earlier (it's extremely tasty, by the way). Properly managed and supervised, the Trail Blazers will mature into a tantalizing pile of pulled pork.
If this team is mismanaged or disturbed in a wrong way, it will fall apart and become a slushy mess not worth looking at, let alone eating.
The challenge for Kevin Pritchard, the GM, and Nate McMillan, the coach, will be separating the juicy bits from the dry, chaffy bits.
Based on my off-and-on observations this season, I'll provide grades for each player, as follows:
A+ to B: Much more than expected from the player, to more than expected
B- to C: Just as expected, maybe a little more or less depending on grade.
C- to F: Less than expected to total tank job.
Let's get to it!
Honestly, what can you say about this guy? He has developed into an elite scorer, he's one of the best non-point guard distributors of the ball in the league, and he has a basketball IQ on par with Kobe Bryant (can I really say that!?).
The man even rebounds the ball as well as any guard, to the point where McMillan hasn't minded placing the 6-6 Roy at small forward for short stretches of the season.
Substituting Roy for LaMarcus Aldridge had become a staple for the coach during the season, as Travis Outlaw has shown an aptitude for playing the 4 spot...but that's later on, sorry.
My point is, Roy has clearly exceeded every possible expectation for him this season. He has become the thoroughbred stud the Blazers need if they want success.
Another player who has developed well this year, Aldridge came into the season with questions about whether he can score in the paint, whether he can up his defensive intensity to a level acceptable to McMillan, and whether he can be a reliable sidekick for Roy.
The first and the third questions, in my eyes, have been answered.
LA, as I like to call him, has developed a sweet jump hook that he can shoot over a smaller power forward (Aldridge is tall for a 4, at 6-11) or fire on the run as he goes around a slower player.
His turnaround jumper, a staple of his back-to-the-basket game earlier in the season, lost favor as the hook became his favorite post move.
His PPG this year was 18.1, a solid number for a No. 2 option in the NBA. The remaining question for Aldridge is about defense.
I've heard McMillan gush about Aldridge's defensive potential, even going so far as to say that LA could be as good or better than Kevin Garnett on defense, if he would only put in the effort.
Whether he does that may end up making the difference for Portland.
Quick question: who the heck had this guy starting about 70 games this season on a team with Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster?
Based on the expectation that he'd provide nothing for Portland this season, you have to call the Frenchman the surprise of the season.
His defense has been a very welcome addition to a team that was starting to look like Lakers Jr., circa 2008.
Batum's hard-nosed play and tough presence, coupled with his rangy arms and explosive jump, have more than compensated for his spotty offense.
If he ever gets to the point where he averages 10 a game, he'll be more living proof that Kevin Pritchard is a genius.
The Vanilla Gorilla is another example of toughness and grit on a team that lacks some from time to time. His rebounding, post defense and timely shot-blocking have enabled him to keep his starting role, despite the presence of Oden.
Look at the Thrilla and Tyson Chandler clashing until both were ejected from a game. Look at him continually standing up for his teammates and enforcing the law down low.
If Greg Oden ever gains half the salt that Joel has in him, he'll be an All-Star.
Somehow, Blake finds a way to do what others say he could never do. He improved his three-point shooting to a career high while starting for a playoff team...again. He has been steady all season long, and has grown along with other teammates.
However, he does have a tendency to disappear during big moments of games. I still remember him missing free throws, 3s, and open men at critical junctures of games.
Blake has been guilty of heaving too much on Brandon Roy scoring-wise, while not getting open for a shot he knows he can knock down now.
I love Steve Blake, but the Blazers need someone more...how can I say this...big-time and bright lights starting at the point--someone like Jerryd Bayless, perhaps.
There's a definition of "streaky" in the dictionary, I know there is. I would bet any reader 20 bucks that Outlaw's picture is right beside it.
On the one hand, Outlaw is "Mr. Fourth Quarter", the next-best thing to Roy that Portland has. He uses a breathtaking mix of speed, athleticism, and length to get any shot he wants, anywhere on the court.
He plays both forward positions with skill, is one of the best sixth men in the NBA, and his propensity for hitting timely shots, has quickly become a by-word in the Rose City.
On the other hand, Outlaw is what he's been for most of his career: a regular role player that misses much more than he makes, doesn't use his assets to his advantage, and makes dumb mistakes too often, which forces McMillan to send him back to the pine.
In order for the Blazers to make the next step, Outlaw must cease his schizophrenic play and become the third option they missed during the Houston series.
If he can't do this, Pritchard likely will find a taker for his talents...and the soft persona that accompanies them.
Grade: B+ (His inconsistency aside...)
When I first saw Rudy Fernandez play, it was the Olympic gold medal game. The announcers had made a point of saying that Rudy would be playing for McMillan, who was a coach for Team USA last summer.
Shortly after this, Fernandez takes the ball, dashes to the rim, and stuffs it down...in Dwight Howard's grill.
Yeah, I said Dwight Howard.
Once I saw that, I knew Rudy would be special for Portland. His season has been up-and-down, since he's been battling the odd injuries and overall fatigue.
However, since the awful foul Trevor Ariza committed against him a while back (which ended in Fernandez getting carted off the court on a stretcher), Rudy had picked his game up.
By the end of the season, he was the most consistent bench player for Portland, usurping Outlaw's position. During the playoffs, he had his share of big moments, like hitting five three-pointers in Game 3 against the Rockets.
Rest up, Rudy. We'll need you next season.
Whenever I think of Oden, conflicting emotions rise up within me. I know that he's somewhat serviceable now, that he'll be good next season, and that he'll hopefully blossom into the player the fans envisioned he'd be when he was taken with the top overall pick two years ago.
However, whenever I saw him commit an ugly foul, fail to put in a mere hook shot, or fumble a pass out of bounds this season, I admit my impatience took over.
I yelled at the TV screen, I cursed his big clumsy hands, and I railed against McMillan for taking him out of games, believing that Oden would get better if Nate would just leave him in.
As not only a Blazer fan, but as a fan of basketball and as a good human being, I hope Greg Oden can be a good player. I hope he can use his gifts to his advantage for a team that clearly needs someone like him. He needs to work very hard this off-season...
...Portland's prospects, and his own psyche, depend on him to be good.
Rodriguez had been sitting on the Blazer pine until this season. With the departure of Jarrett Jack and the rawness of Jerryd Bayless, "Spanish Chocolate" got his fair share of time...and had mixed results.
Rodriguez is an absurdly talented passer. The offense flows freer and with more movement than when Steve Blake is in the game, and Sergio used his gifts to find teammates that Blake would miss.
However, it's a known fact that he can't shoot the broad side of a barn on a normal night, and he often makes bonehead mistakes that make McMillan, a former point guard himself, pull his hair out. While he has shown improvement, Rodriguez will be hard-pressed to keep the backup job next year.
You know, I like Frye. I really do. He seems like a smart, well-mannered individual, and I know we Blazer fans welcome that kind of demeanor with open hearts, especially after Bob "Win At Any Cost" Whittsit had his sick fun destroying the organization.
His play on the court, however...I'll be nice and call it "lacking."
In theory, having a clone of LaMarcus Aldridge sitting on the bench is nice; you don't have to do anything different after you substitute. But, while Aldridge has learned to rebound aggressively, Frye has not. While Aldridge has developed some semblance of a post game, Frye has not.
In short, whatever this team needs, Frye is not. His talents have fit so badly with the team, it's forced McMillian to go with Travis Outlaw (all 215 pounds of him) at power forward, McMillan's defensive nightmare.
Good luck at your next stop, Channing. Hope your gifts are better appreciated at said stop.
This young man has had his moments in the sun this season. His talents are extraordinary, a steal at the 11th pick of last year's draft. He has every physical attribute you look for in a stud point guard.
The problem is, he's young. And Nate McMillan is allergic to young point guards.
To be fair, Bayless is technically a combo guard. That classification is even worse, however, on a team that has Brandon Roy starting and Rudy Fernandez as his backup; Fernandez would start for 10-12 other teams in the league.
Bayless must learn to be a point guard if he has any hope of playing next year. If he can learn the position, the only thing stopping Nate from playing him is his age: a fragile barrier, at best.
The Twelfth Man
Whether it's Shavlik Randolph or Michael Ruffin, I don't know enough about them to give a grade. I will offer one piece of advice to them:
Brush up your cheerleading skills, guys!