All around town, when the subject turns to the Portland Trail Blazers, I hear some common themes. Generally, the talk is about how the team looks this year, that they're expected to contend this year, how much Greg Oden has improved.
One potential festering nest of negativity, however, is about who should begin the first few minutes of this year's games. The merits, demerits, and statistics of certain players are trotted out like show dogs at the Westminster, brought before we the people to judge accordingly.
After hearing all the scuttlebutt and sniping amongst friends of mine (and a few people here, as well...you know who you are), I've decided to weigh in with my opinion about the Blazers' depth chart.
I don't expect to be able to convince anyone. I don't expect to even generate conversation, positive or otherwise. I just feel a need to air my thoughts, and maybe get some angst out of our systems.
I'll list the players in order: starter, backup, benchwarmer
Point Guards: Andre Miller, Steve Blake, Jerryd Bayless
This is perhaps the most hotly debated position on the team, and rightfully so. Steve Blake is a beloved fan favorite, and he had a career year last year. He shoots much better than Miller, has worked with the team's stars for years, and is a player that does his best work without the ball.
However, I believe the reason that the Blazers brought in Miller was to do the ball-handling work. A starter in the NBA since his rookie year, he has proved over a long career that he can lead a team on the floor. Miller's ball skills are second to Brandon Roy's on the team only because Roy's a prodigious talent.
The reason why Andre Miller should start is because when Blake and Roy—two players that prefer being off-the-ball—are in the game together, the offense stagnates. Defenses swarm all over Roy, forcing him into bad passes that get picked off, and taken for easy baskets.
To sum up, while Blake has his place on the team as a spot-up shooter, the Blazers do not need a spot-up shooter occupying the principal ball-handling position in the game of basketball. The offense will flow much more freely with Miller in the game, which will result in less early deficits and less pressure on the bench to rescue the starters.
Once Miller learns the ins-and-outs of the offense, it will become clear why Portland got him in the first place.
Shooting Guard: Brandon Roy, Rudy Fernandez, Jerryd Bayless
Look, I and others have gushed over Roy enough during his time here. We know what he can do, what he means to this team, and that any success the Blazers have this year is dependant on how well he plays.
Unfortunately, the other guys know all this too.
The challenge for Roy this year will be to continue to learn how to be productive when teams concentrate their entire defensive schemes around keeping him quiet. He will have to be consistent on the perimeter, look to slash to the basket more often, and be a vocal leader on the floor.
When things get tough, he needs to be the guy that gets the Blazers through.
As for Rudy, he is perhaps the best backup shooting guard in the NBA. If he started for other teams, he'd be very capable of a 20-point average. Rudy has been told that he can be more creative with the ball when he's out there, so look for more incredible passing this year.
Small Forward: Nicolas Batum, Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw
Now, understand that this will be the starting order : It's not meant to say who plays more. What I think will happen is that Batum will start, but Webster will play the majority of the minutes; a repeat of last season, at first. A random ballpark estimate for minutes probably would be 15-20 for Nic, and 20-25 for Martell.
Roy might spend a few minutes here and there playing the three in a three-guard lineup, depending on the matchup and game scenario.
What Batum brings to the team is length, athleticism, and a defensive presence on the perimeter that should go nicely with an aggressive center in the middle. What Webster brings is a silky-smooth shooting touch, athletic ability nearly on par with Batum's, and an offensive presence that stretches the floor and opens things up for the inside guys.
What's very encouraging about these two young guys is that they're each learning the other's specialty: Batum's expanding his range and offensive game, while Webster's been spending most of his time in the league learning defensive positioning and technique.
Whomever becomes the more complete player by midseason should earn the lion's share of the minutes at small forward.
Power Forward: LaMarcus Aldridge, Juwan Howard, Travis Outlaw
I don't think I have to explain about Aldridge. His incredible skill set makes him a defensive nightmare for those forwards, either not as big or as quick as he is. The one thing I'll be looking for out of LA this year will be great defense.
I remember coach Nate McMillian saying once that if Aldridge worked at it and made an effort on the defensive end, he could be on par with Kevin Garnett. He certainly has the body type to be dominant on defense. Whether he has the will has yet to be determined.
However, Aldridge can only play so many minutes before he needs a breather. The problem for the Blazers last year was that they didn't have a reliable big man who could play 10-12 minutes a night and continue to do the little things that Aldridge does. Namely, rebounding.
Last year, Channing Frye didn't play very often because he was a terrible rebounder. Outlaw, while gifted in a way few others are, has no desire to bang in there with the big boys, and at a skinny 6'9", who could blame him?
Howard provides veteran craftiness, a large body, and experience at rebounding on both sides of the ball. I believe he's a more reliable player than Outlaw, and what this team needs more than anything else is reliability.
Center: Greg Oden, Joel Pryzbilla, Jarron Collins
If I had a choice to be anyone in the world, anywhere, one person I would not pick is Greg Oden. Ever since he was drafted, he has been hailed as the guy that will tip the scales for Portland, the big man that would give the dogpile a gargantuan shove into the championship end-zone. The pressure that brings must be enormous.
Through the injuries, the self-doubt, and the neurotic "rookie" season, Oden has persevered and worked on refining his game. Injury-free and moving just fine, he has been a force during the preseason, proving that he is nearly Pryzbilla's equal on defense right now. Eventually, he will surpass Joel in that regard, provided he keeps working as hard as he can.
Since Oden is a much better offensive option than the Vanilla Gorilla (Charles Barkley does have his moments), I think he should start. McMillian is likely to shuffle around the two based on offensive production, defensive schemes, and who's out on the floor for both teams. And, of course, foul trouble.
Now that I got that out of my system...GO BLAZERS!!!!