The 2010-11 NBA season was supposed to be the year the Portland Trail Blazers jumped back into the Association's elite. Greg Oden was supposed to get healthy, Brandon Roy was supposed to put last year's playoff series behind him, and the veterans brought into the fold (Marcus Camby and Andre Miller) were supposed to add stability and consistency to an otherwise young team.
The Blazers should have been a top five team in the league.
Instead, Oden has to sit out another season, Roy's knees are basically shot, Camby and Miller are trade pieces, and the Blazers are right back where they were two years ago: young, unproven, banged-up, and a smidge above average.
The rest of this season, as well as the immediate off-season before the supposed lockout, will be a time of renewed introspection for Portland's management. Ten questions, in particular, must and probably will be answered before the Blazers take the floor for the 2011-12 season.
There are several reasons why Portland's not looking to draft the likes of Ohio State's Jared Sullinger or Duke's Kyrie Irving in the high lottery spots. The biggest, most visible, and by far the most encouraging is the sudden evolution of Number 12.
Since Brandon Roy was shut down indefinitely, and especially since the fourth quarter of the first game Portland played at Dallas, Aldridge has played like somebody's pounding on his "Beast Mode" button. His season averages of 21.3 PPG and 8.8 RPG are very impressive and worthy of a top ten power forward in the NBA, but the number I look at is this: his field goal percentage, which is a healthy 49%.
Aldridge has spent his first few seasons utilizing his great skill set and feathery jumper on the perimeter, but he hadn't done much damage inside, to coach Nate McMillian's constant chagrin. McMillian constantly maintained to the local media that Aldridge could become dominant on both ends of the court, even on par with Kevin Garnett, if only Aldridge would commit to doing so.
It's somewhat disappointing that it took never having Oden and losing Roy to bring out this beast in Aldridge, but now that it's here, we in Rip City sure hope it stays. He may very well be The Guy in Portland now.
Blazers General Manager Rich Cho and McMillian both consider Batum "untouchable", despite the long line of teams clamoring to add the young Frenchman to their roster.
There are very good reasons why Cho and McMillian want to keep Batum, and it starts with his increasing production. His season averages of 11.7 PPG and 4.7 RPG (including nearly two per game on the offensive end) represent increases over last season's averages of 10.1 and 3.8.
His rebounding has been the big eye-opener this year, with several double-doubles and occasions where he'd use his incredible athletic gifts to slither in amongst the tall trees in the post and get a put-back, or even an earth-shattering dunk.
While his FG% overall is a respectable 44% for a guy on the wing, his three point percentage is at a career-low 31%. That's partly because he's had to shoot so much more after Roy went down.
Batum's had games where he hits the teens, or even puts in 20, but if Portland wants to have success both this year and long-term, Batum will have to become that guy who can get you a reliable 15, 16 points per game with an occasional 25 or 30-point performance. He's fully capable of that and if the Blazers give him the chance to develop, he can be the perfect complement to LaMarcus Aldridge.
Before the comments start getting angry, realize that Rudy Fernandez and Nic Batum both are shooting career-worst numbers from three-point land. Fernandez, in particular, has fallen off sharply since his rookie year.
Rudy set the Blazer rookie record for three-pointers made, and shot nearly 40% that year. The next year, however, he shot 36.8%; still decent, but a three percentage point drop-off, and not up to his standards. This year, he's shooting a terrible 33% from beyond the arc.
Wesley Matthews (he of the "three-point goggles") sports a decent 37% from three, but the team overall averages at just over 33%, good for the bottom five of the league. It's cost them several games, as opponents tended to pack in the defense to smother Aldridge and dare the Blazers to beat them from the perimeter. Oftentimes, the Blazers could not, and lost games they should have won.
If Fernandez or Batum can regain their strokes from previous years, if Patty Mills can develop his three-point shot, or if the Blazers GM Rich Cho can pair a reliable sharpshooter with Matthews, opponents will have to respect those shooters. That, in turn, will get Aldridge more single coverage situations, which can only be a good thing.
Whenever a team's struggling, their veteran players will always be mentioned in some trade rumors, especially with a guy like Camby, whose defense and rebounding are very valuable--but not valuable enough to keep for more than a couple years, it seems.
Both Camby and Miller have been traded several times in their long careers in the Association, and one has to wonder if Rich Cho will pull the trigger before the February 23 deadline. The Blazers won't realistically sniff a championship this year, and Camby and Miller were brought on under the assumption that they would be key pieces of a long run or two.
Instead, they've largely had to struggle to keep this team above .500 in the still-tough Western Conference while surviving injuries to many of their teammates.
Camby's trade value has plummeted some since his surgery Thursday to repair a slightly torn meniscus in his knee, but Miller could still garner some interest from teams looking for a steady hand at the point; a big reason why the Blazers are among the best in the league at taking care of the ball is because Miller plays nearly 33 minutes a game for them.
My guess, however, is that Cho hangs onto them for the rest of the season. With Portland's never-ending injury woes, he needs them too much to give them up, unless Cho gets an offer that he has to take. Barring that, he'll likely move them after the season, if at all.
As hinted in the last slide, Andre Miller won't be in Portland forever. The Blazers traded Jerryd Bayless, the presumptive heir-apparent to Miller, to New Orleans this past off-season, making this question not only more difficult to answer, but more important as well.
When the season started, McMillian had Roy spell Miller at times at the point guard spot. As the team's play stagnated under Roy, and as Roy himself began to break down, McMillian was forced to turn to two young point guards named Armon Johnson and Patrick (nicknamed Patty by those of us who like him) Mills.
Johnson, a rookie out of Nevada, got the first chance to backup Miller. His quickness and ability to penetrate were attractive qualities, but his inexperience showed when he had to pass the ball out of the paint after encountering a big in the post. The pass would often go wild, either making the guy he was trying to set up move out of his spot and costing him an open look, or it would sail out of bounds.
If he did try to attack the basket and get contact, he wouldn't get the call because of his rookie status.
McMillian also tried Mills, a second-year player from Australia who starred at St. Mary's, at the point. Patty could do all the things Johnson could do, with one major exception: Mills has a three-point shot.
Mills started to get the bulk of the backup minutes, then shut out Johnson altogether. He's had some questionable performances, but in other games he's been stellar--in short, a talented young guy going through his growing pains.
Patty was spectacular in the Miami game, and has been a fan favorite since he arrived in Portland, but is he the long-term answer at the point for the Blazers?
This is a question that can't be answered right away, but Mills has proved he should at least stay on the roster. If the team is serious about giving him a long-term shot, he should receive more than the paltry 14 minutes a game he's currently getting.
See that inquisitive, almost pleading look? It's probably the look Oden has been wearing ever since his knees decided to make like a glass window and break on contact.
You all know the story: Since he was drafted in 2007, Oden's played only 82 games in Portland, or the equivalent of one full season out of four. Hearing an interview with him lately, it's obvious from the tone of voice that Oden's as fed up with all the problems he's had as the rest of us, and no one regrets what happened more than him.
He's unfairly, but truthfully, been lumped with Sam Bowie and Bill Walton as Blazer big men that just couldn't stay healthy, continuing a curse that seemingly won't leave Portland alone.
Did Blazers founder Harry Glickman make some voodoo shaman incredibly angry sometime in the 1970s? You have to wonder....
Oden's rookie option was not picked up by the Blazers, making him a restricted free agent after this year. He's the first No. 1 overall pick not to have his option picked up since...gulp...Kwame Brown.
It's likely another team will make him an offer the Blazers will have no interest in matching and pick him up, ending one of the saddest tales in Blazer history, a history with more than its fair share of such tales.
The most terrible thing is, Oden's such a decent guy. Why the fates decided to spit on him, on the Blazers, and on the NBA for depriving it of one of the most promising prospects it had ever seen, is a mystery known maybe to God, but certainly not to me.
In last year's playoff series with the Phoenix Suns, Brandon Roy's decision to return early from a knee injury was hailed as heroic, courageous, and worthy of the superstar status he deserved. He even drew comparisons to Willis Reed, who famously returned from a knee injury of his own to finish a game.
This year, that decision has come back to bite him, and the Blazers, square in the behind.
Already averaging career lows in points (16.6), rebounds (2.9, never below four), assists (3.3, again never below four), and FG% (a shade under 40%), Roy told Nate McMillian he couldn't play up to the level that he's used to. He said that he virtually had no cartilage in his knees, and no amount of rest or therapy could help the problem.
Roy was shut down indefinitely, and has since been scheduled for surgery on both knees. He's doubtful to return this season.
All this after signing a seven-year, $82 million contract this past summer.
If Roy can't play at all, this may go down as the biggest disappointment ever for Portland. This guy was considered by many to be a top-ten talent in the league. Roy was mentioned in the same breath as Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade as the clear top three shooting guards in the league, and had many clutch moments in a Blazer uniform.
He was The Guy, a player you could have success with for as long as he stayed on the court. Now, it's entirely possible he may never step on a basketball court again.
I do think he'll play again, but he won't be the guy he was. Roy is intelligent and fundamentally sound, and he can make a living as a spot-up shooter if his knees can hold up.
For $82 million, however, that won't be enough.
With Oden's well-known troubles, and now Roy's situation, the Blazers will have to consider rebuilding again, which is a tragic disappointment considering how well the team has drafted and how hard the Blazers worked to get over the "Jail Blazers" era.
Out of all the awful news the Blazers have had over the last two years, it's feels really, really good and refreshing to see something go right for once. Wesley Matthews is a case in point.
Undrafted out of Marquette in 2009, Matthews was picked up by the Utah Jazz. He was able to keep a roster spot after C.J. Miles got hurt in training camp, and he played so well that Jerry Sloan--about the hardest guy to impress in the whole Association--had to keep him on the team for the whole year.
After his solid rookie year, Portland signed Matthews to a big five-year contract that pays him $5,765,000 this year alone, earning condemnations and scorn from practically every talking head the likes of ESPN and NBA TV employ. They thought the Blazers majorly overpaid for a guy who went undrafted just a year ago.
In my opinion, I think all that flak just pissed him off, for lack of a better term.
Matthews has proven indispensable, averaging 16 PPG while playing solid defense (his steals are at a good 1.3 per game), and providing the only somewhat-consistent three-point shot Portland's had in 2010-11. Most importantly, he's provided a good helping of the production normally put in by Brandon Roy.
Wes is still a young guy at 24, so he can get better and should get better. If he continues to get better, and if Roy (God forbid) can't play at an NBA level, Matthews can be the number two option for Portland, and provide the kind of consistent perimeter scoring needed to keep teams from swarming LaMarcus Aldridge.
People tend to credit Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and the other good guy players for erasing the image of the "Jail Blazers", but the actual first step was taken when Nate McMillian was hired after his beloved Seattle SuperSonics fired him nearly six seasons ago.
Nicknamed "Sarge" by the malcontents he had to bully into shape, McMillian had a trying first season at the helm of the Blazers, finishing at 21-61 while trying to maintain control of the team. However, after drafting Roy and Aldridge, phasing out the players Rip City (a fanbase as devoted, I believe, as the fans of the NFL's Green Bay Packers) grew to hate, and cementing his authority with a no-nonsense demeanor, McMillian earned the trust and love of the fans.
The Blazers improved each year beyond his first, regaining the community's approval while fielding some pretty good teams each year. McMillian also got a spot on Mike Krzyzewski's Team USA staff, winning an Olympic gold medal and a world championship. Coach K and several players credit McMillian for his defensive acumen, and for improving the defense of the players and the whole squad overall.
During last year, his fifth in Portland, he was hit by a storm of injuries to his players. It got so bad, he had to participate in practice drills because he didn't have enough players for a full five-on-five drill--and promptly ruptured his Achilles' tendon.
After that year, McMillian's contract wasn't extended. He says it was at his personal request, but since the man who helped him build his team (Kevin Pritchard) was fired, and especially since it was "suggested" that he hire former NBA head coach Bernie Bickerstaff as an assistant, I have my doubts about that.
While the offense is slow and methodical at times, and he admits himself that the team could do better scoring points, much of Portland's struggles over the last two years have not been his fault. If Rich Cho lets McMillian go against the coach's will, it would be a gross betrayal of all the hard work he's put into this team over the last six seasons--and I doubt he could find a better coach than McMillian not named Larry Brown on the market.
Yeah, I kinda had to laugh a bit, too.
The short answer would be probably not, but I don't do short answers.
While I do think Portland's good enough to make the playoffs for sure, many things will have to go right for the Blazers to actually do what they couldn't do even when Roy, Oden and Aldridge were all healthy and playing together (yes, such a thing happened): win a series.
The top things that come to mind are that Aldridge will have to stay in Beast Mode (maybe upgrade to Godzilla Mode?), Matthews would have to average more than 20 PPG in the series, the Blazers would have to hit threes with great regularity, they'd have to have an opponent they matchup with really well, and above all...they must stay healthy for the rest of the year.
Are those things likely to happen? I'm not going to answer that. In fact, I really can't.
The next few games on the Blazers' schedule look as good as that cheerleader; they get Boston and San Antonio at the butt end of a five-game homestand, and will travel to Denver (a distracted team, to say the least), Indiana and Cleveland before returning home on the seventh of February to take on the Chicago Bulls.
All in all, they have twelve games before they host the Los Angeles Lakers on the 23rd, and each game is winnable (I consider every game played at the Rose Garden winnable...just ask the Miami Heat, who almost lost there).
If Portland can go 9-3 or better in that span, they should be in good shape for the stretch run.
March, however, looks brutal. The Blazers have a four-game road span where they play Orlando and Miami on a back-to-back, then Charlotte and Atlanta on a back-to-back, followed immediately by a home game against Dallas.
The month also features two games against the Spurs, a road game against Oklahoma City, and a road game against the Lakers all within eight days. Ouch.
Portland will need to win every game it can, and fatten up over the next couple of weeks. The end of the season looks very tough, and they'll be real tired with all the minutes the starters are piling up.
45-48 wins look doable, and should let Portland squeak into the playoffs as a lower-tier seed. The real fireworks, however, will likely happen during the off-season.