The NBA Preseason is, in many ways, the most irrelevant thing in basketball today this side of the WNBA. The final scores don't matter, the record bears no relationship to the regular season, and I would be very surprised to see any correlation between regular season success and pre-season success. The good teams use the pre-season to try some funky things to see what works and for little else.
From that standpoint it is very much like Texas Hold 'Em. For example, suppose you pick up pocket Jacks. You raise it, get 2 callers, and flop a set with no straight or flush draws. You raise it, get a caller. The turn is a 10. The river is a 9 and someone wins who stayed in with a 7/8. Even though the end result is bad, you still like the hand because you know you will end the day with all their chips in your possession because you know the percentages are so vastly in your favor.
The NBA preseason is the same. You might win or lose a game by 10, 15, 20 points or more and in the end, it doesn't matter. Far more important is learning how the game is played by your guys, whether frontline, second line, or borderline. That is why I found myself much more excited about a 13 point loss to the Jazz than about a 33 point win over the Kings.
The Portland Trailblazers enter the 2008-2009 season as a good team. They do not need confidence boosting win totals, they simply need to know who can help them this year and to get Greg Oden back into game shape.
So now that we have seen them three times live, it is time to give them mid-preseason grades, with the grades not being tied to statistics but rather to how they accomplished what they needed to accomplish.
After sitting out a year and change, big things are expected for Oden. He is expected to provide rebounding muscle and a low-post presence on offense that will command double teams and therefore open up the offense for other players. He also needed to get in game shape.
Early on, he had just one interest; throwing down a dunk. Every time he got the ball he simply tried to back his man (or men) down and attempt a dunk. The Kings racked up numerous fouls and finally Oden got his dunk down. After that, I was looking for him to expand his offense a bit. The coaches were too as they experimented with him in the high post.
Unfortunately, that did not work well as he tended to stifle the offense and looked lost at times. He also sometimes struggled to present good targets for entry passes when he was on the blocks. Once he gets the ball, more often than not he still simply tries to back down for the dunk attempt. This leads to a lot of strips when he is double and triple teamed. Also, when he runs into teams with Joel Przybilla like defenders he is in for some long, frustrating and ineffectual nights.
From time to time he will try a short hook shot but they have been fairly ineffective. So far, his best offense has been receiving a pass when the interior defense collapses on penetration or on grabbing offensive rebounds and throwing them down.
His passing comes and goes. At times he demonstrates excellent court vision but other times he accepts triple teams and eschews the pass entirely.
Defensively he has been much better. He has gotten quicker, shows excellent awareness about positioning when shots go up, and he has shown the ability to reject anything from a dunk attempt to short jumpers you would not think he could get to, but he does. He does get lost sometimes in the zone and struggles with quicker centers who float outside for long jumpers.
His conditioning is getting better every game and he will definitely be ready by the time the season starts.
On offense, Joel continued what he did last year. I think the next play the Blazers run where Joel is the designated shooter will be the first. Any points he gets come from pick and rolls where the defender drifts too far from him, offensive put-backs, and broken plays. Joel knows his limitations and does not push for more. He does not need shots to be effective. He does a nice job of passing the ball when necessary but for the most part he just sets picks.
Defensively, Joel and Oden are pretty much interchangeable. While not as quick or as good a jumper as Oden, Przybilla is a sharp defender who is not afraid to bang. Just as he did last year, he provides above-average defensive rebounding, interior defense, and shot-blocking.
Coming off the improvement from last year and with the expectation of Oden taking over most of the low-post scoring, Aldridge needs time to find his role. Will he be spotting up from 18' or will he be down on the blocks with his back to the basket?
For most of the pre-season he hung out on the perimeter. It took him a little bit to get going but once he did, he looks every bit as good as he did last year. He also is perhaps the best player Portland has on the fast break. He gets out ion transition better than anyone else on the team, shows excellent awareness when filling lanes, catches the ball in traffic and finishes.
Defensively, he has a little more freedom to roam. He is struggling a bit with rebounding position at times, perhaps counting a bit too much on Oden to dominate the boards, but his help defense has been decent.
Initially a throw-in on the Jarrett Jack trade, Diogu got a chance to play after Channing Frye went down with injury. Diogu is a rugged player who always seems to be in the midst of violent contact. He puts forth a tremendous amount of effort every night.
Offensively he is at best raw. When he gets the ball close to the basket he generally tries to muscle his way to the rim. Unfortunately, he often does this against taller, stronger, more agile defenders. He mixes it up occasionally with a turn-around jumper of dubious effectiveness.
He does show a knack for picking up offensive boards. He does not, however, play well alongside similar players. There was one memorable possession where he and Oden fought each other so ferociously for the ball that it took 5 or 6 lay-up attempts before the Jazz could get close enough to them to even foul them.
Defensively he is good against back-to-the-basket bangers. Against more mobile forwards or in the zone he often gets lost and gives up too many easy backdoor layups.
Outlaw was Mr. Clutch for Portland, arguably more important to their fourth quarter success than even Brandon Roy. His ability to create his own shot and fearlessness about doing so were valuable commodities. When Martell Webster went out with injury, the starting Small Forward position theoretically opened up for him. It is Coach McMillan's decision, of course, but it looks to me like he has played himself out of that slot. That hurts because I am a HUGE Outlaw mark. I think he was key to their resurgence last year and has to be a huge contributor this year for them to have success.
Offensively he has regressed. Still unafraid to take a good shot, he is also unafraid to take a mediocre shot. Or a bad shot. Or a horrific shot, the kind that leave you shaking your head and wondering what you just saw.
Somewhere over the off-season, Outlaw forgot how to pass. He has become the ultimate black hole. I stared in disbelief as he passed up an easy pass to an unguarded Oden in favor of dribbling right to take a step back fall-away 3-pointer while moving to his right over 2 defenders.
Anytime he touches the ball on the offensive end now you expect to see a shot. Of course, he has such great jumping ability and such long arms that a lot of those shots fall. But it also inhibits the team offense and causes much more difficult attempts than necessary.
Defensively he also seems to have regressed. He has been getting burned repeatedly both in man to man and zone coverage schemes. He also seems disinterested in helping out on the boards. For a player of his height, leaping ability, and talent to have no rebounds in a game as he has threatened to do more than once in this preseason is inexcusable.
Portland needs him to turn his game around. Outlaw needs to be the focal point of the offense and is not adjusting well to needing to be the 4th option. Hopefully he stays on the second unit and returns to playing his game.
Prior to his arrival we had heard he was an above average defender with no offense to his game. Summer League reinforced this to the point where it was an open question whether bringing him in this year was a mistake or not.
In the first game against the Kings he was fouled. When he stepped to the line I laughed and commented to my wife, "He better make these. They might be his best chance to score all year." About 2 possessions later he shut me up with a gorgeous baseline drive and dunk.
Offensively, he has blossomed. He has a nice 3-point stroke, can drive just often enough to keep defenses honest, and is the Blazer's best shooter coming off a screen for a catch and shoot. His passing is pedestrian but for someone whom nothing was expected of offensively, he has been a revelation.
Defensively, if anything he was undersold. Batum shows some unbelievable instincts. He made 3 or 4 plays against the Jazz alone that had me out of my seat cheering. He is so long that he makes it all but impossible to get a pass by him unless you first move him out of the way. Again and again he steps into passing lanes it seems impossible for him to reach, tips or deflects those he cannot grab outright. He also can block shots both coming off his guy to help or straight up blocking his man.
Against the Jazz, AK-47 was killing Portland but when Batum started covering him, suddenly Kirilenko became a non-factor. He has the potential to be a lock-down defender with a little offensive punch. He also is more than willing to go down in the paint with the big boys and come away with a tough rebound.
I have only seen Roy once this year. He played about 20 minutes in the first pre-season game. That was plenty. He is picking up right where he left off. He scores almost at will, including an improved looking three-ball, he passes as well as anyone in the League, and he makes the offense better.
Defensively, he does a great job of getting in the lanes, is a more than capable on-ball defender, and he is an excellent ancillary rebounder.
The only concerns about Roy are health and those are being dealt with by playing him sparingly.
Offense: Incomplete, but an A when in there
Defense: Incomplete, but an A when in there
His first game was the stuff legends are made of. He scored 6 points on 3 buckets, any of which would not have been out of place on the ESPN highlight package. But it was his passing that was spectacular. His passing was so good it made his alley-oop throwdown look lame.
His offense is spectacular. He can penetrate the lane, find open spots to pass to where none seem to exist, he can drop the mid-range jumper, the 3-ball, or dunk with seemingly equal ease. His does tend to have a couple more turnovers that you might like, but at least a few of those are attributable to his teammates not expecting passes. Once they adjust his turnover total will decrease and Blazer dunk totals increase.
Defensively he is all over the board. On one possession he will look like he has never played defense before and on the next he will force a turnover or a tough shot. He tends to prefer playing help-defense to matching up with his man.
He will also acquire more than his share of rebounds. He has the best offensive court awareness on the team outside of Roy. He teams marvelously well with Sergio Rodriguez and together they have the ability to turn the Blazers into a dynamic half-court team.
Bayless is another Rookie with high expectations. He is rumored to be a lock-down on-ball defender who can penetrate at will on offense.
That was summer league. The preseason has been a bit different. Hardly shy about taking his shot, he has not proven to be ready to take those shots. He has gotten into the lane with great frequency but he then tends to force up tough, contested shots instead of finding the open man. He has some potential to score and there will be nights where he is unstoppable. But there will also be nights that will have McMillan pulling his hair out.
His court vision is suspect and that will cost him a lot of minutes. If he does not find his rhythm, his shaky shot will cost him more.
Defensively, he is a good but not great on the ball defender. He tends to go for a first move too often and leaves himself vulnerable to quick guards with good ball-handling skills. He shows flashes of what he can do but is not the stopper Portland needs yet.
Rodriguez needed to make a statement with Steve Blake out. Once the regular season starts, minutes when Steve Blake returns to the line-up he will be hard pressed to make a case for playing more. He has gotten an extended look in the preseason so it behooves him to make his case now.
Offensively he has improved a great deal. His shot looks better and he makes fewer flashy passes and more fundamental, effective passes. He still has the ability to penetrate, draw the defender and deliver to the open man.
He still turns the ball over way too often, however. Unless he finds a way to decrease his turnovers by half he will continue developing butt splinters from the pine time.
Defensively he is much improved, though still a below average defender. He allows his man too much freedom to move and does not do a good job of blocking off angles. He looks effective because he comes up with a decent number of steals but he can be the weak point in the Blazer defense.
Martell Webster, Channing Frye both get incompletes due to injury.
Overall, it is very exciting. The Blazers have shown their second and sometimes third units can hold their own against even the Jazz starting line-up for short stretches. The Blazers will win a lot of games via bench, a lot of games via defense, and a lot of games because their starters are so talented.
We saw improvement from most of the players and even some of the poor grades (See Oden, Greg) have more to do with potential than performance. Oden would be a major contributor with the game he showed but has the potential to be a game-breaker if he decides not to dunk everything but instead show some of the skill we know he has.
And when Webster and Frye come back, it only makes an already top shelf, versatile, deep roster even better. The more I see, the more I think this could be the year the Blazers go much deeper in the playoffs than a lot of people think they should. If Portland can get off to a good start in their first 6 games they might not be stopped. Conversely, if they start slow and are 4 or 5 games under .500 after 10 games, the hole might be too deep to get out of. I think the former result more likely.
Then again, in pre-season pretty much everybody looks good.