Finally, it begins.
For Portland Trailblazer fans, next Tuesday’s game against the Lakers will be the culmination of years of waiting, watching and anticipating.
Blazer fans have every reason to be excited about this team. With a once-in-a-lifetime big man, two nearly-established stars, and an exciting European import, Blazers fans are believing that they will be tasting a playoff berth this year.
The Blazers’ expected improvement has even caused some analysts to draw comparisons to the performance of last year’s New Orleans Hornets, who surprised the league by snagging a high seed in the playoffs.
But this year’s Blazers are not last year’s Hornets. Unlike that New Orleans team, which was focused mainly on the play of Chris Paul and David West, this Trail Blazers squad is overflowing with talented and contributing players.
What’s more is that the Blazers this year, more so than any other NBA franchise, are overcome with storylines. Whether it be a healthy Greg Oden finally stepping onto the court, the introduction of Spanish sensation Rudy Fernandez to the NBA, or LaMarcus Aldridge’s ascension into star status, each one of Portland’s players has something specific to prove this year.
But with all these colliding motives and aspirations, someone has to be left in the dust in Rip City. Over the next year, Kevin Pritchard will have to make some tough decisions as to who he wants to prioritize on this roster. Having an abundance of talent is great, but many of these guys will need more minutes than Portland will be able to offer in order to meet their full potential.
With that being said, here are a few storylines that might force the Blazers to make some serious moves over the course of the next year:
1. Nicolas Batum will start the majority of games at the SF spot for the Blazers
For you diehard Blazer fans out there, the possibility of Nic Batum’s insertion into the starting lineup is old news. A few weeks ago, Coach Nate McMillan began to play with the idea of starting Nic alongside Brandon Roy, Steve Blake, Oden and Aldridge. Batum ended up sticking with the starting unit in practice, and his relative success in preseason has translated to a possible starting role in the Blazers opener on Tuesday.
McMillan’s experimentation with Nic at the starting small forward spot speaks volumes to this kid’s potential to grow and progress. In the Vegas Summer League, Batum was virtually nonexistent, averaging a measly 6.8 ppg and 4.6 rpg over an 27 minutes. In the Blazers’ preseason, Batum’s stats are nearly identical (save a few rebounds) and he has even started to figure out how to best utilize his long limbs to get blocks.
The important aspect of Batum’s preseason stats is the fact that he has been averaging nearly the same numbers as he did in Vegas in only half the minutes and against much better talent.
In addition, Blazer players, coaches, and even fans will tell you that Nic is mature beyond his years and is comfortable playing within the game. The incredible jump Batum has made from raw prospect to potential role player in just a matter of weeks should scare the likes of Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster.
If Outlaw gets beaten out for the starting forward nod, a move which looks likely given Travis’ success in the second unit, both he and fellow underachiever Martell Webster may have trouble taking the position back. Assuming Batum does in fact end up starting for a majority of the games for the Blazers this year, expect Outlaw or Webster to be packaged for a more reliable veteran before February’s trade deadline.
2. Travis Outlaw will have a much lesser role with the Blazers, and he won‘t be happy about it
Even if Outlaw can somehow beat out Batum for the starting job, I find it hard to believe that Travis is going to be completely satisfied with his role on the team this year. Travis has always been somewhat of an enigma to Portland. As the last holdover from the Jailblazers era, Outlaw has become a fan favorite in the city because of his quiet demeanor and loud dunks.
But over the last summer, Travis has gotten lost behind the other storylines surrounding the team. Had Rudy, Oden, and Bayless not joined the Blazers this year, many journalists would have been talking about Travis Outlaw’s breakout season, his many clutch performances, and his integral role with the team leading into 2008-09.
Now, only a couple of days before opening tip, it seems obvious that both Greg Oden and Rudy Fernandez will get more offensive touches than Outlaw, making him the fifth offensive option on the team (he was already behind Roy and Aldridge). Furthermore, its hard to believe that Rudy won’t only usurp Travis’ role as the sixth man, but also his role as a fourth quarter go-to guy.
Unfortunately, these facts do not bode well for a player who needs touches to contribute. Travis Outlaw is not a great defender, he is not a great passer—he is not even a great leader. But Travis Outlaw is a scorer and a high-flyer—two characteristics that draw a lot of attention on the trade market.
Unless Outlaw can make a new niche for himself as a lockdown defender, or outdo Rudy Fernandez on the offensive end, he can expect a serious downturn in stats in 2008-09. Couple that with the fact that earlier this year he made it known he wanted to start, and it's clear that Kevin Pritchard will eventually have a very tough decision on his hands.
Regardless of what happens with Batum, my money says Outlaw is gone by the start of the season in 2009, if not by February.
3. Greg Oden will make the All-Star team this year
This is one of those statements that people tend to scoff at when you consider all the talented big men in the Western Conference. But if you think about the centers that will be competing for the All-Star Game this year, there isn’t much competition.
We all know that Yao will undoubtedly start yet another game due to all the votes he receives from China. Beyond that, with Amare Stoudamire relegated back to the power forward slot in Phoenix, the backup center position will be up for grabs between the likes of Oden, Andrew Bynum, and Marcus Camby.
After the starters, the seven reserves are selected by the coaches across the NBA. Though Camby is a great player, if he couldn’t make it last year with Denver, I don’t know how he makes it this year with L.A. That puts the race pretty much down to Bynum and Oden with the possibility still looming that both big men could be selected.
In my mind, barring any major surprises from other centers in the West, Oden should make the team due to the fact that the coaches, more than anyone, will appreciate his influence on the game. Though Oden may only post around 12 and eight through his first six months, coaches will remember how differently they had to gameplan against the big man and how great a defensive presence he was in the paint.
Plus, coaches know that the Blazers need Oden to score less than the Lakers need Bynum to.
At the end of the day, no one is a better evaluator of a good NBA player than NBA coaches, and Oden will benefit from that. If Greg can have such a successful year that he makes the All-Star team, expect the Blazers to begin looking into moving some of their other big men.
Channing Frye has found a good role in Portland as a center who can play on the perimeter, while Joel Pryzbilla has been integral as a backup enforcer to Oden in the preseason. Between the two of them, Pryzbilla definitely seems less attached to Portland and more likely to search for a starter’s role elsewhere.
Unfortunately, due to Oden’s propensity for foul trouble and the lack of serviceable seven-foot defenders in the league, Pryzbilla is the more valuable piece. Kevin Pritchard will have to make a tough choice if he wants to open up more minutes for his former No. 1 pick.
Of all the guys on the team, Outlaw, Pryzbilla, and Webster stand the greatest chance of being traded. But that could also change in relation to the point guard spot, a position that many have pointed to as the Blazer's weakness.
If Jerryd Bayless is unable to develop into a pass-first point in the next year, Portland may try to trade the talented combo guard while his value is at its highest. Meanwhile, if Sergio Rodriguez cannot limit his turnovers or if Steve Blake continues to be a major defensive liability, expect Pritchard to package one of them with Raef LaFrentz’s expiring contract for a more reliable veteran point.
If it’s a concrete prediction you want, I would put my money on Outlaw being traded by next summer. We need Webster’s outside shooting, and Pryzbilla’s toughness. We do not need another high-flying dunker.
With Batum and an improved Channing Frye, the loss of Travis can easily made up for. There is no reason for KP to not pull the trigger if a package of Travis, LaFrentz, and a draft pick could land a more established veteran along the lines of Tayshaun Prince or Richard Jefferson.
Time will only tell, but some things are going to have to change.
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