It’s been some time coming, but finally with the 2012 offseason the Trail Blazers have moved on from the dreams inspired by the 50-odd games played together by Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden. Last preseason Oden was still rehabbing for a possible midseason return, and Roy had not yet announced the eventually temporary retirement that would in any case preclude his playing for the Blazers in the near future, if ever again. This Halloween, as the Blazers open their schedule with a first-day-of-school-quiz against a Lakers team bringing it like Obama in the first debate so far, there are no such illusions. The shelves are full of new product, although some of it hasn’t been market tested and other items are under rebranding or have plateaued their “sales” of late.
Accordingly, the major hoops media have savaged the Blazers’ 2013 chances, almost guaranteeing a lottery pick and nearly accusing the team of looking to snatch top odds for the first pick by being so supremely bad. Here, let Ken Berger of CBS Sports break it down for you:
On one hand, you pity the Blazers for all the miserable injury luck they’ve had. On the other, with their arrogant ownership and penchant for going through GMs like I’ll be going through beef jerky in the hurricane this week, there’s a what-goes-around-comes-around feel to the Blazers’ demise. Whichever side of that argument you’re on, there’s no doubt the Blazers will be positively awful this season. In a pitiful sort of way.
Ouch. Esteemed folks like John Hollinger give them no more slack, putting Portland’s projected win totals in the high 20s. Ask anybody–that’s if you can find anybody paying enough attention outside the Rose City to have an opinion–and they’ll agree: you’d be a fool to strap the ol’ heart onto the sleeve of your Drexler jersey and head to the Rose Garden this year looking for hoop love.
And yet: faithful, loyal, waterlogged denizens that we are, there is a renewed excitement for whom the Blazers are going to put on the court. The big splash has been made by rookie guard Damian Lillard, who won the Summer League MVP and so far is showing that he’s at least as talented as any other rookie who went to a power school, rather than his alma mater Weber State. Lillard’s base talent level and projected development do not appear much in doubt amongst observers, and so his impact on the team has likely already been figured in by the pundits. Fans have been drooling about the concept of a point guard who can distribute, drive AND crank the trey, and Lillard does all three in better than average fashion. Will this make Aldridge even more dangerous in the post, with wing defenders kept honest and out of the double team? We’ll see, but it’s a rational expectation.
The fates of those two players are typically as deep as the big sportswriters get when discussing the Blazers’ chances. To the extent that the rest of the roster gets a glance, both Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews get the “might break out but we doubt it” treatment, and the rest of the roster is admittedly a cast of raw talent either moving up from obscurity or moving quickly to avoid it. Rookie Myers Leonard also gets a bit of ink, as the “other rookie” who will be thrown to the wolves (first wolf: Dwight Howard!) at center. More on him in a minute.
For his part, Matthews has not liked what he has read in the preseason, or is motivating himself, or is looking to deflect from a rather down second year with Portland in 2011-12. He spoke out against the “ignorance” of the media, and predicted noticeable improvement to The Oregonian’s Jason Quick, as the result of good health and hard work (which of course seems to acknowledge the rap against him, requiring improvement, but whatever):
“How can you judge somebody on something they haven’t been in? That’s ignorant to me,” Matthews says. “How can you judge me in the pick and roll when I haven’t been in it? How can you judge me in isolation? How many times did you actually see me isolate last year? How many times did you actually see me in a pick and roll?
“I can take criticism; I just don’t like ignorance. And for someone to say something about somebody who hasn’t been put in that position to be fairly judged, that’s ignorance to me. For someone to comment on my potential, that’s ignorant. Because how do you know what I can do? My response is try me. Try me.”
Aldridge defends his teammate and indicates that he sees definite improvement from last year, particularly with the angle he takes to the hoop and the agility with which he finishes. In the short stretches I’ve seen of Matthews in summer and the preseason, I’d have to agree with LaMarcus; he does look better! What’s more, I noted it for myself and THEN saw the Oregonian article, so I’m not just seeing what I want to see (unless I have been all along, I guess).
There’s an intensity and spark to his game (at least in preseason) that certainly was not there last year. And when he finishes at the rack, lo and behold it seems to go in. If I had a nickel for every botched gimme the Blazers misexecuted last season, I’d have the money for a season suite package. It was like watching a 20-yd run get called back for holding, over and over and over. Like I said, maybe I just can’t think straight with the potential for that to be on display again, but Matthews really does look a fair bit sharper on offense.
Which leads me to my fearless prediction: the most pivotal players on this year’s team are NOT Aldridge and Lillard, or even Leonard. The “pivotality” case is stronger for Lillard–maybe after two weeks the league figures him out and he turns out not to be able to quarterback the team, and of course any rookie is an unknown–but the consensus seems to be that the kid is legit.
Aldridge is even less likely to swing the team’s fortunes one way or the other by his play; there is little chance he will regress significantly from last year’s first All-Star campaign, but he’s also not likely to push himself into the “all-league gamechanger” echelon in the way Roy teased us with, perhaps best exemplified by his Game 4 stunner in the 2011 Western semis. If LaMarcus merely plateaus from here on out, you won’t hear Portlanders complain one bit.
So who will make or break the Blazers season? I say Wes Matthews…and Joel Freeland? Yes, really. Let me cover my reasons for Wes first. In Matthews’ first year with Portland, the point was handled by veteran Andre Miller, who had slowed a step and looked like me when trying a 3-pointer, but still showed a keen eye for the open man and kept the team calm and in balance when panic threatened. Wes shined that year, looking like a bargain pickup from Utah. He managed a .582 true shooting percentage, boosted by 41% distance shooting, and his WinShares stood at 7.2, good for 43rd overall in the league.
When he wasn’t being helped directly by Miller, Dre’s ability to make the dish to a cutting Brandon Roy prevented Wes from having to be the one to do the cutting. While Matthews was Roy’s putative backup, the lack of a solid reserve PG often put the two on the court at the same time, and again, the lack of a primary need for Wes to hit the rim and finish left him free to do things he was more comfortable with.
Fast forward to last year, when Miller became Ray “Double Down” Felton, and those savvy passes went away like so many clubhouse pork sliders when Felton was around. Forced to pick up some of the slack at the rack, Matthews did not shine. His handles often failed him, and while his torso and legs often got him decent looks, his wrists did not allow him to complete the process and register the bucket.
For 2013, Lillard’s ability to drive to the hole means Matthews does not need to be “that guy,” but as I’ve noted it’s looked this preseason like he might be able to be “that OTHER guy.” There is a plateau in many physical pursuits, where either innate ability or dogged repetition creates a situation where the brain moves the muscles in the right sequence, without an overt signal from the consciousness. To paraphrase Nike, you just do it. Mariano Rivera does not really need to “think” about throwing a 90mph cutter on the corner of the black; he just does. And while Matthews is no Mo, the inklings are there–in preseason he appeared to have that quicker first step, that sharper move to the basket. And after a regressive season from behind the line, the 3-point touch also looks to be back as before. He looks better because it looks smoother, no time for pondering thought bubbles in his brain.
All of which says to me that if Lillard can make that first move to the bucket, Matthews will be a prime option as the secondary cutter when Lillard draws attention, or he will be in position at the elbow to try the jumper. Nic Batum has also looked a little freer and more confident on the dribble after a strong showing for the silver medalist French Olympians, and if Batum is further able to help break down the defense with movement that defenders have to follow, so much the better for Wes. The tactical opportunity for him to shine has returned, and happily he is showing real potential to take advantage in ways he hasn’t to this point in his career.
Now, Freeland. Who? Joel Freeland, the 6’10” power forward from Britain who also acquitted well in the Olympics this summer, but projects to be no more than the second-team four for the Blazers in the forseeable future. So why on earth do I think he’s pivotal? Because frankly, I’m worried about Myers Leonard and JJ Hickson at the “center” spot.
True centers are becoming more rare in the NBA, so it won’t be a diet of Howards and Duncans and Yaos every night, but even against smaller frontcourts in preseason Leonard has looked fairly lost and slow. His instincts may be there, but he’s got a lot of that muscle-repetition to do in order to bring his moves up to NBA speed. Hickson was one of the few delights to watch at the end of last year while the Blazers fully crashed and burned, and he has the ability to be an offensive sparkplug and follow-dunk kind of partner for Aldridge, but defensively he’s rather…spastic. Veteran Jared Jeffries appears to be the main PF in the second unit, but if he were really worth a damn and the reserve solution to Portland’s depth problems he wouldn’t have been a trade throw-in.
In other words, the guys currently blocking Freeland at both fives and the backup four are perhaps the predominant reason so many pundits have seen fit to predict Portland’s nightmare extending well past Halloween. One thing we know Leonard CAN do is draw fouls; if he’d picked up any more violations in preseason you’d have thought he was a Chinese coal plant. Hickson has a nasty tendency to arrive late on D and slap a wrist in futility too, so expect some DQs from both along the way.
And when that happens, who is left to prevent being hopelessly overmatched up front? Joel Freeland. Of his Blazer peer group he showed the best sense of overall D in preseason, and has a pretty good nose for the backboard as well. Does he need to go All-World immediately? No. What he has to do is play well enough to keep the bottom from dropping out when things get tough in the block. The offensive scheme used by Coach Stotts is lively and emphasizes ball movement, something the first team has shown a budding ability to make good use of.
As has been true the last couple years however, the team’s fortunes typically change when the starters sub out. If the predicted dropoff to the second unit manifests itself, those 20-win thoughts show a lot of merit. But if someone can stand under the rim and chase the punks off his lawn with even reasonable effectiveness, 10-point leads won’t disappear so quickly, and 5-point deficits won’t hit 20 by the third quarter. Is Freeland that guy? Honestly I’m not sure. He’s less heralded than Leonard, and less athletically gifted than Hickson. But he’s smarter than the latter, and has a lot more experience with big professional bodies than Leonard. Whether Freeland can step up and keep things stable underneath or not, will have a real impact on the team’s overall fortunes.
Enjoy the season! Feel free to offer feedback and questions; I’d love to hear from you.