Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Portland Trailblazers: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 50-32
2009-10 Playoffs: #6 seed; lost in Round 1 to the Phoenix Suns in six games
Additions: Wesley Matthews, Fabricio Oberto, Luke Babbitt
Key Losses: Jerryd Bayless, Martell Webster, Juwan Howard
Projected Rotation Players: Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Marcus Camby, Andre Miller, Wesley Matthews, Greg Oden, Fabricio Oberto, Rudy Fernandez

Look for injuries and attitude problems to eat away at the Blazers’ optimism of recent years.

What happened here? Just two years ago, the Blazers were optimism personified- young, talented, united and exceedingly likable. This was a team on the rise, inexperienced and nagged by the occasional injury, but without question a contender in the Western Conference for the better part of the next decade.

In the 24 months that have followed, this appears to have evaporated. The incredibly likability? A casualty of infighting. The injuries that had previously been mere nuisances now derail seasons.

First, there was $21 million free agent PG Andre Miller, signed in the summer of 2008. A starter for all but one game before joining Portland, Miller immediately clashed with coach Nate McMillan about his role on the team and has reportedly had a tough time meshing with incumbent superstar and face of the franchise, Brandon Roy. The duo hasn’t exactly meshed on the floor, with Miller only at his best when Roy’s been out with an injury. Both players need to dominate the ball in order to be effective, and the latest chapter of this mini-drama, Brandon Roy’s laid down the law.

Meanwhile there’s Rudy Fernandez. Oh Rudy! The wheels on this one came flying off quickly. Upon entering the NBA in 2008, Rudy became an immediate favorite of fans across the league (I wanted more Rudy in my life!). Abe to score from anywhere on the floor, he was a spark plug of the bench and a key contributor as a rookie. His 159 3-pointers in 2008-09 were a record for a rookie.

Last season he struggled with injuries and became increasingly unhappy with his role on the team and team’s walk-it-up style. His shooting numbers slipped considerably, from both sides of the 3-point line, and he was simply awful in thee Blazers first-round playoff loss to the Phoenix Suns, averaging just 6.8 ppg and failing to make an impact on the series.

The arrival of Wesley Matthews likely signals the beginning of the end for Rudy in Portland. And this would be just fine by him, as he has shown a desire to traded and was fined $25,000 by the league after his agent said that Rudy might not to report to training camp. Given his ineffective play in 2009-10, the subsequent deterioration in his attitude and his public desire to blow town (thanks for torching your trade value Rudy!), look for Rudy to be shipped out of town in the coming weeks.

And then there’s the first pick in the 2007 draft, Greg Oden. The big man chosen ahead of Kevin Durant (oof!) who’s suited up for just one out of every three (82 of 246) Blazers’ games since he was drafted.

Last December, just days after establishing career-highs in points (24) and rebounds (20) and looking like a lock to become one of the NBA’s most dominant rebounders and shotblockers, he suffered his most recent catastrophic blow, as a fractured patella ended his season. On Monday, 10 months after the injury, Oden participated in 5-on-5 drills for the first time. After his workout, he said that there’s no definite timetable for his return, but Oden and the club (and fans as well, not just the ones in Portland) are hoping for a late-November/early-December return. However, anyone buying into this timetable may want to take out insurance.

On those rare occasions when he’s healthy and able to log significant floor time, Oden actually looks really good. Prior to his latest injury, Oden looked great in the paint with 11.1 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 21 starts and was becoming increasingly comfortable with the flow of the NBA game, and his role in it.

One would assume that Oden’s return to the floor will restore much of the lost optimism from recent years. And while his return will be cheered by fans across the NBA, even when everything seems to be going swimmingly, there will always be a lingering fear in the back of every Blazer fan’s mind. A fear that it could all end on play.

Not good for optimism.

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Blazers at 51.5. This number appears to be rather optimistic given the lack of reliable depth in the middle (Oden and Joel Przybilla missed 113 games last season and Camby’s played 70+ game just four times in his career), instability in the backcourt (Miller-Roy, Rudy’s meltdown impending exit and the need to integrate Wesley Matthews) and a total lack of rebounding outside of the center position. Not only is this team unlikely to win 52+ games in 2010-11, they could miss the number by 10 or ore wins and will finish no better than #8 in the West.

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