Friday, March 4, 2011

The Future of The Blazers Roster

The future of the Blazers is still tied to
 the decisions concerning Greg Oden
Injuries have killed the Blazers' hopes the past few seasons, and as a result we do not have a good understanding of what this team could achieve if they ever become a healthy club.  

The 2010-11 season has had its ups and downs so far, highlighted by the emergence of Lamarcus Aldridge and the disappointing injury to Brandon Roy.  Greg Oden, the former #1 overall pick, has missed another season and has garnered more Sam Bowie comparisons.  The off season drama surrounding fan favorite Rudy Fernandez came and went with him remaining in Portland and he has become a major contributor.  The Blazers' major free-agent addition Wesley Matthews has become a candidate for most improved player, and is averaging 16 points per game.  Batum has improved, but has not become the defensive presence or assertive offensive player that the Blazers want him to be.  Andre Miller has continued to be the steady performer that NBA fans have become accustomed to over his career.  Marcus Camby has been good, but is starting to show his age and has been injured off and on all year.  Patty Mills has showed some signs of life, and has shown he can be a very exciting player in fast break situations.  The two rookies on the roster, Armon Johnson and Luke Babbit, have failed to contribute.  Fellow rookie Elliot Williams has also been injured all season.  The Blazers lost Pryzbilla, who was coming off major knee surgery, but added the former all-star Gerald Wallace.

So what do we know about this roster, and what can they hope to achieve from this point forward.
First and foremost, we know that this team is probably the best team in the face of adversity we have seen in years.  They lost their star player, Brandon Roy, to devastating knee injuries but barely faltered.  They took the news of Greg Oden's injury in stride.  They have dealt with many of their key members missing games here and there but they never stopped competing.

I believe this toughness comes straight from their head coach Nate McMillan.  In years past this has been the case as well, but never before have the injuries been so severe.  Oden was young and not yet established when he went down the past few seasons, but losing the face of their franchise in Roy was a much bigger blow to the stomachs of the fans, team, and organization.  McMillan never let this effect his coaching, and kept the Blazers headed in the right direction.  There was some talk early in the season that the players were unhappy with McMillan, and that this could be his last season in Portland.  I think this is their biggest off-season issue, they must resign McMillan.  In the past few seasons I believe he has proved that he is one of the most competent coaches in the NBA.

We know that the new face of the franchise is now Lamarcus Aldridge.  It is sad to see a player like Roy suffer a career altering injury, but the Blazers rebounded with Aldridge who was an emerging talent to begin with.  This season he has become the man since Roy's injury.  He has become one of the best scoring big man in the league, and leads the league in alley-oops.  He has a long and lanky 6'11 build, he is athletic, and he has a sweet shot with a release point so high it is almost impossible to block.  As he continues growing as the star of the team I believe he will continue to get better.  Look for him to improve his conditioning over the course of the off-season, as he has gotten tired at the end of some games. (Which is understandable if you are playing 44-46 minutes per game.)

Batum has a lot of potential and talent and will have
a bright future if he puts it together with an
improved mental approach
We know that the Blazers are full of young talent and decent to great role players.  The franchise only other 'untouchable' at the trade deadline was Nicolas Batum.  Batum is also a long and lanky player with great athleticism, and is a great defensive player when he wants to be.  He has great fundamentals and shoots relatively well from the field.  The only knock on Batum is that sometimes his mind is not where it should be, he seems to wander and get lost at times.  If Batum improves his mental game, and becomes a player who is aggressive every night on every play he could become one of the best defenders in the game.  Batum is still very young, only 22 years of age, and needs to add strength to his slight frame.  He has a ton of potential.

Brandon Roy is going to have to settle in with his new role on the team.  He will not be the go-to guy any more, but he can still shoot with his sweet stroke.  At times he can break down defenses and get to the rim, but he now lacks the explosion that made him a max-contract player.  With Andre Miller likely gone in the next few years, I look to Roy to initiate a lot of the offense.  He could be a threat bringing the ball up the court and he also has the ability to set up his teammates.  He will never be the type of player he was, but he can still average 15 points per game and hustle up and down the court.

Other role players include Wesley Matthews, who will probably be the starting 2 guard going forward.  He is a great offensive player and he really hustles on defense.  Last year for Utah he gave Kobe fits in their playoff series.  He will be looked to to make open threes, finish on fast breaks and lock up opposing players on defense.  Rudy Fernandez has become happy again in Portland, which is a good sign.  He is their best long range shooter and shows some flashy passing, usually on lobs to Aldridge.  He needs to continue to fine-tune his game and become a better defender but he is a valuable member off the bench.

The Blazers must figure out what role Gerald Wallace is going to play for their team.  He is a great defender, rebounder, and slasher on offense.  He finishes very well at the rim, but he is not a great shooter.  He can play the 2, 3, and 4 positions which makes him a valuable player.  It is unclear to me whether he is a potential starter, and if he is would this move Batum to the 2, or Aldridge to the 5.

The Rookies and Patrick Mills need to continue to improve their games.  Babbit has been a non-factor this season, barely making appearances off the bench.  In college he was a dominant scorer, and he could  be used as a stretch 4 for the Blazers.  He needs to work on his conditioning, getting stronger is key.  He also needs to work on his moves off the dribble and defense.  Armon Johnson had a great run in the first few weeks of the season, but lost his confidence and became stuck on McMillan's bench.  He needs to work at becoming a true floor general for the team, he has the athletic ability and size to become a good defender, and he knows how to finish at the rim with his floater.  He needs to develop his jump shot.  Elliot Williams is an unknown because he has not played at all.  Patty Mills needs to continue to work on his jump shot and decision making.  He could be key for the future of the team if they ever decide to run a faster paced offense.

In the upcoming off-season the Blazers have some decisions to make.  1st, as I stated before, they have to decide about Nate McMillan.  2nd, they need to decide on whether or not to pick up Oden's option of around $7 million next season.  They could use Miller, who has an expiring contract at the end of next season, as trade bait.  They have a first round pick in this years draft, which I believe they should use to add another big body to their front line.  In my mock draft I have them taking the young seven footer from Brazil, Lucas Nogueira.  He has a lot of athletic ability, but is raw offensively.  In the second round I have the Blazers taking Tyler Zeller.  It is unlikely that he will still be around because of a great season this year, but the idea that the Blazers pick 2 seven footers would not be a bad idea. They could also target a point guard prospect such as Brandon Knight if he slips in the draft.  There have also been rumors that Pryzbilla could return to Portland for a reduced salary next season.  The Blazers could also opt to bring Victor Claver, the versatile 6'10 forward, over from Europe.

The Blazers still have a lot of young talented
players that could mesh into a dominant unit
If Oden can make a comeback next year,  and live up to half of the expectations the organization had for him, then the Blazers could make a huge push in the playoffs.  With the addition of Wallace, the evolution of Batum, Mathews, and Aldridge the Blazers could become a defensive powerhouse.  Oden would anchor this defense and allow the Blazers' pesky wing defenders to gamble a little bit more on 50-50 balls.  They could bring Camby off the bench so they could play each player only 24 minutes, letting Camby play a year or two longer and getting Oden comfortable playing again.  Aldridge would be the go to player on offense, but with Andre Miller hitting Mathews and Wallace on their slashes and cuts to the hoop or setting up Roy, Batum and Fernandez beyond the arch the Blazers have a ton of options on offense.

The bottom line is that the Blazers still have a very bright future, even after their devastating injuries.  This roster can be a championship competitor if they stay healthy.  Portland fans should not lose hope, as there are still many exciting times to come at the Rose Garden, this season and in future seasons to come.

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