The Pack Factor

It would be interesting to see how many Blazer fans remember Robert Pack. Signed as an undrafted free agent, he played in 72 games back in 91-92. You might remember that season for being the Blazers and Bulls in the finals where Jordan showed how vast the gap between the best player in the league that year and the second best player...Clyde Drexler...was. 4 games to 2 was the result. I do not know if anyone could have denied Chicago that year. The 4-2 final game score did not fully represent just how dominant Chicago was in that series.

Be that as it may, on a team led by Drexler and Porter with Buck Williams providing the rebounding, Kersey being the "energy guy", Uncle Cliffy coming off the bench, how important could an undrafted free agent pick-up be?

Pack played about 12 minutes a game, or a quarter of the time, backing up both Porter and Drexler. He averaged a respectable 4.6 points, 1.3 rebounds, a little better than half a steal and every 4 games he gave away the ball 5 times. These are hardly game-changing numbers. Portland won by an average of 5 points that season, slightly more than his scoring average. They had 6 guys scoring in double figures. In any given game you might see Kersey, Robinson, Duckworth or even Williams add 20 to the Drexler and Porter scoring explosion. But Pack was kind of like Wayne Cooper on that team...he had a specific role and filled it well.

Those 12 minutes he gave them were 12 minutes where yes, there was a drop-off on the offensive end...but he gave them rugged defense, scored often enough that you could not ignore him, and he gave Drexler and Porter valuable rest so they could come back rested and the point spread between the teams would be fairly close to where it was when they went to the bench.

It was defensively where Pack was the bigger help. He could shut down explosive guards, provided some tough on the ball defense and could defend either the smaller, quicker point guards or the larger shooting guards. He provided the Blazers a spark virtually every night where he could change the flow of the game.

But the impact he had was not so huge that Portland felt they needed to retain his services for 92-93. Over the next 13 years he would play for 9 different teams, though two of them...Denver and New Jersey...were two times each. He showed how good he could have been in a shortened season in Washington when his 35 minutes per game were enough for him to score 18, pick off 2 steals a game, and rack up almost 8 assists. He had the talent to be a productive point guard and had 8 or more assists per game three times in his career.

In other words, despite being undrafted he was a player who could provide a team with a lot of help. It was unexpected help. His problems were primarily health as only 3 times in his career did he play as many as 70 games and most were less than half that.

Players like Pack are often the difference between a 35 win team and a 50 win team. Their impact is not necessarily in their statistics but rather the "intangibles". Pack's talent gave Drexler and Porter some tough competition in practice. His play on the court helped the team in subtle ways far more often than spectacular. He accepted his role and played it to the best of his ability.

When a team is able to find and develop talented role players, guys who could score 15 - 20 points or pull down 10 rebounds if they were playing full time, convince that player to accept limited minutes, and that player fits into the team that team then experiences a strong season.

At the beginning of this year there was not a lot expected of the Blazers. Every week someone writes about how good this team would have been if Oden were playing. Maybe. To be sure, if his college career is any indication then he would provide the low-post offense and rebounding that the Blazers sorely need this year. Yet if he played there is an open question if some of the Blazers other talents could have developed. Many writers have talked about what no Oden has done for Roy and Aldridge. I would argue it has also helped the current crop of Blazer "Pack" type players.

Take fifth year player James Jones for example. Put this sharp-shooter on Golden State, give him 35 minutes a game and you probably have an 18-20 point scorer. He can run the floor, shoot the lights out, and tends to make other players better as evidenced by his +10.27 efficiency rating. He has the talent to start at small forward. Yet he has simply played his role. He spells Webster, takes his open shots, scraps on defense, and gives the starters someone tough to practice against. If he stays with Portland he will probably never be an All-Star...but the team is vastly improved by his presence.

It is not just his on the floor talent, either. Early in the win streak the Blazers ran off he was referenced by multiple Blazers as being a big part of instilling the "we are a team" spirit that has led them to their big season. Jones does not cry about playing time, does not demand trades, talk about his own needs...he is a team guy. Much like Robert Pack, he is a guy whose statistics do not come close to showing his true value to the team.

And that is one reason the Blazers are exceeding all expectations this year. They have multiple players of this nature. Sergio Rodriguez, Channing Frye, and Jarrett Jack are guys who could start for a lot of teams or at the least provide more minutes and statistical contributions. For the present, however, they are content to play their assigned roles...talented back-ups on a team reaching heights nobody expected. I doubt any of them modeled their career on one unheralded season by a relatively anonymous player from 15 years ago...but they certainly are following his spirit and that is the Pack Factor that is a key difference between an expected Blazer record of probably about 18-26 and their actual record.

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