Heading into the off-season, Blazermania is scaling back a bit yet there is still palpable excitement. Next year is expected to be a break-through season and the fans are waiting with great anticipation. We don't just want to squeak into the playoffs, we want to roar in and do some damage. However, before we get to that point, what will the team look like? Here is a player by player breakdown.
It will all start with the man in the middle. 2007-2008 saw Portland struggle on the boards as even indifferent teams regularly won that battle. Oden is anticipated to change that around. He his big, strong, agile, and fairly quick for a big guy. His workout regimen while recovering from micro fracture surgery was so strenuous that team officials actually insisted he scale it back for fear he would become so bulky that he would lose the speed and athleticism that make him special. Oden has already shown he knows a good deal about rebounding in college. His transition to the demands of the boards in the NBA can only be helped by the coaching of Maurice Lucas, a solid rebounder in his own years in the NBA. It would not be shocking to see Oden pull down double digit boards almost every night if he can stay out of foul trouble. That foul trouble is likely to come on the defensive end.
Defensively he may have an Achilles Heel. He demonstrated superior shot-blocking abilities in college as his size, leaping ability and timing combined to give him an advantage over the majority of centers he faced in college. In the NBA he will still often have the advantages but will face stiffer competition. And that can lead to foul trouble...particularly for Oden who is already on record as saying he would try to block every shot. For a rookie, this is a recipe for disaster. If he is out there flying around trying to do to much he will hear a lot of whistles and spend a great deal of time on the bench. That will hurt him at the offensive end.
On the offensive game he will be counted on for back to the basket offense. His imposing size will make entry passes easy if he can establish position. The micro fracture surgery has been a blessing in this regard as Oden has received a great deal of valuable one-on-one instruction from the Blazer coaching staff. Reports coming out have his game expanding. He can use either hand for little baby hooks and has a pretty good spin move. When he goes to the line his free throw shooting is above average.
By all reports he has responded very well to coaching. Additionally, there can be no questioning his desire to play as evidenced by the incident where he played pick-up basketball at a 24 Hour Fitness since that is where he found a game. He seems to have the complete package. He has one other weak link, and that is his history of injuries.
Coming out of college is a big step for anybody. Coming out of college and having that compounded by missing the rookie season with a micro fracture in the knee is even bigger. Nobody questions the capabilities or will of Oden...the only question is how it will translate to the court. His upside is huge. If things break his way he could score 15 - 20 points a game, pull down 8 - 10 rebounds, block 2 - 3 shots, and be an instant All-Star. On the other hand, he could find himself saddled with foul trouble and only chip in 10 points and 5 rebounds. Even worse would be another injury. The Blazers franchise and fans have put an unrealistic burden on this young man but it will be interesting to see how he responds.
Aldridge should have received some consideration for Most Improved Player last year. His points and rebounds both nearly doubled, his defense improved by leaps and bounds, and he was a key component on a team that lost its best scorer, rebounder, and shooter...and improved 8 games.
Aldridge made huge strides last year. He was not always consistent...one game he would dominate the boards and the next he would end up with just 1 or 2. He had one stretch of 7 or 8 games where he averaged over 20 points and shot over 50% and then, inexplicably, melted down against the defense-inhibited Supersonics.
Yet he never quit working on his game. After one poor outing the Blazers couldn't find him. At last someone thought to check the practice facility and there was Aldridge, working alone on the shots he could not get to fall in the game. The next night he came out and had a monster game. By the end of the season, almost every night the Blazer broadcasters would look on in awe as they said, "Their is a move we have not seen from LaMarcus before."
2 games against the Suns tell us all we need to know about his ability to improve. In the first one, Amare Stoudemire got into his head. Stoudemire bothered every shot he took and rendered him completely ineffective. Bricks, turnovers, airballs...those were the modus operandi for Aldridge. The next time they played he made some subtle adjustments and, while Stoudemire still outplayed him, he at least held his own and was a force for the Blazers. He has no quit in him and will not yield to anyone. He has all the tools to continue to improve offensively.
He has a silky smooth jumper that is good out to 17 or 18', a developing post-up game, and is willing to run the floor. Expect to see his scoring average increase yet again on offense and for his defense to continue to improve.
He has the length and speed to trouble the shot of anyone he is matched up against on defense. His primary weaknesses are twofold. First, his long, lean frame makes it tough for him to match up for bigger, stronger players as he can be pushed around a bit. Second, he sometimes struggles to properly block out and gives up a lot of offensive rebounds. He largely counteracts this with a motor that never quits.
If Aldridge shows just average development he will soon be mentioned in the same breath as some of the top forwards in the league. However, to take that step he will need to learn to play alongside Oden who will receive the majority of the touches on the block. If the 2 big men do not play well together it would be disastrous.
At the beginning of last year I thought Webster would be good for 12 - 15 points a game and a half dozen rebounds. It proved to be a disappointing season and now that door might be closed. With Oden, Aldridge, Brandon Roy, and Travis Outlaw all slated to score 15 - 20 points there are simply not going to be that many shots left. That is unfortunate because Webster has one of the better shots in the league...at least, he does by reputation.
On offense, that is his strength. He can stroke the three with anyone in the League. However, it is also his weakness. Because he is such a good shooter from downtown he neglects the rest of his offense. You seldom see Webster drive into the lane or pull up for a mid-range jumper. In fact, too often he does not move at all...he heads to his preferred corner and stands there, nearly immobile. When defenses collapse off of him, Webster makes them pay with his shooting. When the offense is on the far side of the floor his defender can sag off which helps the defensive rotations and causes Webster to become a liability.
Defensively he is a mixed bag. He showed flashes at times of being the Blazers' best on the ball defender. He even did a passable job defending Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in one on one situations. However, when the Blazers switch to their zone defense he often gets lost and leaves his area open. This gaping hole led to some huge breakdowns over the course of last year.
On the boards he has shown flashes. From time to time he will go down amongst the tall timber and grab some pretty rugged rebounds but more often than not he is a non-factor. He should get more rebounds at his size and position and needs to improve in that regard.
This position is rightfully considered one of the 2 big weaknesses on the team. Webster showed flashes early in the season and was averaging low to mid teens in points, shooting well, and playing acceptable defense. As the season wore on, however, he slumped across the board. He then came on strong towards the end of the season. He has shown flashes of true greatness such as his 25 points or so against Utah in the third quarter and towards the end of the season he had a nice string of games.
He is young and Portland loves his potential so he will get another long look and probably, barring a trade, start the season as the small forward. If he fulfills his promise the Blazers should have an extremely successful season, possibly even exceeding 50 wins. If he struggles his he could quickly find himself on the bench.
Every NBA fan knows his name by now. Rookie of the Year, avoided the sophomore slump to become Western Conference All-Star, and was getting some early mentions as MVP though of course those (rightfully) faded away as the Blazers also faded away. He is the heart and soul of the current Blazer roster.
In crunch time he always has the ball in his hand, usually for a pick and roll. His Jordanesque fake right, switch the ball to his left hand, flip up the reverse layup highlight almost always got the largest cheer of any highlight every time it was shown. It was a spectacular move and it showed everything you need to know about Roy...he is not the tallest or strongest or quickest...but he gets the job done.
Offensively he has a solid game. He is a solid mid-range shooter and an above average penetrator. He has excellent court vision which leads to assists in bunches. His three point shooting is a bit suspect but he recognizes this and does not shoot them in volume. As a result he is a dangerous offensive player.
His numbers are less overwhelming than they would be because he tends to spend 1 - 2 quarters getting everyone else involved and does the bulk of his scoring in the 3rd and 4th quarters. At one point late last season he was second in the league in 4th quarter points to LeBron James. When the points mean the most he is scoring them. The downside of this is last year, with their most potent offensive player not scoring, the Blazers sometimes struggled to get rolling early in the game.
Defensively, Coach Nate McMillan loves his game. At key points in games he would often be matched up with guys like Joe Johnson, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and so forth. At times this worked well. In one memorable stretch against Atlanta he forced Johnson into an air ball and a 24 second shot clock violation. Conversely, James and Bryant had layups. Not that Johnson is in their class, but he is a very capable one on one player. Still, Roy did an overall decent job against those two players as well.
At times he is a lock down defender in man to man and he was the best on the team at getting into the passing lanes and picking off errant tosses. However, he does have vulnerabilities to the top penetrators in the league and to smaller, faster guards.
He also is susceptible to injury as he struggled with that issue in both college and his first two seasons. If he continues to have injury problems it could derail a very promising team from fulfilling expectations.
His stats don't tell the full story of Roy's value but they are still impressive. Look for another All-Star worthy performance even if his 22 point, 5 rebound, 6 assist numbers do not improve with the addition of Oden.
Point Guard is the other position of concern for the Blazers. Currently it is manned by Steve Blake. Blake catches a lot of flack from Blazer fans. He is not a high scoring guy, does not register a large number of assists, and is an average defender.
Offensively he does not shoot a lot but he has the knack of knocking down clutch threes. He shot better than 40% on them throughout the year. It is seldom you see him shooting from closer than three. He can surprise you with an occasional penetration but those times are relatively rare. For the most part he just moves the ball around the perimeter and makes entry passes. His role is minimized by the role Roy takes in distributing the ball and as a result the Blazers essentially play with 2 combo guards. Blake is a point only in the sense that he brings the ball up the floor.
Blake is the type of solid role player that can make a good team great. He does not need a lot of shots but if the opposition sags off, he will make them pay with a trey, he is not afraid of taking the big shot and does not complain about not having a bigger role. Is he a starter on a playoff winning team? I will argue that, in the right setting, yes...and he fits in well with Portland.
That is not easy for me as I am not a big Steve Blake fan either but the truth is he fits very well with their current make-up. Yet the Blazer franchise is taking a long, hard look at this position. It will be interesting to see if Blake is still with the franchise and/or starting. I actually think Portland will not be making a mistake to keep him...but time will tell.
That is the current starting line-up. It is well balanced. Oden and Aldridge should provide interior defense, rebounding, and a strong post presence. Webster and Blake provide long distance shooting and perimeter defense and Roy makes it all run. This is a team that should improve on last season's rather pedestrian offensive numbers and with a year of maturity will score the ball better. Their already above average defense should also improve.
Coming up next: A look at the bench
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