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.

Portland 81, New Orleans 96

Early in the game Portland was toasting New Orleans. Blake and Aldridge were hitting everything in sight, they were about even on the boards, and were protecting the ball. Meanwhile, New Orleans was struggling to score. West had 16 first quarter points...and New Orleans totaled 20. Outside of West they were as cold as could be.

But then the second unit came on. Roy missed a shot, Jack missed, Outlaw had about 4 of those drive-step back jumpers he loves so much that were wide open but missed. Jones missed a corner trey. Rodriguez missed a wide open three. It was a bad, bad sign. New Orleans was not playing defense but they did not need to because Portland was not even attempting to go inside and their shots were not falling. Meanwhile, noted studs Pargo and Bowen were eclipsing their prior season totals (it seemed like). Pargo had 15 second quarter points and Bowen another 6. Together they tallied 21 of 28 points.

This is the type of performance we have come to expect from the PORTLAND bench. When all but one starter struggle, typically Outlaw or Jones or Jack will step up with a big game. This time, instead the bench was missing everything but home and the starters started to get infected. They were only able to tally 18 points for the second quarter; 9 of those came on Blake 3s sandwiching a Jones 3 on 3 consecutive possessions. Outside of that stretch they had only a 9 point quarter. They had a 48-44 deficit at the half, nothing they cannot overcome.

But there were some very, very bad signs. First off, they were missing relatively easy, makeable shots. Not to cast aspersions on the defense of the Hornets because they are a very solid defensive team, but the poor shooting in the first half was not because of that defense. Portland was getting open looks from the right people in the right places. The shots just weren't falling. When your open shots are not falling and you are facing a team which can put the clamps on when they need to as the Hornets can, you are asking for trouble. Second, Roy seemed...well, disinterested. He is not a demonstrative or "fast" player but he usually is involved in the game. This time he felt like he was going through the motions. Very unusual for him. Third, the Blazers had kept Paul and Chandler very much in check (though West had wrecked them in the first quarter) but were giving up huge nights to second line players while getting virtually nothing from their own.

The third quarter has been a nemesis all year. This game would be no different. They had open shots but could not convert. They got free throws and missed. At times it looked like a contractors convention the way bricks were being laid. After a poor 18 point 2nd quarter, they bounced back with 15 in the third. New Orleans, fortunately, also struggled to score, though their 22 was still a 7 spot better than the suddenly punchless Blazers and the spread was 11 after 3.

The 4th quarter is one the Blazers have just owned for weeks now. And after back to back possessions where Outlaw fed Aldridge for easy scores it looked like this would be more of the same. Portland pulled within 77-72 with 5:29 left and had the ball in to Aldridge. His shot was blocked, though, and a quick 10-2 New Orleans run all but ended the game.

They had their chances. But New Orleans, who appeared relatively indifferent defensively for most of the game, clamped down on Roy when the Blazers got close, forcing tough shots late in the possession against the clock, keeping the ball away from Roy, and making other guys beat them. Most of the year, other guys have stepped up. This time they missed their shots, some of which were easy and some of which were against some stiff defense. Meanwhile, the Hornets had 3 dynamic scorers in Paul, Stojakovich and Pargo. Pargo finished with 24.

Going in I was hoping for the upset but something just did not feel right. Portland has seen the Hornets 4 times now and split with them, each team taking 2 on their home floor. The teams are fairly evenly matched. Portland's defense is typically very effective at slowing Stojakovich (he scored 6 of his 12 in the last couple minutes when the outcome was basically decided) and often harass Paul into tough shooting nights. But they can't keep Chandler and West off the boards (New Orleans won the rebound battle 41-25) and West just has a field day against the Blazers it seems like every time. He only ended with 22...but that is largely because he was not needed in this game after the huge first quarter. Meanwhile, Portland is well set up to score against the Hornets as Jones, Aldridge, and Outlaw all have marked advantages over their respective defenders and the floor really opens up when the Hornets concentrate so heavily on Roy. The deciding factor each time has seemed to be the home floor.

That is quite disappointing as New Orleans has a very poor crowd. The games are poorly attended (11,006 people for a team that is 29-12, a game ahead of Dallas and a game and a half ahead of San Antonio. They are, record wise, the best team in the most talented division in basketball...and can get only half capacity of sit-on-their hands fans. That is some pretty poor support. And sure, many people will offer the "New Orleans is devastated" party line...but at some point you have to get past that. Check out Saints attendance figures, folks. The fact is, New Orleans is just not a basketball town, at least at this point in their history. There is a reason the Jazz moved, and it wasn't because they perceived of Utah as a jazzier place...

As an aside, this was an unusually poorly officiated game. You will always see the home team and the more aggressive team get some favorable calls. When they home team IS the more aggressive team, that advantage becomes even more pronounced. I do not object to that. There was a time when Portland was known as "Rip-off City" for some of the questionable officiating that seemed to benefit the Blazers far more than the opposition. And the officiating did not determine the outcome. Portland had their chances and simply got outplayed by a team that, at least on this night, was the better team. But some of the calls were pretty brutal.

For example, on one play Jarrett Jack was on the baseline and a ball caromed in his direction. Chandler jumped out following the ball into a statue-like Jack. Chandler inadvertently landed an elbow to the head. Unlike some plays I have seen Chandler make, this one did not seem dirty to me, just one of those things that happens when people go after a ball. Either way, the contact was initiated by Chandler leaping out. Jack not only got the elbow to the dome, he got called for a loose ball foul. I spent some time thinking about that one, as in how Jack fouled him. Apparently standing in the path of someone jumping away from the basket is now a foul. Later, Aldridge had the inside position and Chandler barreled into him from outside. Again it was the Blazer who got called. Neither time was the Blazer airborne. Once he had inside position, once outside. Both times they got called for the loose-ball foul. Uh, okay.

Those were just two easy examples. There were several calls that had me scratching my head. But the point here is not to attack the officiating, it is something Portland can do to improve. They can make sure they become the aggressors which will gain them more calls. Instead of standing around letting the opponents go after the ball while they watch from court seats, they can crash the boards, make the other teams work for their rebounds, and make the refs notice there are two teams worthy of benefiting from whistles.

Be that as it may, the road trip was still a qualified success. The road is always a difficult place to win and at the beginning of the season if you heard they went 3-4 on this trip it would be a tremendous accomplishment. Even now I think 4-3 would have been hugely successful, and it is a sign of just how good the Blazers have gotten this quickly that it is in any way a minor disappointment to go 3-4 instead of 4-3. Winning on the road at a 43% clip is pretty impressive. The Blazers should be congratulated. They competed in every game, could have won the Toronto game, and even had a shot at this one with 5 minutes left. Well done.