Will Rudy Fernandez and Greg Oden live up to the hype? Blazers preseason analysis.

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008 marked the NBA debut of 3 highly touted rookies for the Portland Trailblazers; Center Greg Oden, Guard Rudy Fernandez and guard Jerry Bayless. Though they have been practicing for a couple of weeks and last Friday performed in a scrimmage at the Blazer Fan Fest, this would be their first appearance against a rival NBA team.

The game proved to be a laugher. It did not look like it in the first half. Sacramento led by 10 after the first quarter and at the half it was just a 3 point game. The third quarter was the game, however. Last season Portland struggled with the 3rd quarter all season, often turning large leads into small deficits and small deficits into insurmountable mountains. On this night it would be the opposite. 

Led by Jerryd Bayless they cranked up the defense and destroyed the Kings 32-13. To be fair, the Kings were without Brad Miller and Kevin Martin, so if anything it is a tribute to them they stayed with Portland for a half. Then again, this being preseason, how serious can you take results?

One thing we know is the dominant quarter the Blazers put on was something they were not capable of last year. It speaks volumes to how much they have improved that they now have that capability.

Preseason is mostly a time to settle on rotations, try out some new combinations of players, Coach McMillan did that. In the first half he started Sergio Rodriguez and Martell Webster. In the second half he started Jerryd Bayless and Travis Outlaw instead. Was it a fluke the Blazers went on a huge tear? That is a question that still needs to be resolved.

Also to be resolved is whether Greg Oden will be able to rein in his impatience. After sitting out his rookie year he was anxious to show the fans something. Unfortunately, this resulted in him pressing. Early on he tried to bull over everyone and throw down a dunk. Mikki Moore was having none of that and Oden got off to a slow start. Once he had gotten one dunk down, however, he was off to the races.  He shot 5 for 8, showed good court vision when he was doubled, and late in the game he had a spectacular block that brought the Rose Garden to its feet.

He also showed how he can help Portland. He will be a dominant force on the boards once he gets acclimated to the NBA. When the Blazers missed he showed a knack for finding the ball and throwing it down with wild abandon that had the Kings interior players running for cover.

It was great to watch Oden. He improved over the course of the game. Early on it was obvious he was pressing. As a result he stifled the offense. On defense he was so intent on sending back shots that he repeatedly was out of position and the Kings were able to exploit him for easy opportunities. By his last stint on the court he was taking his time on offense, making the correct defensive reads, and showing everyone what he could do. For a first effort it was perhaps a C+. We saw flashes of what he could do but it took him a while to get going.

Bayless meanwhile was an offensive no-show. His vaunted penetration skills seldom showed up, he was not looking for his shot, and he was willing to take a relatively passive role in the offense. Defensively, however, he was every bit the pit bull Blazer brass has advertised. His on-the-ball defense was a key in triggering the Blazers' third quarter run. Bayless will get a B for his effort. When his offense was not there or needed he did not force it. He found his role, fulfilled it, and controlled the game defensively.

Perhaps the biggest cheer of the night was reserved for Spanish sensation Rudy Fernandez. And it was deserved. His stat line was rather modest. He shot just 3 for 6 for 6 points, 1 rebound, and 5 assists. That line is deceptive. His 3 misses were him bombing away from 3-point land after the game was decided and had turned into a bit of a rat-ball festival. They were also about the only unspectacular things he did all night.

He introduced himself in the second quarter. Breaking down his defender, he arched a left handed finger roll over another onrushing defender to score his first points as a Blazer. It was spectacular. He was just getting started, however. Midway through the third quarter Sergio Rodriguez made a no-look pass to Fernandez for a spectacular all-oop dunk that had the Rose Garden rocking as it has not been for quite some time. Later, after showing off his passing skills, he took another Rodriguez alley-oop attempt. This pass was behind him so he caught it, flew to the reverse side of the basket and somehow dropped it in for the score.

Not content with showing his flair for the spectacular in scoring the ball, Fernandez then went to work on his assist total. First he made a spectacular, highlight reel between the legs pass to LaMarcus Aldridge for a dunk. Oh, not his own legs. The DEFENDER'S legs. 

Shortly thereafter he found Aldridge again with a stunning wrap-around pass. Still later he had a high post pass where he found Martell Webster cutting baseline. With his back to the cutter and without turning his head he placed a pinpoint pass in Webster's hands for the dunk. Webster had 2 crowd-pleasing dunks off Fernandez .

It was a phenomenal show by Fernandez. If he does these things with any consistency he will be the odds on favorite for Rookie of the Year. He makes the players around him better and electrifies the crowd. No doubt about it, the Rudy show drew an A+. 

Overall the Blazers showed tremendous improvement. Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw will battle it out for the starting role. Both of them helped their cause tremendously with their showings.

Webster is moving better without the ball, is much more aware on defense, did a tremendous job of helping on the boards, and showed flashes of being a lock-down wing defender.

Outlaw was a bit weaker defensively but showed improved versatility with his step-back jumper, the ability to make spectacular defensive plays, and was a player on the boards. McMillan has two excellent choices. It may come down to who works better with Fernandez on the second unit.

Aldridge showed great maturity. His first half was a complete stinker. He waited, let the game come to him, and ended up having a nice second half. He did not get down on himself and stayed in the game.

Overall it was an exciting showing. The Blazer "veterans" such as Webster, Outlaw, and Sergio Rodriguez showed great improvement. Newcomer Ike Diogu showed a toughness the Blazers were lacking last year. 

Tomorrow night against the Warriors, there are rumors that Oden and Brandon Roy will not be playing. Last year that sort of news would mean a loss was expected. This year, it will still be an upset, even in preseason, should the Blazers somehow lose this game. And that is pretty exciting.

110-81 may have been the final score, but the final result was probably the amplification of expectations for Blazer fans.

Coach McMillan, Brandon Roy and the Blazers:The Time is Now

Tuesday night will be the first time Greg Oden, Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Fernandez show up in Blazer uniforms in an NBA setting. Sure, it is "just preseason" and preseason games have as much meaning as the midnight promise in a bar to respect her in the morning, but there is still a thrill and excitement there.

Fans for every team experience it. Maybe this is the year Sebastian Telfair learns to shoot (but it won't be), maybe the addition of Elton Brand will mean playoff success (probably), maybe the renewed health of Dwayne Wade combined with a full season of the Matrix and arrival of Beasley will mean a return to glory (don't be surprised) and there is even someone, somewhere, thinking the arrival of Baron Davis will mean a deep playoff run for the Clippers (insert explosive laughter here...face it, they are the Clippers, after all*).

Blazer fans are no different. We have heard repeatedly this is the most talented Blazer team ever. That covers a lot of ground when you remember the Bill Walton/Maurice Lucas front line with Johnny Dawkins bringing the ball in to them, when you remember the fearsome Clyde Drexle/Terry Porter/Jerome Kersey/Buck Williams/Kevin Duckworth line-up where Uncle Cliffy aka Cliff Robinson was the 6th man, and so forth.

There have been numerous predictions of great success in the near future. Yet over and over, one theme keeps coming back. "They are among the most talented teams in the league, but they won't be any better than an 8th seed this year because they are young."

Some people aren't buying it. Coach Nate McMillan, for example. "I know we're young, but we're past that. That stuff was one or two years ago." In other words, he wants to instill a winning attitude and not use age as an excuse. He is saying the Blazers have the talent to win and win now.

If they are in truth as talented on the court as they are on paper then he is exactly right to say that. When you look at the Blazer roster, one thing jumps out. Almost every night they will be facing teams with arguably less talent on the floor and seldom indeed will they see another roster that can match up to them top to bottom.

There are really only two reasons for them to not blow past the 50 win mark, gain a decent seed, and do some damage in the playoffs: first, their reliance on 3 rookies and natural progression for a couple other young players. Second, the low expectations people have for them. That includes the expectation of them starting off at or below .500.

Much has been made of their tough early season schedule, and that is a fair concern. They are playing some of the top teams in the League. However, when you look at the rosters from top to bottom it quickly becomes apparent they should still win a good percentage of those games.

The Lakers ended up with home court advantage last season for a reason. With Kobe Bryant they have one of the top 2 players in the game today. Behind him they have All-Stars or at least All-Star caliber in the persons of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and barring further injury, Andrew Bynum. They also have some talented role players who can change the game in Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, and so forth. Overall they have a scary good roster with one of the greatest coaches of all time.

And yet, from a talent standpoint, the Blazers match up very well. Steve Blake and Fisher are near clones of each other, the front line of Gasol and Bynum will face the duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden, the talented Odom will face the equally talented Travis Outlaw off the bench (if that is how Jackson chooses to use him) and that leaves out the expected bench contributions of Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Fernandez. In other words, on the nights where Brandon Roy is within shouting distance of the numbers put up by Bryant, the Blazers should have a better than average shot at winning the game. Of course, that also highlights one of the differences.

The Blazers do not at this point have anyone who does for them what Bryant does for the Lakers, what Paul Pierce does for the Celtics, what LeBron James does for the Cavaliers, and so forth. Whereas Roy is unarguably a stud and effective, he does not own the game the way those players do.

Once before Portland had a highly talented team. Twice in three years they went to the Finals. They could score inside or out, they could rebound and play defense and on any given night you might see Porter, Kersey, Robinson, or Drexler go for 30 or more points. But at the end of close games they had too many guys who COULD take the shot to actually have THE GUY, the one who took the shot.

Both The Long Hot Winter by Coach Adelman and Against the World by Dwight Jaynes and Kerry Eggers detailed how that flaw derailed the 1992-93 season and was the difference between losing the Finals in 6 games and winning. The Bulls had some guy named Jordan and the Blazers didn't. They need to develop him, and the most likely candidate is indeed named Roy.

But it is not just the Lakers. Their second game will be against perennial Title contenders San Antonio. The Spurs indisputably have better players at point guard and power forward than Portland. Tim Duncan is always an MVP candidate and Tony Parker is one of the most dangerous point guards in the League. Additionally, when he gets healthy Manu Ginobli is an above average 2 way player who can cause conniptions.

Yet Aldridge matches up fairly well with Duncan. The Blazers will have distinct advantages at center and shooting guard with the small forward position being a wash. Coming off the bench with the firepower of Fernandez and Outlaw should give Portland a nice edge that the Spurs will need all of their vaunted team defense to neutralize. Of course, we all know they are well-coached and talented enough to do just that. Somehow, year after year the Spurs look up at other teams in terms of overall talent and yet end up in or near the Finals. That is no accident. They play together, they play their system, and the sum is greater than the parts.

When you break it down team by team it is quickly apparent the players who will play significant minutes for the Blazers look to be as good as or better than the players who will play significant minutes for even the best teams in the League.

So if they are that talented, have the excellent team chemistry that is being so highly touted, and have the desire to win, why argue they will fall short 33+ times this year?

After the initial burst of enthusiasm there has been a rash of Blazer fans talking about "reining in our expectations", about "being happy with 45 wins and maybe an 8 seed", about finishing third in the division behind Utah and Denver, about gaining experience in the playoffs this year and maybe making a run at the title in three or four years.

Let me be among the first to say bollocks. Forget the young label. Forget the injury prone label. Let's show some confidence. Let's pull together behind this team, go out there every night expecting to win the home games and to have a chance to win almost every night on the road. Let's say yes, we do expect to show another huge gain, to win well over 50 games, and to do some damage in the playoffs.

We have the talent, we have the opportunity, all we need is the confidence. And that goes for the fans as well as the players. Show the team you believe they are as good as we say they are.

Is it a tough task to run down L.A., San Antonio, Utah, Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, Charlotte and Denver? Absolutely. There is some phenomenal talent in the NBA right now. But is that task more likely to happen if we say "We aren't there yet" or if we say, "Yeah, we are that good." Show some swagger, Blazer fan, and enjoy the journey, and go Neon Deion on some people.

Several years ago, Deion Sanders left a Super Bowl winning 49ers team for the Dallas Cowboys. In his press conference he said, "I foresee a lot of winning in Dallas." Considering their talent laden line-up with Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Jay Novacek, Troy Aikman, and a defense that made their offense look average, that was hardly going out on a limb. When he got there, he did not wait, he did not put off his expectations for playoff success. And he went out and delivered.

I foresee a lot of winning in Portland. I don't foresee it starting in 2010. I see it starting this year. A mere 50 wins and 7th or 8th seed with this roster, even in light of the teams they have to run down, would be a huge disappointment. The time for leaning on their youth is gone and the time to win is now.

Except the preseason, of course. That is just the time for making fun if somewhat questionable predictions and claims :-)

* I sincerely hope I am wrong. Clipper fans are among the most loyal, long-suffering fans in all of sports and deserve a winner. They got close a couple years ago before regressing. I would be ecstatic if Boom Dizzle and Marcus Camby proved to be the catalysts that turned the Clippers from second division D-League team into NBA Finals contenders. But I ain't holding my breath...