Trip City: What is wrong with Brandon Roy and the Blazers?

Prior to the season there was a lot of optimism in Rip City. It made a lot of sense because the team was clearly much improved.

The most glaring problem spot, back-up point guard, had seen a major upgrade with near-All Star Andre Miller coming in at the addition-by-subtraction cost of the departure of Sergio Turnover machine Rodriguez.

The second most glaring problem was resolved by the return of Martell Webster. While Nicolas Batum is clearly the best Blazer defender, Webster presents them with an offensively dangerous option.
Furthermore, team strengths were also improving. Greg Oden looked to have regained his speed and agility and was looking so improved that a guy who should have gotten some consideration for team MVP last year, Joel Przybilla, became a reserve.

Yet 20 games into the season Portland has already lost four home games, including a blow-out loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, has trailed for 11 consecutive quarters, and worse yet, looks like they are a team that does not care. What happened?

In some ways, it is a team effort. The players who have improved this year from last can be limited to two; Greg Oden and Martell Webster.

Oden is doing more than asked; he controls the boards, blocks shots, stays within himself offensively and shoots at a high clip. He plays hard and has a huge impact at the defensive end of the floor.

Webster had a shaky start but has come on to look like the Blazers best player much of the time. He has taken on Batums' role as defensive stopper and does a creditable job. He is not a premiere defender yet, but there have been moments and stretches where he has been.

So if those two are improved, who has gotten worse?

Naturally, since credit starts at the top, so does blame. And Brandon Roy unfortunately deserves much of that blame.

Unlike past seasons where he has been an efficient scorer, this year his offense has been disruptive and low percentage.

Part of that is due to the officiating. My bias is obviously pro-Blazer, but I genuinely believe he is poorly officiated. It is very frustrating to see him drive the lane, be bounced off three defenders, and no call, only to see a Blazer pick up a hand-check foul on players like Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, or even Rudy Gay.
Roy should be going to the line over 10 times a game with the way he plays, but he is not officiated the same way other slashers are and regularly takes a great deal of contact without drawing the foul.

As a result, he becomes frustrated, knowing no foul will be called, and overcompensates with some wild drives that result in ugly shots and worse turnovers that lead to fast-breaks going the other way. This does not excuse his play, but certainly makes it understandable.

Nor is he playing well defensively. He gets torched repeatedly on the occasions he makes it down the floor at all.

But his disappearance pales in comparison to that of Steve Blake. Blake somehow forgot who he was. Gone is the steady point guard who hits the three and doesn't turn the ball over. In his place is a guy who makes unbelievably bad turnovers, makes them at the worst time possible, plays worse defense than Jeff Pendergraph is playing* to the point where I have labeled it Blake-fense.

Even my favorite player, LaMarcus Aldridge must share some of the blame. He has lost a lot of the aggression he showed in the past two seasons. He does not demand the ball on the block, does not dominate defensively the way he should, has looked lost and out of place all too often. He is far more talented than he has shown.

Przybilla has seemed disinterested, no longer the defensive force he used to be. He is not moving his feet, not blocking out, not blocking shots, and not bringing the attitude he used to.

Now, to be fair the Blazers miss Travis Outlaw a great deal, and more than many Blazer fans realized they would. His explosive scoring potential and game-changing athleticism, along with his clutch fourth quarter play show up again and again.

Yes, Portland lost two key rotation players in Outlaw and Batum. Yes, they have played a hectic schedule.

These are not valid excuses. They have also played a cupcake schedule and there are several inexcusable losses on it. If they want to be a playoff team, much less a contender, then they need to show the heart it takes to be one and win the games they should without making excuses.

For example, they choked away home games to the Nuggets and Hawks. They lost to a Warriors team playing seven guys. They lost at home to Memphis, giving up a 31-4 run on their home floor. They did not even try against the Heat.

The amazing thing in that game was that the Heat shot 53.3%. What is amazing about it is that the number was so low. All night every shot was wide open with no Blazer in the picture. Nor is that a one-game phenomenon.

The Blazers are out of sync right now. When there is a pick and roll, often the Blazers elect to defend neither player. Nor do they defend well one on one, and when the big men provide help defense, no Blazer provides rebounding coverage.

Defensively, they are discombobulated and lack any sense of cohesion. Offensively they are only marginally better.

Yet for all that, I think there is one more huge element that deserves some blame for the question, "What is wrong with the Blazers".

That is people like me. Fans. Fans who love this team. Fans with expectations for this team.

When the team was built around Zach Randolph, we expected to lose. We knew we would lose to the Clevelands of the League, struggle against the Utahs, and try to eke out wins against the weak sisters like the Warriors, Clippers, and other NBDL teams masquerading as NBA teams.

We knew who those teams were because we were one of them.

But we got spoiled. We got used to seeing Super-Trout (Travis Outlaw in super-stud mode) and B-roy dominate games, in seeing Portland win every possession, even if the other team scored, by putting out superior effort, functioning as a cohesive unit, and winning virtually every home game.

We got spoiled by watching Roy and Aldridge go from good draft day picks to cornerstones of the franchise. We got spoiled by a meteoric rise from irrelevance to 54 win team.

And we got used to it.

Instead of coming to the game planning to enjoy the action and have a win be icing on the cake, we now show up expecting a win and being upset if the Blazers struggle. Sure, not all of us do that, but we fans are a team just as the Blazers are and must all take responsibility for what we do.

That includes the poor taste in booing the home team in each of the last two home games. It includes the raucous booing whenever a Beaver or Duck shirt is shown.

Yeah, I know, Beaver fans hate the snobbish, arrogant Duck fans. And Duck fans hate their also-ran little cousins and make a point of booing loudly...and often.

So often they have made little kids cry when the kids were shown on the big screen wearing Beavers gear and been booed mercilessly. So obnoxiously the Duck fans drowned out the music because it was the OSU dance team on the floor, a favor the Beaver fans did not reciprocate when the Duck Dancers hit the floor.

The point is the fans are more frequently found silent or booing or complaining than cheering the team on, possibly because we became complacent before we won anything.

Now, it is much too early to panic. This is a very talented basketball team with a lot of good wins in front of it. Roy will get it figured out. Blake and Miller will get past their little unspoken feud. Aldridge will find his place on this team. And they will win plenty of games by the end of the year.

The question is whether Blazer fans will be patient while that happens.

So buck up Blazer fans. You are still winning at a .600 clip. You are still fine. The team will find itself. You just need to go back to being optimistic team supporters, stop ripping them at every opportunity, and enjoy the trip.

And yes, I realize the irony of saying that after writing this. But thanks for noticing.

* For those unaware of Pendergraph, he is currently on the Injured Reserve. Hopefully now that joke (?) makes sense


Can Brandon Roy and the Blazers Defeat Steve Blake and the Pistons?

The excitement in the air was palpable. These Blazers were coming off a 4-1 road trip that included a road win over the Hornets. In some ways, that brought relief.

After all, the season got off to a rugged start with two home losses that both ended in heart-breaking fashion. Unlike last year where every close game was closed out by Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw, Joel Przybilla and Steve Blake in victorious fashion, the losses to Atlanta and Denver felt like chokes.

That is not a word associated with Brandon Roy's Blazers and the murmuring had been getting loud. This year's Blazer edition was expected to contend, not give away games. With Roy and Aldridge coming off major contract extensions, Greg Oden expected to be more the player drafted than last year's surgery-slowed big man, and the return of Martell Webster from injury, all the pieces were in place.

The road trip went a long way towards the fan base thinking this was the team we thought we had. Time for the tip-off.

Suddenly, everything was clicking. Detroit was staying in the game, but once more we saw Aldridge asserting himself.

Detroit briefly took the lead, only to see Portland go on a 13-0 run. The fans settled back, ready to watch the Blazers take advantage of their superior skill and home court advantage to reel in a blow out victory.

There were fast breaks, some premier defense, and a heavy dose of Blazer Stars with Aldridge and Roy scoring with regularity.

By the end of the third quarter, it was a comfortable 20 point lead. Time to sit back and enjoy the show.

And there we find the difference between this year's team and last year's. This team has expectations. This team knows how good it is. They know they are favorites to win almost every time out.

Unless, of course, they stop working.

Suddenly the guards could not keep the ball. Andre Miller and Rudy Fernandez took turns making turnovers that were highly uncharacteristic. Then Steve Blake went to work.

His four turnover 4th quarter was the antithesis of expectations. The book on Blake is "steady point guard, doesn't make mistakes". The reality, at least for this game, was he looked panic-stricken, out-matched, and incapable of holding on to the ball.

Then Andre Miller managed to miss four consecutive free throws as the Pistons inched ever closer. It left him feeling lonely.

By the time the Pistons got within one point with about a minute to go, Blazer fans were stunned and fearful. Were they about to see a third consecutive come from ahead home loss? What happened to this team that for two seasons thrived on pressure and tight games?

It did not help when Blake clanked a rushed open jumper there was a vast in-drawn breath from the entire stadium...only to see the ball bounce straight back to Blake who then drained a three that all but sealed it.

So what is happening with this Blazer team? Even with Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw out with injuries, this is a team even more talented than the 54-28 team we watched last year? How did a team that thrived under pressure degenerate into a turnover making, free throw bricking, error-prone bunch of vulnerabilities?

It starts in an unexpected place. Not with two-time All-Star Brandon Roy. Not with new starter Greg Oden. And, despite some murmurings about his "slow start", not with LaMarcus Aldridge.

It starts with Steve Blake.

Often maligned by Blazer fans for his Blake-fense deficiencies, his lack of ability to penetrate, and his modest assist totals, the more dedicated basketball fans understand what Blake brings to the team.

He relieves Roy of the tedious chore of bringing the ball up court. He gets the team into its offensive sets and keeps the team rhythm going. He gets out of the way when it is time for Roy to handle the ball. He hits key shots, stretches the defense with timely and efficient three point shooting and does not turn the ball over.

Until crunch time.

For the first time in his career, Blake is a bigger liability on the offensive end. It is possible he is feeling the pressure of sharing time with Andre Miller. It is possible and indeed even probable he will get his groove back.

But it is also a fact that he is not performing the role we are used to see him performing.

Exacerbating this is the fact the Blazers second best...and being second best is not by much...4th quarter player for the last three years has been Travis Outlaw. Game after game he struggles for three quarters, then turns into Supertrout in the fourth. He scores at will. He makes huge defensive stops. He scores again. And again.

Except now he is on the shelf for the next few months. Aldridge has never been a big-time late game player, at least to this point. Oden is still trying to shake off two missed free throws that he (incorrectly) feels meant a Blazer defeat. Miller is a train wreck at late-game pressure shots.

That means the games rest on Roy's shoulders. It would be fine if he had that second guy the opponents had to key on such as he had with Outlaw last year. That means other teams can double and even triple team him, taking the ball out of his hands.

That puts it in the hands of Miller, whom teams foul expecting him to miss one (and instead watching him miss both) or Blake who seems to be trying to be Miller, driving into trouble, panicking, and passing it to the nearest fan.

It is easily correctable. First, Blazers need to be ready to shoot when they get the ball. Fernandez provided a glimpse of that with his trey that extended the Hawk game to overtime. But outside of Roy and Fernandez, there is a noticeable reticence to shoot.

That must be corrected.

Until it is, Blazer fans will not need nail clippers....their teeth will be doing their fingernail grooming for the foreseeable future.

On this night, the fans went home happy, but if the Blazers keep giving back comfortable leads, they might be in for some rough nights.

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2-3? Reeling Blazer Fans wonder what happened

Going into the season, my hopes for this year's Blazer team were sky-high. Coming off a very fun 54-28 year, having upgraded the three weakest positions, and entering the fourth year for the heart and soul of the team to be together, I optimistically suggested 60+ wins, a Western Conference Finals or better appearance, and an opening month with a record as sparkling as 15-4.

Just a couple weeks later the team seems to be in disarray. They almost gave up a home game to the out-manned Rockets then did lose at home to not only the Nuggets but also to the Hawks.

This is not a shot at the Rockets, Nuggets, or Hawks. The Nuggets look to have a good shot at giving the Lakers a run for their money for best record in the conference based on their play without J.R. Smith. The Rockets have been playing unbelievably well. And the Hawks are one of my dark horse teams in the Eastern Conference with a roster somewhat similar to the Blazers.

But the plain and simple truth is I truly believed that this edition of the Blazers was set for a run vaguely reminiscent of the 77 Title team. They are not expected to contend by most experts but have the talent to play a superior brand of basketball.

The pre-season injury to Nicolas Batum was disappointing as the defense he provides the team is certainly an important element but hardly something the Blazers could not overcome. The return of Martell Webster would provide a major offensive upgrade at the price of a slight decline in defense.

Meanwhile, more minutes would open up for Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez.

Yet five games into the season, Portland has looked...well, let us not mince words. They have looked bad.

Playing competitively but losing home games is what teams with losing records do. The Blazers have done it twice.

The Nugget game in particular hurt because most Blazer fans expect the Blazers to battle the Nuggets for Northwest Division laurels. Losing a home game to your chief rival, particularly a home game you thought you should win, is just the sort of thing that comes back to haunt you late in the season.

So what exactly is happening here? Unfortunately, I have been out of town since the Nugget game, so primarily what I have has been anecdotal evidence. But those anecdotes have been telling.

Following the games on my mobile phone with the auto-refresh set for every 15 seconds has been brutal. The Blazers would close to within a bucket, it would refresh, they would be down six points. I would look at the last couple plays, and all too often, the plays were opponents dunking. And dunking again. Then, for something different, getting an offensive rebound and dunking.

Yet opponents are only shooting .429% against the Blazers. So for the game, their defense is adequate, it is only when the game matters that they go into matador mode and let the opponents have a layup drill.

Compounding the problem, the Blazers themselves are shooting a very mediocre .422%. They are winning the rebound and 3-point shooting percentage battles and losing the turnover game by just .6 turnovers per game.

Thus the statistical story tells us that seven hundredths of a percent in shooting is not going to kill Portland in the long run as better three point shooting and four extra rebounds should cover that in the long run.

What they really need to do is find the killer instinct to put teams away. Portland has been outscored 137-121 in the fourth quarter, more than offsetting their 112-103 third quarter advantage. They are losing the second half by over a point a game.

This is troubling since the Blazer bench is supposed to be a major strength. With guys like Andre Miller, Fernandez, and Outlaw the bench looked like a potent weapon capable of having three guys in double figures nearly every night.

Yet if the bench was producing, the starters and closers would not be so worn down that they give back huge leads. Based on minutes, they should not be worn down anyway as only Aldridge and Roy are playing over 30 minutes a game and Aldridge is only playing about 31 minutes a game.

Worse, the players are showing signs of pressure in close games. Against Denver the Blazers bricked five free throws that would have either tied the game or given Portland the lead in the closing minutes. It was a team effort with Roy, Aldridge, Miller, and Oden all contributing to the key misses.

The team has been searching for answers. The local Portland paper referenced a Roy interview where he discussed the malleability of the rotation which indicates a certain lack of cohesion. This would point to a strength actually being a problem.

Let me say in advance that I think Nate McMillan is an excellent coach and will get that problem sorted out. Yet I would be remiss in not saying that one thing the Blazers certainly need is for him to settle on roles for each player and more or less stick to them which will go a long way towards clearing up rotation questions.

In High Above Courtside: The Lost Memoirs of Johnny Most, the late Most was quite clear on what he believed caused the collapse of the Celtics in the late seventies. For Most, it was not lack of talent but rather too much talent where players refused to accept roles and the coach therefore lost control of the rotations. As players began struggling to find roles, Jo-Jo White lost the team, the record went south, he ended up fired and the players ended up in other uniforms.

That is a very real danger for this Blazer team. Just take a look at some of the potential conflicts:
Brandon Roy. He just signed a max deal and may feel pressure to prove his worth. Yet his style of play demands to dominate the ball, which is more difficult because;

Andre Miller. A near All-Star starter his whole career, a pace-pushing, penetrating point guard, he now has to interact with Roy, who is playing the role Miller is used to, in a slow-down offense that is at or near the bottom of the NBA in pace, all while backing up;

Steve Blake. An underrated distributor who never dazzles anybody with his numbers, but relies on hitting the open trey off penetration by players like Roy. His suspect defense, nick-named Blake-fense, and lack of ability to penetrate the lane causes problems for the Blazer big men.

Meanwhile, Rudy Fernandez wants to expand his game. He wants more minutes. He wants to dominate the ball a bit more. Unfortunately, he is backing up Roy, who leads the team at over 38 minutes per game. Furthermore, whether Fernandez is paired with Roy or Miller, that player is going to have the ball in their hands far more often than Fernandez.

Travis Outlaw wants to get paid. He wants to start. However, on this team, his game does not mesh well with the starters which means Portland needs him to come off the bench, play energetic defense, create his own shot, and be a dominating sixth man...a role Outlaw is adept at but rumored to resent. This is a contract year for Trout, and he wants to use it for that big-money deal. Can he get minutes?

LaMarcus Aldridge, like Roy, is coming off signing a huge deal that will keep him in Rip City for several years. He wants to show he is worth it. He is on record as wanting to be an All-Star. He is also on record as being confused about when to go down on the blocks and when to defer to Greg Oden. Thus he sometimes gets lost on offense and, instead of improving his numbers from last year, has seen his scoring dip noticeably while his fouls have increased.

Greg Oden, meanwhile, wants to start. He wants to erase the memories of an injury plagued college career, a missed rookie season, and a much-maligned actual rookie season. He wants to score. He wants to prove he is worthy of a number one pick. But he is at best a third option, and probably more like a fourth option among Blazer starters behind Roy, Aldridge, and Martell Webster. Being a fourth option does not jibe well with wanting to show he is a worthy number one.

Which brings us to Webster. He wants to show he is back and better than ever after missing all but six minutes of last season. Yet he alone has shown he is willing to do what it takes to make the team work. Start, come off the bench, concentrate on defense, shoot the three, drive to the rack...it can be argued he has been one of the most effective all-around players the Blazers have so far this season. Yet he knows that McMillan is on record as saying Batum will be the starter when he returns. How will that sit with Webster? He needs to show enough now to get minutes later.

Thus we clearly see it is possible the Blazers are playing with a bunch of personal agendas at the cost of team chemistry, cohesion and effectiveness.

It is still very early in the season. It is way to early to hit the panic button. This is a team capable of getting hot, going on a run akin to the Rocket 20+ win streak of a couple seasons ago, seizing the Northwest Division in a death grip and not letting go.

It is also a team capable of degenerating into a mix of players trying to get theirs, chasing personal agendas and regressing to a .500 team.

It is instructive to note where they sit right now. Tonight I was idly watching some Hornets-Mavericks action and every so often a score would catch my eye. The Celtics were losing to the Timberwolves by six late in the third or early in the fourth. The Lakers were losing to the Rockets by a few points.

I pretty much laughed when the commentators talked about the Celtics being in danger of losing their perfect record in the game, or about how the Rockets were handling the challenge. The thing about Championship contenders is you just have a feeling they will pull out those close games, particularly about inferior teams.

This again is no knock on either the Rockets or T-Wolves. The Rockets play as hard as any team in the league and Rick Adelmen should get Coach of the Year consideration if they continue to play this well. And the Wolves are building something promising.

But neither team should be confused with a Championship quality team, and any time the Celtics or Lakers lose to either of those teams, regardless of what floor it is played on, it is an upset.

THAT is the level the Blazers are aspiring to get to. As it stands now, they are definitely not there. In fact, they are so far from there, I am ready to contradict myself.

One of my brothers asked me if the Blazers were favored against the Nuggets prior to the Blazer home game last Tuesday. I said they were ALWAYS favored at home, regardless of the opponent, that they would lose a couple games over the course of the season, but any home game should favor the Blazers.

I take it back. As it sits, I think it would be a mild upset if they beat the Spurs tomorrow. Far from being the level they need to be, the Blazers have regressed that far, that fast.

Fortunately, one great thing about being a fan instead of a player or coach is that hope springs eternal. I can sit here and believe that Roy will say the right words, McMillan will find the right rotation, the players will find cohesion, and the early season struggles will end tomorrow as they take on the Spurs.

That is the best part about the NBA. Knowing what I know, I can still believe that.

Oh, and for the record...yeah, the Lakers and Celtics both won. Sometimes I hate it when I am right.


Nuggets to Blazers: We are still better

At the 7:19 mark of the fourth quarter, LaMarcus Aldridge found a red-hot Rudy Fernandez open beyond the arc. He made the extra pass, Fernandez drained the three, the Blazers led 81-74, the Rose Garden was rocking, George Karl called time-out, and the fans just knew the Blazers were off to a 2-0 start.

The win over the Nuggets would be especially sweet as Brandon Roy had arguably outplayed Carmelo Anthony, they were overcoming sub-35% shooting and a non-existent presence from Aldridge, and hey...it is the Nuggets. We hate the Nuggets, particularly their arrogant, strutting, inked up Birdman Chris Anderson.

Furthermore, even though the crowd was really out of it all night, possibly due to the combination of brick-laying shooters and fouls being called on average one per minute, this felt like a playoff intensity level game. Martell Webster and Carmelo Anthony were going all Marty McSorley on one another, Nene, Kenyon Martin, Greg Oden, and Joel Przybilla looked like they were having a WWE tag-team match, and every basket felt like a huge, vital event.

But then something happened. Anthony went all Anthony, scoring 17 points and adding an assist. Portland, who had been solid on the boards and at the free throw line all night, suddenly could do neither.

Anthony hit two free throws to give Denver the Lead. Roy hit the first...and missed the second.

With Portland down two inside 1:40 of the 4th, Nene got not one, not two, but three offensive rebounds in the same possession before scoring.

Aldridge missed one of two to keep the Nuggets ahead by one.

Anthony made two free throws.

Miller missed a free throw.

Greg Oden, down 1 with 4.6 seconds left, somehow missed both free throws, and then the referees...who whistled 60 personal fouls on the night...inexplicably could not call the 60th foul of the night for 2.7 seconds. It was not for lack of hacks by the Blazers.

Be that as it may, Portland had their chances. It was their inability to pull down key rebounds or make free throws that sealed their fate. The Nuggets, meanwhile, never panicked, ran the ball through their best player, and deserved to win because of it. What a huge disappointment for Blazer fans.

Back the truck up, though. This was a very entertaining game with plenty of grist for the rivalry mill. With Denver holding a 2 point lead and with the ball, Brandon Roy made a terrific defensive stand against Anthony, forcing him into a baseline fade-away contested jumper. It is a measure of how good Anthony is that I thought it would go. It is a testament to Roy's clutch defense that it was so tough and missed.

Ultimately, Denver still won, but that iconic duel was worth the price of admission.

So was watching Oden continue to flower. Despite being saddled with foul trouble all game long, he helped Portland control the boards for the majority of the game, including pulling down 9 in under 22 minutes. He also had an impressive block on Nene in that 3-offensive rebound possession the Nuggets scored on. His offense looked better with some nice spin moves instead of the turn-over plagued mess he turned in Tuesday.

It was also thrilling watching Martell Webster bring it at both ends. He moved fluidly, getting to the rim and throwing down a couple of tremendous dunks. His defense on Anthony was at times excellent and at others Caspar-like. He is improving game by game and it is great to watch.

I would be remiss in not mentioning Rudy Fernandez and his offensive explosion. It was so good, so impressive, so awe-inspiring that for a minute you could almost forget some guy named Roy was in the midst of a 30 point night...or that ace 4th quarter guru Travis Outlaw never hit the floor in the 4th quarter. I do not remember the last time the Blazers had him for a game and he was never on the floor in money time.

Nor can I figure out why. It is not like Steve Blake and Andre Miller were irreplaceable, combining for eight points (all by Miller) on 3-14 shooting with just 8 assists. I believe strongly in Coach Nate McMillan, but I did wonder out loud why Outlaw did not replace one of them with Fernandez or Roy handling the ball.

Perhaps it had to do with Outlaw following up his Super-trout night with a horrible 1-8 shooting night. Perhaps he just got lost in the mix.

Regardless, on this night, Denver wanted it more, and did what it took to get the win.

That hurts to write. I make no claim to being impartial. I love this edition of the Blazers team. I think it is good enough to win the division, win the Conference, and compete for a title.

Nor am I alone. Nicolas Batum pointed out on his blog that McMillan called out the team and said anyone who did not think they were ready to compete for a title should leave, that is what they are playing for this year.

Roy called out the players for their practice habits, telling them it was not a championship contender level practice.

McMillan knows. Roy knows.

But on this night, the Nuggets showed that, whatever the Blazers and I believe about their chances, they still need to take another step.

My hat is off to the Nuggets. Portland will not lose too many more home games this year. In a Division race as tight as this one, now they have the huge, unenviable task of winning a game in Denver. The problem there is that by then, the Nuggets will get back JR Smith and be even tougher.

It is way early in the season to over-emphasize one game. In fact, if this serves as a wake-up call that gets the Blazers to act as a cohesive unit, to bear down and start dominating games instead of playing close and counting on Roy to win in the 4th quarter, it could turn into a good thing.

But at the moment, it really, really hurts.


Oh, is it Houston? We have no problem.

Change came early with the opening tip. That was not Joel "the Thrilla" Przybilla with the opening tip. Greg Oden did enough in the pre-season to earn the starting job.

The first quarter was pretty rugged as the Rockets did what they do and their defense, combined with Portland turn-overs, kept them tied at 23-all.

The numbers are ugly.

26 turnovers.

42.9% shooting.

42 points in the entire second half, including being outscored by a 31-21 margin in the crucial 4th quarter.

Greg Oden picked up 5 fouls, had just 3 field goal attempts, no free throws, and 7 turnovers.

Joel Przybilla played just 16 minutes and fouled out with only 2 points of his own. Thus the centers combined for 4 points, 9 turnovers and 11 fouls against a team playing a 6'6" center.

All-world Brandon Roy...who got his first "MVP chant during pre-game introductions...went 5-18 while projected All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge dialed up 4 points in the final 3 quarters and 9:32 of the first.

This is not good. Against an out-manned, out-gunned, out-talented Houston team depleted by injuries, those are some scary numbers.

What is scary about them is even on a night where Oden, Aldridge and Roy had extremely sub-par games, the Blazers blew out the Rockets. Oh, sure, the final score did not look bad and the Rockets even managed to pull within 6 with 1:47 left, but starting with the 12-0 run in the closing seconds of the first quarter and 3:25 of the second, this game was never really in doubt.

That speaks well of the talent the Blazers have this year. Travis Outlaw was in full Super-Trout mode, scoring seemingly at will.
Despite being detriments on offense, Oden and Przybilla controlled the boards and the paint, combining for 7 blocks and 22 rebounds...while Houston had just 33 as a team.

Martell Webster looked great, scoring 14 points on 7 shots in 25 minutes. But it was not just the points he scored, it was how he scored them. Instead of hanging out in the corner bombing threes, he took it into the paint, created havoc for the defense, and threw down a crowd-pleasing posterization on Chuck Hayes.

Aldridge got Portland going early, took arch-nemesis Luis Scola completely out of the game, and played cheerleader for his team while saddled with foul-trouble.

Rudy Fernandez looked much improved. He was hitting his beloved step-back threes, but also was doing a great job of crossing the lane and forcing Rockets defenders out of position. While his own defense gave up a lot of easy possessions, he also managed to knock a few balls loose and interrupt the flow of the Rockets offense.

There were certainly problem areas. Steve Blake continued to play Blake-fense on Aaron Brooks. Oden again looked stilted and confused on offense. Roy and Aldridge were the only two Blazers to finish with minuses in the plus-minus category.

But all those things show why the Blazers should be given a healthy dose of contender talk by the end of the year.

On a night when so many things went wrong, they still man-handled the Rockets and coasted to an easy win.

There will be plenty of nights when quick, agile point guards like Brooks, Devin Harris, Chris Paul and so forth create havoc for Blake and Andre Miller. But they can no longer penetrate the lane with impunity.

Several times Oden slid over and blocked shots after Brooks beat Blake and Miller. Przybilla did the same. They are moving their feet, going straight up, and getting clean blocks...including one that Oden did not get credited for because Brooks got called for an offensive foul.

In other words, this Blazer team can deal with set-backs. Even major ones. They are so talented, so deep, and most importantly, so cohesive as a group that they work together, follow the plan, and reel in the victories.

Even when their superstars have off nights, they know the team will pull them through.

Brian Wheeler likes to say, after a win, "Once again we can say,'it's a great day to be a Blazer'". He should get used to saying that a lot.


T is for title: The Blazers Season Pre-view

Last season, the Blazers tied with the Nuggets for the best record in the Northwest Division, 54-28. they then gave back all the hard work in the first game of the playoffs, getting rolled up at home by Utah. Once that game was over, they quickly showed they had what it took to win in the playoffs at home and competed in almost every road game, but never broke through and ended their season early and in disappointing fashion.

Yes, a team that most observers last pre-season thought were still a season away from playoff contention found disappointment in exiting in the first round.

They then went out and got significantly better in several ways.

First, they upgraded at their weakest position, point guard. Gone is inconsistent, disgruntled Sergio Rodriguez, replaced by the durable and skilled Andre Miller. Second, gone is erratic good guy Channing Frye and in his place is the steady Juwan Howard.

But it was not just free agents that changed the face of this team. Another year of experience has turned this team from young, hungry and talented into battle-tested, hungry and talented. Aside from that, they are essentially getting two guys back from injury.

The first is Martell Webster. He is an under rated defender and lights out shooter. He could have provided the offensive spark the Blazers sorely needed against the Rockets. While he is not as good defensively as Niclolas Batum, he usually does a creditable job.

Second, they get back from injury a guy who played in 61 games last year. But none of those games were at full strength. It is well known that microfracture surgery slows guys down for nearly a full year after their return, as Kenyon martin, A'mare Stoudemire and others can attest. So welcome back, Greg Oden.

Gone is the hulking mass of muscle that was Oden last year and in its place is a quick, agile guy who moves his feet, has good lateral quickness, has shown explosive leaping ability and excellent timing.

This is a guy who will defend the paint, clean the glass, and has shown some rapid improvement offensively. He turns the center position from above average defensively but non-factor on offense into decent offensively with the potential to be spectacular defensively.

Adding Oden, Webster, Howard and Miller to a roster that earned 54 wins last season shouts potential. This is a team that has everything it needs to win and win now.

The starting line-up looked set until Nicolas Batum went down with a shoulder injury. Fortunately, this team is so deep that his absence until possibly February should not slow this team down at all...and might even help it. The 18 or so minutes he played last year will be taken up by Webster and possibly allow a few more minutes for Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez.

Now the starting line-up will probably see Oden at Center, LaMarcus Aldridge at power forward, Webster at the 3, Brandon Roy at shooting guard and Steve Blake at the point.

This is a team that has great interior defense and suspect perimeter guarding skills. At the other end of the court, with Blake and Webster manning the 3-point line, teams will have to pick their poison. Do they want to double team Aldridge on the block or let him wreck their interior? Oden is a threat to throw down some ferocious dunks off offensive boards.

Alternatively, they can double Aldridge and Oden, only to see Webster and Blake kill them from distance. All of this does not even take into account Roy, the best offensive player the Blazers have.

There is not much of a let-down off the bench, either.

Joel Przybilla is not going to score much, but he will block shots, rebound, and generally provide a physical presence.

Juwan Howard will play in short stretches and provide steady, veteran leadership...if he gets minutes at all. Those might go to Outlaw, who has played very well at the power forward spot. His length and speed make him a match-up nightmare. Not strong enough to bang with starter-quality big men, he is more than capable of taking on second unit players from almost every team in the NBA. Furthermore, he provides the second unit with a guy who can create his own shot at will.

Outlaw will also see minutes at small forward, but will share those with swing-man Rudy Fernandez. Coming off a year where he set the rookie record for 3-pointers, he provides dynamic offense. He kind of reminds me of Vinnie "the Microwave" Johnson from the Bad Boys days. he can light it up in a hurry. when his shot is not falling, he has shown the capability and willingness to drive the lane and put up points there. His defense is somewhat suspect, but he fills the passing lanes very well.

That brings us to Andre Miller. He will start the season coming off the bench. With this line-up, there is some potential for him to do what he does best, which is to run the floor and play an up-tempo game. Fernandez and Outlaw look to benefit from this style of play.

So Portland is stacked. There second team would compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and their starting line-up is as good as any in the league.

The only thing that can keep them from doing serious damage in the playoffs is not believing in themselves.

This is not to make light of teams like the Spurs, Lakers, Mavericks and Nuggets. the Spurs have an incredibly potent starting line-up, the Nuggets have the potential to be one of the most explosive offensive juggernauts not named the Suns in the last few years, and the Lakers, coming off a title, only got better with Ron Artest replacing Trevor Ariza.

But the Blazers are actually that good. Yes, I might be looking at them through rose-colored glasses...but I do not think so.

Starting the moment they drafted Brandon Roy and got Aldridge in a draft-day trade, they have gotten better and better. They got to 41 wins quicker than (almost) anyone thought possible. They got to 54 wins when most people thought 47 or 48 wins would be a great year. And now we are hearing a form of the same thing.

"The jump from 21 wins to 32 was one thing, but getting to .500 is a lot harder." was the assessment after 2006-07.

"It is one thing to get to 41 wins, but the jump to 50 wins is a lot harder," was the belief after 07-08.

"Getting to 54 wins is great, but getting to 60 from 54 is a lot harder than getting to 54." is a pretty common pre-view this year.

Maybe. But this team has not only shown steady improvement, they have shown they know what the next step they need to take is.

Roy, time after time last year, in post-game interviews would discuss the next thing the Blazers needed to do rather than gushing about the things the team had accomplished up to that time. And one thing after another fell. They beat San Antonio. He almost single-handed ended the long losing streak to the Suns when he poured in a "quiet 52 points". He was not going to lose to the Suns on that night.

This season, the Blazers will have Roy's drive, the return of improved Oden, the natural progression of Aldridge and Fernandez, the steadying veteran influences of Howard and Miller, and the hunger to take them higher than people believe possible.

This is a team that should finish north of 60. "It is harder to get to 60 than 54". Only if you do not have the talent. This team has the talent to win well over 60 games.

It is a team that has the talent to win any series they encounter in the playoffs. They have seen it now, they know what it takes. They have won in Utah. They have won in San Antonio. They need to get Denver out of their heads and get a win there.

Their goal this year should be one thing. It is not, "getting to the playoffs". It is not "getting home court". It is not "getting out of the first round". Their goal, plain and simple, should be winning it all.
They need to start Tuesday night against Houston. They need to come out and set the tone for the season, taking it to a decent but over-matched Rocket team. Then, Thursday, when Denver arrives, they need to serve notice the Northwest Title is staying in Portland this year, but this time it will not be shared. Then, on Halloween, they need to go into Houston and accomplish that which eluded them in the playoffs; a win.

No excuses. No saying, "it is a tough place for us to win". Plain and simple, they need to come out and show they are the team to beat this year.

Unlike last year, when they started with a schedule so brutal it ranked as the toughest start since the 60s, Portland has a relatively soft schedule this year.

I am going to come out and flat out say it would be a choke job to lose to Houston on opening night. Denver is good enough to win in Portland, but that is what sets great teams apart from the very good; defending home court. So I will say Portland should win that one, too.

They then have road games at Houston and Oklahoma City. Both are eminently winnable.

They then have a 3 game home stand in which only San Antonio should be tough. then 5 road games, with only the Hornets and Hawks being games Portland should not be favored in. Home versus Detroit, a game at Golden State, then 4 more at home before closing November out at Utah.

It would not be a huge shock for Portland to be 15-4 by the end of November. They are that good.

So yeah, I am going to go out on a limb here. The low end expectation for the Blazers is Conference Finals and it is not out of the realm of possibility for them to win a title. Not next year. Not three years from now. Not after they start losing guys because they cannot afford to keep them around.

This year.

60+ wins, at least Conference Finals is my prediction.

Partying in the streets is my hope. I think they are probably about 5-1 against winning a title, but that is not beyond reasonable to see. Lets get this party started.


Preseason Melt-down; How the Jazz wrecked the Blazers

Last night was the first pre-season game I have been able to attend this year. I settled comfortably into my old home, took a picture with my camera phone of the Rose Garden and sent it to a couple co-conspirators under the title, "I'm Home!" and got ready to watch the game.

About the time they announced the first starter, I went, "Uh-oh!"

Now, make no mistake about it. Juwan Howard will be a very, very valuable player for the Blazers as he has already shown. His veteran leadership, much ballyhooed, has already proven its value as he has gotten Greg Oden several touches, he has shown players little moves they can do to enhance their effectiveness, and so forth. His teaching has been extremely valuable.

He also can still play a bit. There is a reason he is the last man standing from the Fab 5.

But that is the problem, too...he was part of the Fab 5, a reference that is probably lost on a great number of NBA fans. In basketball terms, Howard is old. His value now lies in practice, in teaching veteran type things, and in short stints off the bench against second line players. He is not, at this point in his career, a starter-quality player.

By the time the stating line-up was read off, it looked like another poor start. Joel Przybilla, Howard, Nicolas Batum and Steve Blake all get their points by playing off other players. Only Brandon Roy is really a point producer in that line-up.

At the same time, while Przybilla and Batum are strong defenders, the other three are not strong enough defensively to match up with a high scoring team like the Jazz starters.

It did not help when 54 seconds into the game Batum went down with an injury and would not return. In came Travis Outlaw. this was both good and bad.

When he is in Super-Trout mode, Outlaw can carry the team. He is very capable of 10-15 point quarters. Scratch that, he is capable of 10-15 point 5-minute outbursts. He is also capable of going 3-9 and having 10 points for the night...as he did on this one.

Nor was Roy on his game in the first half, ending the first quarter with more turnovers than shots attempted.

This just in; Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Ronnie Brewer and Andrei Kirilinko are good enough to destroy a Blazer team that is without LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden, and Rudy Fernandez unless Roy, Outlaw and Andre Miller score in bunches.

It did not help watching Blake try to defend Williams. I would not really call it defense. Maybe Blake-fense. And his Blake-fense on Williams showed why Williams is going to put up some huge numbers this year.

It is not just that Blake is not fast or agile enough to keep up with Williams. Honestly, how many players in the NBA are? Short answer; not very many. The problem is, he does not have the anticipation skills to impede Williams in any meaningful way, yet he consistently tried to body up on Williams, only to get torched again and again and again.

While on the subject of defense, this just in; Jarron Collins against Boozer is a mis-match, and not in Collins' favor. Strongly dislike him or hate him, there is no denying that Boozer is a beast on the court and he clearly showed the Blazers will need Aldridge to step up his defensive game if they want to stay ahead of the Jazz this season.

There is not a whole lot of point to dissecting this game. The players both teams threw on the floor for significant sections of the game clearly illustrated this was not a meaningful game. If Portland has Jerryd Bayless, Dante Cunningham, Jarron Collins, and Juwan Howard on the floor together for more than 30 seconds at a time this year, it means either the game was won quite early by the Portland studs or else the Blazers are headed for the lottery.

And while I do not follow the Jazz all that closely, I would say the same thing about Matthews, Fesenko, Dupree and Koufos. Nothing against them as players, but they are not the guys Utah wins with.

What this game was valuable for was as a study tool. The Blazers have a tremendously talented roster. Roy, Aldridge, Outlaw, Andre Miller, Fernandez, and Martell Webster all have the ability to score well into the teens. Oden might be added to that mix if his pre-season play is any indication.

Przybilla and Batum provide above average defense, Aldridge is getting there, and Oden looks like he has a chance to be a game-changer on defense this year.

Yet with all that talent, Portland can still put combinations on the floor that are not going to be effective.

Look again at the starting line-up; Przybilla might get you 5 points in a game, Howard another nickel, Batum another nickel, Roy 20+ and Blake roughly 10 if they are full-time players. You are not going to win many games with a team that is going to score 45 points but is not tough enough defensively to hold the team to 44 or less.

Yeah, I know...pre-season, blah blah blah.

The point stands. With all the talent at their disposal, Portland is capable of putting line-ups on the floor of players who regularly play that will lose games. In bunches.

Of course, they are also capable of putting out line-ups that will win games in bunches.

And that is where we get to Coach Nate McMillan.

As important as Roy, Aldridge, Oden, Miller, Webster, Outlaw, and Batum are to the Blazers chances this year, the defining factor might be McMillan.

Somehow, some way, he has to find the right combinations of players to provide enough scoring punch combined with solid defense. He has to find that combination not just for the starters but also for the bench.

People have been talking about Oden having earned the starting job with his strong play and lingering antipathy towards Blake combined with the exciting tools Miller brings to the table have led to the same argument there. But I am going to argue that starting the same guys as last year is a better move.

They have built some chemistry together. Never underestimate the sum being greater than the parts when you know how a teammate will react to any given situation. With Roy and Aldridge creating, there are enough shots created for Blake from distance, Batum from the corner, and Przybilla off pick and rolls. Put Przybilla, Blake or Batum on the bench and their inability to create their own shots limits their effectiveness.

At the same time, Aldridge and Roy are going to dominate the shots in the starting line-up. Putting in Oden or Miller is going to minimize their potency.

It is not that they are better or worse as players, it has to do with how they fit together. Steve Blake hanging out by the 3-point line keeping defenders from sagging on those spectacular Roy drives is a good thing. It makes Roy better and makes Blake better.

Blake hanging out by the 3 point line with the ball in his hands while the other players try to figure out how to get open? Not so good.

By the same token, Miller has a similar game to Roy but does not have the distance shooting capabilities, which allows his man to sag and clog the lane. So despite being a better offensive player than Blake, playing in the starting line-up could potentially make Miller, Blake, and even Roy worse even while playing with greater talent.

As has been pointed out, there are ways around this. Drop Webster on the side of the court with Roy and nobody is sagging off Webster. Yet this still does not seem to make the best use of Millers talent.

It is figuring out how to maximize the tools at his disposal that will determine whether McMillan guides this team to the dizzying heights they are capable of or produces a disappointing season.

Having watched him for several years, both with the Sonics and now the Blazers, I have little doubt that he will do a great job. McMillan is a tremendous coach who has always seemed to get more from his players than seemed possible. I look for that to continue.

Now to get the taste of the Jazz game out of my mouth...


What can you learn in the pre-season?

Lase season, the Blazers were done in by two things in the post-season; first, they were not physical enough and second, when they absolutely had to score they could not do so.
So as this pre-season gets rolling, they have several questions to answer. Will LaMarcus Aldridge turn into the dominating defender that showed up in flashes? Will Travis Outlaw find a home as a back-up power forward? Will the Greg Oden Portland drafted return or will we still see the walking wounded coming back from micro-fracture surgery?
Obviously there are more questions, but there is a mantra that you hear over and over from good teams.
"There is only so much you can learn from pre-season".
There are things you can learn, however. Here are some examples.
Oden spins on Spencer Hawes, leaves him searching for his jock strap, and throws down a thunderous jam. Now, deep in the regular season, you will still be excited, but it is in pre-season you learn to suppress the "YYYYYYYYYYYYYYYeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesssssssssss!" scream accompanied by a double fist pump.
It can be quite awkward trying to explain you truly are thrilled by the opportunity to step up and do more than your share due to the staff reductions just announced that you missed because you had a radio headphone discreetly tucked into your ear.
So pre-season is a good time to get your surreptitious listening skills fine-tuned.


Do the Blazers need to bring in outside players?

When last season started, I was considered unreasonably optimistic. Respected sites  with good reputations pointed out that the jump from 41 wins to 50 wins was much more difficult than the jump to 41 wins had been, yet I confidently predicted a 53 win season which was itself exceeded by their 54 wins.

Looking at next season, I feel confident that 60 wins is not only reachable, it is on the low end of what we can expect to see from this young, talented, exciting Blazers team. Even now, most of the same sites are saying holding steady at 54 wins will be difficult enough but a couple of wins more might be attainable if the Blazers make no new acquisitions.

That is flawed thinking. The Blazers did have flaws last year, and the Rockets exposed two of those in their upset of Portland in the first round.

First and foremost, the Blazers did not display the defensive reputation or intensity they needed to. The Rockets had the reputation and were very intense and as a result were allowed to hack, clutch, grab, push, and shove their way to a marked advantage. 

Secondly, the Blazers starting line-up had only two primary scorers and one secondary scorer. Neither Joel Przybilla or Nicolas Batum was any scoring threat at all. As a result, when Blake missed shots he normally made, it allowed the Rockets to focus even more attention on Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge which limited their effectiveness. 

This off-season is an opportunity for the Blazers to correct both of those short-comings, and they do not need any other players to do that. Before I go further into this analysis, I should point out a couple of things.

First, one reason I really, really love this edition of the Blazers has to do with the make-up of the team. Both Roy and Aldridge have been Blazers since draft day. So have Greg Oden, Rudy Fernandez, Travis Outlaw, Nicolas Batum, Jerryd Bayless and Martell Webster. Though neither Joel Przybilla or Steve Blake started as Blazers, they both made a conscious choice to come here when the team had a poor record and have spent enough time here that they "feel" like they  have been career Blazers.

Second, one of the joys for me of watching a team is watching the development. I remember well watching Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Terry Porter, and Kevin Duckworth go from (other than Drexler) essentially unknowns into a team that twice in three years got to the NBA Finals. Now, in contradiction to this post, that was in no small part rue to the import of Buck Williams, but I will address that shortly.

The first and most dangerous short-coming was the defensive intensity. My bias is clear, so it is obvious that in that series with the Rockets it was very, very frustrating to watch Luis Scola body-slamming Aldridge at one end without getting called for a foul, then watch Oden get called for a touch-foul outside the free throw line at the other end. It was even more frustrating to watch Ron Artest hand-check, clutch, grab, and shove Roy all over the court and never get called while Blake was getting called for doing much less in trying to contain Aaron Brooks.

And topping that off was watching Yao Ming hack anybody in sight, yet the call go against the defender. Again and again Przybilla or Oden would get to the defensive spot first, Ming would come down, give them a full-out two-hand shove, and when they tried to get back in position the referees would whistle a foul on the Blazer big men.

It was not fair officiating, it had a huge impact on the outcome of the series, and it illustrates the first thing the Blazers need to do. Th Rockets got away with fouling as defense because they have the reputation of doing that. So the Blazers need to get that reputation.

In every game they need to come out over-aggressive. They need to learn to push and shove, to clutch and grab and foul until the referees decide "that is how they play defense" and stop calling it on Portland, just as they have done for the Rockets, for Bruce Bowen, for Dahntay Jones, and so forth.

By establishing a reputation as "rugged, physical defenders" they will begin to get calls that are more in line with what other teams get. 

That is a horrible thing to say because it is not good basketball. If I want to watch men clutch and grab and push and shove each other, I will go watch wrestling. One reason to love basketball is for the athletic  prowess they display. Their agility, leaping ability, and speed are far more entertaining that watching people foul each other and see who gets the calls. But if you aren't going to be allowed to play a skilled game, then go with what you have to do. So foul early, foul often and start getting the "respect" you deserve.

The Blazers already have a few players that would benefit mightily from this new attitude and at least two of them would cover one of the biggest deficiencies they faced last year.

First, Jerryd Bayless. He has a reputation as a "defensive bulldog" who plays tough, in-your-face defense. He got called for a lot of touch-fouls last year which limited his effectiveness but if he were allowed the same leeway that Artest, for example, received then he would be able to more than adequately defend the Aaron Brooks type point guard that was an Achilles Heel all year for the Blazers. He has the speed, agility, and mind-set to be a top perimeter defender.

Nicolas Batum would be another. He was already the best perimeter defender the Blazers had. He did an excellent job on even Chris Paul and Dwayne Wade while still matching up with small forward like Carmelo Anthony. He would only get better if instead of using his feet and skill to defend he just started hacking and grabbing anybody who beat him but not getting called for fouls. 

Inside, Greg Oden would be even more effective if he got time on the court instead of the bench. There is no doubt he commits fouls. Well, let me rephrase that. According to THE RULES there is no doubt he commits fouls. But if he were called the same way Ming or Shaquille O'Neal were officiated, he would be a defensive menace and far more effective offensively as icing on the cake.

If Portland had players such as Bayless and Batum to anchor the perimeter and Oden and Aldridge to anchor the interior, they would quickly become one of the very best defensive teams in all of basketball. That is by using the same players they now possess.

The second issue can also be addressed with the same players they now have. Lets start with perimeter scoring.

Going into last season, Martell Webster was the starting small forward. He was coming off a third straight season of improvement and had upped his scoring average to 10.7 per game. More importantly, he had watched James Jones for a year and was learning things he could do to make himself more integral to the Blazers offense. More often would he ball fake from his corner post and drive into the lane. It created a whole extra element to the Blazers offense. Had he played last season, it is not unreasonable that he could have added 2 - 5 points to his average and provided that third reliable scorer somewhere in the middle teens.

A Blazer squad with Roy scoring 22, Aldridge 18, Blake 11, and Webster 13 points looks a lot different than that same line-up where Batum and 6 points replace Webster and 13. Too often this season Batum passed up wide open shots and was such a non-factor in the offense that it allowed teams to sag off him and double-team Aldridge or Roy.

That is one reason Coach Nate McMillan tried starting Rudy Fernandez late in the Rockets series. However, it fouled up all the rotations and reduced the once-formidable scoring punch of his bench without providing a commensurate spike in their defensive ability. 

This season, with the return of Webster, he will have the ability to provide that scoring punch in the starting line-up. Either Webster will start or, should they choose to keep Batum in that role, the pressure of having Webster and Outlaw behind him will force Batum to look for his shot more aggressively. When the small forward position is scoring, the Blazers are a much more potent offensive team.

All of which leads to the most important point. The Blazers will be much improved this year due to natural development and they have an excellent roster to ensure that. Let me explain.

Larry Bird has often been quoted (included in his autobiography Drive:The Story of My Life) as saying players such as Greg Kite were instrumental to the Celtics Championships. Now, those of you who recall those Celtic teams may recall that Kite saw little to no playing time. Those years saw guys like Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, Dennis Johnson, Austin Carr and so forth take the bulk of the playing time.

But right behind them were talented players who pushed the starters to continue to excel lest they lose their spot on the floor. Now look at the Blazers.

Joel Przybilla will never be an offensive force but he is certainly a stalwart defender and rebounder. Greg Oden wants that position. Those two will push each other hard and the result can only be that both players will improve.

Additionally, Oden should now be almost completely recovered from micro fracture surgery. With all his prodigious speed and agility, he will be much improved from last year and thus create yet one more issue for opposing coaches when game-planning for the Blazers.

Aldridge continues to improve. The last month or so of the season saw the light click on for him defensively. There were stretches where he controlled games defensively and other times he dominated offensively. Look for those stretches to become more frequent and for him to be an All-Star very soon. His improvement alone should be worth a couple extra games for the Blazers.

It is Small Forward where we might see the greatest improvement. Martell Webster, Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw will battle for the starting role. I believe Webster is the odds-on favorite to win it, but regardless of which player comes out on top, the battle will force all to improve.  

The triumvirate of players gives Portland tremendous flexibility. They can go Batum for defense, Webster for long-distance shooting, or Outlaw for someone who can create his own shot at will. And should Batum develop an offensive game or Webster a defensive mentality, this position could shift from weakness to strength in a heartbeat.

Shooting Guard is of course the strongest position the Blazers have. Roy continues to improve every year. He knows what needs done and works on that aspect of his game. He knows defense was a weakness last year so should be improved there. 

Behind him is Rudy Fernandez. Rudy will be hard-pressed to improve on his numbers from a year ago and indeed seems the most likely player to slightly regress. Yet even if he should slip a bit, the Blazers know they have options; Bayless and Webster both are comfortable in the role.

Which brings us to Bayless, perhaps the most potentially important improvement for the Blazers this upcoming season.

Last season he got caught up in his own press clippings from Summer League. By his own admission, scoring 30 a game there was the worst thing that could happen to him. This year he is focusing on applying the things he learned last year watching Steve Blake, one of the most under appreciated players the Blazers have.

Blake is not fast, is at best an adequate defender, cannot create his own shot and really doesn't create good looks for other players. He is not flashy and does not score a lot, nor rack up a lot of assists. As a result, many Blazer fans put a lot of the blame for last years playoff collapse on him.

That is not knowledgeable basketball criticism. Blake performs his role very well. He gets the Blazers into the correct offensive set, gets the ball into the hands of the people who should have it, stretches defenses with his normally reliable shooting, and most important, accepts and embraces his role.

This year will be key for Blake. Bayless will push hard for playing time. He is a superior defender who can penetrate the lane seemingly at will. With a year under his belt, he should finish more effectively and, if he sticks to his plan, will be a better distributor this season. That improvement alone will help the entire team and take strain off of several players.

The bench should be a strength again regardless of who ends up there. Lets assume the starting line-up is what many people thought it would be last year: Oden, Aldridge, Webster, Roy and Blake. That is a line-up that can score and rebound. Defense might be a problem.

That would leave a bench of Przybilla, Outlaw, Batum, Fernandez and Bayless.  Depending on how Batum and Bayless develop, they can catch up with massive firepower or hold/extend a lead with a defensive focus. They are very versatile; Outlaw is often best when playing power forward but has also been featured at small forward and spent time as shooting guard. Batum and Fernandez both slide between small forward and shooting guard. Bayless can play either guard position.

This is a team with three primary weaknesses; defensive toughness, experience, and injuries. Natural improvement should handle the scoring issue discussed earlier and teams tend to improve defensively as they grow together. This roster is deep enough to absorb some hits injury-wise, even to key players.

And all of this is without adding a Paul Millsap, Andre Miller or other player. Yes, McMillan wants a "veteran" player, but it could be argued with Przybilla and Blake, they already HAVE the type of players they would be bringing in. Why not stick with an essentially home-grown team that is good enough to start winning championships soon?

The Blazers as they are, with natural improvement, are a talented, versatile team that can score and rebound and, soon, defend. That is a pretty good recipe for success.


Why Jason Kidd Would Ruin the TrailBlazers

A few years ago the Trailblazers were making a run at the title. They had a very talented roster with players such as Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, Arvydas Sabonis, Brian Grant, and Damon Stoudamire leading the charge.

Many Blazer fans believe only a 4th quarter collapse against the hated L*kers prevented a second championship from coming to Portland...yet even during that run there was a distinctive lack of excitement around the team.

That lack of excitement has regularly been attributed to the character of the players on the team. The Rasheed Wallace technicals....the Qyntel Woods dog-fighting, the players cursing out Coach Maurice Cheeks, Damon Stoudemire choosing tin-foil as a masking device for the marijuana he was trying to smuggle through airport security, Ruben Patterson and his sex offender problems, Zach Randolph being Zach Randolph, and a host of other issues.

The team was winning but nobody really cared. 

Along came GM Kevin Pritchard and the famed draft that saw the acquisition of LaMarcus Aldridge and some guy named Brandon Roy. Travis Outlaw was already on the scene. 

Suddenly the character of the franchise changed. These are guys in the Brian Grant/Terry Porter mold who are visible members of the community. Roy has a lot of notable charities going, Channing Frye does (did? in light of his not receiving a qualifying offer) and so forth.

These are guys who are of good reputation off the court to go along with their talents on the court. 

And the fans have responded. Attendance is up. TV ratings are up. Merchandise sales are up. There is heavy discussion in the off season about what the Blazers will do.

And one name comes up over and over that just crushes me every time I see it. 

Jason Kidd.

Kidd should end up in the Hall of Fame when his playing days are done. He is among the best passers of our generation, a tremendous ball-hawk with fast hands who played the passing lanes very well, a superior rebounder for a guard, and a guy who got the Nets to the Finals.

He is also a guy who should never set foot on the court in a Blazers uniform.

Part of the interest in the current incarnation of the team is the nature of the guys. Gone are the days when players with great talent but horrible personalities were a welcome part of the team. Scottie Pippen nearly brought a Championship to Portland while turning off fans with his boorish behavior in restaurants, for example. But he was a good guy in comparison to Kidd.

No need to detail here the incidents that led to Kidd being jettisoned from a very good Suns team to New Jersey, nor to go over the things that came up during his divorce. Suffice it to say, he is not the type of good-character guy that makes up the current Blazer roster.

He would be a return to the win-at-all-costs mentality that led to the Jail Blazer era we all still suffer shame for.

Sure, the Blazers need some defensive help at the point which Jerryd Bayless may or may not provide this year. And nobody questions that Kidd would be an improvement over Steve Blake from purely a talent aspect. But he would be a huge step back in the character department and is not a guy I would ever want to see in a Blazer uniform.

How positive am I about that? Should Kidd become a Blazer, I would sell my season tickets and not renew them, nor would I purchase tickets again for some time after he was gone.

No Kidd in Portland. Not now, not ever. 
Keep the team the way they are; fun, likable, and good guys. Let other teams take flyers on guys like Kidd. There is a place for him in the NBA. It just isn't Portland.


Baseball Steroids and Sports Officiating:The Myth of the Level Playing Field

It is time to say what should have been said a long time ago. The complaints about baseball steroids are ridiculous, nonsensical, and disingenuous. 

The most-cited argument is that since steroids are performance-enhancing, their use intrinsically creates a playing field that is not level. Players who use them receive a distinct advantage over players who do not which destroys the integrity of the game.

Fair enough. Except for one small thing; the field is already not level. The officiating makes it a very slanted field, particularly in baseball and basketball.

Several years ago I was watching the Baseball Game of the Week. Greg Maddux threw a pitch a couple inches off the plate which, by the rules, is a ball. It was called a strike at which point the commentator said something very similar to this:

"Because he has such great control, when Maddux throws the pitch there it is more likely he meant to throw it there so he will get that call whereas a pitcher with less control won't."

What? He deliberately threw a ball, but since he intended to throw a ball it is a strike? 

That creates a competitive advantage for him. Hitters who lay off pitches out of the strike zone lose that advantage and Maddux gains one without the use of steroids. I later heard a similar comment regarding Barry Bonds.

That comment said that if a pitch was close and he laid off, umpires were likely to call it a ball because Bonds was known to have such a good eye for the strike zone.

Forgive my ignorance, but is it not the job of the umpire to determine whether a ball is in or out of the strike zone rather than interpret the intent of the pitcher or rely on the good eye of the batter? The name of the player does not matter according to the rules, why does it matter according to the umpire?

The same concept holds true in the NBA. Just a couple nights ago in a key NBA Eastern Conference Finals game in the last minute LeBron James took 3-1/2 steps, one of the most egregious travels I have seen this side of the average Magic Johnson move in his heyday.

The announcers were aghast. "You are going to call traveling on LeBron James in this situation?"

Well, yes. As a matter of fact they should. That was a good piece of officiating in an otherwise horribly officiated year. The playoffs have been very hard to watch because they are being heavily affected by very biased officiating. 

In the interest of full disclosure, let me make clear my biases before continuing. I will be quite happy with either a Magic or Cavaliers Finals appearance. I would be ecstatic for the Nuggets to make their first Finals appearance. If the Lakers lost every game they play from today forth by over a hundred points apiece and Kobe Bryant never made another shot I would be ecstatic.

With that said, every team is suffering from the officiating.

Last night I watched Dahntay Jones deliberately trip Bryant. I watched him give him a shove in the back. I watched him clutch and grab and hack and foul again and again with nothing being called. That creates an unfair advantage when he is allowed to play dirty and break the rules in what is called "defense".

At the same time, I watched Bryant fend off with the off arm, push off from the defender to create space and not get called. Ask any Utah Jazz fan or Cleveland Cavalier fan if the offensive player gains a distinct competitive advantage from that maneuver.

Again, I wanted the Bulls to win their Finals match-up with the Jazz. I never want to see the Jazz win a game as I always despised the offensive foul-machine Karl Malone. With that said, when Michael Jordan illegally shoved Bryon Russell and was not called for it, he created a distinct competitive advantage. By missing that call the officiating heavily influenced the outcome of that series.

Watching Hedo Turkoglu fend off with his off-arm the entire time while watching the defender get called for placing a hand on his hip is disgusting. Watching Dwight Howard set an illegal moving screen that knocks the defender into Turkoglu and causes the defender to get called for a foul is dis-heartening.

Watching James initiate contact with a stationary defender and having them get called for the foul is obnoxious. Watching him run over people to block their shot and not being called for a foul is borderline ridiculous.

Make no mistake, Turkoglu, James, Howard, Bryant and so forth are tremendously talented players as were Malone and Jordan, players I addressed earlier.

But the advantage they receive when the games are not called honestly and fairly impacts the game. Fair, impartial officiating should be the hallmark. Instead we regularly get commentary along the lines of, "You are not going to get that call on the road," or ,"You are not going to get that call against a player of his stature" or the most idiotic statements of all, "They are letting them play" and "they are letting the payers decide the outcome". 

The last two are usually brought up when fouls are being committed willy-nilly with nary a call or when a key foul is committed but not called in the final moments of the game.

In truth, by breaking the rules by not calling the game according to the rules it is the officials who are heavily influencing the outcome by allowing one player to gain a prohibitive competitive advantage over the other.

Jordan was clearly a better player than Russell. But on that play in 1998 where he gave Russell a shove in the back at the top of the key in plain view of the officials and was not whistled for a foul he gained an illegal advantage that led to an easy shot opportunity.

There was no level playing field. Jazz fans probably still feel the sting of that one just as anyone who ever watched their power forward get called for a foul for sticking his head in the way of Malones' elbow feels wronged. 

Anyone who has watched Shaquille O'Neal run over a stationary defender and watched the defender get called for a foul knows that pain. Giving superstars calls that break the rules gives them an even bigger competitive advantage and one for which there is no redress. 

You can work to make yourself faster, stronger, more agile. You can study people's tendencies to learn how to defend them better. But you cannot in any way personally affect rule-breaking officiating. There is no way to level that playing field yourself.

As a life-long and die-hard Blazer fan, I fully realize the following comments will be taken with a grain of salt. With that said, I truly believe the officiating had a huge impact on the outcome of the series.

Throughout the series we watched as Ron Artest clutched, grabbed, impeded progress, and knocked to the floor Brandon Roy. We watched as Luis Scola pushed, shoved, clutched, grabbed, hacked, and fouled LaMarcus Aldridge repeatedly without getting called for a foul. 

At the other end of the floor only Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden did anything even remotely similar. There can be no doubt that much of what they did against Yao Ming was a foul. They should have been called for fouls just as Ming should have been called for fouls when he would come down the floor and give Oden a double-hand shove to gain position.

Sure, play gets more physical in the playoffs. But if you allow one team to play physical and not the other it creates a distinct advantage for one team.

There was a key moment in Game Five where Scola was shooting to the top of the key past a Ming pick. Aldridge was clear of Ming so Ming jumped out and hip-checked Aldridge. It was a gorgeous hip-check that any hockey fan could be proud of. It was also a moving screen and illegal contact. It knocked Aldridge into Scola. When Aldridge hit Scola, that certainly should be called a foul...except the correct call was on Ming. Instead they called Aldridge for his 5th which forced him to the bench for critical minutes.

It was very frustrating as a Blazer fan to watch Ming, Scola, Artest, and Shane Battier commit fouls by the armload without getting called while at the other end the Blazers were called for much less contact. There was no competitive balance.

The series can pretty much be summed up in the following sentence. Brandon Roy fouled out of a game while Artest and Battier never encountered foul trouble a single time in the entire series.

Now, even I am not going to claim that the Blazers were going to the Finals this year. I will not even argue they were definitely going to win the series against the Rockets. What I am going to argue is that as a fan it was heart-breaking to watch bad officiating create a competitive advantage for one team.

For one team to receive an advantage it must, by definition, create a disadvantage for the opposition. That is one reason I find the hysteria over steroids so ridiculous.

If the complaint is truly that steroid use creates a competitive advantage and creates a playing field that is not level, what does that say about sports officiating that ignores rule-breaking, gives the "benefit of the doubt" to the more famous player, allows one player to break the rules but not the other, and so forth?

Bad officiating creates more of a competitive imbalance than all the steroid use in the world ever could.

While I very much want to see the Nuggets beat the Lakers, I do not want to see that win occur  because Jones is allowed to play dirty and break the rules in what is charitably called "defense" against Bryant. If they cannot win it fairly they should not win at all.

I do not have a strong preference for who wins the Cavaliers/Magic series but I would really, really like to see it decided by a level playing field that allows the better team to play within the rules rather than gaining an advantage through officiating that favors one team or another.

It is time to stop officiating that favors certain players and create a level playing field. Once we clear that up, perhaps then it will be legitimate to complain about "performance enhancing substances".  Until then, such complaints are the height of hypocrisy.