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.