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...
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