Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Preview of the 2010 Season: Trail Blazers NBA Champs?

For those of us who love to recreate every Blazers moment, there is no better way to do so than firing up the 360 or PS3 with the latest edition of the NBA 2K series. Video game aficionado Pastapadre was kind enough to simulate the entire 2009-2010 NBA season via NBA 2K10 and the results may surprise and downright shock some people. The NBA Finals fitted the upstart Blazers against the veteran Celtics, looking for their 2nd championship in 3 years. After 6 games, the series was at a stalemate, with Game 7 to be played in the frenzied Rose Garden. Looks like Andre Miller was a bigger acquisition than we all could have imagined? All photos and videos courtesy of Pastapadre

Monday, September 28, 2009

Trailblazers Position Breakdown: Center

So many questions have surrounded Greg Oden since his micro fracture surgery in 2007. Would he recover, would he stay healthy, and would he be the once in a (basketball) generation center that so many saw coming out of Ohio State? Greg Oden is an intimidating presence in the middle. There is no question about that. He has all the tools to be a defensive and rebounding monster. His offensive game seemed limited, yet if all he did was get garbage points on putback dunks and ally oops, there is enough scoring around him I can totally live with that. Ultimately, Greg Oden is still what the Blazers need in the middle. The exciting part that many in the national media seem to forget: Last year was his first year, he was injured and he's going to get much, much better. How much better? That remains to be seen, but it's not like Shaq was much more physically dominating, nor did he have much more of an offensive repertoire than Oden showed last year. The only difference was that he came in as the focal point for the Magic offense, while Greg came in after micro fracture, less heralded and with more talent around him. If Greg Oden can stay out of foul trouble and stay on the court, it already gives us a top 10 center manning the middle. Really, good centers are that rare. If he shows similar explosiveness, quickness and conditioning to his Ohio State persona, the Blazers will be in very, very good shape. Greg's prorated stats alone, if he didn't improve over his sometimes awkward looking presence on the floor, would be very good numbers. If Greg is able to keep his same production in just 30 minutes a game, that averages out to 12.4 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 1.5 BPG. Not hall of fame numbers yet, but productive center numbers, and again, he will get better. What if Greg continues to struggle with fouls and or injuries? There is always Joel Przybilla with his blue collar shirt and hard hat waiting and ready for work. Przybilla is that player that is willing to do the dirty work, to battle and scrap. The guy willing to be an enforcer and intimidator when need be. It has to be questioned as to whether there is a better one two punch at center in the league. Many teams would like to have just one of the Blazer bigs on their roster, but with two potential starters on one team, that's something special. But while Joel's defensive game can not really be questioned, you cannot expect much more than spot garbage points here and there on offense. I often wonder if Joel spends time working on his offensive game, because I sometimes see flashes of one come out, albeit it very rarely. If Joel could be a legitimate threat for 10 points a night, he'd be all the more valuable. Behind the top two, Lamarcus Aldridge will probably see spot minutes at the five, especially if Joel or Greg happen to go down with an injury. Beyond that, Juwan Howard could also fill in here if necessary, and the Blazers can look forward to Jeff Pendergraph possibly playing later in the year after recovering from hip surgery and being a possible long term option down the road. Overall, the Blazers have one of the best rotations in the league, but if Greg Oden is able to bust out and become more than a garbage man down low and become a viable scoring option, he could be the key to the Blazers making a deep playoff run come June. 2009-2010 Center Position Grade: A-

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Trail Blazers Position Breakdown: Power Forward

The most athletic position on the squad is occupied by the power forwards. I challenge you to find a power forward who can run from end line to end line quicker than LaMarcus Aldridge or anyone, not named LeBron, who can jump higher than Travis Outlaw. Fortunately for the Blazers, these two do much, much more than run and jump. Aldridge is on the verge of becoming a perennial All-Star and giving the Trail Blazers their best option in the low post since Rasheed Wallace at the turn of the millennium. On the other hand, Outlaw is busy being one of the NBA's best 6th men, ready at any time to explode offensively and always locked and loaded in the 4th quarter. If one were to look at the statistics from 08 to 09, it would seem like neither player really progressed at all, which is false. Aldridge is notoriously known for picking his game up post All-Star break, which he did this year as well by upping his ppg to 19 and rpg to 9 and he was one of the only players not named Brandon who showed up on a consistent basis during the 1st round playoff series. Two of the biggest knocks on Travis are his turnovers and his shot selection. During 2009, Outlaw raised his field goal percentage from 43% to 45% while cutting his turnovers down to 1.1 a game from 1.3. Both margins seem very small and minuscule over the course of the year, but anytime you are talking about a bench player, their contributions can have an expedited impact since they are the ones trying to keep the game close or extend the lead. If there is one aspect of each player's game that must improve for Portland to take the next step, it is rebounding. There is no way a 6'11" power forward, with an even longer wingspan, who plays damn near 40 minutes a night is pulling down 8 boards a night. There is some pass based on the fact he plays next to Przybilla and Oden who grab anything within the stratosphere, but asking for 9 rebounds per game is not an impossible task. If the L-Train wants to become the premier power forward in the game once KG, Dirk, and Duncan pass the torch, then there must be an increase in rebounding. Travis has never been a great rebounder, but it wasn't too much of a flaw when we was getting the bulk of his minutes at small forward. It wasn't until the 07-08 season when Travis finally broke out and used his quickness to exploit the bigger, slower power forwards. Although it worked in his favor on the offensive end, Trav routinely had problems keeping his man off of the glass, and it was no more apparent than Game 4 vs. Houston when Luis Scola had his way with our entire front line on the glass. A lot of Blazer fans have yearned for the day Portland goes out and acquires a bruising power forward who can come in, play physical, and board just like the great Maurice Lucas, Buck Williams, and Briant Grant, but those aspirations will have to wait for at least another year. Portland can afford to go finesse at the 4 when the center position is doing yeoman's work down low. Pryz and G.O. provide the muscle, while Aldridge and Outlaw bring the seemingly effortless repertoire of athletic moves. The bottom line is that both players compliment their fellow frontcourt players perfectly. Joel and Greg both do work specifically on the blocks while both LaMarcus and Travis spread the floor with their fluid jump shots. Its the perfect inside-out match. If G.O. progresses as expected by staying on the floor longer or Outlaw grabs a rebound more per game, the days for longing for a banger at the 4 will be a distant memory. The team will go as far as Greg goes; no addition to the power forward spot will make that big of an impact. Portland is set at the 4 for the distant future with two young gunz who still already produce on the NBA level, yet still have untapped potential. Update: The Portland Trail Blazers have agreed to a 1 year deal with veteran and more importantly, former Fab Five member Juwan Howard. Juwan won't have his biggest impact on the team during actual games, rather it will be his leadership and motivation tactics provided during practice and on the bench. He already made his vocal leadership known during his first visit during a scrimmage when he repeatedly called for Oden to get the ball in the post. Howard should provide some nice insurance off the bench for the 4's, but his impact may not be measured until the season is over. 2009-2010 Trail Blazer Power Forward Grade: B+

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Trail Blazers Position Breakdown: Small Forward

The small forward position is all about potential. Then again, it has been about potential since one Martell Webster was drafted in 2005. While not much was expected out of Martell his first year or two in the league, having come straight out of high school, he seemed to make a jump to serviceable starter in 2007-2008. With flashes of brilliance (ok, one major flash of brilliance) the previous season, to go along with a highlight filled preseason game in 2008, it seemed as though this may finally be Martell Webster's year. Then a stress fracture in his foot kept him sidelined for all but 5 minutes of the 08-09 season. Enter young Frenchman Nicolas Batum. After a maligned summer league in which he seemed perpetually lost on the court, it was a question as to whether he could back up Travis Outlaww at SF, but with his long, athletic frame, great timing, and high basketball I.Q. he became the starter in only the second game of his young career. Batum filled in admirably through the year. Though he still often got lost on offense, frequently floating to the wings and staying put, his defense was remarkable. It's not often that your 19 year old rookie is your defensive stopper. Reports are that Martell Webster is back and finally healthy again. Travis Outlaw is still in the mix for some small forward minutes, and there is Batum. All three promising players with their own set of skills, however none yet distinguished as the clear cut favorite for the starting job. Do you take the often hot shooting and solid defense of Martell Webster, or the spotty offense and lock down D of Nicolas Batum. Who has the more upside? Many would say Batum but the ballad of Martell Webster has been, 'If he could only consistently do what he did for one quarter, he will be the perfect outside weapon to complete this team.' I tend to think that Martell will break out if ever given the chance to lead a team. He won't get that chance in Portland. Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge are the focal points of the offense, and everyone else is complementary. I hope that I'm wrong and he learns to create openings for himself and take advantage of openings created by the big two, but I haven't seen evidence of that yet. So, at this point my nod goes to Nicolas Batum. As he continues to grow I believe that he can be a good, if not great offensive player, but more than anything, his tenacious and stifling defense set him apart. When you have a guy that can guard Paul to Parker, Kobe to Carmello, the big, the small. You name it. That is a weapon that needs to be on the floor and needs to be developed. This brings in Martell off the bench, where I hope that he can flourish as a part of a big two off the bench playing along side Rudy, whom if one game is any judge, he has a nice report with. Travis will primarily see minutes at the 4 with spot minutes at small forward when we're running with a bigger lineup. As to the strength of the position, I see it the weakest on the team. When the rest of the lineup is filled with as much quality as the Blazers have, this isn't a terrible thing, but no one has shown me that as of this year, they are championship team quality. One of these two players will need to rise up and become one of the last pieces to our puzzle. He'll need to make the strides to bring this team one step closer to the championship. I only hope that those strides are made sooner, rather than later. 2009-2010 Trail Blazer Small Forward Grade: B-

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Trail Blazers Position Breakdown: Shooting Guard

For the foreseeable future, the shooting guard position is on lock-down as the strongest position for the Portland Trail Blazers. Starting is All-World, All-Everything Brandon Roy, who continues to be the poster boy for the rebirth of this Blazers franchise and seemingly always finds a way to improve his game just when you thought he was all tapped out of potential. I think its safe to say Roy is a bonafide top 10 player in the NBA and only behind future Hall of Famer's Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade in pecking order for the upper echelon of shooting guards. When the ball is in "The Natural's" hands, every blazer fan feels relaxed and anxious to see what kind of magic he is going to work, especially during end of game situations. Unlike the situation in Miami and Los Angeles when their stars go out, Portland is in good hands as they can hand the reigns over to Spanish sensation Rudy Fernandez. Although Rudy was a one trick pony towards the end of last season, it was a pretty damn good trick as he broke the all-time NBA Rookie record for 3 pointers made in one season, surpassing the 158 Kerry Kittles set in the 95-96 season.
As much of a bright spot as the 2 guard position was for the Blazers in 08-09, it should shine even brighter for 2010. Rudy is finally able to take the summer off and give his body a chance to rest. He played a full season with DKV Joventut in 07-08, then helped Spain nab the silver medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and in under a months time, he was thousands of miles away from his home and preparing to play well over 85 games in the toughest league in the world. Come to think of it, it was pretty amazing just how effective he was as the energy boost off of the bench on what seemed like no body rest, considering since 2004-2005, Fernandez was playing, on average, 26 games per season for DKV Joventut. I have a feeling a well-rested, rejuvenated Rudy will lead to more of this and this.
Like Rudy, Roy showed signs, albeit fewer, of wearing down last year due to the team putting too much on his plate over the course of the season. At times during the 1st round series vs. Houston it seemed like it was 1 on 5 as his teammates just stood around and watched Brandon create everything. It wasn't just during the playoffs either. There were multiple times over the course of the year that Coach Nate dialed up Roy's number to run the show in the 2nd quarter of games to keep the game close. Roy is great, but he can't keep this up for much longer which is why I am so excited about Rudy's progression and the addition of Andre Miller to take the burden of running the team off of his shoulders for parts of the game. As mentioned earlier, Roy is the 3rd best 2 guard in the game, and if he wants to up the ante and become a legit MVP candidate or become the first Blazer since Clyde Drexler to be named All-NBA 1st Team, the defense must improve. I do not fault him for being a little lack on the defensive side of the ball for 3 quarters of the game due to having to handle so much responsibility on offense, but with Andre coming in and the progression of Oden, Aldridge, Batum, Fernandez, and Outlaw, they should be able to pick up more of the slack on offense, which would give Roy more energy to play the fantastic defense we have seen from him before.
Lets face it, Roy and an 8th grader would be one of the best 2 guard combos in the league. He's that good. Every year he continues to blow my mind away. Now, put high flying, 3 point specialist Rudy Fernandez next to him and you have the best shooting guard depth in the NBA. One is a top 10 player in the entire world and the other is a legitimate 6th Man of the Year candidate.
2009-2010 Trail Blazers Shooting Guard Grade: A+