PRS Podcast Preview: Blazers vs. Lakers with Phillip Barnett

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Welcome to the PRS Preview Podcast, where we’ll be previewing each Blazers game this season, hopefully with a blogger from the opposing team. For the first installment, I’m joined by Phillip Barnett, a writer for the TrueHoop Network’s fantastic Lakers blog, Forum Blue and Gold. We talk a bit about LA’s loss to the Mavericks last night, as well as what he’s expecting from the first few months of the Steve Nash/Dwight Howard era, before going into matchups and things to watch in tonight’s game. Listen to the podcast below and follow Phillip on Twitter at @imsohideous.

Talking Lakers-Blazers With ESPN LA’s Andy Kamenetzky

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Andy’s the Kamenetzky brother on the right

To preview Wednesday’s season opener, as the Blazers host the Lakers, we spoke with Friend of PRS, and TrueHoop affiliate, Andy Kamenetzky of ESPN LA’s Land O’ Lakers blog. It should be noted, this conversation took place prior to the Lakers’ 99-91 loss Tuesday.

Portland Roundball Society: The Slaughterhouse Five (the Lakers’ starters) haven’t had a lot of time together. How long do you expect it’ll be ‘till they become a cohesive unit? ‘Till their potential is reached?

Land O’ Lakers: I’m guessing a good month or so for the cohesion, maybe March or so until they reach their true potential. It’s too very separate sections on the timeline. For the first 20-ish games, I would expect some heads bumping and confusion between Nash, Kobe, MWP, Pau and Howard. That’s not to say they won’t be able to win games in the process. This starting five is something out of a video game, and that talent can mask some issues. But I also think the lack of familiarity (exacerbated by a training camp with many a key player missing games) will surface at unfortunate moments. That’s just the nature of meshing new faces and a new offense.

But I do think the pieces fit exceptionally well together (as evidenced by the one preseason game we saw with all five of them) and once they hit a stride, they’re gonna be REALLY good.

As it is, even without much practice, they’re almost unguardable.

PRS: Behind that starting unit, however, the Lakers’ bench (not unlike Portland’s) is pretty thin. How much is that going to factor in, especially since four of LA’s starting five are older players who can’t play 40-minutes a game?

LOL: Acknowledging how the bar was set so low last season it’s practically underground, I actually think this bench will be improved. Antawn Jamison has been horrible so far, but I trust his track record, and having a legit scoring threat on the court opens up options for everyone else. Jordan Hill is unproven, but still a major upgrade over Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy, particularly as a defender. Devin Ebanks has looked very good in the preseason. Jodie Meeks has been hitting outside shots. And Steve Blake may be the potential weak link, but with fewer scoring responsibilities, I think he’ll be better than the first two seasons. Plus, they’ll likely always have either Howard or Pau on the court as the anchor, which is a major plaus

I don’t see them forging an impressive a collective as, say, the Spurs’ bench, but if they’re just middle of the road, that would be a major upgrade in production and effectiveness.

PRS: When a team comes together like, as you mentioned, with a lineup like a video game, guys have to take reduced roles. Of all of them, it appears Kobe Bryant will have to make do with a lot less than he has in previous years—less of the ball in his hands, less shots, etc. Does that seem right? And if so, can the notoriously petulant, face of the franchise handle a reduced role?

LOL: Well, define “reduced.” He may be taking fewer shots, and will play off ball more, but we’ve got a way to go before he’s reached “bystander” status. The guy will still be a pretty big focal point, if not the unquestioned #1 on ever possession. And that’s a good thing. It eases the load off Kobe and makes the offense far less predictable. Obviously, we’ll see how Kobe does, but he seems pretty dedicated to the process so far.

Plus, everyone will be adjusting to some degree (even MWP, who’ll be seeing wide-open shots non-stop). Nash, for example, has never played in a motion offense, and will have the ball out of his hands more than he’s used to. It’s in part to ease his burden but he’s also such a great shooter, spotting him up at times and working him off ball can be effective. However, he’s been a bit tentative during the preseason.

PRS: OK, last one for ya: Besides injury, what could derail this team? Any fear of repeating the star-laden but mismatched Laker team that featured Karl Malone and Gary Payton? Or perhaps Mike Brown’s ability to corral such outsized personalities? Or…?

LOL: Health.

Period.

PRS: So if they stay healthy, is L.A. your pick to win it all?

LOL: Well, check that. I wouldn’t say I’m fully confident in Brown’s ability to handle all the egos and maintain the presence necessary for this many players of a high magnitude, but everyone has seemed exceptionally together so far, so it may not even matter. But health, certainly, is my biggest concern. And transition D’. Haha.

I still have Miami as the favorite, but I think they’ll have to beat the Lakers in the Finals to repeat.

For our answers to their questions, visit Land O’ Lakers or follow the jump.
LOL: Like the Lakers, the Blazers have undergone a lot of roster changes. It appears to be a rebuild in the works. With the preseason in the books, what’s your general impression of this team?

PRS: Well, I hate to say it, but the forecast for the upcoming Blazers season looks a lot like the Portland weather: cold, dark, and grey.

LOL: Why so gloomy?

PRS: The team is rebuilding. As a Laker follower, you may forget how that works. And while there are some pieces to be excited about—point guard Damian Lillard—Portland simply lacks talent. Perhaps half of their roster is true NBA-level, and the top—LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum—have yet to prove themselves as guys truly capable of leading a playoff-bound squad.

PRS: Perhaps most important—beyond the development of Lillard—is how Aldridge and Batum learn to deal with mounting losses. Their careers have been relatively charmed to this point, and how they react to a tough year, how they channel that energy, how they lead by example and attitude, is totally uncharted territory.

LOL: What are the strengths (assuming there are some) and weaknesses?

PRS: New Blazers coach Terry Stotts gets a lot of credit for Dallas’ offensive schemes over the last few seasons. He’s come to Portland with a plan to open things up with more movement and dynamism. Indeed, the Blazers leaders—Aldridge and Batum—are guys who’ve shown the most promise on the offensive end. Defense, however, will be the sticking point. No one on Portland’s roster is particularly known for their defense, especially around the rim, where the Blazers will start JJ Hickson—a natural power-forward—at center.

PRS: More so than their defensive deficiencies, the Blazers will be hurt by a wafer-thin bench. As I mentioned earlier, most of the guys in the second unit are coin flip type players who lucked their way onto the roster because bodies were needed…

LOL: You mentioned Hickson as the natural forward playing center. How do you anticipate him handling that matchup against Howard?

PRS: I anticipate Hickson’s getting manhandled by Howard. I also anticipate rookie Meyers Leonard getting some minutes. For what it’s worth, Leonard, a true seven-footer, is one of the few players in the NBA with the size, strength and quickness to match Howard’s. But it’s too early to expect much. Leonard has a lot to learn—firstly, how to stay out of foul trouble.

LOL: Speaking of production, who do you anticipate as the secondary scoring option behind LaMarcus Aldridge?

PRS: The second scorer behind Aldridge will almost certainly be Batum, who recently predicted he hopes to contribute something in the neighborhood of 15-5-5.

LOL: Portland matched some big dough for him, so the pressure is on.

PRS: Lillard is a dark horse, though—wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up the No. 2 scorer. Also wouldn’t be surprised if, as a rookie point guard from the Big Sky conference, he has some significant struggles.

LOL: Your prediction for this one?

PRS: I feel pretty confident that the Lakers’ struggles in Portland, at least for the moment, are over.

Vegas Says 34 1/2 Blazer Wins. PRS Says…

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Andrew R Tonry

The 2012-13 Blazers season may well resemble Barack Obama’s first term. Inauguration day, the season opener, restores some sense of hope, but the residual effects of previous administrations remain a drag on recovery. It’s a big goddamn mess and it’s gonna take some time to clean up.

In such periods of instability, predictions are much harder to make. As I’ve written, perhaps the most important factor in shaping this Blazers season is how LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum respond to mounting losses. Heretofore, the handsomely paid, promising duo have led relatively charmed careers. Clearly they have talent. But do they have what it takes to both lead and inspire, despite, night after night, being kicked in the teeth?

I have no clue to the answer to this question.

So I went through the Blazers’ schedule and picked wins according simply to roster depth and talent, with some consideration to home court. I came up with 26 wins.

But should Aldridge and Batum, along with Damian Lillard, create and sustain some kind of competitive fire—something like the pure will demonstrated by Brandon Roy in years past—they ought to be able to do better than that. That ought to be worth another six or seven wins, easy.

Vegas has the over-under at 34 1/2, which sounds high to me (not to mention the majority of the PRS staff). And indeed, 26 sounds low.

So, like a tepid Obama, I’ll hedge.

Win Prediction: 31

Rob Simonsen

Wow, does this team get ugly quick. Even with a top twenty talent in LaMarcus Aldridge, an emerging versatile wing in Nicolas Batum, and a potential breakout candidate in Damian Lillard, things are dire in Portland. The backend of this roster is so far below replacement level there’s virtually no chance of a season being anything better than just plain awful.

There’s a little hope, though, with a new coach and a new system that could prove successful. But everything would have to break absolutely right—Victor Claver and Joel Freeland transitioning to the NBA with ease, JJ Hickson and Luke Babbitt learning how to play defense—for this team to even come close to winning thirty-five games, a mark that still would put them towards the bottom of the stacked Western Conference.

This is more or less a throwaway year for Portland, one that will be more about Neil Olshey’s prospective vision for the future of the roster and what kind of new system Terry Stotts will implement. Aldridge is primed for a big year, and Lillard is going to be fun as hell to watch, but outside of that things are not going to be pretty. If you’re looking for winning basketball, avert your eyes.

Win Prediction: 28

Erik C. Anderson

Portland has all the makings of that young, run-and-gun team fans have been craving. Terry Stotts supposedly brings an up-tempo offense that favors a roster with an average age of around 25. The core group — LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard — will hang with any other teams’ top three.

That said, the terrifying news will be minute usage. The L-Train will be getting more play than “Gangnam Style.” Last season, Aldridge clocked 36.3 minutes per game, good for 15th highest in the league. Without an established backup and a short, young bench, the Blazers may be looking like a doppelganger of the Clippers pre-Blake Griffin, Chris Paul moves.

Win Prediction: 35

Sean Highkin

There are several ways a roster can look bad on paper. Teams like last year’s Bobcats or the post-Dwight Howard version of the Magic are doomed from the start because they’re subpar supporting casts in search of elite talent to support.

The new-look Blazers’ brand of bad is sneakier. It’s easy to overlook them when naming the contenders for the top of the lottery. They have a top-20 player in the league in LaMarcus Aldridge. They re-signed their second-most important player, Nicolas Batum, to a big contract. They have a prospective Rookie of the Year candidate in Damian Lillard. They can’t be that bad, can they?

Well, yeah they can. Those three players are the entire net positive of the roster as presently constructed. The rest is a mishmash of “veteran leadership” guys without much on-court value, rookies with very raw skill-sets (two of whom have never played in the US before), and players in their second or third seasons who are for all intents and purposes also rookies (by virtue of having never played anything but garbage minutes in the careers). Their starting shooting guard can’t dribble or make a layup. Oh, and they just hired a new coach who’s implementing a drastically different system than the one most of these guys are used to from Nate McMillan. I like a lot of things about the Blazers’ future, and truly believe it’s a franchise headed in the right direction. But this season won’t be pretty.

Win Prediction: 24

Scott Leedy

Let’s play best case scenario: Damian Lillard has a Kyrie Irving-like rookie season, Nicolas Batum takes a huge leap forward offensively, and LaMarcus Aldridge continues to play at a high level. Even if all those things happen, in a loaded Western Conference, it’s hard to project for more than 35 wins, right?

Problem is, Damian Lillard is not Kyrie Irving. No matter how one may be on the rookie point guard, it’s still very difficult to know how he’ll faire—coming from the Big Sky conference does that.

As for Nicolas Batum, at this point I think we know what we’re getting: a solid, above-average role player. Batum can’t carry the Blazers offensively, and defensively he’s solid but nothing spectacular. Maybe he does take the next step, but I’m very, very skeptical

Aldridge is an All-Star and a great player, but the rest of this roster is so maligned and or unproven there’s no way to project for anything other than the lottery.

On the plus-side, for the first time in a long time the Blazers expectations should be tempered. There are no absurdly lofty goals to live up to, no lingering questions about injuries, health, untapped potential. There are no what-ifs.

This is a reset, a season that will be judged more by process than results. This is a season that will be exciting but also painful. This is a young team. This is a growing team. This is an interesting team. This is a team without a bench. This is a bad team.

Win Prediction: 25

The James Harden Trade and the Blazers

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Over the past week, word out of Oklahoma City was that the Thunder and James Harden were far apart in talks on a contract extension. It seemed more and more likely that the two sides would not come to an agreement before the Oct. 31 deadline, and Harden would be forced to test restricted free agency. Because I’m someone who spends way too much time dreaming up hypothetical NBA trade and free-agency scenarios, I took the assumption that Harden would hit the market in July and more or less figured out the Blazers’ next year’s worth of front-office moves, which I was prepared to write up as a post as soon as the extension clock expired. The plan looked something like this:

  • Decline the options for 2013-14 on Luke Babbitt, Elliot Williams, and Nolan Smith, a move I’ve already covered.
  • Use the first half of this season as an opportunity to showcase Wesley Matthews, and trade him at the deadline for for whatever expiring contracts and picks they could.
  • After the season, waive the non-guaranteed contracts of Ronnie Price, Jared Jeffries, and Sasha Pavlovic. Together with not picking up the three young players’ options and getting out of Matthews’ contract, releasing these three veterans would create enough cap room for Neil Olshey to sign a player to a max contract.
  • Use this space to sign James Harden to an offer sheet. This move would have been philosophically similar to Olshey’s pursuit of Roy Hibbert this past summer. Nobody was surprised when Indiana matched that offer, and Hibbert ending up a Blazer was a longshot from the start. But it was still the right approach to take—Olshey identified the one player on the market he felt was worth going all-in for, and pulled out all the stops to try and land him. Harden hitting free agency would have been a similar scenario. If the Thunder decided not to match, Olshey would shift from rebuild mode to a win-now mindset and attempt to build a contender around Harden, Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and whoever he drafted in 2013, when the Blazers will inevitably be picking high again.
  • If the Thunder did decide to match Harden’s max offer (which, until Saturday night, seemed inevitable), Olshey’s next move would be to trade Aldridge for young assets and future draft picks, and go all-in on the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes of 2014.

This was the plan I had devised, and everything about it seemed to check out. Until Saturday night, that is, when Sam Presti threw a wrench into the entire Western Conference playoff race by dealing Harden to the Rockets. Houston seems prepared to offer him a max extension right away, effectively taking him off next summer’s free-agent market. The trade will make waves all around the Western Conference, but it affects the Blazers specifically in three meaningful ways.

Before the trade, the Thunder had a prohibitive stranglehold on the Northwest Division. Despite the moves made this summer by the Nuggets and Timberwolves, there was no conceivable scenario in which Oklahoma City wouldn’t run away with the division. They’re still the heavy favorites to win it, but now, it’s not unthinkable for the Nuggets to challenge them. The Blazers are well out of the playoff picture this season, and should instead be competing for one of the top spots in the lottery. But if everything goes according to Olshey’s plan, they will be back in the mix in the coming years. And when that time arrives, the Thunder will no longer be the unstoppable juggernaut they were poised to be for the next half-decade.

Houston got markedly better in the immediate short term, which is great news for a Portland team heading into a rebuilding year. Before they acquired Harden, the Rockets were looking at a roster of Jeremy Lin, Kevin Martin, Omer Asik, and a bunch of rookies and minimum-salary players—a clear lock for the lottery. Now, Daryl Morey is going all-in, and while the Rockets are still a longshot to overtake the Jazz, Wolves, or Warriors for one of the last seeds in the playoffs, they’ll be looking to make noise all season. That’s one fewer team the Blazers will have to worry about finishing with a worse record, meaning less competition for the top of next year’s draft.

But most significantly, the Harden trade makes Portland less likely to be major players in next summer’s free-agent market. Since becoming the Blazers’ GM, Olshey has stressed the importance of avoiding signing players to big, cap-killing contracts who don’t put the team in contention. That’s why he sat out the rest of this summer’s free-agent activity after missing out on Hibbert. And the one player on the market next year (outside of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, neither of whom the Blazers have any shot at landing whatsoever) capable of having that type of impact on a young franchise like Portland would have been Harden. Now, if they decide to make a splash, they’ll be stuck overpaying for the likes of Al Jefferson or Josh Smith, neither of whom improve their future outlook enough to justify losing their financial flexibility.

What this means is that, barring Damian Lillard becoming Kyrie Irving, Nicolas Batum becoming Scottie Pippen, and the Blazers landing a Shabazz Muhammad-level talent in the draft, next season will be yet another rebuilding year. And that almost certainly indicates that Aldridge’s days in Portland are numbered once this season ends. If Aldridge has another All-Star year, his trade value will be at an all-time high as a top-20 player making less than max with two years left on his contract. Trading him becomes even more enticing when you factor in that Andrew Wiggins, the prize of the 2014 draft class, is widely regarded as the best high-school prospect since LeBron James. It would seem that the logical move for Olshey would be to cash in on Aldridge’s value for young players and future draft picks, and put the team in the best possible position to land a transcendent talent like Wiggins.

The Harden trade is a double-edged sword for the Blazers. It forces them to address these issues sooner than they might have liked, but it also opens up the Northwest Division somewhat for when they do eventually climb back into contention. I still think the franchise is on the right track. The route to get there may just be different now.

The Stache Lion Era Comes to an End

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The Adam Morrison dream was simply too good to be true. His short-lived tenure in Portland will come to an end tomorrow, as the Oregonian’s Mike Tokito reports that Morrison, along with Coby Karl and Justin Holliday, will be waived to bring Portland’s roster to 15. The news isn’t terribly surprising—following a solid preseason debut in which he scored 9 points in 12 minutes on 4-6 shooting, Morrison has either failed to get into the Blazers’ preseason games or been ineffective when he did play. Still, his release brings to an end what could have been an enjoyable subplot for a team wanting for reasons to keep fans engaged.

Morrison and the Blazers have a history together, dating back to the 2006 NBA draft. The Fan 1080 AM launched a highly-publicized “Draft the Stache” public awareness campaign urging Kevin Pritchard to take Morrison, a deadly shooter with ties to the Pacific Northwest, with the fourth pick in the draft. The Blazers, of course, swung trades instead for LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy, dramatically altering the direction of the franchise. Morrison, meanwhile, was taken by Charlotte and had a decent-enough rookie season before sitting out the entire 2007-08 campaign with a torn ACL. He washed out of the league two years later, following a trade to the Lakers and a spot on the end of the bench for two straight NBA titles. The “Draft the Stache” days were relegated to nothing more than a footnote in Blazers lore, and even seen as something of a dodged bullet, in light of the successes Roy and Aldridge experienced.

When the union between the Blazers and Morrison finally came to fruition this fall, both were in a dramatically different place than in 2006. The Blazers are still navigating the immediate aftermath of the death of the Roy/Aldridge/Oden era, having completed a painful decline from one of the most promising up-and-coming teams in the league to one of the frontrunners to land a top pick in next year’s draft lottery. Morrison, similarly, is no longer part of the future of the NBA’s crop of talent. Instead, he has firmly established his status as one of the biggest draft busts of the past decade, right up there with Darko Milicic, Stromile Swift, and—unavoidably—Greg Oden. The stakes were considerably lower for both parties in 2012. Morrison just wanted another shot at the NBA, and the Blazers had nothing to lose by giving him one.

I’m not sure where it went wrong. By all accounts, Morrison worked hard in camp and impressed Terry Stotts with his determination to make the team. This is true of everybody in an NBA camp fighting for a roster spot, but the idea that the Blazers have more to gain by giving the final spot to Sasha Pavlovic rather than Morrison doesn’t check out. Nobody likes Pavlovic. Games become far less watchable the moment he steps on the floor, no matter who his teammates are. There is nothing he brings on the court that can’t be duplicated by a player whose very existence isn’t infuriating. And if last night’s preseason finale is any indication, Stotts is planning on giving him minutes this season that could be better used to develop rookies Victor Claver and Will Barton. Pavlovic’s presence on the team is actively detrimental to the progression of the youth movement the Blazers are trying to build as they inch back towards contention. That wouldn’t be a problem with Morrison, who probably wouldn’t get many non-garbage minutes if he made the team. But he would at least be a figure for fans to follow and root for this season, when wins will be hard to come by. There is nothing compelling about Sasha Pavlovic.

Morrison said during training camp that if he doesn’t stick in Portland, he will probably hang up his sneakers. So this is likely the end of the line for one of the biggest what-if stories in recent NBA history. We shouldn’t hold this against him. He isn’t the first sure-thing college player to fail at the pro level, and he won’t be the last. In an excellent Grantland profile following his standout performance on the Clippers’ Summer League squad, Morrison told Jordan Conn, “I’m not a bad dude. I haven’t stabbed anybody. I’m not on probation. I was drafted high, and I wasn’t good enough to warrant that. I get it — I really do — but sometimes, it’s just like, man, come on.” At a certain point, players’ chances run out. But this seemed like a perfect opportunity for Morrison to win the respect of a fanbase that he never got in Charlotte or Los Angeles, and it’s unfortunate that it had to end.

PRS Around the Web: Jazz Preview and Draft History

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As the 2012-13 NBA season gears up, so too do the previews and offseason retrospectives, which NBA bloggers often like to do as collaborations. Ahead of the Blazers’ two upcoming matchups with the Utah Jazz, which close out their preseason, I answered a few questions about the team for Amar Smith (whom you should be following on Twitter at @AllThatAmar) for SB Nation’s Jazz blog, SLC Dunk. Among the topics discussed: Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and the connections between the Jazz and several players on the Blazers’ roster.

[Ronnie] Price isn’t really in danger of not making the roster. He’s sitting out the preseason with a minor ankle injury, but he’s pretty safely entrenched in the backup point guard role. I’m fine with him in that spot (the alternative is Nolan Smith, whom I’ve never really forgiven for being drafted instead of Kenneth Faried, and also he sucks) but before he got hurt, I was kind of concerned by Terry Stotts’ insistence on playing him and Lillard together in the backcourt with Lillard playing off the ball. Seemed counterproductive to developing Lillard as the Point Guard Of The Future.

I also traded emails with my friend Dane Carbaugh on his blog A Young Sabonis, discussing the differences between the drafting strategies of Kevin Pritchard and Neil Olshey:

We should probably back up a second and talk about this whole notion that Kevin Pritchard was a draft-day genius during his time in Portland. The Roy and Aldridge trades in 2006 were his masterpiece, and the Oden pick obviously made sense at the time, even if hindsight has made it look like Bowie-over-Jordan. But the only other good pick he made in his five drafts as Blazers GM was Nicolas Batum at No. 25 in 2008. The rest of his drafting track record in Portland is littered with Luke Babbitts, Sergio Rodriguezes, and Armon Johnsons. More than being nostalgic for Pritchard, I wish Rich Cho had been given the chance to conduct a draft before Paul Allen cut him loose too.

I have no complaints about what Olshey did on draft day. Lillard was was the obvious pick at No. 6, and everything I’ve seen from him since then backs that up. Like you, I kind of thought he’d go with Tyler Zeller at 11. And while I think he’s looked better than Leonard at Summer League and during the preseason, I’m pretty high on what Meyers could become eventually, and I can’t fault Olshey for drafting a 7-1 guy with his athleticism and mobility.

But what isn’t being talked about is that Olshey is setting the Blazers up to be able to do the same sort of asset-stockpiling they did under Pritchard. He very quietly picked up a future second-round picks and two Greek prospects this summer in the sign-and-trade that sent Raymond Felton to the Knicks. He corralled another second-rounder for facilitating the Rockets’ trade of Courtney Lee to the Celtics. Like Pritchard’s acquisition of Rudy Fernandez, he didn’t give up much, if anything, to get these picks and players. And whether or not any of the pan out for the Blazers is irrelevant.—they’re just more chips he can use in future trades.

Instant Reaction and Observations: Warriors 101, Blazers 97

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Damian Lillard made his Rose Garden debut tonight against the Warriors. Portland got out in front early, but poor defense and a hot-shooting second half from Golden State did them in. A few thoughts:

- Lillard has yet to play his first complete game. As has been the case since Summer League, he started off slow tonight both from a shooting standpoint and as a facilitator. What we saw from him after that is what the Blazers saw when they drafted him, however. His passing instincts continue to be impressive for a rookie—of particular note was a gorgeous bounce pass he threw through traffic to Nicolas Batum for a layup. Later on, he found Meyers Leonard for an alley-oop. It wasn’t perfect, and I’d still like to see him take fewer long twos and more threes, but seven assists and only one turnover is something you’ll take every day from a rookie point guard.

- LaMarcus Aldridge had his best night of the preseason… on offense. In 27 minutes (mostly in the first half), he shot 7-for-12 from the floor, and mostly had any shot he wanted from midrange. His battle with David Lee was entertaining all night, as both had their jumpers going. But LMA hasn’t really shown any of the post moves he developed last season in these exhibition games, and tonight was no different. Oh, and he only had two boards all night. That isn’t going to cut it, especially given the inexperience of the rest of the frontcourt.

- Meyers Leonard had a few isolated instances of good defense, and grabbed six boards in 14 minutes, but also collected five fouls in that time. I continue to like what I see from him, at least in spurts. But if he wants to be effective, he has to stay on the floor. This is a lesson all rookie big men learn, and I’m sure he’ll be no different. But for now, minutes will be an issue.

- Interior defense is going to be a problem for this team. The Warriors, particularly David Lee, had their way with the Blazers’ defenses inside, scoring 40 points in the paint. Between JJ Hickson’s general defensive ineptitude and Leonard’s and Joel Freeland’s inexperience, Portland could very easily lead the league in points allowed in the paint this season.

-Nolan Smith was catastrophically bad tonight. In 17 minutes, he missed all six of his field-goal attempts, including a three on Portland’s last possession of the game that fell about three feet short. The would-be backup point guard also had three turnovers and no assists. Once Ronnie Price is back, there’s no reason at all for Smith to get minutes. Which pretty much sums up the season we’re in for.

- Nicolas Batum had a rough first half shooting, but found a rhythm somewhat in the second half.

- Not a lot of note from Wesley Matthews tonight, but he did make two layups. So there’s that.

- Victor Claver had his second consecutive solid performance off the bench. He didn’t get open to shoot much, but grabbed four rebounds and played excellent defense on Brandon Rush during his first-half shift. He’s making a case for minutes backing up Batum once the season starts.

- Will Barton is the rawest player likely to get minutes this season. He had a few impressive plays tonight (particularly a putback dunk off a missed Smith layup in the fourth quarter), but he has a ways to go before he can be counted on to contribute night-in and night-out. Don’t be surprised if he sees some time in Idaho this season.

- Speaking of which, Neil Olshey joined Mike and Mike on the broadcast for a few minutes during the second quarter, and reminded us again of one of my favorite changes he’s made since taking over: purchasing the Idaho Stampede as the exclusive property of the Blazers and implementing the same system there that Terry Stotts is running for the Blazers. Luke Babbitt has probably gotten everything there is to get out of the D-League, but I could see Olshey’s aggressive approach to using it being beneficial to players like Smith, Barton, and Claver.

- Stotts tightened up the rotation considerably tonight, mostly playing the players one might expect to get minutes during the regular season. Even when Stotts started playing other players in the fourth quarter he mostly kept it to guys that already have roster spots secured—guys like Luke Babbitt and Jared Jeffries. No Coby Karl and no Adam Morrison. It would appear that the Stache Lion dream is over.

- The big news on the Warriors’ end of this game is a bummer: Stephen Curry sprained his right ankle in the second quarter and did not return. This is the same ankle he had surgery on last season. Let’s hope he doesn’t miss any time.

Reading Tealeaves; The Night Belongs to Coby Karl

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photo by Randy L. Rasmussen/ The Oregonian

For most fans, the caveats of the preseason are a temporary annoyance, a maddening but insignificant delaying of gratification that serves as a small test of forbearance. It’s like being forced to eat the cookie before you read the fortune, or open your stocking before you unwrap what’s under the tree.  For Blazers fans, though, the caveats of the preseason are a little more existential. “These games don’t matter,” or “ we won’t see these lineups for long” or “nothing that happens involving Victor Claver can be said to really matter”—these things are not going to fade simply because this arbitrary period other franchises call “the season” rolls around.  

The truth is, we’re staring at what may be a long period of games that don’t mean anything, competitively speaking. It’s basketball without semantics, an indeterminate preseason. While other teams are jockeying for seeding, Blazers fans will still be trying to sort out the signal from the noise, determining how much of what we see on the court can be applied going forward and how much is the detritus of an organization trying to right itself.

There are two ways, that I see, for fans to respond. The first of these is a sort of aesthetic appreciation. You know, a focus on the moment, all life is suffering type deal. Take the plays one at a time, try and appreciate the spectacle of the game. Enjoy the prowess of the visitors as they run beautifully amok. This is the tack I will endeavor to take as I watch the team, but I will say that at one point in the second half Coby Karl, Wes Matthews, Will Barton, Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard all shared the court. Replace Karl with Nolan Smith, and this is a line-up that could feasibly happen from time to time. What I’m saying is, a high-falutin’ grasp at aesthetics will not be easy this year.

The second way fans can respond, and the way I see fans responding around me as this season starts to get off the ground, is trying to read tealeaves. When you’re staring at the business end of a losing season, becoming a “contender” again is kind of like Revelation—Blazers fans don’t know when it’s coming, but some day, the first will be last and the last will be first and we need to know what will still be applicable in the new order. Fans parse games for meaning that may prove fleeting. Is Claver better as a catch-and-shoot guy, or does he like the dribble? Can Nolan Smith be trusted to make simple reads as a second-unit point guard who sticks to the offense? These questions are themselves a form of prognostication, an insistence that what’s happening on the court today can foretell what will be happening on the court when the games matter. Can we grasp what Terry Stotts really means on defense when nobody has the lateral quickness to really funnel the ball handler to the strong side? Do we know if Damian Lillard can create for teammates worth creating for? It’s frustrating trying to glean wisdom from what appears to be chaotic scattering, but it’s what many of the most dedicated Blazers fans are in for until further notice.

To that end, what did the leaves tell us last night? By any measure—preseason, losing season, whatever—last night’s game against the Nuggets was unusually disposable. As the Blazers made their home debut, Damian Lillard, the savior whose light shall cast the darkness behind us all someday, sat out with a bruised foot. The Nuggets, who promise to be one of the highest-octane and highest achieving units in the West, appeared to have spent the day on a laudanum drip, sluggishly not-executing not-sets for the majority of the contest while the Blazers second, third and sundry units made enough jump shots to put them away. Among the questions not answered on the Blazers’ end: is Stotts’ much-ballyhooed zone defense improving? Will a Hickson-Aldridge frontcourt ever involve two players within twelve feet of the basket simultaneously?  What will it take to make Joel Freeland kill a man with his hands?

What powered the team last night was a second quarter that began in spirit at the end of the first, when Coby Karl completed a four-point play and floated a lob to Meyers Leonard that provided the unquestionable highlight for the game. In fact, though Wes Matthews’ second quarter scoring spree gave him the game-high tally for the night, Karl provided a memorable performance. Showcasing the intelligent ball handling and sober efficacy as a shooter that have made him a second-unit staple power of desperation matched with strong instincts, Karl gave the team a clear spark last night, leading Terry Stotts to say he thinks Karl “proved that he should be on an NBA roster” after the game. There’s no real indication that Karl is closer to a spot on the Blazers’ roster today than he was yesterday, but I have to imagine his performance and Stotts’ remarks were a legitimate boost to his chances of landing somewhere stateside this season. I haven’t confirmed the reports, but I heard that George Karl, Coby’s father and coach of the visiting Nuggets, was spotted in the garage of the Rose Garden washing Terry Stotts’ car during post-game remarks.

There were a few other things to take away from the game. Claver does have a pretty nice stroke from beyond the arc, though his glacial first step will keep him tethered to the bench until he figures out how to leverage his size to be more than a spot-up guy. He is also a lot bigger than I realized. Nolan Smith proved himself pretty shaky running the show during the first half, and the hopes that he may emerge as an effective third guard/ second unit distributor seem increasingly misplaced. The bigs were predictable in most facets: Aldridge and Hickson showed a serious aversion to rimwardness, Leonard was tentative despite truly impressive flashes of instinct and athleticism, and Joel Freeland struggled to get his shots down or to successfully create plays for others. I actually thought Freeland looked like he may soon put everything together, as his work on the boards was formidable and I like the plays he’s trying to find; I wouldn’t be surprised to see him emerge as a weirdo banger/stretch/point forward who can wear a few useful hats in the same game.

We’ll see a little more of what the beginning of the regular season will look like on Friday, when Lillard expects to play against the Golden State Warriors in his Rose Garden debut.

Zoned Out

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If there’s anything to take from the Blazers’ 117-100 loss Monday in Sacramento, it’s that Portland’s zone defense needs work, so explains The Oregonian’s Joe Freeman, who was on the scene:

Stotts only started implementing the Blazers’ zone four or five days ago, mostly during game-day shootarounds, so he expected Monday night might be a bumpy road. At least he didn’t have to wait long to see the struggles.

Now, I don’t want to prematurely jump the gun on any scheme less than a week old—much less anything that happens in a NBA preseason game—but Monday’s struggles may well be indicative of the Blazers’ most significant deficit entering the 2013 season: defense.

Sure, the Blazers’ have a few guys who can find the hoop. But how many times will they lose high-scoring games? As the saying goes: “Defense wins Championships.”

But perhaps that old axiom ought to be amended to read something more like:”Defense wins basketball games.”

Just about everybody—save the currently unemployed Mike D’Antoni, and the long lost but still loved Don Nelson—would agree. Somewhere, perhaps quietly, they’re nodding too.

Weighing The Blazers’ Options on Babbitt, Williams, and Smith

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Since taking over as Blazers GM this spring, Neil Olshey has preached a philosophy of asset gathering for the rebuilding team. At the end of this month, Olshey’s front office will be tasked with deciding on the futures of three of these assets. Portland hold options on the fourth years of the rookie deals for Elliot Williams and Luke Babbitt, as well as the third year of Nolan Smith’s deal. It’s relatively uncommon for rookie-contract options not to be picked up—teams aren’t usually keen to pull the plug on players they drafted that quickly, because it’s difficult not to view that as an admission of doing an inferior job judging talent.

Olshey is working in a gray area here. None of these three players were drafted on his watch. When he makes the call on how long they’ll be Trail Blazers, he can act as something of an impartial outsider. It won’t reflect poorly on his staff’s drafting record. He hasn’t tipped his hand as to how he’s leaning, but the fact that the possibility of declining their options is even being talked about very much reinforces that this is a roster in flux, with almost nobody’s spot carved in stone.

The question Olshey will have to answer for each of these three players is simple: is the money they would be paid worth more in their hands than elsewhere on a team that, in all likelihood, won’t be back in the hunt for a playoff spot for another couple of years? As the 16th pick in the 2010 draft, Babbitt’s fourth-year team option is worth about $2.9 million. Williams, the 22nd pick in the same draft, is owed about $2.3 million. Smith, the 21st pick in the 2011 draft, would stand to make $1.4 million in 2013-14 if the Blazers picked up his option. Together, the three options are worth $6.6 million, a pretty significant chunk of the cap space Portland would be projected to have next summer.

Williams is the easiest call to make of the three. He missed his entire rookie year in 2010-11 after having surgery on both knees. Last year, he didn’t get on the floor much during the first part of the season, and although he played well in his limited minutes, they came almost exclusively during blowouts, making it hard to draw any real conclusions about his play. Minutes didn’t start to open up for Williams until after the trade deadline, when the Blazers traded away their veterans for picks and scrubs, essentially throwing in the towel on the season. Unfortunately, just as he seemed poised to take advantage of Kaleb Canales’ youth movement, a dislocated shoulder sidelined him for the rest of the season. Last month, during a pre-camp workout, he tore his left Achilles’ tendon, which will force him to miss the entirety of this season.

That makes a total of 24 games he’s appeared in over the course of his first three seasons in the NBA. That’s a lot of lost time for him to make up in one season to convince Blazer brass he’s worth keeping around long-term. It’s the kind of benefit of the doubt that makes sense to give someone whose ceiling is as high as Greg Oden’s once was. But even if fully healthy (and there’s no guarantee that will happen), Williams likely projects to be nothing more than a solid backup. It’s hard to see Olshey justify keeping someone with his health history and uncertain future value on in lieu of having that $2.3 million free to put towards a bigger signing or taking on salary in a trade with more tangible benefits. It’s pretty likely that he’s played his last game in Portland.

Babbitt, meanwhile, is good at exactly one thing: outside shooting. He did that damn well last year when he played, shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc and posting a True Shooting Percentage of 55.6. He appeared in 40 games last season, and even played some non-garbage minutes once the team went into tank mode. Given the superstar numbers he puts up in the D-League, I expected him to put on a clinic at Summer League, but he mostly looked lost. Through two preseason games last week, where he’s been given the chance to run with many combinations of starting and reserve players, his shot has been inconsistent and his defense fairly atrocious. He also has Adam Morrison breathing down his neck at camp and in exhibition, and if Stache Lion makes the team (a reasonable possibility), Babbitt won’t even have the “token white guy who shoots threes off the bench” role all to himself. He will likely see more time in Idaho this season, although it’s becoming a possibility that he’s simply trapped in a purgatory of being too good for the D-League but not good enough for the NBA. What he brings can be had far cheaper than the $2.9 million he’s owed next year (if Morrison makes the team, he’ll be paid the veteran’s minimum and likely wouldn’t cost much more than that to re-sign). As with Williams, though for different reasons, Babbitt simply hasn’t proven enough to justify keeping him past next year rather than taking advantage of the flexibility declining his option would create.

The most likely candidate to keep his roster spot beyond this season is Smith, if only because one season is far too small a sample size with which to make a decision about a rookie. Smith’s chances of ever landing a starting job in Portland more or less went out the window when the team drafted Damian Lillard in June. Not that he’d been helping his own case much—his rookie season was unspectacular by nearly any metric. He isn’t nearly the shooter Lillard is, posting an abysmal 43.4 TS% last year. As a floor general, he didn’t fare much better: his assist rate (18.2 percent) was nearly rivaled by his turnover rate (17.9 percent). He hasn’t done himself any favors in the Blazers’ first two preseason games, either, shooting a combined 4-for-15 from the field with six assists and three turnovers. Preseason games don’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but they’re a low-stakes environment for young players to show improvement, and Smith still doesn’t look like he belongs in an NBA rotation.

But while his production leaves a ton to be desired, and the presence of Lillard makes the prospect of meaningful minutes unlikely, it still makes a certain amount of sense to give Smith another year to improve before making a decision on his future. He doesn’t have Williams’ injury track record, and his game isn’t nearly as one-dimensional as Babbitt’s. And at $1.4 million, his option for 2013-14 is barely more than the minimum, by some distance the smallest financial commitment out of the three. In 2014-15, however, the final year of his rookie contract will jump up considerably to $2.2 million. And if Olshey is still in asset-accumulation mode, Smith will have to have improved noticeably this upcoming season to avoid the same fate Babbitt and Williams are likely to meet by the end of October.