Saturday, July 11, 2009

NBA Off-Season Report: 5 Teams to Watch [Installment #2]

Steve McNair thoughts here.
Plenty of talk this weekend and all week on the Twitter feed.
Tweet tweet.

Installment #1: Toronto Raptors

I've decided to take a look, in depth, at a few NBA teams that have me rather intrigued this off-season. Don't be surprised if the year 2010, specifically the free agents available, come up a time or two (or two dozen!).

I'll tackle 3 important issues for each team, make a bold prediction, and focus on the most important factor towards this team having a successful window of opportunity in the next 2-3 seasons.

I'll try my best to avoid the "easy and sexy" selections (ala Los Angeles, Cleveland, Orlando, Boston and San Antonio) and challenge myself.

Installment #1 focuses on the Portland Trailblazers.
Record: 54-28 (2nd in Northwest Division)

This smiling face will be in Toronto, not Portland, next season.
Not the best news for Kevin Pritchard.


Issue #1: The Point Guard Position
Healmed mainly by Steve Blake last season, immediate questions in 2009 arise as the Blazers took a late lottery selection on Arizona point guard Jerryd Bayless in 2008, who spent the majority of the season watching and learning from the bench. Another summer league campaign should help, although questions will continue to linger until Bayless proves he can effectively handle the point guard position. This offseason, rumors had Portland acquiring Chicago Bull Kirk Heinrich, only for them to be quashed as they were unwilling to part so soon with the aformentioned Bayless.

Sergio Rodriguez, firmly in Nate McMillan's doghouse (MISTAKE!!!), was shipped off the SacTown for draft leverage (#38 to #31), and nobody thinks that (recently injured) Patty Mills will be the head of this team in the near-future. That leaves a lot of questions for a crucial position. While superstar 2-guard Brandon Roy all but demands, and deserves, the ball in the closing moments of games, playmaking ability out of the 1-spot is essential for this team's continued ascension up the Western Conference heirarchy. I highly doubt Bayless' abilities as a pass-first, distributing point guard; meanwhile, teams can often lax on Blake on the offensive side of the ball in order to focus in on his backcourt mate. Whether via a trade or free agency, Portland doesn't have the money for an elite PG, so some savvy spending is a MUST. Speaking of which...

Issue #2: General Management
Woj over at Yahoo! Sports sums up league sentiment quite well for the eccentric GM in Rip City: As the rejections and criticisms mounted lately, NBA executives and agents described Portland Trail Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard as “agitated” and “panicked” and even “desperate.” He kept returning to teams with the same proposals, only to be dismissed again and again. All his plans had imploded. Pritchard has long liked to talk about never laying up on the golf course and burning through cell batteries and the way that the Blazers had outworked and outsmarted the NBA. Few have been terribly impressed with how Pritchard handled the highs of the job, and now there are doubts about how he’s handling its lows.

Despite success in the past, specifically 3 years ago with Roy and Aldridge, it seems Pritchard can't win in the summer of 2009. I already questioned 2008 heavily, especially giving an extension to Martell Webster AFTER he suffered a foot fracture that ultimately kept him off the court all of last season. As for this summer, admitedly, Hedo Turkoglu did spurn the Blazers when a contract seemed all but finalized. That left the 3-spot, a glaring weakness, even further entrenched as Trevor Ariza was Houston-bound, David Lee's contract situation in New York a bit of an enigma, Lamar Odom never given much consideration, and the trade market somewhat stiffled as the Blazers had cap space, not necessarily players, as their major offer.

An offer sheet was recently offered to restricted Utah Jazz power forward Paul Millsap, but it doesn't seem the right fit. Why? Milsapp would likely back up talented four-man LaMarcus Aldridge, much as he does currently for All-Star Carlos Boozer. Millsap isn't at all a fit in the 3-position and doesn't offer this team up the dynamic talent Turkoglu assuredly would have. Nicholas Batum has shown flashes, but isn't ready - on either side of the ball - for the talent at that position league-wide and Webster is coming off of injury and only 22. Travis Outlaw has been rumored to be a bargaining chip for the past two-plus seasons, which leads many to believe he isn't the long-term solution at the small forward position. Recovering from the snub from Turkoglu may last longer than an offseason for Pritchard and the Blazer brass, especially its GM.

Suiting up in a uniform, not his suit, is the first step towards Oden impacting the Blazer lineup consistently. Question is: can that actually happen?

Issue #3: Brandon Roy and ???
this also serves as this post's "Most Important Factor"
Is Lamarcus Aldridge a legit #2 in the NBA? Is Jerryd Bayless a high-caliber starting point guard in this league? Is Greg Oden more than a walking stiff? Will Travis Outlaw remain on this roster for the long-term? Will Martell Webster return from injury and continue to show promise, as he did in 2007? Those are just a sampling of questions Portland, like every team, is facing. One sticks out more than most though: who will become Brandon Roy's sidekick? While a few may disagree, I firmly believe Roy is starting to enter elite status in the NBA echelon of talent. He possessess everything necessary to dominant in this league for, at least, the next half-dozen years. However, as Kobe Bryant knows and LeBron James is learning, it can't be done alone.

As talented as this youthful roster has become, their first round series against Houston proved that, for now, it isn't enough. Again, Turkoglu likely would've likely been one of the pieces necessary to help this team step out of the upper-half of the Western Conference and into the top 2 or 3. Since Turkoglu will now be in Toronto, Portland must either hope their #2 is on their roster or can be acquired next offseason. Despite a spend-happy owner (Paul Allen) and an impressive crop available next offseason, Portland's cap situation may force them to look to their own roster first. Enter LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden. Both incredible talented, Aldridge appears headed towards the All-Star level, much more so than Oden at least, and will be an interesting player to watch come contract time. Both Aldridge and Roy are free agents in 2011 and it'll be very interesting how much interest Aldridge will be able to accumulate from now until then (it's very likely Roy gets a max-level extension). Especially if Aldridge's post-game can continue to improve and Oden, a story much larger than one offseason article could address, adds stability - especially on defense - inside the paint.

Is this the best young coach in the NBA? I think so.

Bold Prediction: Nate McMillian will be the coach of the Portland Trailblazers in 2012. Why? First off, any NBA coach - not named Jerry Sloan - keeping his job past their current contract would be surprising to most. Second, rumor has McMillan's desire to have a series of 1-year extensions is a ploy to escape Portland if things go array. While that might be a little much, I believe Portland's success is due equally to the leadership and stability of McMillan as well as the development of a youth-oriented talented roster. If Portland wishes to keep this team on the up and up, McMillan must be at the healm.

Surprised how little I mentioned Mr. Oden? Me too.

Next up: Miami Heat

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