Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Pessimist's Blazer Preview

It is absolutely wonderful to be a Blazer fan in Portland right now. You saw the Rudy Fernandez welcoming, but there are many more subtle signs that foreshadow an imminent return to the rabid Rip City days. Things like Blazer-chatter on the bus, more pinwheel bumper stickers, and lots of guys asking me where I got my Roy shirt. (Not telling!)

This is a fan base that has been legitimately revitalized. Interestingly enough, management has achieved this without the help of a winning season. No, Portland hasn't seen one of those since 2002-03. Management regained the obsession of the fans by providing hope. Hope has been missing longer than winning seasons have.

Of course hope can only get you so far, eventually these fans will want wins. Lots of wins. Kevin Pritchard could probably be mayor of Portland right now, but that won't be the case if this team isn't contending for a title within a few seasons. Such a failure conjures up images of pitchforks and torches, perhaps tar and feathering could make a comeback. Lifted spirits come with lifted expectations.

As great as that Blazers Kool-Aid is tasting right now, there are reasons for Portlanders to stick to their microbrews for a little while longer. Lots of reasons, actually. It is my hope that seeing some of them in a single place will deter you from taking out that second mortgage to finance a season ticket package. (Want a scary thought? The way ticket prices have been rising, combined with the plummeting housing market, that sentence might not be such a stretch. Enjoy your day!)

The obvious and most frequently cited reason for concern with this team is the injury factor. Considered player-by-layer, you can explain these injuries as simply a result of bad luck. When looked at in total, we can see that these injuries are not aberrations but part of a very disturbing trend that could easily keep this team from achieving elite status (1).

We begin with LaMarcus Aldridge. He has already had shoulder surgery and heart surgery. He also missed a handful of games last season due to a multiplicity of ailments to his wheels; ankle, toe, and knee injuries. These injuries, while seemingly minor, should be cause for concern. A second year big man having veteran big man problems so early is not reassuring.

Now consider Greg Oden, the media darling with a well publicized problem with staying healthy. In case you forget, he had wrist surgery in college. Then arthroscopic knee surgery after being drafted. By the way, remember those bad back rumors?

Finally, consider the history of Brandon Roy. Going into his third season, Roy could be the best basketball player the franchise has seen since Clyde Drexler. Put simply, Roybot is Everything. He has also achieved the rare feat of getting his knee cut into in high school, college, and the pros. Last season he struggled with groin issues, and that talus bone thing is simply not going away.

Management would have you believe that the youth of these players means they can simply bounce back to full recovery from all of these injuries. After all, Oden is only 20 years old. Aldridge is just 23 and Roy is 24. Young bodies tend to heal faster, and they have plenty of time to fully recover. I get that.

A logical counterpoint, however, is that players often incur more injuries as they age. This means a 24 year old with an extensive injury history has a fairly good chance of earning the dreaded "injury prone" label over the course of his career. It isn't like any of these players have only had one surgery or one nagging injury. These men have had multiple surgeries, multiple continuous health problems. They are all also indispensable to the future elite status of this team.

Along with the prevalence of injuries, many of our beloved shiny new Blazer pieces are still totally unproven in the NBA. I hate to rain on your Rudy parade (not really), but international success is not guaranteed to translate into the NBA. For example, Sarunas Jasikek;jflkd;asjfk;ljdsfavicious dominated the Olympics and was MVP of an elite Euro league. He then came to the NBA and gained attention for his excellent cheerleading skills.

And how will Jerryd Bayless perform? He was certainly impressive in summer league, earning MVP honors. Hey, Brandon Roy tore up summer league too. Good stuff. So did Qyntel Woods. Oh. The truth is we won't know for certain how the skills and abilities of Bayless will translate until we see him in actual NBA games against actual NBA competition.

Of greater importance than Bayless and Fernandez, the success of this franchise rests significantly on the play of Greg Oden. He's so big and athletic and hardworking and wonderful, you can just see the man out there controlling the paint on both offense and defense. He also has not played a single game in the NBA. He didn't play a complete season of college basketball either. If he becomes a player who has all the tools but is never able to apply them successfully in actual NBA contests, he won't be the first.

The efforts of management, with an assist from lady luck, have resulted in the Blazers having the deepest pool of young talent in the league. This can be quite a gift, but fans have largely overlooked that such a roster could also be a curse. The Foundational Three (Roy, Aldridge, and Oden) are not going anywhere, they will be locked up with max or near-max contracts. Unfortunately, the NBA is not played three on three. The Blazers will need more.

At some point, the young Blazers that fill complementary roles will have offers from other teams. These teams will offer them larger roles than they will have in Portland, and larger money. We already know that Travis Outlaw is aching for a offensive role that simply is not available for him on this team. Other organizations are aware of this. With the arrival of Rudy Fernandez, the role of Martell Webster has became even more uncertain. Do not get too attached to anyone outside of the Foundational Three, because Portland simply can not keep them all.

To make room for the development of this young talent, the Trailblazers let James Jones walk at the end of last season. In the long-term, it certainly makes sense. In the more immediate future, meaning this season and possibly next, the loss of James Jones will greatly impact the ability of this team to win basketball games.

I urge you to think back to the winning that was enjoyed last season. A majority of those wins, including the amazing thirteen game streak, occurred when James was healthy and logging significant minutes. He was given the Next Most Valuable Player award by this blog for his importance (very prestigious). There is not a player on this roster who has proven they can fill his sneakers.

Possibly even scarier than all of the above are concerns over how successfully all of this talent will blend together to produce wins. It was a surprise last season when the Blazers finished with a 41-41 record. Blazer fans have cited this as proof this team will only improve. It isn't. The 2008-09 Blazers are not the 2007-08 Blazers. These are very different teams.

The Blazers have not only lost James Jones but also added players that will likely demand significant minutes: Greg Oden, Rudy Fernandez, and Jerryd Bayless. This is a huge change that brings even more uncertainty to the situation. Is this the right mix of talent? Will players get disgruntled with reduced roles? What players are filling what roles? Will they even be able to fill them? Only time will answer these questions.

I know, it feels good to get excited. It feels amazing to talk about an impending Blazer dynasty. Unfortunately, this relatively brief outline raises enough points to cast reasonable doubt. Our expectations could very likely be nothing more than fantasy. Feel good and excited about what the future could hold, sure, but don't set yourself up for too large of a fall off that mountain top. This season and beyond face much uncertainty, we would be wise to relax a little bit and give this team some breathing room to develop. Rip City, please chill out for a minute.

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