Well, 2010 has been something of a roller coaster for the Blazers, hasn't it? On the one hand they managed to circumvent disaster after losing two centers to injury by trading for Marcus Camby, thus securing themselves a second straight Playoff berth, and they were able to grab their primary free agent target this summer in Wesley Matthews without seeing his offer matched by the Utah Jazz.
On the other hand, Brandon Roy was once again an injury target, getting dinged with a strained hamstring and a torn meniscus in his right knee (which required surgery), the club was ridiculed for the way they went about firing GM Kevin Pritchard and they spent the better part of the summer dealing with the ceaseless updates on guard Rudy Fernandez's dissatisfaction playing with the team. All this and there is still three months left of the year to play out. Who knows what will happen next?What do know is that last year the luster started to dull on the Blazers after three years of impressive rebuilding. The club was very middle-of-the-road last season, placing 13th in defensive field goal percentage (46%, the same percentage they shot themselves) and were 20th in the league in points per game thanks to their league-trailing pace of 87.7. Given the injuries that befell this team the fact that they won 50 games last year is laudatory, no doubt about it, but it is beginning to feel like the team's upward trajectory is starting to level off a bit, and it's levelling off just short of greatness in their conference.
Firstly, one can no longer ignore the fact that Roy has only averaged 68.5 games per season in his four years with the Blazers. As stellar a player as he is, his penchant for getting hurt keeps this team in a constant state of uncertainty as to how to ultimately measure a season's worth. For instance, the club won 50 games last year and made the Playoffs, but Roy started the post-season in recovery from surgery, and ultimately rushed back to try and prevent his team from getting knocked out in the first round (the Blazers ultimately went down 4-2 to the Suns). It isn't that his efforts weren't appreciated, but ultimately they represented the nagging issue with Roy as a superstar, much like it was an issue for the Jazz with Carlos Boozer or is an issue for the Rockets with Yao Ming, because no one knows when injuries will strike again. Sure, this year they may get lucky and have him be relatively injury-free or only get sidetracked for a few games in mid-season, but they may also wind up seeing Roy in much worse shape the season after, which would once again put a whole season in jeopardy. No one is to blame for this reality, but it's nonetheless a reality that has to be accepted as a cost for featuring Roy as your featured player.
It's a shame, too, because the rest of this roster is so finely tuned that losing a season seems like such a waste of their efforts. That this team could continue to win at the pace they did without Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla, Travis Outlaw, Nicolas Batum, Rudy Fernandez and (at times) Brandon Roy is the most unjustly forgotten story of last season. Does that roster give you enough when healthy to upset the Lakers? No, probably not. It's even debatable if there is enough there to upset the Mavs or Thunder, but since the roster has never been healthy for a whole season it's hard to entirely weight their abilities against any sort of long-term precedent. They're talented, to be sure, but there is a big difference between offsetting injuries and winning an NBA title, which is of course the actual goal for every franchise in the league.
So the Blazers enter the season with a new GM but many of the same questions that riddled them before. At the very least there is little doubt that the club would love to have one healthy season from the roster if for no other reason than to get a thorough look at the construction of the team to see what pieces fit best where and what pieces don't fit at all. Perhaps at this point, though, the club should just hope that 2011 brings more positives to the club than negatives and count their blessings if that happens.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG – ANDRE MILLER
The question was never really whether or not Andre Miller was a good enough point guard to survive Portland's slow-down offense or to survive playing alongside a ball-dominating guard like Roy. No, the question was whether or not Miller was enough of an upgrade to the team to push them into a new level of distinction upon his arrival. Even if he fared better than some expected, it is pretty safe to say that he didn't push this team to any new levels, he merely maintained the status quo. His numbers were actually pretty much on par with what he did in Philadelphia, his PER was within 0.5 of his two years with the Sixers, but his numbers were not markedly different than Steve Blake's were the season before as lead guard for the Blazers. Miller has a team option in his contract after this season and it will be interesting to see if the new management team uses that as trade bait this season, if they opt to keep him for one more year or if they just decide to release him outright once the season is over. The fact that no decision makes all that much difference speaks to how irrelevant his fit in Portland was last year.
SG – BRANDON ROY
Roy is, without a doubt, one of the top options at a position that has seen better days in the NBA. He's a 21-5-4 guy every night, he shoots good percentages and he is a leader in the way that several franchises like to pretend their stars are. He controls the flow of his team, both on the court and off of it, and that makes him one of the few legit focal-point players in the NBA. The club has to figure out a way, though, to keep him on the court. Maybe it's an issue of reducing his minutes in some games, which they certainly have the depth to do, or perhaps he needs to tweak his workout regimen or even got and visit a witch doctor because whatever it takes to keep Roy healthy this team has to do. They cannot chain a generation of Blazer basketball to his fragile body in the way that they are doing. What's the use of killing yourselves for 82 games when the result could be what it was last year, where a hobbled Roy attempts to stave off elimination by rushing back to the court after surgery? Yes, injuries are unpredictable and unfortunate, but the solution can't be to just stay the course and hope it gets better because after four years the one thing we can pretty safely say is that this issue isn't going to get better on its own.
SF – NICOLAS BATUM
This team has more wings than a KFC, but Batum's place in the pecking order is absolutely at the top. He is exactly the kind of player that fits what this team wants to do; he shoots a killer percentage (52% from the field, 41% from three), he spaces the floor, he's ultra-athletic and he's emerging as one of the elite perimeter defenders in the NBA. The team doesn't need to draw up plays for him, he happily feeds off of the scraps that the other offensive options on the club leave for him and yet when it comes time to work, which usually involves guarding the best perimeter players in the league, he attacks his role like he was the number-one option on the team. That's why he's near the top of this team's pecking order.
PF – LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE
If there is a reason for the levelling off of expectations for the Blazers, it probably hews pretty close to the levelling off of expectations for LaMarcus Aldridge. There comes that point in the career of every near-star that they just stop ascending and show the world that what they are as a player today is what they are going to be for the better part of their career. Aldridge is an 18-and-8 guy that shoots a good percentage and plays average defense. Like draft-mate Andrea Bargnani, his rebounding sits wholly below where it should (he ranks 40th amongst power forwards in rebound rate, just ahead of Josh McRoberts and Jonas Jerebko) and his weakened reliability in the post-season speaks to a drive that runs just a tad cooler than most would like. If Greg Oden can ever find a way to stay healthy the two will offset each other nicely, but the $21-million the Blazers just handed to Marcus Camby should illustrate how confident they are in Oden's ability to stay healthy.
C – MARCUS CAMBY
What is there left to say about Marcus Camby that hasn't already been said? He's a preeminent help-side defender that inhales rebounds blends seamlessly into just about any structure he's ever been asked to accommodate. He played 29 games for the Blazers last season and he was an utterly inspired fit, and will prove an ideal mentor for Greg Oden for as long as the two are teammates. People criticize Portland sometimes (myself included) for overdoing it with their depth because the minutes simply aren't available to play everyone, but when they parlayed Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw into Camby, it demonstrated exactly how valuable that depth can be. It's funny that at 36 Camby, of all people, has turned out to be one of the most durable players of his generation, and maybe that gives hope to the oft-injured core of the Blazers that there is hope for a healthier future on the horizon.