The only element they lost from last year was point guard Sergio Rodriguez. They replaced him with Andre Miller, so that was an upgrade. They have a lot of components that enable them to change things up when they need to, and they showed last year that they can come back in a lot of different ways. With Martell Webster returning healthy [after missing all but one game last season with a foot injury], and with Jerryd Bayless and obviously Greg Oden coming off their rookie years, they have a chance to improve from within -- which is incredible for a team that won 54 games. This is the year they should turn the corner in the postseason and apply the experience from last year in order to excel in the playoffs. Otherwise, they'll start to feel the pressure to make changes, even though that doesn't always equate to making things better.
Another guy who should continue to improve is LaMarcus Aldridge. When I see him putting up that turnaround baseline jumper that the defenders can't get near, it makes me think of Rasheed Wallace -- though outwardly he isn't like Rasheed. Aldridge is already one of the better big men in the league. They may be depending on him to give more than he's ready to give, but they need to be patient with a guy like him. He's a decent playmaker, and the next phase we'll see from him is to make the right play as a passer out of the post. He's got the scoring ability from the post to demand double coverage against a lot of teams, and they need someone like him to make more plays out of the frontcourt. His shooting touch on the turnaround jumper is one of the best in the league, and his shots around the elbow and trailing for jump shots are good. His main move on the post is a right jump hook, and if you take that away, he has the turnaround jump shot as his counter. That's all he really needs. Defensively, he's solid too. He's a key element of their foundation, a steady person who seems like he'll eventually give them 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] a night.
I thought it was disappointing to watch Oden last year. I didn't see what everybody was expecting to see. There weren't a whole lot of dominant moments. I saw a guy who fouled a lot, who was a step behind on a lot of things. On defense, he was reacting slowly to situations, or not anticipating. He looked more like a tentative player rather than an aggressive game-changer. Hopefully for his sake he had a big offseason and got his mind right so that he can get back his confidence and all of the other things you need to make yourself into a good player, because I'm sure he is aware of the critiques that he didn't meet expectations.
I wasn't anticipating much from Oden offensively. That stuff can develop over the course of his career. But I was expecting more dominating play in the paint defensively. It turned out that Joel Przybilla was more of a force coming from the weak side and taking control of the paint. I was expecting a guy who would run the floor harder and get early post position and cause problems that way, and I was expecting to see a guy flashing in from the weak side to get offensive rebounds, but I didn't see those things. When Yao Ming and Dwight Howard were rookies, you could see what all of the fuss was about, with flashes of brilliance and serious jumps in their play from month to month. You didn't see that from Oden. There wasn't a whole lot of explosion or strength, but maybe that had everything to do with coming off major knee surgery. I just think he's in a tough position. It wasn't like he asked to be picked No. 1, but he's being held to that standard.
Brandon Roy was just terrific last year. He belongs in that category of the top 15 players in the league, and he's right on the edge of being a franchise player. I wouldn't say he's really quick; it's more that he knows what he wants to do and he has a really good feel for how his man is playing him and where his openings are. He's a very good shooter and he makes the right plays and sees his teammates. He is expert in a lot of areas and he's a good enough athlete to get done anything he needs to do.
I have trouble comparing Roy to anybody. He's a better passer but not quite as good of a shooter as Ray Allen, for example. He may not be the most electrifying player on a team, but from the standpoint of wins and results, I can't see how they would find anybody better. I also can't see how he can show a lot more improvement. He already appears to be maximizing his abilities. He doesn't put himself in positions where he's going to make a mistake or do something to hurt his team. His athleticism doesn't override his skill level. Guys like him who understand the game so well, they grow in terms of leadership and floor presence. That's what I expect to see from him in the years ahead.
I'm interested to see how things work out between Roy and Miller. I'm thinking Brandon will handle the ball less with Miller there. That should be a good thing for them because in crunch time you want Roy to be fresh, but if he's carrying you the first 30 minutes of the game, how fresh can he be to make the big plays night in and night out? You want Roy to have the ball at the end because he's prove he can win games for you. So what do you do with Miller? You may sit him down and replace him with a better shooter and let Roy be the point guard.
Miller may not like sitting in the final minutes, but a player can't say anything about those kinds of things if the team is winning, and I've never thought of Miller as a selfish player. He'll be one of their oldest guys, a guy who is quiet in his floor leadership, yet it was obvious that he had a positive impact on the young team they had in Philadelphia. The one thing that is surprising is that he hasn't really improved as a shooter. That's an area where most players get better as they age -- Jason Kidd, for instance. Miller rarely looks to shoot it, which means he definitely needs to have the ball in his hands if you want to maintain his value on the court, because it doesn't make sense to have him play off the ball.
Webster was hyped as a good shooter when he was drafted, but sometimes guys like him need time to figure out how much space they need to get their shot off. Before he was injured last year, I would mention in the scouting reports that he was somebody we'd need to rotate to. He's not a good ball-handler, but they don't need that from him. I expect to see him in the eight-man rotation, in part because he isn't a bad defender. A lot of shooters aren't interested in defending, but he's a guy who likes to mix it up a little bit.
Is Bayless a point guard? I see him as a Stephon Marbury- or Stevie Francis-type scoring guard. He's a high-volume scorer who needs a lot of touches, and that could be to the detriment of their team. He's athletic, powerful and a tough guy to handle, with a decent shot in addition to his ability to finish at the basket. He should be used as a scorer for some punch off the bench.
Nicolas Batum was a nice find as a rookie after Webster went down last year. He's kind of funky. He's rangy and a good runner with a long body that's comparable to Tayshaun Prince's. The jump shot is his weak point, but physically he's good enough to stay in the games and play. He was good defensively on the ball as well as in their scheme of switching things, because he's long enough to back off and still contest the shot.
Travis Outlaw is continually improving. I admire him for staying at it and improving his jump shot year after year, to the point that they go to him at the end of games to make shots. He's a very good, versatile defender whom you can play at power forward, and he runs the floor ahead of the pack.
Now that Miller is there, Steve Blake has gone from being an adequate starter to a terrific backup at point guard, which makes him a coach's dream in that sense. [Blake has been starting more frequently than Miller in the preseason.]
Rudy Fernandez looked like he was wearing down as last season went on, maybe because he is thin or maybe also because guys caught on to his game. But he's going to be a good player. He knows how to play in addition to being an excellent athlete who can finish lobs. He gets off the ground quickly and anticipates well.
Przybilla is a big shot-blocker who has improved his free-throw shooting tremendously [66.3 percent last season, well above his career mark of 55.2 percent], which is a big plus for a role player who catches the ball in the paint. He's an excellent insurance policy if Oden doesn't come through or is injured again. He's a luxury that a lot of teams don't have.
They should be a second-round playoff team this year, and the pressure to get there will be felt by the coach more than anybody else. But Nate McMillan has been through that pressure already as a player and a coach. He's done a great job of directing that team, keeping it stable and teaching the young guys how to be professional. Now it's going to be whether he is making the right adjustments in the playoffs, but he should be able to handle that scrutiny.
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