There is no doubt amongst anyone who pays attention to the NBA that the Portland Trailblazers have a good thing going. The question is how good will it be this season? Today we get to take a closer look at the Blazers through a Q & A with Coup from Rip City Project.
Jeremy: Despite the presence of Steve Blake, Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless and the fact they hold the rights to Petteri Koponen there is a belief that the Blazers are weak at the point. Are you worried about the point guard position?
Coup: I'm not worried because I think if the answer isn't on the team as currently assembled, then Kevin Pritchard will do his due diligence (as he likes to say) in finding what they need. What I'm not sure is about the players we have now. The fact that Koponen wasn't signed this summer writes him off for me, at least for a couple years. The general consensus is that Steve Blake is a placeholder at the position, which he could be, but he's done very well with the minutes he's been given. He doesn't have a ton of upside, though, and is sort of our guard version of Joel Pryzbilla: he's good as a starter, but would be great as a backup.
Sergio has always been a wild card. He has looked like a changed player in preseason so far, confident in his decisions at the helm of the offense and with a newfound arc on his shot that's served him very well. His current value will be the theatrics he creates when both he and Rudy Fernandez are on the floor, but someday could also become a steady backup. The question will be consistency. Bayless has the most pure talent of the group, and the guy who would be voted most likely to succeed in the 2009 Blazers Point Guard Yearbook, but he's going through some growing pains that are tough to see past. Jerryd can run the point, and he has confidence oozing over his sweat, but it all depends on how the team develops him. Right now he reminds me of Monta Ellis, if I have to compare him to someone, but we are going to need a "truer" PG than that mold for the next decade.
Jeremy: Last time we saw Greg Oden playing in organized games he was averaging about nine fouls a game in the Las Vegas Summer League back in July of 2007. On the other hand he has all the tools to dominate from game one of his NBA career. What are realistic expectations for Greg Oden?
Coup: I get asked about the big guy all the time, so forgive me if I repeat some things I've said other places. As much as I dislike making comparisons to other players to determine another player's value, Oden is the closest thing to Shaq I've seen since the big guy starting taking half seasons off in 2002. The reason I didn't say Dwight Howard is because Dwight has skinnier legs than most people think and Greg's lower body, by all account, could move a bus Flintstones style.
With center prospects the first thing I always want to know is do they want to work? Greg does. Then I want to know if they can play the game outside of dunking? Well, Greg's hook shot has a ways to go, but already in preseason games he's showing willingness to pass out of double teams for open three's, and just the threat of that changes the floor. This first month of the season is going to be the most rusty and out of shape we ever see Oden, and it is already clear that he cannot be contained within four feet of the basket. Being a great center is largely about attitude, Shaq had it for awhile, David Robinson had it, Duncan has it (he qualifies at C) and Russell most certainly had it. Greg, for however much he improves his offense in the next decade, strikes me as the type that means what he says when he says he wants to win.
Stat-wise I'd be perfectly happy with 12 points, 10 boards and a handful of blocks per game, but it's the rebounds I'm going to be watching carefully, as we desperately needs someone to clean up the boards. As for the fouls, that something that all big men need to learn every time they advance to a higher level of basketball. He'll take himself out of a few games, but if he's doing it playing aggressive defense then I'm not worried at all.
Jeremy: Deep down does part of you wonder what the Trailblazers would be like with Kevin Durant playing small forward?
Coup: To be honest, I don't. Not an inch of me ever wanted Durant to be the pick, and even post-microfracture surgery I wouldn't change the decision. Durant is going to be a stud, at least offensively, but he has a replaceable skill set. Portland might be more fun to watch with Durant in the lineup, but he wouldn't completely transform the floor in the way that Oden already does. I always talk about being able to control and utilize all three ranges (deep, mid, paint) of the floor. We've got guys who can do things where Durant does them, but few players could do what Oden is promising under the bucket, on both ends.
Jeremy: I have always been intrigued by Travis Outlaw. His performance has excelled as his role on the team expanded. Was last season his breakout year or are there even better things yet to come?
Coup: I love watching Outlaw, but I'm not as high on him as some other Blazer fans seem to be. He can get his shot off almost anytime he pleases, and can make them in the clutch, along with a buffet of highlight reel plays, but right now his value is contained to what he is right now: a sixth-man who plays with the starters in the 4th. One reason I'm worried about the Martell Webster injury is the idea of Outlaw starting. Outlaw wouldn't get nearly the amount of shots with the first unit and thus wouldn't establish the same rhythm for when we need him to score in the fourth.
My biggest knock on Outlaw, though, has nothing to do with attitude or work ethic or even talent, it's that he doesn't make plays for other people. Now, you can be a very good player in the league with the role Outlaw has, but to ascend to the next level he would have to show he can succeed in the playmaker role and not be such a gunslinger, which it looks like he is again this year judging from preseason. I'd love him to prove me wrong, though.
Jeremy: Heading into the season expectations for the Blazers are through the roof. Are high expectations a good thing for such a young team?
Coup: Well, the expectations have more to do with long-term potential than anything else. I have them pegged for 46-50 wins this year but long term I'd be extremely disappointed not to see them in more than a single NBA Finals. But people like me saying things like that aren't particularly healthy for any team or any player, which is exactly why almost everyone on Blazers staff, to a point, has been downplaying those expectations. Contrary to what some people think, this is still a growing year. They need to produce wins as they grow together and learn how to use the bevy of talent around them, but the longer the team can avoid the pressure of expectations, the better.
Jeremy: Can the Trailblazers make the leap from overachieving pups who were thrilled to be in the playoff race last season to a team that can play at a consistently great level?
Coup: Yes, but consistently great probably won't happen this year. Fortunately, you can probably be sporadically great and good the rest of the season and get 50 wins. Sure, they will have their nights when people look at the team and wonder what the heck anyone sees in them, like the night you saw that "10" from college sending some Smirnoff the wrong direction, but the word "youth" is overrated. What matters more than some arbitrary numbers of years known as age is maturity, and star players as mature as Brandon Roy – the unquestioned leader of this team – are few and far between. Nate McMillan deserves more credit than he's given, too, but the biggest difference this team can make to become "playoff level" is the consistency of inside points and defense from Aldridge and Oden. When you are controlling the paint on both ends, you can afford poor shooting nights and still get those tough wins in the regular season. And yes, I know I might sound overly positive, but I've heard and seen enough of these players to have confidence in the future. The perennial youth of the Atlanta Hawks this is not.
Thanks to Coup for the insight. The Blazers are one of the most intriguing teams in the NBA. If they can take a big step forward this season (50 plus wins) we may see a man walk on Mars before we see the Blazers eliminated short of the conference finals.