The Oregon Trail of Expectations

I'm a Blazer fan.

So to me, using this time of year to think about, read about, and talk about the Blazers is normal.

What's weirding me out, however, is that this year, the big Greg Oden/Brandon Roy/LaMarcus Aldridge/Rudy Fernandez/Gang's All Here Year, it's not just us geeky Blazer fans who are talking about the Blazers.

Not too long ago, I asked a fairly random assortment of NBA insiders and bigwigs what the story of the NBA would be this year, and unprompted by me, people like Commissioner David Stern and Economist Justin Wolfers singled out the Portland Trail Blazers as a story.

Made me pause. I mean, hold on a second. My team. My little woodsy squad from the Northwest ... that's what David "New York-based overlord of everything" Stern thinks is cooking in 2008-2009?

My feelings here are all over the map.

On the one hand, I'm right there. Talk it up. This team is on the road to a title. With health and some other good luck, I'm ready to talk 2011 trash all day. And as an ambitious thinker, if this team can't win a playoff series this year, I won't think this roster has lived up to my expectations.

But let's be honest. There is every reason to believe that this team is on its way to the very highest heights of the NBA. But this season? This season, it's entirely possible the team will finish right around .500 and out of the playoffs just like last year.

In other words, Blazer fans, let's save our best trash-talking for next year.

Does the Blazer Era Really Start Now?
Look at the roster. I included each player's year of birth, so you can see how insanely young this team is. Every player here, basically, is young and loaded with promise, (or is named Raef LaFrentz and comes with one of the most appetizing and trade-ready expiring contracts in NBA history):

  • LaMarcus Aldridge (1985)

  • Nicolas Batum (1988)

  • Jerryd Bayless (1988)

  • Steve Blake (1980)

  • Ike Diogu (1983)

  • Rudy Fernandez (1985)

  • Channing Frye (1983)

  • Raef LaFrentz (1976)

  • Greg Oden (1988)

  • Travis Outlaw (1984)

  • Joel Przybilla (1979)

  • Shavlik Randolph (1983)

  • Sergio Rodriguez (1986)

  • Brandon Roy (1984)

  • Martell Webster (1986)

Teams This Young Never Crush Everybody
Do players this young ever lead top teams? Once in a blue moon. LeBron James and Deron Williams were born in 1984. Chris Paul was born in 1985. Sometimes really young players can play huge roles on top teams. But the class of the league is much older. Kobe Bryant (1978) and Kevin Garnett (1976) met in the Finals. Tim Duncan (1976) is a fashionable pick to make it back this time around. Even Dwyane Wade, born in 1982, is considered young for his accomplishments.

The Oden Factor
The biggest reason for all the Blazer excitement is the arrival of Greg Oden. And he's a game-changer, for sure. But right out of the box? Many moments he'll be outstanding, but like every player his age, many times he won't be. He's a rookie in every sense of the word. He's extremely young, and men his size notoriously take longer to develop than smaller players. He'll foul up a storm. He'll be out of position. He'll hit the wall. And let's not forget that he's recovering from fantastically serious knee surgery.

The Blazers were young last year, but thanks to Oden's injury, they didn't play rookies. (Taurean Green and Josh McRoberts were stapled to the bench.) A team that surprised everyone by squeaking to .500 will now be playing Greg Oden, Rudy Fernandez, Nicholas Batum, and Jerryd Bayless in place of more experienced players. Very seldom does an NBA rookie outperform a veteran in his first year. Yet, for Portland to improve, these four will have to do better than the players who played those minutes last year, which is a tall order.

In the long run, this roster is far better. But this season, a quarter of the active roster will be experiencing the NBA life for the first time. From the referees, to the veteran opponents, there are a thousand prices to pay for that.

The Defense
Are the Portland Trail Blazers any good at defense? They'll have to be if they're going to stand out at all in the tough Western Conference. Last year, they were slightly below average (17th) in defensive efficiency. This year, a lot of analysis begins and ends with "Greg Oden will protect the rim, and grab a lot of rebounds."

But there's a lot more to team defense than that. If you're thinking in terms of winning playoff games, you have to think about winning individual matchups, making everything difficult, clever schemes to befuddle opponents ... the whole gamut. Does this squad have that kind of identity?

No. Not yet. Several players on the team show the inclination, but the whole package has not been there.

What the team does have going for it is tremendous length at every position, as well as a commitment to some very sneaky defenses that literally leave offenses confused. Time and again last season the Blazers would play conventionally in the first half, to give opponents a false sense of security. Then in the third quarter they'd go into a zone, which still makes NBA players pause. But Portland didn't stop there, as they'd alter that zone a hundred different ways as the second half unfolded. Sometimes they'd leave the cutter to be picked up by the defender in the next zone. As teams prepared to exploit the cutter's daylight, Portland would mix things up and send a defender with the cutter, while re-shuffling the zone to fill the remaining space.

Grown NBA players were befuddled and angry at each other. It's stuff John Chaney's Temple teams used to do, and it came straight from there via Chaney's former assistant, Dean Demopoulos, who has long worked for Nate McMillan.

With more blocked shots and defensive rebounds thanks to that big rookie guy, this could be more effective than ever. But it's still an experiment, compared to what most elite teams are doing at this end of the floor.

Portland has some gifted young athletes who really ought to run. Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernandez would both like to run all day. Travis Outlaw knows how to beat his man down the floor. I'd like to see them on the floor with LaMarcus Aldridge, who is one of the fastest 6-11 guys in the history of the planet,

But the team as a whole has been s-l-o-w.

Last season, they played at the NBA's 29th fastest pace. Deliberative departed point guard Jarrett Jack may have been part of the r
eason for that slow pace, but so was Roy, who does well when he takes his time.

How do you put all those pieces together? They'll work it out. But establishing a new identity is one of those things that costs you a game or two.

James Jones
Last year, the Blazers were a vastly better team when James Jones was healthy. I think there are several reasons for that:

  • He kept the team organized. At times, especially on defense in the second unit, the team can look lost, with people in the wrong places. Jones was forever directing traffic, and making the whole team better.

  • He was one of the few Blazers (right there with Joel Przybilla and now Nicholas Batum) who can do what he does best without handling the ball. Championship teams always have lots of those guys.

  • He was a veteran.

  • He was tough, on a team that is a wee bit soft.

Now, in case you missed it, Jones is playing for the Heat. That will cost the Blazers some wins.

The Good News

Among the hardest of hardcore Blazer fans, I'm probably already branded a traitor or a freak.
But I'm not exactly down about the Portland Trail Blazers. I'm just not yet convinced that this is the year to start ramping up expectations.

Some things that could make me eat my words:

  • If Greg Oden figures things out, and really is a top NBA center most nights by the meat of the season, then there is a lot less for me to worry about.

  • The young players who contributed last season may be better. LaMarcus Aldridge looked good last year, and he looks way better this year. Sergio Rodriguez is shooting and defending better than a year ago. There have been off-season reports that Martell Webster (when he's healthy again after a stress fracture in his foot), Travis Outlaw, Channing Frye, and Steve Blake all re-tooled nicely over the summer.

  • Rudy Fernandez may prove to not be your average rookie.

  • In the end, this team will always revolve around Brandon Roy, and he is at an age when players start scratching at the best of their careers. If he's still getting better, then maybe it will be party time in Portland this season after all.

There's also one other thing that could be going on here: Maybe being a Blazer fan has been so hard for me, for so long, that I am not yet capable of thinking like a front-runner.

I promise, I'll get over that quickly if it proves to be the case.

An opening night win against the Lakers, in L.A., would be a nice step in that direction. Can't wait.