Commentary

Hollinger's Team Forecast: Portland Trail Blazers

Originally Published: October 1, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

BlazersSam Forencich/Getty ImagesWith Greg Oden healthy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy and the Blazers are a playoff team.
GO TO: 2007-08 Recap     Offseason Moves     Biggest Strength/Weakness     Outlook

2007-08 Recap

It didn't happen quite the way they expected, but the artists formerly known as the "Jail Blazers" made their way back to respectability in 2007-08. Overcoming the crushing loss of Greg Oden to microfracture knee surgery before the season, Portland shocked the league with an early season 13-game winning streak and was in the playoff chase for much of the year before finishing at .500 on the nose.

The Blazers were an unusual team, actually. Despite having one of the league's youngest rosters and arguably its best collection of young talent, they didn't play like a young team. Portland was slow-paced, methodical, and relied heavily on jump shots -- if you look at their statistical breakdowns they had a lot more in common with veteran teams like Detroit or San Antonio than with the likes of other young teams such as Atlanta or Philadelphia.

HOLLINGER'S '07-08 STATS
W-L: 41-41 (Pythagorean W-L: 38-44)
Offensive Efficiency: 104.1 (15th)
Defensive Efficiency: 105.5 (17th)
Pace Factor: 90.4 (29th)
Highest PER: Brandon Roy (19.44)

Let's start with the offense, a phase of the game at which the Blazers were a lot better than anyone expected -- mainly because all the players, individually, were a lot better than anyone expected. With Oden out and leading scorer Zach Randolph traded, the expectation was that Portland would struggle to score. Instead, every key Blazer except Jarrett Jack put up better numbers in 2007-08 than he had in 2006-07; in some cases the differences were staggering.

While some of this was to be expected from a team with so many young players, it wasn't just the young guys. Of the four largest player efficiency rating (PER) increases, three belonged to veterans Steve Blake, Joel Przybilla, and James Jones. Pryzbilla's improved play was a huge factor since he had to take over in the middle for the injured Oden, while Blake's was equally important as the starting point guard. As for Jones, he got off to a torrid start on 3-pointers, helping fuel Portland's early season win streak, before injuries knocked him off stride in the second half of the year.

Blazers '06-07 PER vs. '07-08 PER

PLAYER 2006-07 2007-08 CHANGE
Joel Pryzbilla 7.43 12.33 +4.90
Channing Frye 10.50 14.83 +4.33
James Jones 10.81 13.66 +2.85
Steve Blake 9.98 12.09 +2.11
Martell Webster 10.02 12.07 +2.05
LaMarcus Aldridge 17.17 18.56 +1.39
Brandon Roy 18.08 19.44 +1.36
Travis Outlaw 15.26 15.79 +0.53
Jarrett Jack 14.62 13.06 -1.56

One other factor that helped was Portland's good health. Of the top nine players, Jones was the only one to miss significant time; this basically enabled the Blazers to play the same rotation the entire season, which is almost unheard of in the NBA's 82-game grind. That probably helped the chemistry too -- this was among the league's happiest locker rooms.

Offensively, the Blazers were a midrange jump-shooting team that largely avoided the paint. Portland had only 4.6 percent of its shots blocked, narrowly missing out on the league lead, because the Blazers so rarely shot in the paint. All four of their double-digit scorers -- Brandon Roy, Travis Outlaw, LaMarcus Aldridge and Martell Webster -- were more comfortable shooting from 15 to 18 feet, making the Blazers one of the rare teams that generated below-average numbers of both free-throws attempts and 3-point attempts.

They also rarely ran. Despite their youth, the Blazers were a straight half court team that played the league's second-slowest pace -- only Detroit was slower. They would isolate Roy or Outlaw to work off the dribble and either dish to a teammate for a jumper or shoot one themselves. With Oden back, that approach is likely to change a bit this coming season.

The Blazers played like an old team at the defensive end, too. Portland hardly ever gambled and instead hung back and dared opponents to shoot over them. The Blazers were last in steals, swiping the ball on just 6.08 percent of opponent possessions, and were well below average in fouls, too. Coach Nate McMillan liked to play zones, especially when he went to small lineups (a tactic he utilized often), and that undoubtedly contributed to those numbers.

Fewest Steals Per Opp. Possession, '07-08

TEAM % OF POSSESSIONS WITH STEAL
Portland 6.08
Memphis 6.27
Dallas 6.43
Phoenix 6.48
Seattle 6.51
League average 7.63

It also contributed to another number, however -- the Blazers' abysmal defensive rebounding. Though Przybilla was among the league's best rebounders, as a team Portland ranked just 25th in defensive rebound rate. Between the low rebounds and the infrequent steals, the Blazers were the league's second easiest team to get shots against, surrendering 0.99 shots per opponent possession.

But with all the long arms on the Blazer roster, opponents tended to miss the shots they took. Portland ranked eighth in opponent shooting percentage and ninth in opponent true shooting percentage, negating some of the advantage of all those shot attempts and placing them a respectable 17th in defensive efficiency overall.


Biggest Strength: Size

One reason the Blazers can seemingly play like such an old team is because they're so big. At every position, Portland lines up an inch or two taller than the league average, and although McMillan likes to play small he can also send out some freakishly huge lineups this year.

OFFSEASON MOVES
What roster moves did the Blazers make over the summer? And were they the right moves? John Hollinger breaks it down. Insider Insider

Up front, they have Oden, a dominating 7-footer who should control the paint, and Przybilla, the 7-foot-1 shot blocker who held down the fort a year ago. At power forward they have two softies in Aldridge and Frye, but both players are 6-foot-11 and can create problems with their length as wing defenders in zones. Some teams don't have any players that big; the Blazers have four (or five, if you still count LaFrentz as a player).

Go down the list and the size advantage gets more daunting. Small forward Webster is 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, and backup Outlaw is 6-foot-9; either can slide down to shooting guard when needed and provide an even more imposing height edge.

Roy is big for a shooting guard at 6-foot-6, 229, and what's really scary is that he is comfortable playing the point and often closed games at that spot a year ago; when he does that the 6-foot-5 Fernandez can come off the bench. Even at the point the Blazers are big: Blake, Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez all stand 6-foot-3, making them the shortest players on the team.

All that length should make the Blazers an unusually good zone defensive team, especially with Oden as a goalie in the middle and the young players on the outside gaining experience in playing NBA defense.

Biggest Weakness: Youth

Portland is expecting big things in the wake of last year's surprising success and the return of Oden, but it's nave to think there won't be a few growing pains along the way.

This is particularly true in the backcourt, where rookies Bayless and Fernandez will be asked to take on rotation roles immediately and are likely to take their lumps over the first half of the season. Oden will be learning on the fly as well, as he copes with a mended knee while figuring out where his shots will come from against pro defenses.

Additionally, everyone else on the roster will have to adjust to the return of Oden, as the Blazers are likely to play inside-out much more often than they did a year ago. Roy and Outlaw will have to make the greatest sacrifices, something which can chafe younger players who are trying to build their resumes.

Long term, of course, Portland's youth is a major advantage, as several players are likely to improve rapidly in coming seasons. But with only two rotation players older than 25, it could be an impediment this season.


Outlook

So much of the expectation for this year depends on what one plugs in for Oden. If he has a monstrous, David Robinson-type rookie year, then the Blazers are going to be phenomenally good; since I've heard scouts make that comparison I'm not going to dismiss the possibility.

But I'm also going to make him prove it to me before I plug that in as his expected production. I took a more conservative approach with Oden, projecting him as a not-quite All-Star center who improves the D significantly. I also plugged him in for 33 minutes a game, including time missed for injuries, which seems reasonable, if not optimistic, given he's been hurt his last two seasons.

If that's the case, then Portland might not be quite as good as people expect. The thing people forget about last year is everything went right for the Blazers -- most of their players played well above their career norms and nobody got hurt after Oden went out. Going forward, one can't be quite as optimistic, especially given Roy's repeated knee trouble and the fact Frye is already out.

More importantly, they still have some major issues in the backcourt. Roy is great, obviously, but Blake is a nice backup being pressed into service as a starter because the team lacks other options. Behind those two are Bayless and Fernandez; while each has a high ceiling, both are likely to take some lumps this year. Bayless only played one year of college ball and is trying to cut his teeth as a shoot-first point guard, while Fernandez has to adjust to the longer NBA 3-point line and will be attacked regularly on defense.

Throw in a lack of 3-point shooting to complement Oden and the defense's inability to force turnovers, and there are enough problem areas that the Blazers might struggle to make the playoffs if Oden isn't awesome.

While Portland's future still looks as bright as any team in the league's, this season feels more like a consolidation year in which the young guys learn how to play and everyone adjusts to Oden. If so, they'll still likely make the playoffs, but the win-loss record might not improve as much as folks expect.

Prediction: 42-40, 2nd in Northwest Division, 8th in Western Conference

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.