A part of me didn’t want to write this article. A part of me wanted to give up after last night’s game, forget the rest of the season, and just focus on the case of Blue Ribbon my cronies brought to soften the Lakers opening night blow.
I will not lie to you. I came into this game with the aspirations of a fan who was finally ready to reap the rewards of what seemed like a lifetime of waiting and hoping. I won’t even hesitate to tell all of you that I was one of the ones who stood in front of L.A. fans, lauding the Blazers’ newborn squad and predicting a more than competitive game on opening night.
Like Nate McMillan pointed out before the tip, the 28th of October seemed like it would be the rebirth of a rivalry; a rivalry that had pretty much died out in the minds of Californians after the infamous Western Conference Game 7 disaster in 2000.
I admit these things to you and stand before you a defeated fan. There is no way around it. The Trailblazers were horrible in their first game. Brandon looked like an amateur, LaMarcus’ shot was flat, and Greg got injured; a worst-case-scenario tri-fecta.
But despite how disgusting the Blazers looked, there is reason for hope. Here are a few things the Blazers’ should do to get their season back on track.
1. Bring Greg Oden off the bench when he returns from injury.
Portland fans took yet another collective sigh when news came down tonight that Oden had only suffered a mild ankle sprain and would be sidelined for just two to four weeks.
While the diagnosis is good considering the possibilities, the Blazers clearly need to rethink how they use Greg Oden in the game.
Before Greg started playing again, Nate McMillan and the Trailblazers staff talked non-stop about how they would try to take the pressure off Greg in the first few months. They told us that Roy and Aldridge would continue to be the first options; that Greg Oden would adjust to the team, not the other way around.
Come opening night, the Blazers completely abandoned that mentality. Instead, Greg saw numerous isolation plays called for him in the post, a fact that is especially alarming considering his injury came with his back to the basket.
Both Roy and Aldridge stated after the game that they were trying to play off Greg and ultimately had a hard time adjusting. The problem here is obvious: the expectations are way too high for this kid. The Blazers need to alleviate the pressure on Oden and the best way to do that would be to bring him off the bench when he returns.
Joel Pryzbilla is more than a capable center and his entry into the starting lineup would force LaMarcus and Brandon to be more aggressive offensively. Aldridge in particular needs to abandon some of his outside shooting and start preparing for a Blazers team in which Oden is not there for the majority of the post touches.
When Greg gets back in a few weeks, the Blazers should strip his starting role and rid him of the ridiculous pressure they’ve placed on his shoulders in just the past few weeks.
2. Give more touches to players who aren’t afraid of contact.
The Blazers’ achilles heel last year was the fact that they couldn’t score down low. The team was 30th in the league in points scored in the paint and banked on a healthy Greg Oden to help improve their post woes.
The Blazers placed so much weight on Oden’s inside game that they traded away Jarrett Jack, a turnover prone but aggressive point, and allowed their star and backup power forwards to start orienting their games more to the perimeter.
In the opener against the Lakers, LaMarcus Aldridge and Channing Frye were 0 for 4 from downtown. This kind of “soft” game is not what the Blazers need. Luckily, there are a couple of steps they can take to remedy the situation.
First, like I said before, both LaMarcus and Channing need to commit themselves to some post play. Ike Diogu’s minutes should also increase some as Channing doesn’t seem to offer as much tenacity down low as his fellow Pac-10 standout.
Second, the Blazers need to find a way to give more time to Jerryd Bayless. Steve Blake is a reliable and smart point guard, but he cannot get to the line like Jerryd. Outside of Roy and Oden, Jerryd could be our best option for drawing fouls by the end of the season.
Finally, if the Blazers really want to figure out their inside troubles, they need to make a trade. All the practice in the world is not going to make LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Pryzbilla, Channing Frye or even Ike Diogu into elite inside scorers this year. Don’t be surprised if the Blazers suddenly open their eyes to trading for a more serviceable post scorer now that Oden is down.
3. Remember the other rookies.
I love Oden. I think that if he can figure out his injury problems he’ll be a hall of famer.
But Rudy Fernandez and Jerryd Bayless are both special. All-Star caliber special.
For any of you who watched that Laker game closely, you might have seen the ray of hope. Rudy, most of all, showed that he is going to have no trouble fitting into this league. He finished the game with 16 points on 50 percent shooting with four assists and two steals. Not bad at all when you consider he was often playing opposite of Kobe.
Rudy’s first shot was a missed three, but it was a testament to how little fear he had right from the start. One thing is becoming more and more clear, Rudy Fernandez is afraid of no one in this league and he is primed and ready to steal the spotlight from Greg.
Bayless on the other hand had a much less impressive statline but seemed to gel well with Brandon. When Bayless and Roy played together in the final quarter, you got the feeling that the tandem was just too talented to not stay together.
Steve looked good, but if Jerryd can prove that he can avoid turnovers, he should definitely steal the starting role away from Blake by the end of the season.
Last year, as I tried to figure out how to cope with Oden’s first NBA injury, I decided that this team needed some other pieces to grow into a championship contender if Greg was not in our future. The Blazers found those pieces.
If any Blazer fans don’t think that Rudy Fernandez and Jerryd Bayless along with an improved Roy and Aldridge can’t bring us an extra 10 wins and a playoff berth, you haven’t been watching carefully enough.
The key will be whether or not the organization can change its philosophy and ignore the hype and uncertainty surrounding their injury prone big man. We moved on from Bowie with Clyde, Buck, and Terry. We’ll move on from Oden with Brandon, LaMarcus and Rudy if we have to.