Does Portland Need A Villian?
After a blazing 7-2 start, Portland hit a wall and reversed trend. Almost immediately the team faced accusations of being too nice and lacking the leadership to overcome adversity in close contests, but after facing nine playoff-bound teams in their first 15 games, the Trail Blazers still sport a solid plus .500 record. In a condensed lockout shortened season, even minor slumps become accentuated, and it is easy to overlook that this Trail Blazers roster only vaguely resembles last year’s team.
“It’s a new group,” said Head coach Nate McMillan. “When you add a new point guard to your roster, your backup point guard in Crawford is new, you bring in Kurt Thomas, you bring in Craig Smith, and Gerald Wallace was only with us half a season last year. They have to come in and adapt to our style of play and building chemistry takes some time.”
“We brought in six new guys, lost Brandon and Greg is out another year,” explained Raymond Felton. “The guys we brought in including myself, Jamaal, Craig, Kurt are all guys who have been in this league for a while now, but we didn’t play with this team last year, and none of us played with each other so we all have to get used to each other. It’s still early in the season; we are not even at game 20 yet. You have to take the good with the bad. When we started off the season hot, no one said anything crazy, now that we are losing, all of a sudden we have no leaders. When we were winning, we had all the leaders in the world.”
In the Trail Blazers’ starting lineup, only LaMarcus Aldridge and Marcus Camby were on the team before the start of last season and even the regular rotation players coming off the bench have gone through a major overhaul.
“In that starting lineup, Wesley, Gerald Wallace, Raymond Felton is a new group of guys basically and Crawford, plus Kurt Thomas is somewhat of a new group,” said McMillan.
“It is still a process,” admits Gerald Wallace. “We are still trying to get adjusted. I think right now we are just trying to come together as a team.”
For a team that is still just trying to come together, they are doing surprisingly well.
The biggest change from last season is the loss of All-Star Brandon Roy, and even though he only played in 47 games, his presence is still felt. The new players may not miss him, but there is definitely an impact on the returning guys.
“Brandon Roy is gone,” said McMillan. “We have a different roster than we have had in the past and its going to take some time.”
“Roy was one of the best shooting guard in the NBA,” explained Nicolas Batum. “He was a three-time All-Star so it will be different for us but we got some guys who can play. You can’t replace Brandon Roy but we do the best we can.
“Of course he was the leader. I have a lot of respect for Brandon Roy. Even when he was hurt last year, I still had respect for him, and for the next few years, and forever, it won’t change.”
Although the team may have hoped Roy would return, the face of the franchise was changing and the mantle was falling Aldridge even before the start of this season. It was a big change for the normally quiet power forward who was used to being the second option on a successful team.
“LaMarcus is the guy we have really played through the last couple of seasons due to injuries to a number of our guys and he is the guy that we are going to continue to play through,” explained McMillan. “He has been the face of the organization.
“Over the years with the injuries that we have had there has been a lot of pressure put on him in a sense of having to really be the number one guy and carry a heavier load without Brandon, without Greg Oden, without a number of guys and he has been the guy that we have built our system, our style of play around.”
Being the go-to-guy does not necessarily make one a team’s leader and leadership on the court and in the locker room is important to creating and maintaining success. On a team with so many changes, the concerns expressed about whether or not Portland had someone who could get everyone’s attention when things were not going well were going to be explored.
“He is a young guy and all of a sudden you bring in veterans that he is supposed to be leading and there is a respect factor there so it’s an adjustment,” said McMillan. “Just as those guys come in and are feeling out situation, he has to feel out them.”
“There is a lot of leadership on this team,” explained Felton. “I am a leader, L.A. is a leader, Camby, Kurt Thomas, Jamaal, and Gerald is a leader. You always find people who have something negative to write about when you go into a slump and start losing some games but we just have to stay together as a team and we will get over this slump.”
The veterans may have changed and temporarily slowed the process down, but Aldridge is starting to gain the respect of the players he is trying to lead.
“LaMarcus has done a good job,” said Batum. “He is now our go-to-guy. He has stepped up a lot since last year. He is more vocal now. He knows his role now. He knows he is our best guy, our go-to-guy. He knows what he needs to do. He knows he has to score but he knows he has to be more vocal and be a leader and he has done a good job at that. He talks to us a lot during practice, on the bus, and during games.”
“Everybody knows that L.A. is the face of the franchise so we kind of go behind him and how he goes is pretty much how the team goes,” explained Wallace. “I think he is doing a pretty good job of it. He is handling it well. We just have to get behind him and follow him.”
The veterans Wallace and Felton sum up the situation well. This team does have veteran leadership, but they have to get behind Aldridge and he is stepping up to assume the role expected of the team’s best player.
“All of the older guys on our team are great guys,” said Aldridge. “Kurt, Camby, Gerald, Ray, they all listen to me. I think they all feel I have worked so hard that they don’t mind listening to me. I am definitely trying to speak more and be more vocal, try to speak out more in the bad moments and I think my teammates sense that I am trying to do something different and they are working with it.”
A change in leadership in Portland that started last season because of circumstances beyond anyone’s control is in full gear this year as Aldridge assumes the face of the franchise role unopposed by a possible return of Roy. In this new environment, Aldridge is evolving from the go-to-guy role of last season to a true leadership position with the encouragement of his teammates and coaches. It is a big step in his development, but Aldridge understands what his team needs from him and looks to be ready to take the next big step in his development as a star player.
The “too nice” to succeed label that was being hung on Portland may have been premature.