NBA@2: ‘What Might Have Been’ Sinking Blazers?
This is not how it was supposed to be.
When the Portland Trail Blazers take the court on a given night there are supposed to be at least two and possibly three All-Stars wearing the red and black and representing Rip City. Brandon Roy is supposed to be in the starring role as the only player who could go toe to toe with Kobe Bryant and come out on top. Greg Oden is supposed to be a force to reckon with in the paint, particularly on the defensive end. Finally, LaMarcus Aldridge is supposed to be . . .well, what he is: an emerging All-Star front court player.
Unfortunately, only one part of the long-term plan for Portland is actually going according to plan, with Aldridge set to take part in his first All-Star game this weekend in Orlando.
“It’s good that the coaches recognize what he’s been doing,” Blazers head coach Nate McMillan explains to HOOPSWORLD. “We felt like last year he should’ve been on the All-Star team and this year he is having an even better season and they recognized that and are rewarding him. He’s worked hard. I thought last year was a motivation, even more motivation to become an All-Star and take that next step and have an opportunity this year.”
The emergence of Aldridge is one thing, but with Roy and Oden gone the team needs even more from their only remaining All-Star.
“It’s good for us, but we have to establish that player now,” says McMillan. “When you lose an All-Star in Brandon Roy our hope the last few years was that we would have two or three, and without Brandon or with Brandon retiring, it’s good to have a guy who has worked himself into that role. It doesn’t stop here, though. I think the challenge for him now is to play at that level every year and not only be an All-Star, but also help his team improve.”
There was a very real hope that Nicolas Batum would be a player who could emerge as a consistent threat for the Blazers alongside Aldridge, but consistency has not been his strength. He’s had a couple of 33-point games, sure, but he’s also had games in which he managed just nine points, seven points, six points or failed to score altogether.
“I think he’s been streaky,” says McMillan. “As a team we’ve been streaky this season. No one on this team has really stepped out and taken a role. I think Nic has some good moments and then some moments where he’s just been ok. At this time in his career you need to see more consistency from him.”
The other significant factor for Portland has been the uncertainty at the point guard position. Raymond Felton was acquired to be the team’s starter, but more often than not McMillan turns to Jamal Crawford to run the offense.
“I think it’s because he has slowed down a little bit,” McMillan says of his decision to use Crawford at the point more. “I think his decisions have been better. He’s taking what’s there and not pressing as much or trying to force anything. He’s knocking down his shots, too. He’s allowing the offense to come to him and he’s playing with the flow of the game. If the opponent traps him, which a lot of teams are trying to do, he’s giving the ball up. When he has single coverage, he’s taking advantage of that and not settling as much. He’s one of the top free throw shooters in the league and I thought that early he was settling for a lot of tough jump shots when he can get to the basket and get to the free throw line a little bit more.”
It certainly hasn’t been a bad season for the Blazers, who have been especially good at home, but it’s a far cry from where the team might have been if things had turned out differently. If Brandon Roy and Greg Oden were healthy and playing alongside LaMarcus Aldridge most of the team’s other issues would be academic. The Blazers would likely be one of the dominant forces in the Western Conference with a commanding performance at All-Star weekend, as well.
As it is, Aldridge will stand as the lone Blazer in Orlando, waiting for someone else to step up, show they belong among the league’s elite, and help him push the Blazers beyond the status of merely a team with potential.
A Bit Of Revenge For The Lakers
The last time the Los Angeles Lakers walked off the court in American Airlines Center in Dallas they were a broken team. The Mavericks handed them a demoralizing series sweep, one in which Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum completely lost their composure and embarrassed themselves and their teammates with frustration plays long after the final game had been decided.
On Wednesday night things looked a little different. Odom was supposed to be in a Mavericks jersey, but sat out with some excuse about family matters, and the Lakers were the team that maintained their composure down the stretch of a 96-91 win. It was particularly impressive for LA, considering that Kobe Bryant managed just 15 points on the night.
“There are a lot of good teams, but this team [Dallas] has been playing well, and defensively they’ve been really great in recent weeks,” Derek Fisher said after the game. “Obviously, with the way last season ended it was a big game for a lot of us that remember that. But this is a team. We realize that Kobe is our lead guy. He’s going to be the guy that carries the game most nights, but Pau and Andrew were great, and Matt and Meta were great on the boards from the forward position. It was a good win for us.”
“It was super important for us to get a win on the road, especially against this team,” added Bynum, who scored 19 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. “They swept us last year, so that was in the back of our minds. When we play them, we come out and play hard.”
It would have been a nice win for the Mavericks to get as they prepare for their toughest stretch of the season. Dirk Nowitzki will be in Orlando for the All-Star game, but the rest of the team has been given time off to prepare for a stretch of nine games in 12 days immediately following the break.
The stretch might best be termed an endurance test for the Mavs, who will play just one contender over the period in question. After playing Memphis, New Orleans and Utah they will pay a call on the Oklahoma City Thunder in a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals. The only other team they see that is even a likely playoff team is the New York Knicks, who may be ready to carry the “contender” label, but aren’t there quite yet.
“I’m disappointed tonight, but I’m not dismayed,” said the unflappable Rick Carlisle after the game. “I thought our effort was there, we just didn’t make enough plays at both ends. Sometimes that happens, but the break’s coming at a good time. I told the guys to enjoy the break and come back ready because we’ve got a very busy schedule coming back.”
And so the Lakers got a small measure of revenge for the thumping they took from the Mavs in the playoffs last season, but the real test lies ahead for both teams. The 66-game season is basically at its mid-point, and if either the Lakers or the Mavericks hope to be in the NBA Finals come June they have a lot of work to do between now and then.
Jose Calderon Off The Market?
What a difference a year . . .and a new head coach . . .makes.
One of the top priorities for the Toronto Raptors last season was to trade point guard Jose Calderon. They had multiple deals on the table at different times, and nearly sent him to the Charlotte Bobcats before Charlotte backed out at the last minute. A number of teams have contacted the Raptors about Calderon this season, as well, believing him to still be on the market, but are being met with little or no interest from the Raptors.
Simply put, new head coach Dwane Casey likes what he’s seeing from his floor leader.
“We’re trying to hold on to him and keep him, but he has played his way into a very high status as a point guard,” Casey said Wednesday. “A lot of teams have been calling and wanting him.”
Offensively, Calderon is having one of the best years of his career, averaging 11.0 points and 8.9 assists while shooting 47% from the field 38% from three and just under 90% from the foul line. Over the last six games, playing against the likes of Rajon Rondo, Derek Fisher, Tony Parker and Jeremy Lin, Calderon has been on an absolute tear, averaging 19.8 points and 10.5 assists. In the month of February alone he has posted assist games of 15, 11, 14, 15 and 17, which puts him in Steve Nash territory.
Of course, what Casey has been most impressed with is Calderon’s efforts on the other side of the ball.
“Defensively, he’s been up and down, more up than down, much better than he was last year,” explained Casey, who has always been a defense-first type of coach. “Last year was just a parade of paint points, starting with him and ending with the big guy. It was a two-man job. This year he’s done a much better job with that.”
All things being equal, Casey would prefer to keep Calderon and continue to help him improve his game as he settles in as the leader the Raptors have needed all along.
The only fly in the ointment is the team’s ongoing interest in Wilson Chandler, who will command much more than the $4.5 million Toronto can offer. The Denver Nuggets are prepared to make him a much more lucrative offer prior to the March 1st deadline, so the Raptors – who are meeting with Chandler this week – are exploring their options for freeing up cap space.
Calderon could be one of those options.
For more on that, be sure you read HOOPSWORLD’s Steve Kyler’s piece on the subject here!
For now Calderon is very much at home in Toronto, and his new head coach likes him better by the day. In fact, he might like Calderon even more than Chandler, whom his front office counterparts desperately covet.
Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to insure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @jfleminghoops, @TheRocketGuy, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @alexraskinNYC, @SusanBible, @DPageHoopsWorld , @stephenlitel , @stevesraptors, @TommyBeer and @YannisHW.
NBA Chats: There are three NBA chats today starting with my weekly NBA Rumors Chat at 10:30am EST. Get your questions in now as the chats do fill up fast. Senior NBA writer Joel Brigham will host his weekly NBA Chat at 1:30pm EST. Joel covers the Central Division for HOOPSWORLD. Mark Nugent will round out the day with his weekly NBA Chat at 6pm EST. You can always find the next chat here: Upcoming NBA Chats. If you are looking for a completed chat, check the Chat Archive.