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Monday, July 16, 2012

Summer's Cautious Optimism

With the National Football League (NFL) on their usual break from practice and Major League Baseball in the middle of their 180 game season, National Basketball Association (NBA) fans are left in limbo. However, for a stretch every summer the 30 NBA teams play five or so games to get their rookies and some veterans extra work before training camp. The Portland Trail Blazers are a team, where fans wonder if the team is rebuilding or retooling. The Blazers and their optimistic fans would say retooling because they would propose the team is good enough to compete IF they can get the best out of the players. Pessimistic fans would say rebuilding, thus suggesting the team has too many holes to compete this year.

It's Summer League, I know it doesn't count (just like the NFL's preseason games and MLB Spring Training) but after their first summer game Blazers fans can lean towards optimistic...for now. It has only been one game, but that one game highlighted what skills the young and unheralded players have at their disposal. Rookies and 2012 first round picks, Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard showed why they were picked at no. 6 and no. 11 respectively. The Blazers picked Lillard to be their Point Guard (PG) for years to come, and he (for now) had 25 points, four assists and four rebounds. The team needs the young Center (C) Leonard to bang down underneath the hoop and grab boards, and he did just that with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Eight of Leonard's 19 points were at the free throw line; he was 8/10 from the line but he did get into foul trouble. He had SEVEN fouls, now in the regular season that would be illegal but in Summer League the referees just want to let the them play. Veteran Small Forward (SF) Luke Babbitt also had a strong night with 19 points and 10 rebounds. With Free Agent SF Nicolas Batum wanting to leave the Blazers, the team could use a break out season from Babbitt, last year the University of Nevada product led the team in three point percentage and three pointers made.

Although the Blazers were playing a Summer League game against the New Orleans Hornets, (I know, I know it doesn't count) they looked better than the team that played during the regular season. When the Blazers get back to training camp with all their returning veterans, LaMarcus Aldridge, Elliot Williams, and JJ Hickson along with new additions Victor Claver, Joel Freeland and (pending trade approval from the NBA) Jared Jeffries this Blazer team could compete for a playoff spot. Now a playoff berth is not what the team strives for, but fans would be thrilled to get in and see what happens instead of sitting at home come June. The team wants to compete for championships and to realistically do that, they need at least two more things 1) a coach and 2) dominant players. The coaching search will come within the next week or so, but the players are beginning to come into their own. Lillard will (most likely) be the team's starting PG, while Leonard could be the team's starting C, unless Freeland can impress during the Olympics (he plays for England's National team) and training camp. Either way the Blazers have answered their two biggest player needs during the 2012 off-season, that being PG and C. Now they just need someone to show them the way.

Blazers new General Manager, Neil Olshey, is trying to keep the team afloat and out of the cellar of the NBA teams, but he can't do that without someone leading the team to victories. The Blazers have needed a coach since they fired Nate McMillan midway through the lockout shortened season, and they finished a dreadful 28-38. Kaleb Canales served as the interm coach for the team after McMillan was fired. He was considered the front runner for a short time, but is now considered by many as just a sympathy candidate. Olshey reached out to former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and former Chicago Bulls and Lakers coach Phil Jackson about the vacancy. Considering the Blazers still don't have a coach that tells you both said no. Jackson was flattered, but didn't want to return to coaching this season, and Sloan pulled himself from consideration early and quickly. Reports are that Olshey will meet with 7-10 candidates about the job. Rumored candidates include Canales, Indiana Pacers Assistant Coach, Brian Shaw, and Golden State Warriors Assistant Coach, Mike Malone. Shaw played 14 years in the NBA and has been a coach in some form since 2004. Malone has been called a great coaching prospect, and he has said publicly that he is interested in coaching in Portland. Expect Shaw and Malone to interview with Blazers Owner Paul Allen. Portland fans know that if someone makes it to Allen's office they have a real shot at becoming the next head coach. 

All that being said, Summer League is not something to pay an immense amount of attention to, but it is NBA basketball which is better than no basketball, and for Blazer fans it is a chance to forgive and forget what happened last year. With the pieces they picked up this off-season, whether it be through the draft, free agency or trades this team has retooled and has what it takes to compete for wins and possibly a playoff spot. With Olshey constructing the team, all the Blazers need is someone to lay the blueprints and then it is up to the players to build the future. 

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