Shine Through

Pardon the datedness of this post, but to keep with the work I had already done that main paragraph will stay intact. I will work off of what is now known in regards to the signings of free agent Wesley Matthews (I won’t actually discuss other free agents as they are gone already) and GM Rich Cho, as well as the summer league observations of Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson (including a tantalizing preview of Elliot Williams’ potential).  

So Thursday’s draft came and went, cut and dry, to the script and almost without drama. As everyone on Earth and possibly Mars knows, Paul Allen finally let Kevin Pritchard go by way of the demoralizing “Hey, so I’m firing you before you do the one thing you love to do…. but I still need you to do your damn best” pink slip. This situation has been refried and hashed over like a good breakfast burrito, and I have thought and talked myself into a frenzy about the few knowns and myriad unknowns. The basic breakdown of this is one of the main faults that has plagued human existence: ego. Ego clouds the vision of the greater good (the Phoenix Suns prior to Shawn Marion’s departure were major victims to egoitis; how Steve stayed sane is beyond me), and here ALL parties are guilty of egotism and pride. Step on the wrong person’s ego and the backlash is vicious. Without going into much detail I have given you all you need to know. This drama-filled PR nightmare has once again put the Blazers in the negative media spotlight. But me, always the optimist, I am quick to turn the page and deal with what we have and who we have now. So where are we at now? An empty GM position, three new rookies, a mid-level exception and a bi-annual exception to utilize. Also, the team has a disgruntled player in Rudy Fernandez, a still rather unknown constant in Jerryd Bayless, exceptionally delectable expiring contracts in Andre Miller and Joel Przybilla and an owner/president/collective belief (most likely) that feels the teams needs to make a move, or moves to keep up with the movement that will be occurring on July 1, aka “Hey LeBron, we bu-fu-ed our payroll, aspirations to be a viable and competitive team, as well as alienate some of the few fans we have just for the opportunity to have you come play for us” day. Do I feel bad for the teams that are about to strike out as a result of this (cough New York)? Nope, not at all because they could have done a little better building something, anything really, that would entice LeBron to come in and toil to get his first ring (crazy to think he has been in the league 7 years and doesn’t have one and that he also came extremely close in ’07 after Hercules-ing that god-awful Cavs team to a Spurs sweep slaughter). However, I am not here to add to the trending topic that is about where LBJ is going, but I want to dissect the drafted prospects, the GMs on the radar and a few of the free agents I want the Blazers to seek mercenary type aid from. Times may look dark, but the sun always shines people, just ask Lupe.  

To be honest, the video has to be one of my favorites to watch because of how interactive it is. Lupe uses children to move the props and they are really who he does music for and the use of the Lite-Brite: genius… pure genius. It had me semi-colon close paranthese-ing on the real. 

  

Rookies of 2010  

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

L to R: Elliot Williams, Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson

  

These three gentlemen are slated to be the next Trail Blazers for the upcoming 2010-2011 season and everyone from Paul Allen down to Chad Buchanan to Mike Born were proud that they got these guys. The resonating and permeating thought was: we got what we wanted, when we wanted and for what we wanted. Sound familiar? Veni, vidi, veci. The Blazers again did work, B range work by my assessment, and while it seemed underwhelming after reading about Chris Paul trades and the like, it just felt right. It is what teams that make the playoffs are supposed to do come draft time: make the right pick when they are on the clock and if it is a steal, take it and run laughing to the bank. As the Blazers are slowly getting into the habit of picking in the early to mid-20’s, I can come to expect that they will be in fabulous positions due to the process that has been put in place by former GM Kevin Pritchard, and current NBA/college scouts Chad Buchanan and Mike Born. These guys get it, they just get it and do it as well as any other team in the league. Enough fawning over the people who made these picks happen, lets fawn over the players picked.  

Luke Babbit  

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

Lining up that dead-eye shot

  

First on the list is Nevada bred talent Luke Babbitt. Standing about 6’9”, Babbitt possess some nifty skills that few people his size have or even dream of doing. Having the deft ability to drive for his size is something that pops out at you first, along with his dead accurate shot. I knew nothing about Babbitt in the few weeks prior to the draft and I even admitted to that fact in the mock draft I did. But as an avid basketball watcher, reader and sponge of knowledge, I went ahead and did some research on him and came away rather impressed and excited about the prospects of him contributing to the team almost immediately. Although he attended Nevada-Reno, this kid had and has immense talent that found him in the McDonald’s All-American game and also being recruited by Thad Matta’s Ohio State Buckeyes. A family issue kept him from going ahead with signing the Buckeyes, but the fact he was being recruited by a powerhouse basketball program shows that he was legitimately one of the top 75 (guesstimate) players in his class. During his two-year career at Nevada, Babbitt averaged 19.4 points and 8.1 rebounds in the WAC while showing how versatile his game is. Along with those main two stats, his peripherals aren’t too shabby with shooting lines of 48/42/89 (fg%/3p%/ft% for the unlearned), that were boosted by a breathtaking 50/42/92 campaign this past season. My thinking is that if you shoot 50% or better in college, then you have a spot in the NBA because you know what the heck you’re doing, how to exploit any matchup in front of you and also which spot on the court you can be most effective from. Another aspect about Babbitt that is just icing on the cake for Blazers is how impressive he is as a person. Extremely gritty and knowledgeable on the court and extremely intelligent in the classroom (first Nevada men’s basketball student-athlete to receive Academic All America honors), diligence in wanting to getting better (evidence through his steely responses during summer league post-game interviews and the stories that he seeks out critiques on his performances), and his drive to give it his all no matter what is asked of him. These three character attributes are the tenets and pillars of the Trail Blazers organization that has pushed the NBA towards looking at the complete body of work, not just the athletic ability.  

Luke began his Vegas Summer League in rather nondescript fashion. I was only looking forward to seeing how his shooting stroke compared to that of Martell’s, how he adjusted to pro game (getting to the line, pick n pop, guarded his position, etc.) and how comfortable I would feel if I were to see him on the court with some of the tenured Blazers. I didn’t watch the Houston or Chicago (the “Look I’m here” game) games, but I did watch the middle three and I was relieved that he could get over the fact he was pressing and just let the game come to him. For much of the time I was watching, Luke looked like he was uncomfortable, robotic and trying to do too much of the right things and sacrificing showcasing himself. Much like Chris Webber who called two games (bee tee dub, Cwebb is a fantastic color commentator; dude needs to get out of the studio and get on the sideline), I wanted to see this aggressiveness and shooting touch I had been hearing so much about and we were both delightfully dazzled in a furiously fevorish comeback against the Clippers that saw Babbitt score 9 points in a matter of two minutes as the Blazers climbed out of a lethargic 20 point deficit. Luke Babbitt could have made a little legend of himself by putting back an open Cunningham miss from 16 feet, but (there was contact; it’s summer league for everyone) he missed it short and immediately slapped the court and hung his head in disappointment…. as I was watching I was thinking, “Damn, this kid cares a ton and he is downtrodden at missing the game winner of a summer league game? What fire, what drive. I know he’ll not want to feel that way again.” And that is exactly what happened. Luke awoke, I cheered and with Luke leading the charge began to dominate the remainder of games. Luke will make an impact on the team this year because he showed a good scoring ability, a willingness to defend and rebound (which will get you minutes from Nate) and the fire of a champion. Blazer fans, you’ll like this kid- join his wolfpack of one.  

   

Armon Johnson  

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

Wolfpack rack attack Jack

  

Another Nevada product, Armon Johnson came in as a long-shot to make the Blazers roster by the time training camp came around. He came into Vegas Summer League with uncertainty about his Blazer future and he left Vegas with the actual possibility of beating out the incumbent 3rd string point in Patty Mills for the 15th and last spot the team. Armon is an enamoring prospect because of two skill sets that he showed during his play: defensive tenacity and a deft and growing understanding of utilizing the pick and roll effectively. Also, even though does not have the shooting ability to make most defenders play him honest, he does know when to probe and attack the rack. His fantastic body control and ability to finish with contact are two qualities that I like and I would think Nate likes in a point guard. Unlike Jerryd Bayless, at least in my mind, Armon can play legit and heady defense (granted that it was summer league). If I remember correctly, Jerryd play some decent defense during summer league but was prone to ticky-tack calls and overplaying his hand at times. What Armon demonstrated during the 5 games was that he can body up his man easily and stay with him for extended periods while also fighting through screens. Even Jerryd still gets hung up on screens, gets caught napping or is overaggressive in his defensive pursuit. This is obviously turning into a Jerryd vs. Armon discussion, but I also fell in love with the fact that instead of forcing his shots on the offensive end, he spent time distributing the ball and going to the lane to get lay-ups or contact to get free throws. At times last year Jerryd fell in love with his shot. This came after his heroics in San Antonio where he went off for 31 points and was sticking his jumper. If Jerryd makes his first jump shot, he will stick to shooting the ball instead of using his speed and penetrating skills. This theme played out 9 times out of 10 during the latter stretches of the season. With Armon knowing that his jumper is a weakness and having the knowledge not to force it, I sense that his feel for the game is quite high.  

The impressiveness of Armon’s defense leading to his ability to gain confidence in running the team on the offensive end makes me believe that he should get that last spot. This becomes even more of a possibility with the uncertainty of Jerryd’s future with the team as his name has been floating out there in multiple Chris Paul trade rumors. I like Armon, Nate likes Armon, you probably will like Armon too.  

Elliot Williams  

Coy boy, but the sly smile is deadly

  

The only rookie not to play during summer league to a slight knee injury, Elliot Williams is all but assured a spot on this team due to his pedigree and the impending trade of Rudy Fernandez from Portland. What has been said about Elliot is that he is an absolute athletic freak and possesses a 48-inch vertical. Such superlative descriptions make me go mad because if there is anything the Blazers could use is a pogo-stick athlete to replace Travis Outlaw’s   incredible leaping ability. Looking back at Williams’ collegiate career you can be nothing less than impress by who he is as a player and a person. In his first year at Duke, the freshman Williams loathed the fact that he was sitting on the bench. To play for Coach K you have to be two things: defensively sound and a tough nosed player. Picking up on these two tenets, Williams took it upon himself to impress the coaches by busting his butt off in practice on the defensive end and it parlayed into playing time, as well as extended responsibilities when he was on the floor. This experience was invaluable for Elliot because it made a name for him. Draftexpress has written that this kid has incredible defensive potential and ability to be a scrappy and tenacious defender on the NBA level due to his quick hands, strong lateral movement and pestering presence. As the Blazers continue the ascent up the ranks, these types of players are necessary to make the climb easier. Plus, after the disappointment that was Rudy Fernandez in the playoffs, Elliot could be a great breath of fresh air. Rudy was given ample opportunity to prove his worth but the cajones just weren’t there as he was embarrassed by Jason Richardson and too timid to score on STEVE FREAKING NASH. Anyway, defense is Elliot’s calling card to getting on Nate’s good side.  

Second year Elliot ran into a family problem, his mother became ill and he returned to Memphis at her request to be close to her. As if it was a no-brainer, and it really is, he came home, was granted a hardship waiver to continue his collegiate career at Memphis and had a supreme coming out party. Elliot’s character move of choosing that family is more important than playing at one of the most heralded basketball universities in the States was greatly rewarded with being the focal point of a young Memphis Tigers’ team. He upped his scoring, free throw attempts and was the go-to guy with incredible one-on-one scoring potential. With this coming out party comes some tempered expectation: this guy strictly goes left and in the NBA he will probably only get by on that ability for about 4 games. He has to learn that the right hand is a crucial weapon, and having great penetrating guards like Andre Miller and Brandon Roy he will get the best tutelage you could ever ask for. I’m excited to see what this kid can do and am counting down the days to the October Blazers’ Fan Fest scrimmage.  

The hiring of Rich Cho as general manager  

   

   

   

   

   

   

Happily hired Cho between a pensive McMillan and a relieved Miller

  

After three weeks of talk about due diligence, “doing our process,” “we aren’t ready to comment or commit yet,” the Blazers finally hired the NBA’s first Asian-American general manager Rich Cho. While Rich does not meet the original criteria of being experienced and able to make major deals as set by Blazers president Larry Miller, Rich did a damn good job in impressing Larry and owner Paul Allen with depth and breadth of knowledge unseen in the people that the Blazers interviewed for the job. As the process began, the first two candidates were Danny Ferry and Randy Pfund. Both persons had a rather good track record as general manager: Ferry had been catering to/trying to help LeBron James get his elusive first ring by making big move after big move around the trade deadline, but got nothing to show for it; Pfund was the general manager of the Heat that traded for Shaquille O’Neal and built that winning title team in 2006.  

Obviously, both gentlemen had a pretty impressive track record, though both had some deficits. For one, Ferry was fired from Cleveland because he wanted to have sole control of the basketball decisions made within the franchise, as well as the fact that he was pushed into making moves to placate LeBron. To be honest, Ferry would be a step back and would also be a highly tense situation as some speculation on KP’s firing was based on an inability of both the owner and general manager sharing input on all basketball related decisions. With Randy Pfund, my choice at first, the only worry was about whether or not he would be enthused and energetic about the job after being on an extended hiatus from front office doings. My interest in Randy Pfund was basically because he fit the experience bit, was adept at making franchise altering trades and also was pretty good at making negotiations with free agents.  

What Rich Cho showed though was something both of the other gents didn’t possess: ingenuity in a backpack. Apparently in his meeting with Paul Allen, Cho brought a backpack filled with statistics and contract numbers on every player in college and NBA. These numbers and formulas associated within this backpack fascinated Allen and from then it was a sealed deal. I like Cho for many reasons even though he doesn’t fit the “experience” bill. First, to say he is a hard worker is an understatement. If you have followed any of the coverage following his hire, you would have read about how he slept on his brother’s apartment floor near the kitchen while he was interning for the then Seattle Supersonics. He also worked his way up from intern to assistant general manager and it is more than apparent that he will do his damn best to improve the team and also improve the franchise. Second, Cho had quite a lot of responsibilities as assistant to Sam Presti of Oklahoma City. He was their lead contract negotiator and was instrumental in the formulation of trades that went through for the franchise. While he doesn’t have the track record of making those big time trades, using the data he has accumulated he has helped set up the skeleton of some of the deals you have seen the increasingly shrewd Thunder pull off. And, he is a deft mind when it comes to the cap, CBA and contract negotiations. One thing that was a bit puzzling and disturbing was the amount of time it took it get contracts for Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge last summer; not putting this all on Kevin (because there are many details the public is not privy too), but it was odd that it took that long to lock them up (especially Roy because he was a no brainer, more so than Zach Randolph [that contract sucked something terrible]). Third, he brings a new outlook and perspective on the team. Change is necessary for progress to be made and while it was unwelcomed, unsavory and unexpected by how it happened, it did. Just got to move on and not get attached to it; just let it go and let it flow (man, that Asian philosophy class really has me Tao-ing out).  

I am very intrigued by our newest general manager and what newness he will give us, especially with this guy named Chris Paul asking to be traded to a team that has championship aspirations. For his sake, I hope he does something lest some fans become even more restless and call for his head or something. Take your time to get settled, but don’t sit on your hands guy.  

   

   

   

   

Signing of Wesley Matthews  

The Blazers, while without a general manager, went ahead and forayed into the free agency market with the intention of getting a guard or forward. Pretty bland description of what they were going for, but it got more interesting when the name Wesley Matthews came into association with the team. Wesley Matthews, another solid NBA story, was an undrafted 4 year player from Marquette that made the Utah Jazz’s team and was gangbusters for them. Started 48 games after the Jazz had to dump the salary of Ronnie Brewer due to the poison pill offer the Blazers made to Paul Millsap the year prior (they also had to trade away Eric Maynor for peanuts) and came into his own late in the year and in the playoffs. Known for being a nails tough defender and an excellent perimeter shooter, Matthews brings extreme tenacity to the court whenever he toes the parquet. To be clear, he never stood out as fantastic when he played against the Blazers, but he had that subtle impact in the game where he would do something and I would curse him for being in the right place at the right time. I think back to the first Jazz game in Utah early in the year where Wesley came off the bench and d’ed the hell out of Brandon Roy and had Brandon frustrated the entire game. Needless to say, the Jazz dominated the Blazers this season and Wesley played a pretty good sized role by just bringing that hunger and perseverance to floor and also just wanting the opportunity more than the next guy. This is a solid signing for the Blazers, albeit expensive. But, as we have seen and observed, if Paul Allen likes something enough to splurge on it he will do what it takes to get it.  

Yeah, he did take Steve Blake's number

  

Wesley Matthews steps in to an extremely crowded backcourt and a decent depth chart of 3 men. I feel he is capable of playing the 3 full time because during the playoffs, he started every game  and menaced Carmelo Anthony and made Kobe do more work than that ESPN thing showed (I think The Decision is leaps and bounds worse than that travesty of a Spike Lee joint Kobe Doin’ Work… I don’t need Kobe narrating how he does his business when most people with half a basketball brain can follow what happens on the court). So for me, that is no problem, maybe I am just too trusting or am missing something. But you have to remember and realize that Rudy is all but gone from this team prior to the season and Jerryd Bayless could very well follow suit. The trading away of those two guys opens up a lot of time not only for Matthews, but also Elliot Williams and Nicolas Batum/Luke Babbitt. The defensive presence of Matthews on the roster also makes this team much more formidable and cohesive on the defensive end. Imagine an end of the game lineup, Blazers are in a tight game and stroll out Roy/Matthews/Batum/Aldridge/Oden (of course you would have to cross-switch Batum on the point if it was like Nash/Parker/Paul, and Roy/Matthews would divvy the 2/3 as they wish)… I don’t know about you but I feel quite confident with that lineup on the defensive end, as well as the offensive end because you have the drive and kick of Roy, the outside shooting of Batum and Matthews, the offensive rebounding of Oden and Aldridge’s pick-n-pop/mid-post game. Weapons on both sides of the ball, awesome. Obviously I am excited by the prospects of the acquisition, but there is another wrinkle to this that could tip the scales into pure bliss: the acquisition of Matthews as a precursor to a deal that brings Portland a guy like Chris Paul. Now, I want to be absolutely clear about this: I adore Nic Batum. Love him. Want to see him here long term and want to see him grow into the burgeoning talent he is destined to be (I even called this for him back in 2006, ask my buddy Gavin… plenty of AIM conversation spent on my visits to nbadraft.net on the kid). But, defensive minded threes with range can be found almost yearly (though not as young and boundlessly promising), whereas dominant point guards are the rarest breed of basketballer on the planet. To get you have to give, and I would give Batum as the centerpiece if it meant Paul. I have gone on record with being ok with any deal involving Batum to get Chris Paul because I believe in Wesley Matthews that much. Don’t call me crazy for wanting to acquire the best point guard in league and begin knocking on the Lakers door next year hoping to get invited for dinner, only to slip that roofie in the punch bowl and waltz into the NBA Finals. Call me a fan wanting to taste that milk and honey that flows from that gold-plated trophy and a connoisseur of parades in the middle of June. I mean the Rose Parade is cool, but how does a championship parade sound Portland?

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