Rip City Revival
Jason Quick talks all things Blazers.
When Jason Quick of the Oregonian talks about the Blazers, he is anything but — for the lack of a better word — quick. He spares no detail.
In this interview, Quick breaks down last season as well as what to expect this season from the Blazers. He dives into ‘hot-button’ issues like Greg Oden and whether he’s ready to live up to expectations, Brandon Roy and his ascent into superstardom, LaMarcus Aldridge and maximizing his potential and how the Blazers shed the ‘Jail Blazers’ image and brought back fun to Rip City.
SLAM: Give us a general wrap-up of last season for the Blazers.
Jason Quick: Coming into the season, I think everyone’s expectations/hopes were for the Blazers to make the Playoffs. They not only made the Playoffs, they did it emphatically, winning 54 games and tying Denver for the division title. No one expected that many wins or to contend for the division title. And considering they did all that without Martell Webster—an incumbent starter who was injured all season—and without much from Greg Oden, who was injured and uncomfortable all season. So considering all of that, the season was a huge success.
At the same time, they were one-and-done in the Playoffs, which is probably what everybody expected coming into the season. A lot of their flaws were exposed in the playoff series against Houston (lack of toughness, limited scoring options outside of Roy and Aldridge), which seemed to take some of the shine off the season.
SLAM: Going into last season, a lot was still unknown with Greg Oden. Breakdown his progress last season. How did he improve throughout the year? How’s his health this off-season, and what is the organization expecting from him this season?
JQ: The two biggest factors with Greg last season were his injuries, and subsequently, his conditioning. It seemed like he was always fighting an uphill battle with his stamina because of all the little dings and injuries that put him on the sideline. As a result, he was a little slow moving his feet on defense, which led to some silly fouls, which led to foul trouble and some really short nights.
His offense needs a ton of work, but right now, the team just wants him to be a defensive presence. I think he can be a huge defensive factor, simply because for stretches last season he was an immovable defensive force inside. In particular, I can remember games at Toronto and New Orleans last season when his presence impacted the way the game was played. Still, if we are being frank here, I should be able to recall 50 games when Oden was a huge factor. Overall, he was a disappointment, and I think Greg would tell you that himself.
I haven’t seen or talked to Greg this summer, and I’ve heard varying reviews from his participation in Las Vegas with Team USA… Some people thought he looked quicker, some people thought he was still out of shape. So I’m intrigued to see what Greg Oden shows up to training camp.
I will say this: I think Greg cares a ton. Everyone who has trained him raves about his work ethic and I think he took all the criticism and failures last season personally. I think he will be better—much better—this season … I could see averages of 12 points and 10 rebounds this season.
On offense, the team struggled mightily to feed him the ball in the post last season, which began to frustrate him. I think Andre Miller will help in that regard. Still, he has to work on his footwork — he travels all the time shuffling his feet after getting a pass. Plus, for some reason he brings the ball down around his waist far too often—which leads to strips—and for some reason he pump fakes more than Kevin Duckworth ever did. That tells me he wasn’t confident in his surgically repaired knee last season. It might have been fine structurally, but mentally, it’s a process to regain the instinct to explode. I think that’s why all the players who have had micro fracture say it’s a two-year recovery process
SLAM: Let’s talk about Brandon Roy, how good of a player is he? Is he a superstar?
JQ: I think Brandon has clearly established himself as a superstar and firmly carved his place as the NBA’s third best two-guard behind Kobe and DWade. His performances in the Houston playoff series were amazing—the Rockets were smothering him and yet he was still dropping 40 and 30. He has one of the most varied and complete arsenals of moves—step back, duck under, crossover—and he is a great finisher—particularly with his left. Last season, he improved greatly from three-point range. Plus, he is tough. He takes a ton of contact yet gets up every time.
SLAM: What did you think of his contract extension? Fair market value or did the Blazers overpay? How is the organization looking at him to improve and step it up a notch?
JQ: His extension, I thought, was fair—for both sides. For what Brandon has done for this franchise both on and off the court—almost single-handily bringing it out of the dumps—I don’t see how anyone can argue he didn’t deserve the max. Plus, anyone who knows him can attest that Brandon won’t become content now that he’s a big-money player. The Blazers will get their money’s worth out of him. And people who think he is injury prone are simply misinformed. He missed 19 games his rookie season with a heel injury and then four or five games in year two because of a hip injury from a freak collision with Caron Butler, and he had his knee cleaned out, but other than that, he has been a warrior.
The big question entering this season is whether Andre Miller will help or take away from Brandon’s strengths. Brandon has admitted he needs the ball in his hands to be effective. He lives off the pick-and-roll. In his second season, after he started slowly, he asked McMillan to put the ball in his hands more. He was having trouble being effective when he was forced to come off screens to get open. Obviously, Miller is going to need the ball in his hands more, so the natural question is how that will affect Brandon.
I know one of Brandon’s big off-season goals was to work on his game away from the ball. Coming off screens. Catch-and-shoot. Last year, one of his targets of improvement was three-point shooting and he came back much improved. I expect him to be better, therefore, at playing off the ball this season. Plus, I think Andre will help in that transition as well.
McMillan last year lamented that he was calling the team’s late-game go-to plays for Roy in the second and third quarters, simply because the team had exhausted all of their effective options before the fourth quarter. With Miller, teams won’t be able to merely focus on Brandon and LaMarcus.
Still, I don’t think anyone can assume the Miller/Roy backcourt is going to be a good fit. I know this: their cohesion will certainly be one of the most watched dynamics in the early season. And it may not iron itself out until December.
As far as the team’s expectations of Roy improving … I think they would like to see Roy play a more complete defensive game. What I mean by that is Roy has proven he can be a great defender in crunch-time. But he has a tendency to let a first-half drive go unimpeded or not go all out. Part of that is a reflection of how much effort he exerts on the offensive end, but I still think they would like to see Roy play better defense for more of the game.
SLAM: How do you see Miller fitting in with the Blazers? Is his style a compliment to Roy, Aldridge and the rest? What are they looking for Miller to bring to the squad?
JQ: Like I said in my earlier response, I think Andre will alleviate the defensive pressure put on Roy and Aldridge. It was a huge factor in the Houston series—the Rockets simply overloaded on Brandon in particular, and LaMarcus. It led to a lot of forced shots or shots taken under duress. Andre is a proven scorer in this league and he gets to the line a ton, so that threat of penetration and of finding, say, a LaMarcus or Oden on a lob will give defenses much more to think about than in years past.
Mostly, I think they are looking for Andre to bring some know how, some perspective, some savvy. And that’s not to say Steve Blake was greatly lacking in any or all of those areas. Blake had a great season. I just think Andre is better, and as a result, makes the Blazers deeper and better.
Everyone keeps saying that the Blazers will be able to run more now with Andre. I will believe it when I see it.
As I said earlier, I think one of the biggest subplots to this season is how Miller and Roy coexist. Roy’s biggest strength is having the ball in his hands and busting a pick-and-roll. Can Andre defer like that and still be effective? Or is it Roy who has to adjust and become a better off-the-ball player than he has been in the past? Will be interesting to watch.
Or could this happen… Blake, who is so good at hitting that corner three off a Roy penetration, starts with Roy and Miller comes off the bench where he throws lobs to Rudy Fernandez, Travis Outlaw and Greg Oden? McMillan has been a master in Portland at mixing and matching his lineups to best fit his players.
SLAM: How important of a season is it for Aldridge? He’s eligible for a contract extension soon, is he going to stick for the long term?
JQ: LaMarcus is up for an extension this summer, and his agent, Arn Tellem, is negotiating with the team. LaMarcus has told his agent he wants to lock-up long-term with the Blazers and I suspect that will happen before the October 31 deadline. The kid has All-Star written all over him. The sticking point in the negotiations, I imagine, is that Aldridge’s camp thinks he is an All-Star caliber player and should be paid like one, while the Blazers are a bit apprehensive about paying max money for potential.
At any rate, I think this is the season Aldridge explodes onto the scene. I think he will make the All-Star team—the game is in Dallas, his hometown and that means a lot to him.
SLAM: Is the reputation of being “soft” accurate when describing Aldridge?
JQ: A quick way to piss off LaMarcus is to use the word “soft” when describing him. In fact, he and I have had several prickly conversations about it. In years past, I wouldn’t subscribe to the notion LA was soft, but I wouldn’t discount it either. But I think he has greatly dispelled that theory over the past two years. He has taken his game inside, he has stood up face-to-face against Lamar Odom and last season he literally bitch-slapped Kevin Garnett. The one thing he needs to do better is rebound, and in particular, rebound in traffic.
SLAM: Blazers have one of the best bench’s in the League. How tough of a job is it for McMillan to keep everyone happy with minutes? Fernandez and Outlaw both want more playing time. Will it be an issue or is everything fine as long as they’re winning?
JQ: I always get a kick out of this notion of “keeping players happy.” Last time I checked, this was about winning, not worrying about feelings. If you are good enough, you will be on the court. At the same time, I’m not so naive as to think that a disgruntled player can’t disrupt a good thing in the locker room. I don’t think the Blazers have the type of players who will grumble to the point where it’s a distraction. I’ve been around those types of players plenty in my time here in Portland, and I don’t see them in this locker room. Then again, these players are getting older, some are entering contract years, and some could start taking on that ugly thing called entitlement.
Regardless, you are right. The Blazers’ stable of talent is going to be a sticky situation for McMillan this season. He has 10, maybe 11, legitimate guys who he could put on the court. Really, it’s tough to play any more than nine in a game. But if you figure the starting lineup to be Miller, Roy, Webster, Aldridge and Oden, then there’s another capable five behind with Blake, Fernandez, Batum, Outlaw and Przybilla. That’s 10, with Bayless being No. 11. That’s pretty deep.
It’s why I fully expect the Blazers to make a mid-season trade this winter. And it will probably involve Travis Outlaw or Martell Webster. I don’t think this team will trade Nicolas Batum right now. They think he can become a star.
Last year, the Blazers’ depth was a lifesaver because they had so many injuries… Webster, Oden and Blake all spent considerable time on the IR. I don’t think you can count on so many guys going down this season. But again, it’s certainly a luxury to start out the season, and I’m sure many coaches would gladly take McMillan’s “dilemma” in exchange for their own lack of talent.
SLAM: Great teams start at the top with a committed owner and great GM. How vital have Paul Allen and Kevin Pritchard been to the success of the Blazers?
JQ: I think Pritchard has done an outstanding job, and I’m surprised at how much criticism he takes from national writers and these “anonymous” general managers. They say he is too cocky, makes unfair trade proposals, and has the luxury of having a rich and willing owner. First off, anyone who knows Kevin can attest that he is one of the most humble, down-to-earth guys around. He’s the type of guy who you could have a beer with and you wouldn’t know he runs the Blazers.
The biggest thing Pritchard has done is create a positive environment. This used to be one of the most toxic, paranoid and deceitful organizations around. He has completely erased all of that. Everyone on the basketball side is on the same page, and his employees would take a bullet for him. There’s just a good vibe around this organization, and I think it’s because everyone is happy and they are happy because Kevin encourages them to do their job.
However, from here on out is when Pritchard’s legacy will be cemented. When he took over, it was pretty easy to see that Zach Randolph needed to go and that Darius Miles needed to be phased out. There was a stoke of genius in his 2006 Draft that started with the Blazers having the 4th overall pick, yet they walked away with Aldridge, Roy and Sergio Rodriguez.
Now that the Blazers are entering their championship window, Pritchard’s next moves can be the difference between a dynasty and coming up empty. Who is better for this team: Travis Outlaw or Martell Webster? Is Bayless worth developing or do you trade him? Was Miller the right free agent call this summer? I don’t know the answer to any of these, but Kevin has been pretty spot-on on most of his decisions.
Of course it has helped having Paul Allen’s pocketbook. But without getting too deep into it, I think people underestimate the challenges of dealing with such a powerful and eccentric person such as Allen. There can be some frustrations. But Paul Allen has been and continues to be one of the best owners in pro sports. He has continually opened his checkbook to make this team a winner. And he is probably one of the more astute owners when it comes to studying talent.
SLAM: How hard and arduous of a job was it for the Blazers to get where they are now from the “Jail Blazer” teams? What were the most difficult transformations to make?
JQ: For certain, it has been a long and hard road for the franchise to reach this point. It started when owner Paul Allen finally saw the light and realized that it was just important to value character as it was to value talent. That realization came around 2003, but it still took some time to show results. Former team president Steve Patterson was charged with restoring order, and it was a difficult and thankless job. Patterson’s legacy in Portland is greatly underestimated, but much of that was due to his self-destructing personality. He had to endure a lot of tough scenarios—layoffs, getting rid of Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells when their market value was far below their true value—and he accomplished those feats as best as anyone could have hoped for. But at the same time, he made some drastic decisions, and didn’t have the confidence, or humility, to admit he was wrong. He gave Zach Randolph $84 million. Darius Miles $48 million. Theo Ratliff $32 million. All in the same summer, and all while he had to layoff 98 employees. All three of those players brought more headaches than anything to the franchise. Zach was a ball hog who played no defense, all while being one of the NBA’s most notorious partiers. Darius was a lazy dog, who felt entitled to a starting job once he signed his contract. He became the epitome of an NBA player cashing it in once he signs his guaranteed contract. Just a bad, bad guy to have around. And Theo was one of the first guys to jump the ship when it started sinking, instead of standing up and trying to lead by example. He hid behind some injuries, but there are a lot of people who questioned whether he was really hurt, or whether his real injury was a lack of heart.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it was a tough transition. Yes, the bad was being exiled when Wallace and Wells were traded, but the team foolishly hitched its wagon to some questionable characters, which included the drafting of Sebastian Telfair at No. 13 … ahead of Al Jefferson, mind you. And that drafting of Telfair was the major reason why the next season the team passed on both Chris Paul and Deron Williams, instead going with Martell Webster.
I still argue that the worst era of the Blazers was when Patterson ran the team. Yes, there were some poor characters in the past, but they were great on the court and it resulted in the Blazers being at or near the top of the West for several years. Under Patterson, the team not only had bad characters, they were awful on the court, and Patterson worked under a cloud of deceit, paranoia and threats.
Pritchard and Nate McMillan should get most of the credit for the positive and successful direction of the franchise today. Once Patterson and his lackeys were fired late in the 2006 season, the reins were handed over to Pritchard, who has changed the entire attitude and mood around the franchise. It started with the drafting of Roy and Aldridge, and then picked up steam with the trade Randolph. Along the way, he backed his coach in determining Darius Miles was not only a cancer, but couldn’t physically help the team, all while created an incredible atmosphere of positivity.
Meanwhile, McMillan was so tough and unmoving in his first years that it became clear it was his way or the highway. He kicked Randolph and Miles out of the team’s first meeting. He openly challenged Ratliff in front of the team, asking him if he was really hurt. He later kicked Randolph out of the team’s first practice. It eventually led to Randolph calling McMillan “Sarge,” a nickname that has stuck and one that McMillan privately enjoys.
So to make a long answer short, it was a long, painful road to get where this team was today. But everyone knew it was going to be that way. I remember McMillan in his first season saying “I never knew it was this bad” … It was that bad, which has made the current success sweeter for the likes of McMillan and Pritchard.
SLAM: What’s the season outlook for the Blazers? What’s expected of them this upcoming season?
JQ: Without question, I think this will be a season of success for the Blazers. They won 54 games last season and I expect them to be greatly improved. Andre Miller should give them experience, play-making, and depth. They also welcome the return of Martell Webster, who is better than a lot of people think. This guy is one of the prettiest shooters around and is a lot better defensively than people give him credit. Also, I think it’s safe to say that Greg Oden will be better, LaMarcus Aldridge should continue to get better, and Brandon Roy has proven that he adds something to his game every summer. That’s a lot of pluses being added to an already good team.
The question, of course, is whether McMillan can adequately manage all this talent. He has been a master at this in previous seasons, identifying that Outlaw is better at power forward than small forward, putting the ball in Roy’s hands at the point. This season, it sounds as if he plans on implementing Rudy Fernandez a little at the point in an effort to get him more time.
I think this is the season Portland announces its presence as an NBA title contender. I expect them to win the Northwest and advance to the Western Conference Finals. The following year, I think they win the West. The parade is the summer of 2012.
I say all of this because I truly believe Greg Oden is the real deal. There is going to come a time when it clicks with him, both mentally and physically. I think we will see that late this season.
Born and raised in the Bay Area and currently residing on the Peninsula, Rasheed Malek represents the younger demographic of Warrior fans, which, according to Malek, “means I’ve witnessed nothing but bad basketball for most of my life.”