Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Accentuate the Positive

More Time for ‘Zilla

We break once again from the mundane world of politics, policy and urban agriculture to confront a more serious threat to our city: mainly, what’s with the Blazers as of late?

Going into tonight’s game against Sacramento, the Portland Trailblazers have lost three in a row—three squeakers. Two were decided by last-second shots and the third went into double overtime. They could have—and arguably should have—won all three games.

Blame can be passed around on these losses. In the first two, Travis Outlaw played not only miserably but stupidly, getting beat on defense and attempting poor shots on offense. In the overtime loss to the Clippers, Steve Blake was suddenly possessed by the ghost of Chris Dudley and missed four crucial free throws down the stretch.

These games did not have to be as close as they were. The Blazers, however, are taking a risk and suffering big when that risk doesn’t pay off. They need to make a decision now: whether to go for a high playoff seed by changing their starting lineup or try to develop Greg Oden and because of that settle for probably the last seed or possibly not make the playoffs at all.

Rookie center Oden seems to be a nice, hardworking kid, but as for this year, he’s neither the best center on the team nor the best rookie. Rudy Fernandez, the perpetual motion machine from Spain, could be contending for Rookie of the Year on many other teams, but on the Blazers he doesn’t get the minutes and generally plays behind Brandon Roy.

More pertinently, Joel Pryzbilla has been the Blazers unsung hero so far this season, even gracefully yielding his starting slot at center to Oden and not complaining about declining minutes. But somebody better complain, because Pryzbilla is demonstrably better than Oden. Even now playing less than half the game, ‘Zilla is the Blazers leader in rebounding and blocked shots, the two major stats for centers.

A far more telling stat is the +/- column. You don’t see this stat in The Oregonian’s abbreviated box scores, but you can on ESPN.com or Yahoo Sports. What the +/- shows is how many points his team gained or lost while he was in the game. If you have a +10 for a game, then your team scored 10 more points than the opposition while you played.

Here is the +/- line for Oden and Pryzbilla for the last three games:

Game.....................Orlando................Utah................L.A. Clippers

Oden......................... -10......................-8........................... -3

Pryzbilla ..................+15 ......................-1...........................-2

Now this is not a perfect stat for a player, because the score depends on the other four players in the game. With Blazers coach substituting a whole second unit at a time, it can be like comparing apples to kumquats.

Generally, the starters should have a better +/- than the bench, or else they shouldn’t be starters. Oden plays most of his minutes with Roy, Lamarcus Aldridge, Steve Blake and a rotation of Nick Batum, Outlaw and Fernandez. Pryzbilla usually plays with Sergio Rodriguez, Channing Frye, Outlaw and Fernandez. In the Utah game, Pryzbilla played a lot with Outlaw, who had a horrendous -12 for the game. In the Clippers game, he was stuck for much of the time with Rodriguez, who had a -13 impact on the outcome.

In a close game earlier this year, Oden had a -22 while Pryzbilla was +23.

It’s clear that Pryzbilla should be the one playing 30-35 minutes a game, with Oden getting the remainder. Given real starter’s minutes, Pryzbilla would easily be among the top five in the league in rebounding and blocked shots. He’s not a scorer, but he’s improved immensely in the past year. He’s developed a little hook shot and he seems to have improved his ability to catch passes, which has been his major downside over the years. His free throw shooting is now above average.

More than that, the Blazers seem more relaxed and confident with Pryzbilla in the middle. He’s predictable. He knows what to do and he’s go their back. Oden makes rookie mistakes and is inconsistent. He may develop into an all-star center, but he’s not holding his own against Dwight Howard of Orlando, or even Kendrick Perkins of the Celtics. Someday, he might be another Nate Thurmond, or merely another Tree Rollins. We know what Pryzbilla is going to be, just what he is not, maybe a bit better.

Apparently, after all the hype about Oden—and then the delay of a year because of his injury—the Blazers think they need to play him as much as possible. And talk about hype. Watch a Blazer game and during the commercial breaks, he’s pitching more products than the Schonz ever did. His face is billboarded throughout the city and splashed across all kinds of media. Meanwhile, Pryzbilla probably might get mentioned in the back pages of Mother Earth News.

There are times when McMillan sees the game slipping away and puts Pryzbilla in hoping his defense will reverse the momentum. Yet he seems committed to starting Oden and playing him the majority of the time—or else upper management had ordered him to do so.

To win, the Blazers don’t need to rush Oden’s education in the NBA.

They would be better off to put Oden back on the bench and let him be the understudy to Pryzbilla this year. He would feel a lot less pressure and thus be more relaxed when his time to play comes around. He also fits in with the faster paced second unit.

More importantly, the Blazers would start winning again.

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