Portland has had a trying and franchise-altering few weeks, changing their head coach and changing the playing rotation through trades in a regressive way. Moves such as these would usually signify a rebuilding mode or at least the sacrifice of a potentially successful season. In the minds of the players, neither is the case. They are playing to win, and are reaping the benefits as a result. Despite their recent success and their obvious desire to play their hardest, new head coach Kaleb Canales needs to stray away what made his predecessor so frustrating by playing the youth Portland has at its disposal.
The Blazers have given a tremendous amount of effort since Canales took the helm, but the team is not built to seriously contend in the Western Conference. Though they have some proven talent in LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum, among others, it would be hard to see this team beating any of the Western Conference elites in a playoff series. They don’t have enough consistent options to prevail. It is enjoyable to see that the team doesn’t want to tank, even though doing so would grant them a high draft pick in what is expected to be a talented and deep draft. Yet, they need to come to the conclusion that they aren’t built to win this year. This starts with Canales, who can help build for the 2012-2013 season by extending the minutes of seldom-used players like Nolan Smith, Craig Smith, Luke Babbitt, Hasheem Thabeet, and Jonny Flynn.
Increasing the roles of these five players may not sound like a recipe for success, but seeing what they can do and letting them grow should be the top priorities. Craig Smith, Flynn, and Thabeet didn’t play in the Blazers most recent win, a three-point victory over the Golden State Warriors on Sunday evening. This can’t happen.
Early in the season, Smith, a 28-year-old power forward out of Florida State nicknamed “Rhino”, made some very solid contributions, providing tireless energy, rebounding, and offensive efficiency. Then, he disappeared from the rotation. He needs to stop rotting on the pine, and the solution is simple. Canales can play him over Kurt Thomas, who, at 39, brings little to the table.
Even if Thomas was a excellent contributor, it would still be time to see what potential pieces of the future can do with prolonged playing time. Smith showed promise, and he deserves the minutes necessary to yet again show what he is capable of. The younger Smith, Nolan, needs more than the 12 minutes he logged against the Warriors. Starting point guard Raymond Felton has played very well of late, including a 24-point performance in that victory over Golden State, but letting Smith gain experience is more important at this stage of the season than giving Felton 35 to 40 minutes.
Smith proved he was capable of running a team at Duke, and the rookie has shown flashes of brilliance in limited time this season. He can score. He is unselfish and a solid defender. And he is intelligent and seasoned, having played all four years with the Blue Devils. Yet, Blazers fans haven’t been able to get a sustained glimpse at him. Why not play him 30 to 35 minutes a night? He can’t prove anything to the coaching staff in just a few minutes per game.
Canales has made a step in the right direction, choosing to start Smith over Felton against the Oklahoma City Thunder. This is due to Felton missing the game for personal reasons, but Canales should stick with Smith, or at least increase his role off the bench. That is what is best for the future of this organization. And he can’t stop there.
Portland might as well give Babbitt a longer look. Just by playing more of late, due to the deal that sent Gerald Wallace to the New Jersey Nets, his confidence is as high as it’s been with the Blazers. Why not give it an even bigger boost?
While Babbitt has worked his tail off, Thabeet comes in with the reputation as a lazy player. The 7’1″ center out of UConn was picked by the second overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies, and he has yet to live up to that selection. That’s an understatement. He has been consistently ineffective, but maybe Canales’s intensity and demand for maximum effort can light a fire under him. Portland lost a lot of its size and length in trading Marcus Camby, so Portland lacks what Thabeet can potentially bring. There has to be some talent waiting to be unleashed. That said, it would be far less surprising to see a fellow newcomer, Flynn, positively affect the team.
He performed fairly well in his days with Minnesota, logging a lot of minutes and making many starts. Despite his success there, the point guard out of Syracuse rode the bench with Houston this season, and nothing has changed thus far with Portland. There hasn’t been much room for him, with Felton starting, Smith backing him up, and Jamal Crawford and Wesley Matthews also seeing a great deal of time at the guard positions, but Canales should make room. I, for one, would love to see him play, having thought highly of him and his game throughout his time at Syracuse and with Minnesota. Portland may be set for the future at the point guard spot, with Smith and currently injured Elliot Williams currently viewed as pieces to the long-term puzzle, but if Canales gives him playing time and he opens some eyes, he could work his way into their plans beyond the current season.
Entering their game Tuesday evening against the Thunder, Portland is 23-26, placing them 12th in the conference and three-and-a-half games back of the final playoff spot. With 18 games remaining in the season, the gap between them and the 8th-seed Houston Rockets certainly isn’t insurmountable. Yet, considering the team isn’t built to seriously contend, these next few weeks can be used as auditions. If some of younger players previously mentioned perform well, great. If some of them don’t, then the Blazers will have a better idea of who to fits into the fold for the 2012-2013 season and beyond.
Canales won’t settle for anything but hard work. Just as those making up the current rotation are playing with a great deal of effort and energy, the seldom-used inexperienced players would if given the opportunity. Canales should give them a chance. Considering where the team sits at the moment, it wouldn’t hurt.
In the next few months, Portland has the chance to play their youth, get a top-10 draft pick via the New Jersey Nets, and clear cap space. Before getting to the last two luxuries, the team has to see what kind of talent the youth possesses. Let’s see what they can do, and, in turn, let the cards fall where they may.