In some ways, previewing the 2011-12 Trail Blazers is a bit boring. The rotations are largely set, with Jamal Crawford simply taking the roles of Rudy Fernandez and Brandon Roy, while Raymond Felton is a like for like swap in position and to some extent style (if not quality) for Andre Miller. In the frontcourt, the Kurt Thomas/Craig Smith combo represents an unsexy upgrade from the Chris Johnson/Earl Barron poo poo platter.
In light of these relatively minor changes, the primary questions driving the fate of the team are ones that are rather difficult to project. How much of a downgrade, if any, will Felton represent from Miller? Can Marcus Camby stay healthy and shoot a high enough percentage to keep playing him? Was LaMarcus Aldridge's gigantic leap in production last year a blip or a harbinger?
Since nobody really can know the answers to these questions and can't until we start real basketball games, it seems silly to speculate. Instead, I'm going to look at three slightly more under-the-radar areas that will be important to the Blazers' success this season. They appear to have upgraded one of these areas, and will need to look to overcome apparent deficiencies in the other two.
(1) Three point shooting
Quite simply, shooting three pointers is crucial to success in today's NBA. Not only is it the third most efficient way to score (behind the dunk/layup and free throw), it has a quantifiable floor-spacing effect that makes the overall offense more efficient. This was observable for the Blazers last year, as lack of respect for the jump shots of previously reliable marksmen Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez, along with the presence of perennial bricklayer Andre Miller constricted Aldridge's operating space late in games.
Replacing Miller with Felton (who has hit over 35% of his 3s over the last two seasons on a good number of attempts) and Fernandez and Roy with Crawford (who is a career 35% 3 point shooter on high volume) should help in this area tremendously. If Batum can revert to being a plus three point shooter, the Blazers could return from being a below-average three point team to being in the top 10 in the NBA. The overall effect on the team's offense should be substantial.
(2) Percentage of assisted baskets (particularly with Raymond Felton on the bench)
Of course, someone is going to have to generate all those wide-open three pointers. Depending on the lineups Nate chooses to use, passing could be a concern. All indications are that Jamal Crawford will be the backup point guard, and given Nate's penchant for vets that is probably where the smart money is. The problem with this is that Crawford as point worked pretty well with Joe Johnson (a very good passing SG) but probably would not work with Wesley Matthews (a very poor passing SG) there.
In fact, any lineup without Felton will probably involve four players who are poor passers for their positions and Marcus Camby. Wallace and Batum rate in the 30s in assist rate among eligible small forwards, while Matthews is 56th among shooting guards and Aldridge 52nd among power forwards. Even with Felton in the game, the pressure on him to act as the only distributor is concerning.
One possible solution is to shift to a very small lineup with Crawford at the 2, Matthews at the 3, Wallace at the 4 and Aldridge at the 5 in crunch time. This not only would exploit the improved three point shooting mentioned above, it would make everybody on the floor a good passer for their position and facilitate excellent ball movement. The problem with this option ties nicely into my final concern...
(3) Defensive rebound rate
One feature that enables small-ball lineups is guards who rebound beyond their inches. Gang-rebounding allows smaller lineups to clear the ball at a passable rate and take advantage of their offensive matchups. In this regard, Jamal Crawford, who is quite simply one of the worst rebounding guards in the game, is a significant liability (his total rebound rate is worse than all shooting guards except Alonzo Gee). Craig Smith, the more offensively capable of the larger offseason acquisitions, also does not rebound his position particularly well.
This comes on top of a team that was already a poor defensive rebounding team. In fact, getting beat up on the glass in the playoffs by a poor offensive rebounding Mavericks team probably cost the Blazers at least one game in the series. Though the Blazers could be a devastating small-ball team on offense due to matchups and three-point shooting, rebounding will be a concern with a variety of the lineups. Nate has been tasked with some very strong offense/defense tradeoffs.
A small-ball lineup with Crawford represents a substantial upgrade over Batum offensively, but a considerable downgrade on the boards and on defense. Any lineup with Camby or Thomas will help on defense but be problematic on offense. How these tradeoffs play out will be crucial to the Blazers' success this season.