Friday, May 05, 2006

Position by Position--Center

The good news is, unlike many teams we actually have centers. The bad news, of course, is maybe not for long. Also neither one of the main two have been particularly healthy this year. If everybody's back and everybody's playing to potential there's reason to be optimistic about this position. Those are two big "ifs" though...

Theo Ratliff ended up being the main guy this year when he was healthy. He had the veteran presence and McMillan's confidence and got most of the critical minutes even if he didn't always start. He logged fewer minutes this year than any time since he was a baby in the league, but when he was out there, he was good. The most surprising contribution was a steady, 10-foot half-hook shot which provided the Blazers an outlet in the post during the closing month of the season. (He ended the season shooting 57%, which is amazing for a non-offensive guy.) It was a good example of doing what's necessary to help the team. It also showed that just because you can do something out there it doesn't mean you always need to. Both are valuable lessons for the youngsters. Ratliff's blocks were down, partly due to playing time but also because the backcourt stopped letting everybody and their uncle have free passes down the lane this year. (They gave up dozens of open jumpers, but that's another post.) His rebounding numbers were steady, despite the fewer minutes, which is good because the team needs it so badly. He's still nobody's Dennis Rodman though. Is Theo everything you'd want for $11 million a year? Probably not. But he's good for this team because he knows his job and he goes out and does it. During the last off-season I was pretty vocal about trading him as a first step to clearing cap room and because he didn't really address the most glaring weaknesses we have. That was assuming that Zach and Darius were here long-term. The book has changed on that, and since we'll need steady folks in at least a couple positions if we undergo such flux at our key spots (and given the cap relief hopefully coming from other sources...pray for Jalen Rose), I actually wouldn't be opposed to letting Theo play out the string. Or at least there's no harm in waiting one more year and seeing if you can get a quality veteran or two for his expiring contract. If you can't or won't move Zach, though, the possibility of packaging Theo and Miles is still live.

I don't think Joel Przybilla had the season that anyone envisioned, least of all him. Injuries were a contributing factor, but he wasn't used to full capacity even when he was healthy. One reason was foul trouble. This is a recurring albatross for him and difficult to solve. On the one hand, he's simply not getting respect from the referees. They say over time the refs adjust to your style of play, but it never happened for Mark Bryant, for instance. Joel may just be one of those players. This is bad. Equally at fault were his frontcourt mates, who repeatedly hung him out to dry by not helping on defense. Joel was almost too much of a good soldier, always rotating to try and take a guy at the rim. Most of the time the result was a whistle and afterwards, the bench. I said mid-season that his teammates were literally taking money out of Joel's pocket in a contract year, and I'm sure that's where some of the late-season public frustration came from. But beyond the fouls, there were times--especially in the early or mid season--when Nate would put Joel on the bench midway through the first or third quarter and then appear to forget about him. Nate says he loves him and wants him back, so one can only assume this was an oversight or part of a devious master plan that's over our heads.

When he did play, Joel was serviceable. He got seven boards and two blocks in 25 minutes, which makes for a really nice per-48 average for a defensive center. His offensive game remains limited, but he'll hit more than half of the infrequent shots he does take. And with everybody else concerned about scoring first, it's just nice to have some guys in the middle who don't need the rock in order to contribute. That aside, I was surprised we never saw any of the pick and roll action that was so effective last season. Zach set the picks most of the time this year, and the results were less than sterling. With Joel's commitment to fundamental play, I could see a nice two-man option if Telfair keeps developing his outside shot or if Webster learns to pass. Suffice it to say that Joel was underutilized in many areas this year. Maybe that will drive his value down far enough that we could actually get him back with our max-raised MLE. If so, it would be a nice pick up.

What do you say about Ha Seung-Jin? The Human Foul Machine actually looked like he made a little progress this year, but the sample of his work is too small to say definitively. You can see where he'd have potential value to us. He is flat-out huge and eats up space in the paint like nobody's business. The number of people in the NBA who could deal with his body can be counted on one hand. He's gotten somewhat better at knowing how to use it, but he still has a long way to go. His footwork has improved, you can see that. He has a couple of pet offensive moves now, which is a step up. And like the other centers, he'll hit most of the shots he takes. When he gets position two feet from the hoop nobody (but himself) is going to stop him, but he's still not aggressive enough in doing so. While he was embarrassingly far out of position on several defensive plays last year, this year he can be upgraded to simply late and slow on most. But for a guy with that height and wingspan, his defense is still poor. Shooting over him is like shooting over a stationary wall. He doesn't inspire fear in anyone, except perhaps from a stray elbow. When he's motivated to rebound he does well, but it doesn't look like he's yet learned to consider that ball his personal property every night. Ah well...he's still very young. I would take this season's progress as a sign of hope and not give up on him just yet. Besides, keeping him is cheap. Maybe one day his teammates will get confidence in his offensive game, he will start getting his body in front of people and blocking shots, and he will suck up rebounds like candy. One can always hope...

--Dave blazersub@yahoo.com

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