From the Portland Trail Blazers’ offseason moves, it has become obvious that the team’s braintrust was affected by the Blazers’ first-round playoff loss to the Houston Rockets. Portland’s offer sheet to Paul Millsap was somewhat conventional, in that the Blazers have long coveted another contributor off the bench up front and that forcing the Utah Jazz to match the offer weakened a division rival. In pursuing first Hedo Turkoglu and now Andre Miller, however, Portland has specifically addressed perceived weaknesses that manifested themselves against Houston–the lack of a second creator on the perimeter besides Brandon Roy as well as the team’s youth.
There were reasons to be concerned about signing Turkoglu in terms of his age, what replacing the team’s best defender in the starting lineup (young Frenchman Nicolas Batum) would do to the Portland defense and how he would affect the minutes of several wing players. Still, there was little doubt that the versatile Turkoglu would aid a Blazers offense that was already the league’s best on a per-possession basis in the 2008-09 season.
With Miller, who is reportedly close to signing a three-year contract worth around $21-22 million (the third year at Portland’s option), an improved offense is somewhat more uncertain. Miller brings plenty of skills; he rated by my system as the second-best offensive free agent on the market. His ability to create, both as a scorer and as a distributor, means he will bring the Blazers an added dimension when Brandon Roy is either on the bench or is limited by aggressive defense as he was in the series with the Rockets.
The problem is what happens when Roy is on the floor and has the ball in his hands. Away from the ball, Miller is much more limited. He is famously not a three-point shooter. He made 15 threes a year ago, and that was a breakout year–Miller combined for 19 triples the previous four seasons. Even a step inside the arc, Miller isn’t much of a shooter. He hit 40.9 percent of his long twos, per NBA.com’s HotSpots. By contrast, incumbent Blazers point guard Steve Blake was a 48.0 percent shooter on long twos in addition to his 140 three-pointers at a 42.7 percent clip. With Miller at the point, the floor will be smaller for the rest of the Blazers as defenses can offer help in the paint with relative impunity.
The question, then, is whether that is offset by the value of Miller’s ability to create. Just how much did the lack of a second creator hurt Portland in the playoffs? Here, the numbers are mixed. In the series with the Rockets, the Blazers averaged just 107.3 points per 100 possessions, way down from their league-leading regular-season Offensive Rating of 115.4. A good portion of that credit must go to a stifling Houston defense. The Rockets also did a very good job of slowing down the L.A. Lakers in the next round, holding the Lakers to 110.3 points per 100 possessions. (In three games prior to Yao Ming’s injury, the Lakers were more successful, posting a 113.9 Offensive Rating.)
Over the course of the season, there is less evidence that the Blazers needed a second creator. The first thing to note is that, again, Portland had the league’s best regular-season offense. There’s only so much improvement that can be made there. Against elite defenses like Houston’s, the Blazers were reasonably successful, with the league’s sixth-best winning percentage against top-10 defenses per 82games.com.
I’m still of the opinion that the primary priority for Portland should have been improvement at the defensive end, where the Blazers ranked 12th in the league during the regular season. Miller is a slight upgrade over Blake at this end of the floor, but does little to help Portland’s problem chasing around the league’s jets–especially as he ages. If the Blazers are to improve at the defensive end of the floor, it will probably have to come from within and specifically from Greg Oden in his second year. Glowing reports about Oden’s defensive work at this week’s USA Basketball mini-camp are encouraging on this front.
Lest we get too pessimistic, it’s not like Portland lost anyone to add Miller, should Blake be willing to move into a reserve role. If Miller’s lack of shooting becomes a problem at times, Blake will still be there to step into the lineup. From a fiscal perspective, the Miller deal we’ve seen reported is very reasonable. Because just two years are guaranteed, Miller could become a valuable ending contract as soon as next season. The cost, then, is primarily an alternative one. The Blazers chose Miller over potentially making a deal with a team looking to shed salary. That option was a risky one in that it is impossible to know for sure what players might come available before the cap space would have been lost at next year’s trade deadline, but it is possible that Portland ight have found a player who, if less talented than Miller, was a better fit for the team’s needs.