Trail Blazers say their new point guard is a 'warrior'
The Trail Blazers wrapped up their final item of business before the NBA lockout Monday, introducing their newest players - veteran Raymond Felton and rookies Nolan Smith and Jon Diebler - to the media at the Regence Boys and Girls Club in North Portland.
On Friday, barring an 11th-hour miracle in negotiations, the NBA's collective-bargaining agreement expires and the collective wheels of the 30 teams will grind to a halt.
On the front door of each of the teams' headquarters will be a proverbial sign reading, 'Closed for the Summer.'
The Blazers have done a decent job positioning themselves for success once operations resume.
For one, owner Paul Allen is planning no layoffs and will continue paying employees to do their jobs - however challenging that may be - through the lockout period.
Two, they have gotten younger with their roster and addressed the future at point guard with Felton and Smith.
Portland's two needs going into the next season of play (2012-13?) were at point guard and with depth in the frontcourt. Blazer brass traded for Felton - at 27, eight years younger than Andre Miller - and drafted Smith, who could win the backup role behind Felton at the point.
That left acquiring talent to play behind LaMarcus Aldridge at power forward and Marcus Camby at center - at least until Greg Oden is healthy enough to join the fold.
The Blazers looked into a second trade to get a backup big, 'but the pricetag was not where we wanted to go,' acting General Manager Chad Buchanan said.
The guess here is, somebody wanted Nicolas Batum in return.
'We wanted to keep our core players together,' Buchanan said. 'As we looked at who was available at free agency in the backcourt versus the frontcourt, we felt much better about the candidates in the frontcourt. So we felt like, let's try to address our backcourt situation in the draft.'
Teams can still make trades through Thursday, but it's highly unlikely the Blazers will be involved in one. Once a new CBA is in place, Blazer decision-makers will add a frontcourt free-agent piece to the mix - perhaps ex-Blazer Jeff Pendergraph, or perhaps a player better than him.
Of course, we don't know if Buchanan will be in charge, will be moved back to his former scouting director post or will even still be with the club.
That's messed up, folks, for a capable young exec such as Buchanan. He's taking it in stride.
'it's part of the territory,' he said. 'I feel like my work speaks for itself. Whoever is the new GM will have the decisions on what he wants to do. I hope I get to stick around, but there are no guarantees.'
Maybe the only guarantee is that Felton, acquired from Denver in the draft-day deal that sent Miller to the Nuggets, will be running the Blazers at the point.
A starter through his entire career, Felton assumed a bench role with the midseason trade from New York to Denver, playing behind Ty Lawson. Felton's desire to return to a starting role was the only reason he was deemed expendable by the Nuggets, coach George Karl told me Monday night.
'Ray wants to be one of the best,' Karl said. 'He wants to have his own team, wants to have the responsibility of leading that team. I couldn't look him in the eye and say Ty wasn't going to be the starter. I like the way the team functions with Ty being the starter. (Felton) had trouble grabbing on to that.
'I wish he'd have given us another year. We could have forced that (because Felton has one year left on his contract), but we made the (trade) decision out of respect to him.'
Last midseason, the Nuggets were forced to trade Carmelo Anthony.
'We didn't want to go through another year where one of our best players would say he didn't want to be in Denver,' Karl said. 'Psychologically, with a good, young team, that wouldn't be a good statement.'
Felton and Smith have something in common. Each led his college team to the NCAA championship his junior season - Felton at North Carolina in 2005, Smith at Duke in 2010.
'The guy reminds me of the guy we got in return (Miller),' Karl said of Felton. 'He's a very good player, has some really good skills, but the No. 1 thing is, he's a winner. He knows how to figure out what he has to do win a game, and he does it with tremendous amount of competitive intensity. He's very powerful, very coachable.'
Ironically, Karl, Felton and Lawson are all Tar Heels.
'Ray is a great kid,' Karl said. 'He is very much a Carolina kind of guy. The team is always first. He understands a point guard is going to be a leader of the team. He respects the game. Nate (McMillan) will love him. The fans of Portland will love him.'
I had to ask Karl one more question. Felton departed Denver because he didn't want to be a reserve. Miller - a starter through his entire career - had a major row with McMillan his first year in Portland over the same subject. Does Karl think Miller will be OK with backing up Lawson?
'I've talked to Andre about that,' Karl said. 'My whole thing with Andre is what I tried to say to Raymond. I don't think his minutes will be that much less. Andre is still a 30-minute NBA player. How I get him on the court for 30 minutes, I don't know, but I'll figure it out.
'He'll play a lot with Ty, and through injuries and other situations, Andre will not play much less than he always has. He just might not be starting the games.'
Felton is similar to Miller in several ways, including durability. He missed 11 games due to illness or injury in his five seasons with Charlotte.
'He's tough,' said Mike Born, Portland's director of NBA scouting. 'Gerald Wallace (a teammate while in Charlotte) told us the guy is a warrior. He comes to practice every day. He's going to try to play every game. He's a cultural fit for us.'
Felton is only a .412 career shooter, including .333 from 3-point range. He has been better than that the past two seasons, but there is room for improvement, Born noted.
'His decision-making has continued to get better through his career, too,' Born said. 'We'd like to play more pick-and-roll action with the point guard; Ray can do that. And he'll allow us to play a little bit faster.'
Portland has been the worst running team in the NBA through McMillan's six-year stint, finishing last in fastbreak points four times, next-to-last twice. Last season, the Blazers were last in possessions per game at 89.
When asked his thoughts on the Blazers, Felton called them 'a very young, athletic team that can get up and down the court. With a great post man (LaMarcus Aldridge) who can put the ball in the basket, just in case we have to go play some halfcourt basketball.'
Just in case?
Felton had great success running Larry Brown's pattern offense his last season in Charlotte, averaging 12.1 points and 5.6 assists while shooting career bests in field-goal percentage (.459) and 3-point percentage (.385).
The fastbreak 'is where the strength is at in my game,' Felton said, 'but I can run a halfcourt team, as well.'
McMillan has talked about running more the last couple of seasons. Could Felton be the one who finally facilitates that?
'He has the makeup to be that type of guy who will consistently push,' McMillan said. 'He played in that style on college, and (New York coach Mike) D'antoni and George ran that style. He should be able to get our wings running. He can play in transition as well as a halfcourt game.'
Here's hoping there is more of the former and a little less of the latter next season, whenever that may be.
Blazer execs have reached a decision on picking up the option of the contracts of Oden and reserve guard Patty Mills. Buchanan said an announcement will likely come Wednesday or Thursday.
I expect the Blazers to exercise the option on Oden and let Mills go, leaving the backup point job as a battle between Smith and holdovers Armon Johnson and Elliot Williams.
Portland's second-round draft pick - pure-shooting guard Diebler of Ohio State - could wind up in Europe for a year of seasoning.
'We'll sit down with his agent this week and talk about some options,' Buchanan said. 'He has an NBA skill, and we lose some of that in trading Rudy (Fernandez). We'll find out when is the right time to have him on our roster.'
Felton grew up in Marion, S.C., population 1,500. His father, Raymond Sr., was a factory worker at a Russell Stover Candies plant.
'It's a country town where everybody knows everybody, and everybody is pretty much kin to each other,' Felton said. 'What you see in me is part of where I grew up, how I was raised.
'It took a lot of hard work and dedication to get to this point. You see a kid like me where I grew up at, you'd have never thought it was possible. But I always kept God first in my life, listened to what my parents and teachers told me.'
Work ethic is part of the reason the Blazers were intent on acquiring Felton. It's a shame they'll have to wait awhile before seeing the results on the basketball court.