As usual following our occasional losses, the posters here are pretty much preaching to the choir. We are not a very good team right now, but that, in and of itself, shouldn't be very disconcerting. We were not a very good team at the beginning of the 2005-06 season when we struggled to beat Drexel and a few other below average teams. As in that year, who we are now is not who we could or should or will be at the end of the season. The questions are what we want/need to look like in March and how do we get there?
We have to start with who we are. Last year, we went to a 3rd straight final 4 but after the season lost 3 of our 4 best players, to the NBA. Put another way, we went from having 4 seasoned college players who were future pros (Love played like a seasoned college veteran just about from game 1 but definitely by March) down to just 1. The other returning players (Keefe, Aboya, Drago, Shipp and Roll), as much as I like them, are not going to the NBA. They are not college stars and will never be. They are role players. I don't mean that as a slight. Every team needs role players and our 5 returning role players are solid and good for what they are. We just need to be mindful that they are what they are, and that of the 6 players returning to the team, we have a future NBA guard in Collison (whose speed and quickness are NBA-caliber), and 5 role players.
To the returning core, we have added a college-ready, future-pro combo guard in Jrue Holiday, plus 4 guys oozing with potential but not nearly as ready to contribute consistently at the college level. How can I tell they are not ready? In 15 combined minutes (which of itself shows that Howland thinks they are not ready), they pulled down 2 rebounds and had 2 turnovers and 0 points. 0 minutes down the stretch. At this point in determining who we are on the court, the other 4 freshmen really aren't are not a part of the equation. So the reality is we are two future NBA guards and 5 role players. Nothing special down low to take the load off our two stars. We play hard but our talent level in the current rotation equates to a solid but not spectacular team who is good enough to beat Miami and Michigan but not every night and not by a wide margin.
So, if that is who we are, where are we going? This is a harder question than it seems and it has me concerned. Looking at it as objectively as I can, I do not believe that going with the current rotation will lead us to places we'd like to go. Too many role players, not enough players. Put another way, think about how ordinary and vulnerable we looked last year when Love was not in the game or when Luc was out with injury. Now take away Luc and Love (and assume Holiday = Westbrook), and how ordinary should we expect the team to look?
The only way for us to improve significantly and become a top 20 team (yeah, we're ranked #4, but who are we kidding? We're not a top 20 team right now) is if one or more of the new guys steps up and becomes better than some of the role players. We have a great chance to give the other freshmen big minutes in the preseason and take a few lumps on the hope that their experience will season them into useful contributors before the end of the season. Their upside is undeniable, but Lee, Gordon and Morgan need to play to get better. (Anderson is another story--playing behind Collison and Holiday, there really isn't any need for him to play much this year.) While it's possible that even by playing more, these 3 fabulous freshmen will not match the contributions of Keefe, Aboya, Drago and Shipp by the end of the season. But if we don't play them, we know who we are, and it's not who we want to be: 2 studs and 5 role players, and not enough to repeat the success of the past three years.
Howland is a smart guy and a great coach. He sees this team's limitations, and he will work hard to minimize the limitations and maximize the strengths. Will he play the other freshmen significant minutes? That remains to be seen, but if the team suffers many more losses like it did last night, he will not be able to deny the limitations of the current rotation and he may start looking and changing it up. I for one, will be pleased to see the freshmen given a longer leash because ultimately, the team will be better for it.