Portland Trailblazers: Contender or Pretender?

Don WayneContributor IJuly 26, 2009

HOUSTON - APRIL 26:  Guard Brandon Roy #7 of the Portland Trail Blazers goes up for a shot where he is called for an offensive foul against Chuck Hayes #44 of the Houston Rockets in the last minute of play in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center on April 26, 2009 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

I just finished reading an online article where the author divined that the Blazers would finish fifth in the Western Conference this season, behind the Lakers, Spurs, Nuggets, and Rockets.

Fifth? Really? 

Didn't the younger version of this team, minus Miller, Webster, Pendergraph and Cunningham, just tie Denver for second place in the Western Conference last season? Fifth seemed a bit low to me.

The reality is that the Spurs got better this Summer. Already blessed with talented players like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, San Antonio picked up two meaningful players in Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess.

Jefferson, although a bit streaky as an offensive player, is a tough and gritty presence. He, in particular, makes the Spurs better. In fact, some have suggested that San Antonio, not Los Angeles, is the preseason favorite to emerge from the West this year.

Denver didn't do much, at least in terms of adding real net value to their team. However, it's likely that they will marginally eclipse their season win total of 54 from last year, primarily because they didn't acquire Chauncey Billups until Nov. 3.

Houston will have a new look. Yao's injury and recent surgery to his foot will keep him sidelined for at least the 2009 season. Ron Artest is gone and in his place is the younger Trevor Ariza.

The Lakers need to and probably will sign Lamar Odom. If they do, they have to be considered the favorites once again. It doesn't appear that they have done anything to improve themselves, although some would argue that Artest is an improvement over Ariza.

The Portland Trailblazers are the wild card in the West. They have made significant upgrades over last seasons 54-win squad. Andre Miller was brought in as their sole free agent signing, Jeff Pendregraph and Dante Cunningham were drafted early in the second round, and both show promise of earning playing time.

Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum should improve simply by virtue of losing their rookie tags, and Greg Oden has received particular attention by the Blazer staff in Ohio this Summer.

It remains to be seen how much Andre Miller will improve this team. He's not really a Steve Blake upgrade as some have suggested. Portland still has Blake. In terms of what the team picks up, Miller is a net gain over Rodriguez. That's a significant gain.

Miller is a very good offensive player and makes everyone else around him better as well. He's a throwback from another time, when point guards knew how to pass first and score when necessary. His defense is adequate and his leadership skills and basketball IQ are second-to-none.

Miller is also very durable and will run when the break is there. As a result, Portland should score slightly more than they did last year. A good shooter from about 16 feet in, his three-point shooting is abysmal. If not for the return of Martell Webster and the presumed improvement by Batum, this would be a problem. As it is, it shouldn't be an issue.

Cunningham and Pendergraph both impressed the coaching staff during the Las Vegas Summer League...So much so that Kevin Pritchard has indicated that both players will receive contracts.

How much playing time they get on a team that is now a legit 13 deep is another question At least, the Blazers are hopeful that the two rookies will add a layer of toughness to a team who got bullied out of the first round of the playoffs last year by a much more physical Houston.

The bigger questions center around Oden. Maligned much of the last two years by the press and fans (mostly by Laker fans for whatever reason), he seems determined to prove himself this year.

He dropped a summer class at Ohio State University in order to focus on improving his game. Coach Bill Bayno along with former Blazer, Brian Grant, have been working with him.

Reports coming back from Columbus have been very positive. His knee seems to finally be healed and his lateral movement and footwork are greatly improved.

Oden is currently in Las Vegas, participating in the USA mini camp. He has looked solid defensively and somewhat improved offensively. He will never be the scorer that the former No. 2 pick Kevin Durant (who is also at the camp and is the most impressive offensive player in the building) is, but he doesn't need to be in order to make the Blazers remember why the selected him. Coach Triano said about Greg:

"Just his physical presence defensively. I just thought he used his size and his brawn very effectively," Triano said. "We got 11 straight stops on one of the drills we were doing, and he was the anchor behind that."

As a Blazer next year, Greg needs to control the paint, block shots, score his 14 PPG and collect his 12 RPG. That's all. Portland has plenty of guys who can score. His defense will be improved simply due to the fact that he has healed and will presumably come into training camp in much better condition than he did last year.

Getting there on the offensive side isn't nearly as much of a strech as some have assumed. Limited mainly by foul trouble last season, Oden averaged nine points on 56.4 percent shooting, seven rebounds and one block. 

He did this all in about 21 minutes per game. Projected out to 33 mpg, Greg would have averaged 14, 11 and two. Staying out of foul trouble and a very modest improvement will get him there next year.

(As a side note, it will be interesting to see how Greg's game is affected with Andre Miller feeding him the ball down low.)

Webster once scored 24 points in a quarter but only had 26 for the entire game. How is that even possible? "Baby Kobe" has the potential to shine for this Blazer squad, but his finish needs a little buffing.

The knocks against Webster have been a lack of consistency, and a lack of commitment to play defense. Last season, word was that he had made great strides in improving those two areas, but ended up only playing five minutes because of a foot injury...The original one and the re-aggravated one. What he is capable of doing this year is anyone's guess.

Brandon Roy will be Brandon Roy, you can expect to see further development from players like Lamarcus Aldridge (who is well on his way to becoming a star in his own right), Nic Batum, Rudy Fernandez, Travis Outlaw and even Jerryd Bayless if he ever gets the opportunity to play. Joel Pryzbilla is a rock. Portland knows exactly what they have with him.

Portland has a legitimate 13 players who deserve time. It would be an understatement to say that they are deep. The Blazers are probably the deepest team in the NBA now.

So, with all of the changes in the West, are the Blazers contenders or pretenders? Is it enough?

We can safely say that they'll be very good, but are they good enough to challenge the Lakers and Spurs for that top spot? In my opinion, they can absolutely challenge, but Oden, Webster and Miller all have questions to answer before we'll know for sure. If the Blazers all bring it, the rest of the NBA could be caught looking up.