Last season, the Blazers tied with the Nuggets
for the best record in the Northwest Division, 54-28. They then gave back all the hard work in the first game of the playoffs, getting rolled up at home by Utah
. Once that game was over, they quickly showed they had what it took to win in the playoffs at home and competed in almost every road game but never broke through and ended their season early and in disappointing fashion.
Yes, a team that most observers last preseason thought were still a season away from playoff contention found disappointment in exiting in the first round.
They then went out and got significantly better in several ways.
First, they upgraded at their weakest position, point guard. Gone is inconsistent, disgruntled Sergio Rodriguez. He's replaced by the durable and skilled Andre Miller. Secondly, gone is erratic good guy Channing Frye, and in his place is the steady Juwan Howard.
But it was not just free agents that changed the face of this team. Another year of experience has turned this team from young, hungry and talented into battle-tested, hungry and talented. Aside from that, they are essentially getting two guys back from injury.
The first is Martell Webster. He is an under-rated defender and lights-out shooter. He could have provided the offensive spark the Blazers sorely needed against the Rockets
. While he is not as good defensively as Niclolas Batum, he usually does a creditable job.
Second, they get back from injury a guy who played in 61 games last year. But none of those games were at full strength. It is well known that microfracture surgery slows guys down for nearly a full year after their return, as Kenyon Martin, Amar'e Stoudemire, and others can attest. So welcome back, Greg Oden.
Gone is the hulking mass of muscle that was Oden last year and in its place is a quick, agile guy who moves his feet, has good lateral quickness, has shown explosive leaping ability and excellent timing.
This is a guy who will defend the paint, clean the glass, and has shown some rapid improvement offensively. He turns the center position from above average defensively but non-factor on offense into decent offensively with the potential to be spectacular defensively.
Adding Oden, Webster, Howard, and Miller to a roster that earned 54 wins last season shouts potential. This is a team that has everything it needs to win and win now.
The starting lineup looked set until Nicolas Batum went down with a shoulder injury. Fortunately, this team is so deep that his absence until possibly February should not slow this team down at all...and might even help it.
The 18 or so minutes he played last year will be taken up by Webster and possibly allow a few more minutes for Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez.
Now the starting lineup will probably see Oden at Center, LaMarcus Aldridge at power forward, Webster at the 3, Brandon Roy at shooting guard, and Steve Blake at the point.
This is a team that has great interior defense and suspect perimeter guarding skills. At the other end of the court, with Blake and Webster manning the three-point line, teams will have to pick their poison. Do they want to double team Aldridge on the block or let him wreck their interior? Oden is a threat to throw down some ferocious dunks off offensive boards.
Alternatively, they can double Aldridge and Oden, only to see Webster and Blake kill them from distance. All of this does not even take into account Roy, the best offensive player the Blazers have.
There is not much of a let-down off the bench, either.
Joel Przybilla is not going to score much, but he will block shots, rebound, and generally provide a physical presence.
Juwan Howard will play in short stretches and provide steady, veteran leadership...if he gets minutes at all. Those might go to Outlaw, who has played very well at the power forward spot. His length and speed make him a match-up nightmare.
Not strong enough to bang with starter-quality big men, he is more than capable of taking on second unit players from almost every team in the NBA
. Furthermore, he provides the second unit with a guy who can create his own shot at will.
Outlaw will also see minutes at small forward, but will share those with swing-man Rudy Fernandez. Coming off a year where he set the rookie record for three-pointers, he provides dynamic offense.
He kind of reminds me of Vinnie "the Microwave" Johnson from the Bad Boys days. He can light it up in a hurry. When his shot is not falling, he has shown the capability and willingness to drive the lane and put up points there. His defense is somewhat suspect, but he fills the passing lanes very well.
That brings us to Andre Miller. He will start the season coming off the bench. With this lineup, there is some potential for him to do what he does best, which is to run the floor and play an up-tempo game. Fernandez and Outlaw look to benefit from this style of play.
is stacked. There second team would compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and their starting lineup is as good as any in the league.
The only thing that can keep them from doing serious damage in the playoffs is not believing in themselves.
This is not to make light of teams like the Spurs
, and Nuggets. The Spurs have an incredibly potent starting lineup, the Nuggets have the potential to be one of the most explosive offensive juggernauts not named the Suns
in the last few years, and the Lakers, coming off a title, only got better with Ron Artest replacing Trevor Ariza.
But the Blazers are actually that good. Yes, I might be looking at them through rose-colored glasses...but I do not think so.
Starting the moment they drafted Brandon Roy and got Aldridge in a draft-day trade, they have gotten better and better. They got to 41 wins quicker than (almost) anyone thought possible. They got to 54 wins when most people thought 47 or 48 wins would be a great year. And now we are hearing a form of the same thing.
"The jump from 21 wins to 32 was one thing, but getting to .500 is a lot harder," was the assessment after 2006-'07.
"It is one thing to get to 41 wins, but the jump to 50 wins is a lot harder," was the belief after '07-'08.
"Getting to 54 wins is great, but getting to 60 from 54 is a lot harder than getting to 54," is a pretty common preview this year.
Maybe. But this team has not only shown steady improvement, they have shown they know what the next step they need to take is.
Roy, time after time last year, in postgame interviews would discuss the next thing the Blazers needed to do rather than gushing about the things the team had accomplished up to that time. And one thing after another fell.
They beat San Antonio. He almost single-handedly ended the long losing streak to the Suns when he poured in a "quiet 52 points." He was not going to lose to the Suns on that night.
This season, the Blazers will have Roy's drive, the return of improved Oden, the natural progression of Aldridge and Fernandez, the steadying veteran influences of Howard and Miller, and the hunger to take them higher than people believe possible.
This is a team that should finish north of 60. "It is harder to get to 60 than 54." Only if you do not have the talent. This team has the talent to win well over 60 games.
It is a team that has the talent to win any series they encounter in the playoffs. They have seen it now, they know what it takes. They have won in Utah. They have won in San Antonio. They need to get Denver out of their heads and get a win there.
Their goal this year should be one thing. It is not "getting to the playoffs." It is not "getting home court." It is not "getting out of the first round." Their goal, plain and simple, should be winning it all.
They need to start Tuesday night against Houston. They need to come out and set the tone for the season, taking it to a decent but over-matched Rocket team. Then, Thursday, when Denver arrives, they need to serve notice the Northwest Title is staying in Portland this year, but this time it will not be shared.
Then, on Halloween, they need to go into Houston and accomplish that which eluded them in the playoffs—a win.
No excuses. No saying, "It is a tough place for us to win." Plain and simple, they need to come out and show they are the team to beat this year.
Unlike last year, when they started with a schedule so brutal it ranked as the toughest start since the '60s, Portland has a relatively soft schedule this year.
I am going to come out and flat out say it would be a choke job to lose to Houston on opening night. Denver is good enough to win in Portland, but that is what sets great teams apart from the very good; defending home court. So I will say Portland should win that one, too.
They then have road games at Houston and Oklahoma City. Both are eminently winnable.
They then have a three game home stand in which only San Antonio should be tough. then five road games, with only the Hornets
being games Portland should not be favored in. Home versus Detroit
, a game at Golden State, then four more at home before closing November out at Utah.
It would not be a huge shock for Portland to be 15-4 by the end of November. They are that good.
So yeah, I am going to go out on a limb here. The low end expectation for the Blazers is Conference Finals and it is not out of the realm of possibility for them to win a title. Not next year. Not three years from now. Not after they start losing guys because they cannot afford to keep them around.
60+ wins, at least Conference Finals is my prediction.
Partying in the streets is my hope. I think they are probably about 5-1 against winning a title, but that is not beyond reasonable to see. Lets get this party started.