NBA fans and experts — I’ve got a guarantee for the 2008-09 season. I must apologize to my Lakers and fellow purple-and-gold fans before I make it — but as much as I love the Lake Show, this is just science:
The Portland Trail Blazers will finish with the BEST record in the Western Conference.
I issue this promise not simply because of the awe-inspiring collection of young talent they have assembled. From Roy (who, mark my words, will be this year’s CP3, vaulting into the upper echelons of NBA super-stardom in ‘08-09) to Oden to Aldridge to Bayless, everyone knows this team is stacked. If top young basketball talent were supple human flesh, Kevin Pritchard would be the Buffalo Bill of the NBA. That’s no revelation.
I’m betting big on the Blazers because of several intangible factors, which will more than compensate for the team’s relative lack of experience. In every sport there are those teams, perched at the right intersection of opportunity and readiness, whose preparation gets a nice assist from external circumstances beyond their control to propel them past reasonable expectations.
The Blazers are in that magical spot this year, thanks to these factors:
- Kobe’s pinky (and postseason chip on his shoulder)
With their finish last year and the return of Bynum, the Lakers are certain to start the season as the odds-on favorites to win the West. And I do believe that by the time the Western Conference Playoffs are through, the purple-and-gold will rise to the top again. But while Kobe and the Lake Show will start 2008-09 with something to prove, that proving ground lies exclusively in two spots: Boston and the NBA Finals. The Lakers could sport the best regular season record in history next year, but it won’t help them live down the embarrassment of Game 4 and Game 6 if they can’t get it done in the playoffs. Kobe’s got his MVP, he’s proven he can lead a team to the top of the regular season heap. Phil Jackson is a master of pacing his teams for the postseason. Add in the injuries — Kobe’s pinky, which, unless there’s been a second opinion I didn’t hear about, still needs surgery and Andrew Bynum’s still-untested rehabbed knee — and if the Lakers are know what’s good for them, they will pace their output and try to peak in April-June, instead of December-March.
- New Orleans, CP3 and the Loss of the Surprise Factor
New Orleans enjoyed a good 2-3 months before anyone took them seriously last season. Not going to happen this year. Sure, Chris Paul is young and potentially still getting better. And Tyson Chandler, David West, and Peja form a nice core that will keep this team competitive for some time. But everyone who comes to play them this year is going to bring their best. They may step up, respond, and remain in the hunt — but do you really want to bet on them improving upon their 2007-08 next season?
- Aging Western Powerhouses
The Suns and Mavericks each made blockbuster deals last year, both of which just increased the miles on their respective squads. And the Spurs are so old, they’ve started making out a Bucket List. Even if more time in Phoenix enables Shaq to gel with Nash and the Suns core, you really think he’s playing more than 60 games this year? And while J.Kidd may be good-to-go in more games than Shaq, did you see his defense against the top PGs of the West? Chris Paul, Deron Williams, heck even Derek Fisher — they all ran circles around him last year. Is a summer spent playing ball with USAB and not resting up (see next item) really going to improve those results?
- The Olympics
While Western superstars Kobe, Pau Gasol, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Jason Kidd, and Yao Ming (and potentially Manu Ginobili and Dirk Nowitzki too) are off gallivanting in Beijing, B.Roy and the Blazers will be back in Rip City, working out and getting a bit of rest. You’ve already got fresh, young legs — now you’ve had the chance to rest while the rest of the top teams have to wear out their best players in pursuit of Olympic glory? It’s downright unfair…and Portland must be salivating over the advantage it confers upon them.
- Raef Lafrentz’s contract
Ok, this one isn’t exactly an intangible or an external factor — NBA GM’s covet expiring contracts like the Lafrentz monstrosity almost as much as LeBron covets a New York home address — but it might be the biggest and perhaps most-overlooked thing the Blazers currently have going for them. Not only do the Blazers have the most-talented young team in the league, in Lafrentz’s expiring $12 mil deal, they’re sitting on the single best piece of trade bait out there. If Mitch Kupchak managed to turn Kwame Brown into Pau Gasol, what could Pritchard do with Raef’s soon-off-the-books millions? Frightening. (And equally or perhaps even more scary — Pritchard can deal Lafrentz this year for a top veteran or a couple role players, still have free agent dollars to spend with Steve Francis’s expiring $17 million contract, and next year he’ll get to do the same thing with Darius Miles’ expiring $9 mil per deal.)
- Clay Bennett and the Sonics debacle
The final dark horse external factor that will buoy the Blazers in 2008-09 comes by virtue of the Sonics relocation. Where do you think all those spurned Seattle fans will turn? Sure, some of them have rooted against Portland for years and may take awhile to warm to the Blazers. But there’s literally millions of alienated Pacific Northwest basketball fans — some of the most die-hard roundball lovers on the planet — who will have a void to fill. You think a majority of them are going to turn to Golden State or Minnesota for their pro basketball fix? Clay Bennett spurned the beautiful girl, and chased her right into Paul Allen’s hands, with a jilted lover mentality to boot. Portland’s about to score a bunch of jilted lovers, eager to show Bennett and the former Sonics what they’re missing. And they’re going to scream loud enough to be heard in Oklahoma City.
A lot of you probably think I’m crazy, even with the reasons I listed above. But that’s the beauty of longshot predictions — you’ll have to wait to talk to me in April.