While most NBA analysts have predicted the Los Angeles Lakers to finish as the top seed in the Western Conference, many of those same people have chosen teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, and Houston Rockets to earn the other top seeds.
These predictions may become reality as the course of the NBA season plays itself out. But I also can't help but think that the Portland Trail Blazers may be one of the most overlooked teams in the NBA. Although few NBA pundits are talking about Portland’s team, they should take notice of the team’s potential.
Long gone are the days of the Portland Jail Blazers, where players such as Shawn Kemp, Rasheed Wallace, Bonzi Wells, Ruben Patterson, and Damon Stoudamire had their share of off-court troubles and earned the team a bad reputation.
Over the past few years, the Trail Blazers have quietly put together a deep and talented team. With team owner billionaire Paul Allen willing to spend on building a quality team, the Blazers acquired one of the best coaches in the league in Nate McMillan.
Certainly the core of players on the team are highly talented including LaMarcus Aldridge, Andre Miller, and Brandon Roy (whom I consider to be the third best shooting guard in the league). But the team has yet to live up to its potential. Plagued by injuries to guys like Roy, Greg Oden, Joel Pryzbilla, Nicolas Batum, and Rudy Fernandez, the team still managed to win 50 games last season.
Imagine if the team can play relatively healthy this coming season. Greg Oden could be the biggest difference maker. Last season, Oden averaged 16.7 ppg, 12.8 rpg, and 3.4 bpg on 61% FG shooting per 36 minutes played. Clearly, Oden has the potential to be one of the best centers in the league, including a defensive stopper.
Another potential key player this year will be Nicolas Batum. He proved himself to be a capable defender and a premier shooter last year, with 52% FG and 41% 3FG averages. Designated as a role player on the Blazers squad, Batum displayed his amazing offensive skills as the leader of the French national team in this year’s FIBA World Championship Tournament. Simply put, Nicolas Batum could be one of the most consistent scorers on the team this year.
The team’s offense is run by savvy veteran Andre Miller and capable backup Jerryd Bayless. McMillan is an excellent defensive coach and flanked by veterans like Miller and inside presences like Oden and Marcus Camby, the Blazers will be highly effective in slowing down the offensive schemes of opposing teams. Combined with a tall frontcourt, Portland should rank among the league leaders in rebounding and defense, which will help propel the team to the top of the Western Conference.
Perhaps the biggest strength of the team, however, will be its versatility. The Portland Trail Blazers are one of the few teams with good playmakers, plenty of scoring options, and enough size to compete with the Lakers, Celtics, and Magic. Matched up against the Heat, the Blazers could definitely have a chance to win a potential 7-game series in the Finals, given the relative weak front line of Miami.
Furthermore, the Trail Blazers have traditionally played well against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Rose Garden. Before a Lakers win in Portland this past February, the Blazers won 9 straight games over LA at the Rose Garden, a streak dating back to 2005.
Upset by the many times that LA has ousted its team from the playoffs, Blazers fans turn the Rose Garden into one of the loudest playing arenas every time the Lakers come to play. This gives Portland a distinct advantage that few other teams have.
While predictions can be premature at this stage before the NBA season starts, one thing is certain. As long as the Portland Trail Blazers are healthy, the team’s potential this season is limitless. And that makes them the true Dark Horse contender in the league.