The Blazers look to improve this year. To do that, they will need to beat Western Conference Playoff teams and beat them often. Should they prove incapable of doing that, they will fail to improve their record and the playoff dream will be deferred. Conversely, if they can find ways to beat the Spurs, Suns, Jazz, Hornets, Lakers, Nuggets, and Rockets then they will have a promising season.
Recently I looked over their schedule and figure they should finish within a couple games of a 53-29 record. Over the next few days I will take a look at their projected record in each month. As the season progresses, I will look back at my predictions and see how I did.
The Blazers have just 2 games in October. They open at the LA Lakers on Tuesday and then are home against the San Antonio Spurs for Halloween. Nothing like starting your season off easy...by any stretch of the imagination, both teams should be considered pre-season favorites to make the NBA Finals in the West, alongside the Jazz and Hornets. Portland opens with arguably 2 of the top 5 teams in the League.
Starting in Las Angeles is a tough way to start the season. The Lakers made the Finals last year and lost no vital parts. The loss of Ronnie Turiaf is more than made up for by the return to health of Trevor Ariza and, more importantly, Andrew Bynum.
The Lakers are a hard team for me to preview honestly. They are doubtless the team I hate more than any other team. It is not the good type of "oh, I hate that team" where I will watch to see them lose...in the case of the Lakers, it is more, if they are involved, I will find something else to do except on rare occasions. Yes, I will admit I watched and loved every second of their Game 6 humiliation last year, but that was an exception.
With that caveat, they are also a team to be feared. Kobe Bryant is unquestionably one of the 2 best players in the League. He is one of a handful of players who can single-handed carry a team. The only other names that come to mind...okay, 1. LeBron James can score seemingly at will. He and Bryant are about the only guys who have shown the capability of banging out repeated 35+ scoring nights, though a few others can have individual nightly explosions. Bryant and James just do it more consistently.
Personally, I would love to see the "tired legs" and wounded finger of Kobe make him ineffective, Bynum do a Kwame Brown impersonation, Lamar Odom become disgruntled and a divisive force, Pau Gasol's defensive lapses put him in Phil Jackson's doghouse, age catch up to Derek Fischer and the Lakers run the table in reverse going 0-82. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen.
That makes opening in L.A. a tough game.
Yet Portland is talented enough to stay with them. Let's project the starting line-ups;
C: Andrew Bynum
PF: Pau Gasol
SF: Lamar Odom
SG: Kobe Bryant
PG: Derek Fisher
C: Greg Oden
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge
SF: Nicolas Batum
SG: Brandon Roy
PG: Steve Blake
Of course, both line-ups are susceptible to change. I have heard rumblings the Lakers will start Trevor Ariza at the small forward and Jordan Farmar at the point. From Blazer land have been rumors that Batum will get the nod with other rumors that Travis Outlaw or Rudy Fernandez will slide into the starting slot for Portland. Those would be key changes and result in a reassessment of both starting line-ups and bench strengths, but the overall outcome would not change I do not believe.
There is some potent offense there for both teams in the starting line-ups. Both teams can score inside, outside, or from mid-range.
At Center, Oden will get his points mostly on offensive rebounds and free throws early in the season. It depends on who the Lakers put on Oden. I would assume the younger, stronger Bynum will match up with Oden with Gasol taking on the more agile Aldridge.
This match-up will go to whoever gets the calls. Either Bynum or Oden will spend some bonus pine time in this one, and expect Bynum to gain a slight statistical edge in points and rebounds with Oden having more blocks.
Gausol has shown he can get his points against Portland with a variety of backdoor cuts and soft jumpers. However, he can't handle Aldridge, particularly if he is having to help on Oden....which he will need to. Aldridge should end up with a marked statistical advantage, though Gausol will still get his.
Small forward will be problematic for the Blazers. While Batum has shown flashes of brilliance defensively, in Odom he will be over matched should this be a game where Odom wants to shoot. Batum is excellent at deflecting passes, picking off steals, and so forth but sometimes gets eaten alive by good one on one players. Odom will have better numbers but his effectiveness will be determined more by his assist totals: if Batum can force him into some turnovers it will be a real positive for Portland.
At shooting guard we find Portland's best player, Brandon Roy. And still they will find the Lakers are statistically ahead. Bryant scores more, rebounds about as well, and their passing numbers are about even. The point of hope for the Blazers is they traditionally force Bryant into sub-par shooting performances, though that is not always the case.
It is the bench where Portland enjoys a marked advantage. Joel Przybilla is an above average rebounder and shot-blocker, Channing Frye is not a huge drop-off from Aldridge, Travis Outlaw is offensively vastly superior to Batum, and the back court of Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez is deadly, providing top-notch passing and excellent shooting. The Lakers will be hard-pressed to match up with Ariza, Farmar, and Walton.
The teams are relatively well matched. Neither team has enough holes in their line-up for the opponents to exploit. Both teams have excellent offensive abilities and above average defense. Thus it will come down to who executes better.
In a match-up this close, the edge goes to the home team. In this case, it also goes to the team wanting to atone for ending their season one game before the season ended. As a result, the Blazers will compete, be in the game right up to the end, but ultimately lose their opener. In L.A. the Lakers are the better team.
The second game is against the Spurs, a team that year after year gets written off as too old. Yet year after year the Spurs finish near or at the top of the standings. It is not hard to see why. They have superstars in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli. They have excellent role players who know their role and fill their role as well as possible in players like sharp-shooting defender Bruce Bowen, energy guy Fabricio Oberto, slasher Michael Finley, and so forth.
They play such good defense that their seeming lack of offensive firepower is rendered moot. By limiting the number of possessions in a game, the highly skilled nature of the offense provided by Parker, Ginobli and Duncan is magnified.
Oden should cause Oberto fits this year. Aldridge and Duncan will have some wars and come close to canceling each other out. Neither Batum nor Bowen expects to score a great deal so again it is about a wash. Roy will dominate his statistical comparison almost as much as Parker dominates his.
With Ginobli out to start the season, that means the Portland bench should dominate the Spurs bench. Kurt Thomas has a few miles left on him but not enough to cover all the holes in the Spurs second unit. Even if Parker and Duncan destroy the Portland starters...which they shouldn't...the second unit of the Blazers should have such a marked advantage that the Blazers should even their record at one and one.
It is exciting to see that even with rather modest contributions from Oden and with Martell Webster missing the first couple of months, the Blazers are still talented enough to compete with the very best teams in the NBA.
They should split their first 2 games against pre-season Conference favorites and that will get them started on a very entertaining season.