Portland should split their first two games and head to Phoenix at .500. Phoenix has a new look this year. Long gone are the Matrix and Mike D'Antoni. In their place are the Big Cactus and Coach Terry Porter.
Porter of course is much loved in Portland for his great run with the late 80s, early 90s Blazers of Clyde, Terry, Jerome, Duck, Buck and Uncle Cliffy...names that run so large in the Blazers pantheon that no other words are needed. I could probably just type #22, #30, #25, #00, #52, and #3 and most Blazer fans would have been able to identify them that way.
Now the most talented Blazer team since that one faces the heart and soul of those teams as the opposing coach. All early reports say it will be no easier to beat him now than it was when he was running those fast-breaking machines for the Blazers.
Shaquille O' Neal and Amare Stoudemire are a powerful front line. Oden will have to work to stay out of foul trouble but even if he has issues, Joel Przybilla has year after year done a better than average job of defending O'Neal. Always one of the dirtiest players in the League, O'Neal made himself even more unpopular with Blazer fans with his nationally televised cheap shot where he deliberately used the ball to drive Joel's head into the floor. Hopefully Karma catches up to O'Neal this year and he enjoys the health his actions deserve.
Oden, Aldridge, Przybilla and Frye will have plenty to do to keep up with O'Neal and Stoudemire. Last year Stoudemire got in Aldridge's head early and completely disrupted his game. Later in the season, Aldridge made some adjustments and showed he can play with Stoudemire...though I doubt anyone would question that Stoudemire is superior.
In addition, Steve Nash is the type of guard that gets the Blazers in trouble. Steve Blake cannot stay in front of Nash...not that too many guys out there can...and his penetration leads to a lot of open shots for Grant Hill, Raja Bell, and of course the big two. As a result, even the new look Suns should have good offensive nights against Portland early in the season.
At the other end of the floor, Brandon Roy has shown he can score on Bell, Aldridge is much improved, and as will be typical for this season, the Phoenix bench will not be able to keep up with the potent Blazers bench night in and night out, though on occasion they are certainly talented enough to cause problems.
This game is just too early. At some point this season Portland will win one in Phoenix, but not this one. The Suns are still too good and Portland needs to develop a defensive stopper at point. Jerryd Bayless may be that guy someday but is not there yet, nor are Sergio Rodriguez or Rudy Fernandez.
Sitting at 1-2, next up for Portland is another tough, tough match-up, the Utah Jazz. Utah is stacked and only looking to get better. Mehmet Okur is the type of Center who will cause Oden the most problems as he prefers to hang out around the perimeter. Conversely, if Okur can't figure out how to defend Oden he could find himself on the pine with large numbers of personal fouls which would minimize his offense. Even without Okur, the Jazz have a potent offense with Carlos Boozer, Deron Williams, sharp-shooting Kyle Korver, the rejuvenated AK47 Andrei Kirilineko, and so forth. In Utah the Jazz are always tough.
Last year a depleted Blazers squad snuck in a win in Utah. I would love to see it happen again and they certainly are talented enough to do so but will not be ready to do so yet. Utah will win to drop the Blazers to 1-3.
They then come home for a back to back against a very talented Houston squad. From a pure talent standpoint, Houston might have the best team in the league. They can beat you so many ways. Yao Ming and Ron Artest can beat you with interior scoring and defense, Tracy McGrady is one of the most talented offensive players, and Shane Battier, Rafer Alston, Luis Scola, Luther Head...they have a deep, good bench that can hurt you.
Fortunately for the Western Conference, they have seldom put it together all at once, their 20 something game winning streak from last season excepted. As a result, they lose a lot of games they should win and seldom go deep in the playoffs.
This will be a stern test for Portland. Despite the difficulty of their schedule, a 1-4 start would be disastrous. They will come out hot and pull out their second win.
2 nights later Minnesota comes to town. It is Minnesota, enough said. Portland goes to 3-3.
Next up is a 5 game that swings East through Orlando, Miami, New Orleans and Minnesota before coming back to face the Warriors. That is a tough road trip.
Orlando found the right chemistry last year to turn themselves into one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Oddly, they proved vulnerable at home and often looked better at home. That is an anomaly I do not expect to see repeated.
The beginning of a long road trip is traditionally hard on teams. Orlando will be hard on teams at any point this season. Include the Blazers in that as they fall to 3-4.
Miami is next up. They have the makings of a good team. Dwayne Wade is pretty much a good team on his own. The Matrix Shawn Marion is a great 2-way player who can disrupt offenses at one end and defenses at the other. Michael Beasley seems like he has the makings of a great scorer. However, those three are not enough to hold off a hungry Blazer team. Portland will break through on the road in their 5th attempt. They are certainly capable of winning before that, even against the Lakers, Suns, Jazz or Magic. It is entirely possible they will have done so but on this night they will definitely get a win.
The Hornets know to improve on last year they will have to hold serve against the up and coming teams. They are well set up to do it. Their front line of Tyson Chandler and David West is well set up to deal with Portland. Peja Stojakovich provides the zone-busting outside shooting and Chris Paul is one of the best in the game at creating offense for other guys. It doesn't hurt that he himself can score almost at will.
The Hornets bench overall is not particularly strong but they do have guys like Mike James who, when they get hot, can carry a team for short stretches. Against the Blazers James tends to get hot. Pencil in the Hornets to win this one.
Closing out the trip will be Minnesota. Though the Wolves are much improved and playing at home, they simply don't have enough firepower to match the Blazers and the young Portland team will go to .500 for the trip.
With the confidence of a couple wins they head to Golden State. The Warriors picked up the talented Corey Maggette but effectively lost Pietrus, Boom Dizzle, Matt Barnes, and Monta Ellis, at least for this section of the season. The Warriors will still be a very dangerous team. Stephen Jackson and Maggette are both capable of putting up monster numbers and, with the departure of so much scoring punch, will do so with great frequency this year. Unfortunately for their fans, the flexibility and endless waves of talent the Warriors used to be able to throw at opponents has been reduced to a much less dangerous squad. They are just good enough to tantalize...they can win on any given night and even are capable of blowing out top-flight teams. But they are also capable of losing to any team, including the Thunder that stole their mascot's name. Portland will take this one, finish the longest road trip of the season at 3-2 and stand at 6-5, over .500 for the first time all year.
They then are home for a back to back. Having a back to back after a 5 game road trip almost turns it into a 6 game road trip. Still, glad to be home, the Blazers should handle the Jekyll and Hyde Bulls. It remains to be seen if they will return to their winning ways from 2 years ago or if they have become the middle country version of Isaiah's Knicks. Either way, Portland is just plain better. The guard corp for Portland is at least as deep as Chicagos and better all the way around and the front court of Chicago is not in the conversation with Portland's. Even at the end of a road trip Portland should win.
After their lengthy one night return home Portland heads back out on the road after one day for back to backs at Sacramento and Phoenix. The Kings are just plain bad. They have Martin, Miller, and not much else. It is going to be a long, long year in Sacramento. That is unfortunate. I wish they had cashed one in when they had Bibby, Divac, Webber, Stojakovich, and those fun, fun Adelman teams. They are closer to making the NHL playoffs than the NBA playoffs with this roster. Portland picks up a road win.
Back to back in Phoenix, the 7th road game in 8 games, you can pencil this one in as unusual: a game the Blazers get blown out.
Back home, this time for 3: Sacramento, another easy win, then Miami and New Orleans. Miami should be another W. New Orleans...hmm. That will be a tough one. But Portland wants to make the playoffs this year. To make the playoffs in the Western Conference you will have to win most of your home games and about half your road games. This should be an epic, titanic struggle. At some point this year New Orleans has a good shot at breaking through in Portland and this is the time. Last year the Rose Garden was a huge factor in their success and 2008-09 will be no different, but they won't run the table.
Portland closes on the road in Detroit. Year after year Detroit rolls out their talented cast and does very well. But Portland matches up extremely well. I don't believe the hype about Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace getting older. They play a very smart, team oriented game that relies on being in the right place more than on sheer athleticism.
That is not to slight the athletic abilities of the Pistons. They have the speed, leaping ability and power to compete with anyone. They simply use it in ways that mean their game will not see a big drop off when their legs go. Just as Reggie Miller was a lethal player long past his anticipated shelf life, these guys have a style that will extend their careers and effectiveness.
Beyond that, they are a well-balanced team. They can score inside or out. Tayshaun Prince is one of the most under rated players in the NBA. They are just plain a good team. How they only brought in one title is a curiosity that astounds me.
And yet I think Portland will find a way, in Detroit, to win. The balanced attack, the development of the Spanish Fly second unit, the way Portland can run at teams in waves will combine to produce a road victory to close out the month.
For November the Blazers should end up 10-6 and be sitting 11-7 overall. For the brutality of their schedule, that is a pretty good record.
A few of these games might flip-flop; it would not surprise me to see Portland win in Orlando but lose in Miami, for example, or beat the Hornets and lose to the Pistons. But they should be sitting pretty close to 11-7 and be well set up going into December.