The Portland Trail Blazers begin the NBA regular season tomorrow against defending Western Conference Champion Los Angeles Lakers. In front of a national television audience, America will finally see Greg Oden play his first meaningful organized game since his Ohio State Buckeyes lost to Florida in the 2006 National Championship.
The match up will also provide NBA fans with an opportunity to watch the progression of LA center Andrew Bynum who is rehabbing from a similar microfracture knee surgery as Oden. While Oden and Bynum dance around the paint swinging elbows and circling one another like an Ali vs. Frasier fight, I won’t be able to help but wonder about the rest of the league.
We know the Lakers are good and with the addition of a healthy Bynum there is no reason to say without hesitation that Kobe and the Zen Master Phil Jackson will lead Tinsletown back to the finals. But before we go ahead and give them the crown, let's take a step back and look at the Western Conference as a whole.
Last year, all eight playoff teams from the west won at least 50 games, the Golden State Warriors won 48 games and missed the playoffs. Only three playoff teams from the East had 50 wins, those being division winners Detroit, Boston, and Cleveland.
Those stats illustrate the stark difference between the conferences and the gap will only widen this year.
Teams that were on the lower shelf of the West have added draft picks and offseason acquisitions to raise their stock. Top tier organizations like the Spurs didn’t make any sudden moves and now it seems "how the West was won" won’t be such a dead give away.
Here’s what we know about the West and whose chances are better than others.
The Lakers are good and now they have freakishly talented high jumper in Andrew Bynum.
The Spurs win their titles during odd years. Ginobili will be fine by December and until then Greg Popovich will have that beard growing at full force.
The Dallas Mavericks of this season may have the biggest question marks since Mark Cuban took over the organization. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd are another year older, but in Kidd’s defense he did seem rejuvenated during “The Redeem Team’s” run at the Gold. If the Mavs can keep Josh Howard away from his pipe and on-air radio interviews, at least they will sound better.
Speaking of age, the Sun may be setting in Phoenix. Nevertheless, a full year with Diesel and Nash will give them their best chance at capturing the title since Tom Chambers and Kevin Johnson were running in the purple and orange.
The Houston Rockets acquired Ron Artest who will help defensively if he can stay out of the stands. A healthy Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming aren't bad either. Mr. Ming has yet to play more than 57 games in a regular season since entering the NBA. Regardless, this team has the makeup to be the best in the West.
New Orleans is another team that just might run away with the conference title. They almost did it last year and now with James Posey added to the roster things are sounding pretty jazzy in the Big O.
Speaking of Jazz, have people forgotten about Utah? They have one of the most underrated coaches of all time, not to mention a point guard that any team would love to start in Deron Williams. No one plays the fundamentals game better than the Jazz do.
So where do the Blazers fit in? They have one of the deepest benches in the league, but the talent has yet to be seen on a consistent level. No one seems to be talking about the Blazers and Western Conference Finals this year.
Portland is good and will certainly turn some heads, but Portlanders have a tendency to elevate the Blazers beyond perhaps what they are capable of doing. You can’t blame us for putting our one professional team on a pedestal. What are we supposed to do, root for the Mariners and Seahawks?
Only having one professional team in Portland can also work in their favor. Think the Blazer players understand the hype? You bet they do. Head coach Nate McMillan told his players last week to do nothing but play their game and be themselves, not worry about chatter and focus on each game individually.
How could you not avoid the hype? Not since the 1992 Finals have I seen “Rip City” signs on every other block and in the window of coffee shops, restaurants, and gas stations.
Our percentage odds of the Blazers making the Western Conference Finals may be more slanted than the national media and that's OK. Outside of the Pacific Northwest the numbers will be significantly lower. This year Portland has a realistic chance of 7.5 percent of reaching the Conference Finals. My local fan within gives them a girthy 15 percent chance of getting to the final four.
In the West it’s a bit harder to say for certain because of the depth of talent across all teams but that’s why the game is played because anyone can win on any night. To make the Finals this year, Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Fernandez, Oden, and the supporting cast will have to do that at least 50 times.
Currently, the stress levels to make the Conference Finals this year are very low. Blazer players, personal and fans alike are simply hoping for Oden’s knee to stay healthy, to improve team chemistry with new additions like Jared Bayless, Fernandez, and Nicholas Batum, and to finish with an overall record over .500 to finish the season.
If McMillan can keep his players believing that teamwork and defense will win you games (the Celtics are a perfect example) and GM Kevin Pritchard can keep those athletes around, then those percentage points will jump dramatically and it won’t just be the local fanatics getting Blazer fever. Anything can happen in a long season, so the Blazers have a chance but if Portland’s big three stay healthy, the expectations next year might be more reality than hope.