With a new NBA season finally about to begin, it's time time to make some predictions. We don't have a lot to go off at this point, with free agency and training camp still waiting to begin. Even so, it's the perfect time to take a look at the circumstances surrounding each team and then attempt to extrapolate what kind of stories or results will follow as the season unfolds.
The Portland Trail Blazers are a team that could potentially look very different at the start of the regular season, depending on how the next three weeks play out. Here are 10 bold predictions for the 2011-12 NBA season.
Nate McMillan seems like a pretty smart guy, and judging by his comments made in an interview with The Oregonian back in October, he seems to be coming to terms with the fact that his current roster will be more suited to playing faster and pushing the pace.
I think there are merits to both systems, but the truth is that I also want my team to be fun to watch, and sometimes that requires playing an up-tempo system that allows players to get out more in transition and get some easy buckets.
Playing up-tempo might limit the effectiveness of players like Greg Oden or Brandon Roy but, as McMillan said in that interview, he's going to do what he feels will best help the team win games.
I haven't heard anything to this point about the NBA All-Star game being cancelled this season, so hopefully it will still exist, in some form. If so, LaMarcus Aldridge will be ready to take his place on the team after seemingly being worthy of it last season, but failing to be voted in.
Aldridge is the unquestioned leader of a very good team and played near an MVP level for a few short stretches last season. He leads his team to wins, and he is only getting better with time.
As I said here, I think the time has come for Aldridge to receive the recognition that he deserves.
Unlike with Brandon Roy, whose status with the team seems to be so up in the air right now, I believe we will almost certainly see Greg Oden play meaningful minutes for the Blazers this season. Oden has put in the time, been patient and done everything he can to get healthy, and with the extra rest that the lockout has given him, this may finally be the year in which the team sees what they have been waiting for from him.
With the shortened time to prepare for the season, Oden might not shoot as well as he has in the past, but with his size and strength, he'll always have an easy time getting in close for dunks and drawing fouls on helpless defenders.
One of the Blazers' biggest goals in free agency is to acquire another big man who can be a solid backup to LaMarcus Aldridge and/or Greg Oden. If Oden doesn't hold up for an entire season, having another player to step in and take more minutes would also be ideal.
Marcus Camby is almost 38 now and, despite having a fairly productive season as a rebounder last season, is seeing a decline in most other facets of his game. He only managed to put up 4.7 points per game, which is less than half his career average, and was limited to only 65 games (regular season and playoffs) due to various ailments, which one can only assume won't really be going away at this stage of his career.
I like Camby and think he could still fill a role as a solid backup center for Portland. However, with the injury history he has, as well as nearly $12 million expiring contract, he might be an attractive target for a team looking for help to save money.
Here I am referring primarily to Luke Babbitt and Jon Diebler, both of whom came out of college with a well-deserved reputation for be able to score in bunches. Babbitt failed to produce in his first season as a pro, and it remains to be seen whether Diebler will be able to score enough to get reliable minutes.
Assuming Greg Oden is healthy, the team will have an even greater need for players who can space the floor than it did last season. Either of these guys should be someone the team can count on, in end of quarter situations or other similar places, to come into the game and be ready to spot up for a three on a play designed specifically for them as the first or second option.
Chances are, one of them will do well enough in training camp to warrant extra attention and minutes from Nate McMillan this season.
Despite his reputation as a very solid perimeter defender, John Hollinger revealed otherwise in a recent article where we questioned why Nicolas Batum has yet to become the type of intimidating defensive force Blazers fans have been looking for for years.
It's hard to be an elite team without at least one such player, but I believe this will be the year Batum finally reaches his full potential and starts giving nightmares to opposing wing players.
The Blazers need Batum, along with Wesley Matthews, to help slow players like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant if they ever hope to reach the status of contender, and this looks like it could be the year Batum will provide that for them.
This one dates back to the 2000 Western Conference Finals, when the Lakers beat the Blazers in Game 7, overcoming a 15-point deficit in the final quarter. Ever since then, the two teams have been bitter rivals, though the Lakers have enjoyed much more postseason success than their West Coast counterparts.
The Blazers match up well against the Lakers because both teams have size but are not necessarily quick. This year, however, the Blazers will be able to run more, in addition to having size, something that should tilt the scales in their favor.
I have no idea how the regular-season schedule will look, or how many times the two teams will go head-to-head, but Portland will come out on top, both in the record between the two teams and in the regular-season overall record.
This is kind of a weird one, yet still a very valid prediction, if you look at the evidence.
Jeff Pendergraph and Joel Przybilla are both available, and both would seem to fill the void at the backup big spot that Portland is looking at. Neither would be very expensive. Even though Przybilla has injury issues, and Pendergraph didn't exactly leave the team on the best of terms the first time around, both would seem to be good fits.
Steve Blake is another option. Though he would need to be had via trade, which isn't nearly as likely given the teams current salary cap figure, he was the only player who came to work out at the team facility on the first day it opened back up.
I know this might be a hard one for most people to swallow, but I really think the Blazers are going to win what is now a somewhat underwhelming Northwest Division.
Minnesota has some intriguing young talent, and could probably double its win total of last season if it learns to play some defense and can do some work balancing out the roster. However, it is still two or three years out from being a serious threat.
Utah also has some good pieces, but is almost too deep in the frontcourt and also needs a trade or two to balance things out. It's off to a good start in the rebuilding process, but still has a ways to go.
Denver is probably the saddest case of all. After a promising post-Melo finish to last season, it lost three key players to China this offseason, and it appears it will suffer a serious lack of depth until those players rejoin the team in March sometime.
Oklahoma City is the only real threat and will provide some stiff competition, but in the end the depth of the Blazers will prove to be too much this year.
Stay with me here.
I know it's a stretch, in a conference with teams such as the Thunder, Mavericks, Grizzlies and, as always, the Lakers, but with the extra rest to benefit injured players, no team will have more of an advantage from that than Portland.
It will be a tough road with some very good teams to pass through, but this is the Portland Trail Blazers' year. The combination of depth, chemistry, good coaching and solid all-around play will be something that no other team from the west can match. Go Rip City.