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Portland Trail Blazers: Why They Could Be Sleepers in the Western Conference

AJ BradyContributor IIIDecember 31, 2011

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 21:  LaMarcus Aldridge #12, Gerald Wallace #3, Nicolas Batum #88 and Marcus Camby #23 of the Portland Trail Blazers celebrates their 97-92 victory over the Dallas Mavericks in Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs on April 21, 2011 at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Don't read too much into Portland's 3-0 start.

None of the victories have been gimmes, but they have all been at home and none have been against an elite opponent. Their real challenges will start as they face the Clippers and Thunder on the road, and the Lakers at home in the next several days.

Nonetheless, there are many reasons to be optimistic if you are a Blazer fan.

Led by new acquisition Raymond Felton, Portland is finally pushing the tempo, which suits them very well. They are one of two teams (the other is Atlanta, who has feasted on cellar-dwellers early) to be in the top-five in offensive and defensive efficiency.

The Blazers played very well after adding Gerald Wallace at the trade deadline last year. Now, in his first full year as as Blazer, Wallace has played very well, a big part of the hot start.

But he is not the only recent acquisition to be a big contributor to this Portland team.

The aforementioned Felton, despite still playing his way into shape and some early sloppy play, looks to be a good fit and very helpful in pushing the tempo. Once he and LaMarcus Aldridge develop better pick-and-roll chemistry, they will be a deadly combination. Don't forget how close Felton was to being an All-Star playing alongside Amar'e Stoudemire last year.

Jamal Crawford has been streaky, but has heated up at the right times. He provides needed shooting and scoring off the bench. Also, Crawford's passing ability is at times overlooked, but has been very good this year. He's had several nice dimes to buddy Aldridge.

And the less heralded acquisitions are important as well. The Big Sexy (aka Kurt Thomas) gives Camby and Aldridge much needed rest, while knocking down the mid-range shot, setting good screens, and playing smart defense.

The Rhino (aka Craig Smith) has barely played, but is capable of being a rotation player, adding post scoring and energy off the bench.

Add the newer members to the incumbent core and coach Nate McMillan, and you have a scary team.

Aldridge should continue to improve after a near All-Star season. He is still shaking off the rust after missing training camp due to his heart problem. He has a ceiling as at least a top-10 player in the league.

Wesley Matthews always plays hard and is one of a plethora of good defenders for Portland. He is still working on his driving ability, but when his shot is on, he can put up big numbers in a hurry.

Nicolas Batum is Portland's biggest wildcard, possessing the talent, but perhaps not the mindset, of a star. Whether he can take the next step or not, he plays an important role as a versatile option off the bench.

Marcus Camby doesn't get the credit that fellow seniors like Grant Hill and Steve Nash do, but his play makes a big impact. Portland looks great when he plays alongside Wallace and Aldridge in the front court.

Anything Portland can get from young players Nolan Smith, Chris Johnson, Elliot Williams, Luke Babbitt, Armon Johnson, and of course, Greg Oden, would be a bonus.

There is not one team in the West that I can't see Portland having a chance against. In fact, almost every team has shown some weakness early in the season.

Dallas has not looked good at all yet (though they will pick up), the Lakers have looked far from their usual elite selves, the Spurs will be dogged by their age, and Memphis by their chemistry.

The Clippers have plenty of talent but are still building chemistry and have major holes (plus they are the Clippers). Denver is fun to watch, but probably not a top team. Ditto for Golden State and Houston

While Portland would not be the favorites against all of those, they most definitely are capable of beating them in a playoff series.

And then there is Oklahoma City. I think Portland can be a big thorn in their side. They had success against Oklahoma City after picking up Wallace, who is capable of causing Durant problems.

To the rest of the Western Conference, watch out lest this is the year when Portland finally has some luck...

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