Will early season schedule brutalities derail the Blazers playoff hopes?
The 2007-08 season saw the Blazers lose #1 draft pick Greg Oden before a single game was played, lose All-Star Brandon Roy for multiple games, lose future All-Star LaMarcus Alrdidge for long stretches, have the 2nd toughest Strength of Schedule and one of the 3 youngest teams of all time. This did not stop them from finishing the season with a .500 record at 41-41.
The optimism from that unexpectedly successful season was only exacerbated when GM Kevin Pritchard signed Spanish sensation Rudy Fernandez, Pritch-slapped fellow GMs on draft day to unload oft-maligned (unfairly, by the way) Guard Jarrett Jack, food tube Josh "McBob" McRoberts and a draft pick for bench polisher Ike Diogu and Guard Jerry Bayless. With Oden, Fernandez and Bayless coming in many observers argue Portland is bringing aboard 3 of the top 5 players from this year's draft, somehow ignoring the fact only one of them was drafted this year. The point remains, a team that went .500 last year seriously upgraded its talent base even aside from the natural progression of young players such as sharpshooter Martell Webster and prime time shot-maker Travis Outlaw. The only other loss of note was oft-injured but talented James Jones whose loss is anticipated to be offset by the development of Webster and Outlaw.
Predictions have ranged from improvement to about 45 wins all the way to a rather unreasonable claim on the Championship this year. Most predictions have settled more in the middle with a low playoff seed and 1st or 2nd round exit. That does not sound unreasonable.
At least, it didn't before the 2008-2009 NBA schedule was released.
Opening night is in LA against the hated Lakers. Last year the Blazers somehow managed to split the 4 game series with them although that is somewhat misleading as at no point was either team at full strength when they met. Furthermore, this year's Blazer squad is far stronger while the Lakers more or less stood pat with a team that was good enough to win the toughest Conference in history. With continued development by some of their young players and a return to health of Trevor Ariza and Andrew Bynum, they figure to be even better than last year.
Portland's first game is against those Lakers in L.A. The Lakers figure to come in with a chip on their shoulder after their humiliation in Game 6 and knowing the nation is watching. That makes it a statement game for both teams. Look for LA to make the bigger statement with a comfortable win.
Next up is a home game against San Antonio. The Spurs will also be rolling in with something to prove as whispers about them being too old, having lost too many steps and so forth. If Portland wants to be a playoff team this is the type of game they will need to win as they did last year. But will they? It would not necessarily be an upset to see San Antonio pull this one off. Then Portland would be looking at 0-2 with a horrific stretch ahead.
The next night is a back to back on the road against Phoenix, a team that absolutely destroyed Portland last year. To be sure, Phoenix has completely changed complexion, philosophy, and their coach but the back to back, the (probable) tough start to the season, and that mental domination combine to make this a very tough game.
After that they travel to Utah for a road game against a team that won 50+ games last year and lost I believe 3 games at home. Ouch. This is followed by another back to back as they fly home to face 50+ game winner Houston, a team that got vastly better in the off season. That is no gimme.
Finally Portland catches a break with a home game against Minnesota. Even in Minnesota Portland SHOULD win that but to get 6 games in before finding a game you pencil in for a near-certain W is a pretty tough start.
On the bright side, I can make arguments why Portland COULD win every game. Then again, only the Minnesota game would be hugely disappointing to lose. If Portland started out 3-3 it would mean they pretty much held serve with their home games. Then they would have a tough 5 game swing with games against vastly improved Miami, Orlando, and New Orleans before finishing against Minnesota and Golden State. When a road game at Golden State looks like a "break" you know your first 11 games have been tough.
This young Blazer team will be tested early and their season very well may be defined by the opening stretch. By the time they have completed this 21 day stretch they will have played 11 games, 13% of their season. That is enough time to get at least a sense of where they are at. Are they competing with the best in the league at a level that promises success this season or are they struggling?
Unfortunately, one of the things young teams often struggle with is confidence and this is a schedule that can do harsh things to that trait. If Portland gets blown out by the Lakers and then loses to the Spurs they would most likely lose in Phoenix and Utah. Suddenly they are 5 games in and the 5000 pound Gorilla gets bigger when they face Houston even though the game is in Portland. In that scenario they would be sitting 1-5 after beating Minnesota and could easily lose 4 or even all 5 of the subsequent road games. If that were to happen it would be disastrous and the once promising season would be all but done. Large boned females would be warming the vocal chords if not outright singing.
On the other hand, if Portland pulls off an opening night upset in LA and follows that up with a win over the Spurs, everything changes. Suddenly they have wins over 2 of the teams they need to beat to be a force. Suddenly a win over Phoenix or Utah would be feasible, the home games against Houston and Minnesota are not just possible wins, they are probable and by the time they start the road trip they are sitting 4-2 or even 5-1 and know they can play with anyone. Look out Miami. They could easily go 3-2 or better on the road trip and suddenly are well set up for the season.
Suddenly that 5 game road trip is not so intimidating. By now they will have seen what Oden can do, how the off-court efforts of Webster and Outlaw are panning out, how having a powerful offensive threat down low has allowed Aldridge to expand his game and suddenly they are a young, energetic team brimming with talent and confidence and they are ready to make a run at the playoffs even though it is quite early in the season.
Obviously there are a variety of scenarios possible for this team. I freely admit to being a Blazer "homer" and as such I work hard to keep my favoritism in check. Sometimes I swing too far the other way and underplay their talent and abilities. I am trying hard to keep my expectations realistic.
We will see how the season goes. If Portland wins early against LA or the Spurs they should survive the brutal first quarter of their season in great shape for a run at a decent playoff seed. If they lose the first couple games it will require a lot of lucky breaks for them to even make the playoffs. Either way, the tough opening schedule will quickly let us assess just how good this team can be. Will they just be potential or will that promise be realized? We should know by the time Halloween is over.