Preview:0-1 San Antonio at 0-1 Portland

The situation could be considered bleak. 0-12. O for Brandon Roy's career. o for LaMarcus Aldridge's career. Projected starting Center and Rookie of the Year hopeful center Greg Oden out. Sharpshooting projected Small Forward Martell Webster out. Perennial Championship contender San Antonino comes to town for the Blazers' home opener.

Yet there are some positives, as well. Just as Portland has lost Oden and Webster to injury, the Spurs have lost all-world Manu Ginobli and starting Center Fabricio Oberto. The Spurs looked vulnerable in their home opener loss to Phoenix. Their defense showed holes that were not there in the past.

On the other hand, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker look willing and able to step into the gap and provide the points that would normally come from Ginobli. Oberto is a great energy guy but not going to greatly affect the statistics one or the other. The Spurs have other advantages as well.

San Antonio has a better bench than people give them credit for. Kurt Thomas is a guy who does not put up huge numbers. He just puts up numbers that exceed what his playing time should show and does them in key situations. A lot of what he does never shows up in the box score. He will keep alive a ball on the offensive boards and the rebound will get credited to Ime Udoka who ends up with it. Or he will nudge a guy's hip on the way by, knocking the ball loose or the defender out of position. Thomas is the epitome of a role player because he finds his role, fills it, and doesn't need the spotlight. Nor is he the only role player help.

Udoka can stroke the three and play above average defense. Jacque Vaughn doesn't play huge minutes or put up big numbers (note the trend there) but doesn't need to...he just needs to spell Parker at key moments and that is what he does.

On the other hand, the Blazer bench has the potential to see some big numbers. Sergio Rodriguez has stretches where every time he passes the ball it creates an assist. Rudy Fernandez can score in bunches. Channing Frye can provide a surprise boost in points and rebounds when he gets time and his head is in the game. Of course, they are hurt by the move of Travis Outlaw to the starting line-up, which usually would be the headline for the game if not for other major events.

Naturally, the main storyline for tonight for the national media...and, to be fair, Portland the Greg Oden injury. I call bollocks.

I am not going to argue the Blazers are better off long-term without Oden than with him. That would just be stupid. He is going to provide some great moments, some big numbers at times, and make a difference for this team. But I am going to argue they are still good enough to win without him. And that includes games like this one against San Antonio.

To be sure, Oden would have an advantage on the box in this game. Duncan will no doubt be watching LaMarcus Aldridge. That match-up alone is enough of a treat for Blazer fans. Here we have the past and present of the League, perennial All-Star and MVP candidate Duncan...matched up with young gun probable future All-Star Aldridge. Both forwards can post up, shoot well from mid-range, and play the pick and roll. Aldridge runs the floor a little better...not hugely relevant on a Blazer team that runs as seldom as this one...and Duncan is a better defender, though his expertise tends more towards off the ball help than matching up one on one.

Both players are a pleasure to watch because they are so skilled. Neither one simply runs over the defender. Instead, they use their quickness, agility, and intelligence to make good basketball moves. I have never been a fan of the "bull him over and score while he lays on the ground and picks up a foul" game guys like Shaquille O'Neal play. I would much rather watch skilled guys like Duncan, Aldridge, Chris Paul, etc. play. Still, there are people who prefer the power game that Oden would provide.

Oden has that ability to just overpower people that I am not a huge fan of watching. With Oberto out, he would theoretically have an even bigger advantage in this game...though I would argue that a crafty veteran such as Thomas could cause him a lot of problems.

Be that as it may, with no Oden Portland will switch up their offensive theory a little bit. Instead of pounding it in to Oden and seeing what happens, they will involve more people. Aldridge should get a few more looks on the box, Brandon Roy will have a bit more room to operate, and if Bruce Bowen is on Roy, Travis Outlaw will have some lanes.

This figures to be a low scoring affair where chalupas are not part of the conversation. The Spurs are very good at keeping things to their pace. With that in mind, Portland can withstand some cold-shooting stretches. Conversely, so can the Spurs. Look for a game in the 80s or 90s where both teams are within striking distance with a couple minutes to go.

I anticipate Aldridge and Roy bouncing back from brutal nights in L.A. If Rudy Fernandez and Travis Outlaw provide anything close to what they did in that game, the Blazers should have enough firepower to end their 0-12 skid against the Spurs, particularly in light of Ginobli missing the game.

For the Spurs to win they need everything to click; they need their defense to be on, Duncan and Parker to light up the score board, and a couple other guys step up into maybe the low teens.

This game might be more important for Portland than it is for San Antonio. The Spurs are a quality veteran team that has started slow before. They know it is a lengthy season and they will win their share of games by the end. One game won or lost will not alter their confidence.

Portland, on the other hand, faces what is almost a "must-win" game. Next up are games at Phoenix and Utah, the Jazz game being the front end of a back to back with the second game home against Houston. If Portland loses this game they face the probability of starting the season 0-4 or even 0-5. That hole would be pretty close to too much to climb out of. Conversely, if they can beat the Spurs, even if they lose to the Suns and Jazz, they stand a decent chance of parleying the home court advantage into a win against Houston.

This assumes, of course, that they follow the "young team" trend of needing confidence. Success breeds success, failure breeds failure, and so forth. So in theory, Portland should come out with a sense of urgency a little beyond that shown by the Spurs.

If it comes out in practice as panic, the situation, both the game and season, could get ugly. Portland could have another 34% shooting night, get blown out on their home floor and head on the road a broken team.

I just don't believe guys like Nate McMillan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Steve Blake, and Brandon Roy will allow that. Portland will play well tonight and pull out the win.

As an aside, one thing that will have no bearing on the game but is a fun marketing ploy would be tonight's "red out". Fans are being encouraged to wear red to the game. Because, you know, the "blackout" worked so well for...was it Georgia that got rolled? So if you are a Blazer fan, wear red, show up to the game, support the team, and cheer Oden when he is shown.

Remember, he is a 20 year old kid, he has given this city a lot of hope and excitement. Don't ride the guy, just enjoy what he brings to the floor when he is there.


Ouch: Blazers get blown away in game one

I was bummed when Coach Nate McMillan switched his line-up, inserting ace sixth-man Travis Outlaw in the Small Forward slot instead of Rookie Nicolas Batum. I like what Outlaw does for Portland on the second unit, and with Lamar Odom coming off the bench for the Lakers, it did not seem it would hurt. Besides, McMillan is a phenomenal coach and his moves usually work out.

In retrospect, it did not really matter who started at Small Forward. On this night, the Lakers were stronger, faster, more aggressive, better shooters, better free throw shooters, better three point shooters, better rebounders...

I was not surprised to see the Lakers win. I was, however, surprised to see Portland forget to show up for the game.  They failed to run the offense, failed to identify who was having a reasonable night, failed to use their teammates...this game was a flat-out train wreck.

With that said, we did learn some things about the Blazers.

But there were some positive signs. First, the good:
-Brandon Roy never lost his poise, even after starting the game 0 for 9. 
- Rudy Fernandez had a spectacular game and showed he will be a force to reckon with.
- Joel Przybilla is still a good rebounder and defender
- Jerryd Bayless and Nicolas Batum have some things they can bring to the table.

Second, the bad: Everything else that Portland normally will do well.
- Missed opportunities:
   * Portland had them, but rained brick after brick after brick when wide open. Even though his final line looked good, Steve Blake missed several open threes at points Portland needed them desperately and might have made it a game.
    * Aldridge struggled against players he normally scorches.
    * Travis Outlaw scored well but was essentially no help on the boards, did not pass well, and stopped fewer people than a yield sign. 
    * Sergio Rodriguez got only 5 minutes. Has Nate lost confidence in him already?
    * The defense. At one point they switched to a zone. It has been years since I saw such a porous zone; at one point there was 1 Blazer defending 3 Lakers. When a well-coached, veteran team with an offense like the triple post sees holes in a zone, bad things happen for the zone.

Overall, this was a disappointing night, not because they lost but because of HOW they lost. There is no shame in losing to the Lakers in L.A., but to not show up was hard to watch.

Fortunately, another game is just around the corner. There is plenty of season left and Portland will right the ship. Roy and Aldridge will shoot better, the team will pass better, and they will be just fine.

And now for the controversial portion of the show. 

Yes, Greg Oden's injury is worrisome. The Blazers have been counting on him. BUT...I am not as sure it is as bad for the team as it will be portrayed. Hopefully it will just be the mid-foot sprain as preliminary x-rays show, we will know more soon. But even if it is more serious, Portland will be fine.

Joel Przybilla is still a good fit for this team in the starting line-up. He defends, he rebounds, he sets picks and he doesn't need the ball. LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy are comfortable with him in the starting line-up. 

Portland's second unit will still be fine with Channing Frye, the Spanish Fly back court, and Travis Outlaw. 

They will have to work harder to win games but they will still win games. Lots of them. And some against good teams.

Naturally, the best-case scenario is to have Oden back and healthy soon. You never want to see an important player go down with injury. But there is no need to panic either way.

So now that game 1 is in the books, let's look forward to game 2 and let the chips fall where they may.


Preview:Opening Night, Portland at Las Angeles

This season comes with high expectations for both teams. The Lakers want to return to the Finals, and this time to close the deal. To do that, they need to win enough games to gain the home court advantage.

Phil Jackson has been around long enough to know a win in October counts just as much in the win total as a win in April. He will not be messing around in this game. Furthermore, he is a great coach. Sure, he has been blessed with great players throughout his runs, but many coaches have. Not all the coaches blessed with great players have come through as well as Jackson has.

On the other hand, Nate McMillan is no slouch. He has done a phenomenal job of molding the Blazers into his vision of a winning team. He continues to work. The dinner he held at his house for his most important players is just one example of the types of things he has done in turning the franchise around and creating huge expectations for this team.

McMillan knows Portland might surprise everyone. To do that, he needs the team to stay together, to have that elusive "chemistry" that turns decent teams into good ones, good teams into great ones, and great teams into Champions.

In the match-up of two great coaches, this time it is McMillan who blinked first. He reversed himself and elected to start Travis Outlaw at the Small Forward after previously announcing it would be surprising Rookie Nicolas Batum.

That is a surprising move. The reasons he had given for starting Batum were manifold and sensible. Outlaw is more productive on the second unit, provides things for that unit that Batum can't, and Batum does the same for the starters.

At the same time, McMillan seldom makes mis-steps. He knows what his team needs and when they need it so let's wait and see how that works out. Meanwhile, coaching seems like a good place to start the game preview.

Jackson has proven for 2 decades that he knows how to coach. He will show that tonight. Greg Oden will have to do some damage before Jackson decides to double him. As a result, the Blazers will be able to start their offense inside with Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge is more likely to draw the double.

Since he saw plenty of double teams last season, he is already used to finding the open man out of the double team. With Steve Blake and Brandon Roy on the perimeter, there should be plenty of open looks. Travis Outlaw tends to hold the ball for a moment after receiving a pass, so when it is his defender who sags, Outlaw needs to make quicker decisions.

If Aldridge finds the open man and the Blazers keep the ball rotating their starting 5 will put up a lot of points. Doubles on Aldridge will also give Oden the chance to get a few rebounds on the offensive glass. Conversely, if the ball stops they will end up taking contested shots against the clock. That will lead to a long night.

At the other end, Jackson has the Lakers buying into Tex Winters' famed "Triangle". When the players move correctly and read the defense right it creates open looks. The Lakers are a veteran team that consistently scores well, particularly at home. The Blazers can cause problems for the Lakers with their exceptional length as long as they stay disciplined.

This is another place starting Outlaw is an interesting choice. The Blazers have been practicing their rotations with Batum in that role. Now they need to adjust for Outlaw. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly is a consideration.

So the teams have similar game plans for their starters: for Portland, pound the ball inside, probably starting with Aldridge but getting Oden some looks. For the Lakers, they certainly want to get some inside looks for Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, but they want those looks to come from more the triple post set-up.

The coach who convinces his players to stick with the game plan longer has the advantage with the starting units.

If the second units were straight-up in minutes played, it could be a very entertaining game as well. Lamar Odom is as good as almost any player in the League. Trevor Ariza is expected to be a contributor, and Jordan Farmar was just brutal against the Blazers last year. That doesn't even address the contributions of a guy like Luke Walton who, while never achieving the things the Big Redhead did, still can hurt teams who forget about him.

At the same time, the Portland backcourt of Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernandez has the potential to be very explosive. Their second unit looks less intimidating without the high-scoring Outlaw but should be able to hold the line with Channing Frye providing a little scoring punch up front.

Overall, this game will come down to who gets the best production from their mystery people; you know Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum will score for the Lakers. You know LaMarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw, and Brandon Roy will score for the Blazers.

You suspect Radmanovich and Farmar will add a few points. And that Fernandez and Oden will get theirs too.

Of course, Oden will be an interesting sub-plot. Nobody really knows how he will play. He could come out aggressive, get Bynum in foul trouble, and have a great night, maybe something like 15 and 10 with a couple of blocked shots.

Alternatively, he could come out hacking, get called for a couple quick fouls, and spend most of the game on the bench with foul trouble. You can say the same thing about Rudy Fernandez.

He could come out and be the player we saw in the Olympics, throwing down dunks on the big men, hitting big treys, and generally scoring at will to be a game-changer. Alternatively, he might get the Rookie syndrome, come out passive, and force Brandon Roy to play big minutes. Against a player with the scoring capabilities of Kobe Bryant, that is a recipe for disaster.

This is a very important game for Portland, even if they lose...which they most likely will. If they can come out, stay close to L.A. and lose by maybe 6 - 10 points, they will build confidence. They will be able to say they just stayed with a Finals quality team on its home floor and, if they had gotten a couple of breaks, maybe walked away with a win.

That confidence will be meaningful for their Friday tilt with the Spurs.

Conversely, if they come out lifeless and get run off the floor, it will be a disaster. It might be just one game in the standings and an opening night at that, but this game matters for the Blazers season.

Look for a game in the low 100s with L.A. winning by 8 - 10 points or so.


Preview: April

At 47-27, the Blazers will have already exceeded the expectations many people had for them in the preseason but will be behind what others expected them to do.  They start off April in Oklahoma to face the pseudo-expansion Thunder. Portland is so much better than Oklahoma that they should seldom lose and will not do so this day.

Next up will be a road game against a Houston team that should be trying to build a record good enough to have home court advantage in the playoffs, barring their normal rash of injuries. With the incentive of a playoff seeding in hand, the Rockets will win this one.

Still on the road, again to see Memphis with whom the Blazers should be intimately familiar by now. The date is different, the result the same. Portland wins.

The next night in San Antonio Portland will be looking for the holy grail, that 50th win. San Antonio, however, when clicking on all cylinders is, if not impossible to beat at home, certainly one of the 3 or 4 most difficult games in basketball. Portland is not ready to win this one.

Home to face the Lakers, still seeking that 50th. This time they will get it as Portland makes Bryant work to get his points and the rest of the visiting team cannot shoot a high enough percentage to make up for it. Portland gets their 50th of the season against the hated Lakers.

The next night they travel to L.A. Fortunately for Portland, they face the Clippers, not the Lakers. With the 50 win barrier reached, brimming with confidence, they will win their 51st.

The next to last game is a home game against the Thunder.  Now Portland is rolling. At this point, they might even be in the hunt for some decent playoff seeding. They will knock off Oklahoma City one more time.

The final game of the season is against the Nuggets. All season these two teams will have battled. This game might even decide which team gets some sort of post-season advantage. Since the game is in Portland...they do and win their 53rd of the year.

The 12 game improvement could be larger or smaller. There are a lot of games that could go either way. My assessment is based on a few assumptions:

1)  Greg Oden will "struggle" early in the season as he tries to dunk too often, encounters some foul trouble, but makes a huge impact defensively and on the boards. His presence allows Joel Przybilla to slide to the second unit where his lack of offensive production means little but his rebounding and defensive presence in the middle allow the second unit to be more effective than expected.

2) LaMarcus Aldridge continues to improve. He should reach 20 points per game and perhaps even improve to 8-1/2 or 9 rebounds per game. With more freedom on defense, his shot blocks will go up slightly but that is not a huge deal.

3) Early in the season while on the bench do to injury, Martell Webster will learn how to move without the ball. He will then be more effective when he returns to the line-up. He does not need to score a lot to be effective. In fact, with Aldridge, Roy, Travis Outlaw and Oden all hitting for double figures, even 9 or 10 points a game would be plenty as long as he hits the three-ball when he gets it. While waiting for him, Nicolas Batum will get some key experience, show his defensive abilities, and be called on whenever Portland needs a stopper.

4) Steve Blake continues his steady play, shooting seldom but well so the opponents can't sag off him. Portland really just needs zone-busting from this position. Blake doesn't turn the ball over much, shoots a nice percentage, and doesn't need the ball to be effective.

5) Travis Outlaw returns to his role as instant offense as the 6th man.

6) Jerryd Bayless gets some minutes, but not a lot. Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernandez will get most of the back-up minutes. Bayless will get a lesson from the team leaders about playing as a team member, not going off on his own so much. On this team his primary role is to defend and scoring should be an after thought. Early on he will struggle with that but between the coaching of Nate McMillan and the role Brandon Roy has already shown, he will come around.

No doubt some games I thought Portland will win will be losses and some I thought they would lose will be W's. Any way you look at it, this should be a very entertaining season and I look forward to watching it. Even if they fall short of my expectations, the type of players they have will make it fun on the court and be great people off the court and that is really all we can ask for. 

Preview: March

March opens at home against the Spurs. Portland needs to win this one to show they have legitimately arrived and when they get into the playoffs, they will not simply go quietly. It starts here as Portland, having gelled more and more as the season has developed, comes out and finds a way to beat San Antonio.

By this point, this is not the Portland team that started the season. These Blazers understand how their teammates play, where they are on the floor, how they defend, and how they work together. Their rebounding should be well above average, their zones comfortable and effective, their rotations quick and pointed, and young guns like Greg Oden, Rudy Fernandez, and perhaps Jerryd Bayless will have found their roles and be performing to expectations.

When Indiana comes into town they will run into a confident, still improving team that is starting to really click. Portland should have improving shooting percentages, decreasing opponent field goal percentages, and keep adding to the win column. Indiana will be another win for the Blazers.

The next night they travel to Denver for the second end of a back to back. Denver will be surprising people. They are better than they are being given credit for. Iverson, Smith, Nene, Anthony...with all the minutes Anthony and Iverson play and the added firepower of Smith, this team will score a ton of points. Whether they can slow teams down consistently is another matter. On this night, they will and Portland will lose.

Home for a get well game against the T-wolves. This game should be an easy W for Portland.

 But don't scoff...every "easy" win builds confidence for the tough games. Like, say, against the Lakers who now come into town. Portland has been very competitive with L.A. and both teams are out to make a statement in this game. Portland will rise up, show their spirit and use the home court to beat a Laker team that will have a sparkling record.

Only one game off their win total from last year, Portland now faces a Mavericks team that will have slipped some from last year. Overconfidence leads to sloppiness, Jason Kidd has one of those games that reminds you of why team after team wrecks itself to bring him aboard...because, when he is right, he can single-handed win games. Portland loses a home game.

The Nets now come into town. I have heard pre-season rumblings that a lot of Nets fans think they will be better than advertised. Maybe. Maybe Brook Lopez will be everything they hope for, the loss of Richard Jefferson won't be felt, Vince Carter will become Vinsanity again and Yi Jianlian will be ready to play, surprising everyone including himself. The more likely scenario for them to be competitive this year involves bringing out of retirement Darryl Dawkins, Dr. J., etc. and getting one more run from a rejuvenated Nets Hall of Fame team...Portland continues their winning ways and matches their win total from last season.

On the road for what ties for their longest road trip of the year, though this one is a bit softer than the earlier long trips. First up is Atlanta. Brandon Roy and Joe Johnson are starting to develop a rivalry. Unfortunately for Joe Johnson, Roy has his number on defense and Johnson supplies a lot more at the offensive end than on defense so Roy's superior defense causes fits for the Hawks. Meanwhile, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden should have a field day as Portland gets the road trip off to a good start.

The next night is in Memphis, the back to back scenario. This is a good chance for the Grizzlies to pull off an upset. They catch a Portland team at the beginning of a long trip, theoretically tired from the night before. But here is where Portland shows their youth is an asset. Behind the veteran-like leadership of Brandon Roy, they come out and establish themselves early, never look back and win back to back road games.

Now Portland visits Indiana. Jarrett Jack was much maligned in Portland and unfairly. He did a decent job and will do the same for Indianapolis. Unfortunately for Pacers fans, with the departure of Jermaine O'Neal they have lost too much inside presence and won't be able to deal with the Blazers as the Blazers, looking good, win their third road game in a row.

The next night they go to Cleveland. Game 4 of a road trip for a back to back to a team that is in their head. Not an easy game and not one Portland will win. 

Next up is the Bucks, closing out the road trip. A win here would be huge, even against an out-manned Bucks team, but it will be just a bit too much to ask and Portland will lose this game.

Home to face the 76ers. This time Portland gets the job done. Winning in the Rose Garden will be a tough task for every team not named the Trailblazers this year and only the very best teams will be able to do it. Portland will focus on making that home court advantage stick and even with the addition of Elton Brand, Philadelphia is not ready.

The Suns will arrive with a heavy dose of winning in their recent history. That ends here as Oden will have come into his own, Joel Przybilla continues to be a stellar back-up, and Portland is no longer afraid of the Suns. The mystique will have ended and the Blazers hold home court against Phoenix.

In come the Grizzlies and this one is over early. Portland blows them out.

Now the Jazz come to town. Portland has been playing well enough to win most of the games they should but stumbling just often enough to remind people that many prognosticators had them winning in the mid 40s for games this year. This is one of those times where we get reminded Portland is not ready for a deep playoff run yet as they fall at home to the Jazz.

Preview:February Post All-Star Game

Early in the season Portland had to find out how good they were. They had to settle some issues regarding how NBA ready guys like Jerryd Bayless, Rudy Fernandez, Greg Oden, and Nicolas Batum were. They had to find out what offseason changes were made by Martell Webster, Sergio Rodriguez and Travis Outlaw. They had to find out what the new, improved LaMarcus Aldridge looked like.

Now they know. They know they can not only compete with any team in the League but they have a legitimate shot against even the very best teams in the League. It doesn't hurt they start with a soft schedule after the All Star game.

First up are the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have some nice players, guys like Rudy Gay and intriguing young players in Conley, Marc Gasol, and so forth. One thing they do not have is enough talent to compete with a Blazer team that is figuring out just how good they are. Portland will kick off the post-break festivities with a blow-out win.

Next up is an improved Atlanta Hawks team. While Atlanta is not necessarily as good as they looked against Boston, they are moving in the right direction. Joe Johnson is a high level scorer, they have a good veteran at the point in Mike Bibby, and Al Horford can do some damage. However, the Blazers can come at them in waves and have the talent to overwhelm Atlanta. Another easy win.

The Clippers might have run up the white flag by this point in the season or they might find their new players mesh very well and be surprising people. From a distance, I hope it is the latter. Clip fans have suffered a long time. They will keep suffering as Portland closes out the home stand with another win to go a surprising 15 games over .500. 

Next up is a wake-up call as they go to Houston. Houston is a fantastic regular season team and the Blazers might be a bit overconfident at this point. Houston will hold serve.

The next night is a back to back as Portland goes into San Antonia. Beating the Spurs in San Antonio is a tough task at any time. However, in the mid to late season when they are gearing up for the post-season, Greg Popovich almost always has them playing at a high level. Look for them to keep their dominance of Portland going.

They close out the month in Minnesota, a team that by now will be playing the role of spoiler. But they will also play the role of "get-well" game for Portland as Portland salvages one of the three road games to finish the trip 1-2.

For the month they went 8-4. Things are looking good for a play-off spot and a good one. 


Preview: February Pre-All-Star Game

Coming off their home win over Utah, the Blazers will be riding high going into their game in New Orleans. This is one of those games where on paper, the Hornets SHOULD win...but the Blazers are capable of pulling off the upset. This is the type of game that next year, Portland should win 1 or 2 of. This year, however, the longest Blazer winning streak to this point comes to an end here.
Next up are the Dallas Mavericks. By this point in the year, Mavericks fans will be excited, thinking Kidd can take them to the promised land. Much like the infamous Captain Kidd of yore and pirate lore, he tends to start strong and finish poorly. He will do enough to lift Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard, and Brandon Bass in the starting line-up, and Jason Terry is so good off the bench that the home court advantage will be enough to power the Mavericks to a win.

Next up is a get-well game against the Oklahoma Thunder. Man it hurts to say that...the Sonics rivalry was so good for so long, going back to 78-79 when the Sonics knocked the depleted Blazers out of the playoffs, essentially ending the brief but spectacular Bill Walton era that brought the Blazers their only far.

It intensified as the great Drexler-Porter teams of the early 90s saw their window close just as that of the great Sonics teams of Gary Payton, Sean Kemp, and ...wait for it...Nate McMillan were making their run. There were some incredible games in that stretch.

When the Sonics picked off Jeff Green and Kevin Durant last year and Russell Westbrook this year, it looked like they might be getting the early stages of a team that in a few years might provide the Blazers with some more great I-5 rivalry moments. Unfortunately, the Sonics franchise dissolved leaving behind ashes and the expansion Thunder. Portland has always had good success against expansion teams...look for that to continue as Portland wins this one to close out their road trip.

Then the Knicks come to town. Will Zach Randolph and Stephon Marbury still be Knicks? Will the Knicks be scoring triple digits night after night? Will Coach Mike no longer be considered a genius? Can New York stay within 20 points of Portland? The last one we think we know the answer to: no. Portland in a cake walk.

Next up is a return match with the Oklahoma Thunder. It will be fun watching Durant try to score fifty to keep them in the game. Another easy win.

The last game before the break is at Golden State in a back to back. Portland will want to go into the break on a high note. They match up well with Golden State everywhere except the point. Interestingly, by this point there is a good possibility Jerryd Bayless will be seeing more playing time for Portland. If so, it makes even the point a good match-up for Portland as Bayless is reputed to already be NBA ready on defense. He could cause Monta Ellis problems in that area.
Portland wins to enter the break on a high note.


After the home loss to Boston, the Blazers will face soon to be arch rival New Orleans. This should be an awesome game. Tyson Chandler has the defensive skills to cause problems for Oden and West can be a nightmare on offense. Conversely, he can't stay with Aldridge defensively. Pedrag Stojakovich is going to get his points and Chris Paul will torch Portland again and again. At the same time, the Hornets have no answer for Roy or for the waves of talent Portland can pull from the bench. Look for the Hornets to win the scoring battle with the starters and Portland to dominate the bench scoring.

With so many talented offensive players on the floor, any game between these two teams has the potential to be one of those 120 point nights we see all too rarely in todays NBA, though the rugged, physical nature of play between guys like Chandler, Greg Oden, and Joel Przybilla could turn it into an 85-80 slugfest.

Coming off their loss to the Celtics, the Blazers will be hungry and will find the will to win this one.

Which is a good thing because they then head to L.A. to face the hated Lakers. Barring major injury issues, the Lakers should hold serve. In Portland L.A. will have tough battles, but in L.A. they should still prevail.

Back home to face the Pistons. This is the time of year when nobody wants to face the Pistons. They will have settled into their new rotations, they will be comfortable with their new coach, and they are still loaded with Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince, and some developing younger players. In fact, I actually have Detroit down to win this one.

Next up will be Golden State. By now they should have Monta Ellis back. With Ellis, Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, and Corey Maggette, Golden State can score plenty but stop little. Portland will rise up with a superior defensive effort and win handily.

The Blazers keep getting lengthy road trips. At this point, they have had 1 5 game home stand and one 3 game to go with road trips of 5, 4, and 3 games. Now they head out for 4 more, first up being Chicago.

Chicago is one of the few teams in the league who goes as deep at guard as Portland. With Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Larry Hughes, Sabo Sefolosha, and of course Rookie Derrick Rose, they go every bit as deep as Portland's Steve Blake, Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless, Brandon Roy, and Rudy Fernandez. However, I think most GMs would take the Portland 5 over the Chicago 5. Either way, neither team has anything to be ashamed of.

By this game Martell Webster should be back in the starting line-up and be growing more comfortable. The Blazers should be playing pretty well with a good mix of inside-outside offense and getting their defensive rotations down. They will start the road trip off with a win.

Next up is Philadelphia. Last year it was the game in Philadelphia that set the Blazers season back several steps. When Portland blew a 20 point second half lead to come back and lose it changed the complexion of their early season. They went on to lose several games they otherwise would probably have won as their confidence was badly shaken.

This year, the 76ers are much better. It will be interesting to see what the addition of Elton Brand does for them. Some prognosticators have them going deep into the Eastern Conference playoffs. Maybe yes, maybe no. It does give them enough firepower that when the Blazers once again lose in Philly, this time it won't hurt as bad.

The next night is a game in New Jersey. Even though it is a road game and back to back, there is no reason Portland should ever lose this game. But they will. With the exception of Devin Harris, Portland is more talented at every position. This is the type of game that young teams often give up, where they know they will win but just forget to actually close the deal.

It will serve as a wake-up call, however, and they will go ballistic on the Charlotte Bobcats. The Bobcats have some talent, they just have not figured out how to put it together yet. Maybe Larry Brown will be the answer. The one thing he can't answer is the overwhelming talent advantage Portland has.

Coming home from the road trip, the Blazers face the retooled Milwaukee Bucks. In unloading Ji Yianling, they rectified a Darko Milicic-like draft mistake and got a pretty good Small Forward in Richard Jefferson. People forget how young and good he is. Along with Michael Redd, the Bucks have some scoring punch. Unfortunately, outside of those two and maybe Andrew Bogut, the best thing the Bucks have going for them is the Energee...Portland should win handily.

Cleveland is completely the LeBron James show. They keep trying to build a team that works off his skill set. They keep putting together just enough that Cleveland is a top half of the Eastern Conference team that, if they catch a break, could return to the Finals. Ultimately, at some point every year they get exposed as being what they are...a decent team with a great player. That is more effective in the regular season than it is in the post-season and thus year after year they do well early while against teams LeBron can beat with less help and sometimes win a second series if one guy gets hot...

King James is also in the heads of the Blazers. Watch him rip their hearts out once again as they play well enough to win...except for stopping James when it matters. The Cavaliers win.

By this time the Blazers will be upset with how they are playing. They let one get away in the Cleveland game, let one get away in the New Jersey game, and now Washington is in town. Arenas will take too many ill-advised shots, the Blazers will play their team game and Roy will have an outstanding game to set the tone. From here out, the Blazers will play better ball the remainder of the season. Blazers beat Washington.

2 nights later they are in L.A. This time, though, it is the lowly Clippers. On the surface, the Clips look decent. Marcus Camby, Chris Kaman, Baron Davis...that is 3/5ths of a good starting line-up. And Cuttino Mobley still has some miles off the bench. Too bad they have to play 5 guys at a time... the Blazers win this one easily.

Back home to face Charlotte. If the Bobcats can't compete with a road-tripping Blazer team, they will get shelled by a home-standing team starting to make its move.

For the first time all year Portland has a 3 game win streak and is 9 games over .500. Into town comes Utah for their second meeting. This should be a very fun game and the Blazers, riding high, should close out the month with a win.

Wins in 6 of their last 7 games give the Blazers a 9-5 mark for the month and carry them to 28-18 mark.


Blazer Preview:December

An 11-7 record is not particularly awesome and will probably have Portland about the middle of the pack or below, possibly even in the classic (and pointless) "out of the playoffs if they started today" scenario. But under the circumstances, it will be an excellent record.

They will have taken their longest road trip of the year, a trip that almost translates into an 8 game trip when you consider the only home game they have is a back to back at the end of the trip before another quick 2 game trip.

More importantly, having gone toe to toe with the NBA's best both at home and on the road, this team will realize they can play with anyone, anywhere, anytime. They will be starting to assert themselves in their roles on the team.

And promptly begin the month with another tough 4 game Eastern trip.

The first game will be in New York where D'Antoni is trying to bring the fun & gun to the Knicks. I have never particularly cared for the Knicks but if he makes them as fun to watch as the Suns were under his guidance, that is subject to change.

The Knicks have some talent but they have some issues. This should be a relatively high-scoring game, an entertaining game, and I will go out on a limb here and say a blow-out. The Blazers will have 3+ guys scoring over 20 and a couple more in double figures. They will get off to a good start with a win. 12-7

The next night they will be in Washington. Washington is another Jekyll and Hyde team that seems to start slowly, gather steam, and be dangerous by the end of the year. Agent Zero's well publicized injury issues are troubling not just because he is not on the court but also because it has a ripple effect as guys don't know if they will be starting or coming off the bench, playing point or playing the shooting guard, how many minutes they will be playing...this is unfortunate. I wish Arenas the best because he is one of the most entertaining players in basketball in many, many years. I also think even without him, in Washington on the second night of a back to back the Blazers might have too steep a hill to climb. Washington wins.

Friday they roll in to Boston. Will Boston get back to the Finals? Maybe, maybe not. Their vets are a couple miles further along their journey...but so are their young guys. Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Big Baby...their second tier behind the Big Three could probably win close to 40 games. At home they should hold on to beat the Blazers.

The trip finishes in Toronto. The Raptors don't know what they have yet. They like what Calderon does at the point, the front line of Jermaine O' Neal and Chris Bosh is scary good, and they have filled in around those stars with guys who can perform vital functions. Yet the team is just missing...something. Something it is hard to put a finger on. They will do well in the East but I would be surprised to see them get past the second round. If this were later in the season Portland would win it, but I think they will struggle in December. Oddly, this is the time last year when they did well...

Home against Orlando. As talented as Orlando is, Portland will be angry and looking to put the hurt on someone after 2 very tough Eastern road trips in a 4 week period. Coming home to the Rose Garden, they will be ready. Orlando will go down, possibly by a lot.

Back on the road to face Utah. Last year Portland was incredible in back to backs. This year, they have the guns to make it happen but not on this night. Again, another month or so and I would think Portland would pull this off but for now, the Jazz get the win.

The next night, the second half of a back to back, home against the Clippers. Kaman and Camby are a nice start to a front line, Cuttino Mobley can still light it up on occasion, and Baron Davis will have some 40 point nights this year I would think. But they are flat-out over matched when they face Portland. Portland is better up front, better in the back court even if Boom Dizzle is better at point than anything Portland currently has. Portland has the depth, the talent, and the cohesiveness. Look for Chalupas and a blow-out as the Blazers roll past the century mark.

Next up is the Kings. K-mart will get some points, Brad Miller will look all right, and the score board will again show triple digits for the Blazers as back to back blow-out home wins occur for the first time in a long time.

So when Phoenix comes to town, Portland will be on a roll. Phoenix has had their number for a couple years but not on this night. Portland will finally get over the hump against the Suns. Oden and Przybilla will contain the Big Cactus, Aldridge and Frye will slow Stoudemire, make him work for his shots, and the sheer firepower brought by Fernandez, Outlaw, and the Blazer bench bring them a W against Phoenix.

Then on the road for the first half of a back to back against Denver. A lot of people think the loss of Camby has set Denver back, that Iverson is a step slower, and Denver is in rebuilding mode. I happen to disagree. I buy into the renewed dedication to defense they are crowing about, I think Nene will prove to be a stud, and the firepower of J.R. Smith will cause teams a lot of problems. With Kenyon Martin and Carmelo Anthony, the Nuggets have a formidable front court. If they can find a way to show some team defense, this team could actually be improved from last year even with the loss of Camby. Unfortunately for Denver, most teams have improved so there are fewer easy wins for them. But they will win this one.

At home it is a different story. The home court advantage will lead to another Blazer win. With teams that are as close in talent as the Blazers and most of the teams they are chasing...including is little things that often make the difference; slightly better shooting from the role players, a standout performance from someone, more favorable calls from the refs...the things that home court advantage often brings to the fore. Portland is too good to lose back to back games to the Nuggets and pulls this one out.

Christmas Day sees the Dallas Mavericks arrive. Last year Dallas was better. Jason Kidd is a great regular season player but when things don't go his way he becomes a cancer. On the bright side for Dallas, his arrival allows Jason Terry to possibly return to his highly effective 6th man role. Unfortunately, distractions such as the Josh Howard stuff will cost this team. They have bled off talent little by little since their Finals run.

Now, any team with Howard, Terry, Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, and an improving Brandon Bass cannot be written off. This is still a good team with a chance at a decent seed in the playoffs. However, they will have problems matching up with Portland. Oden's power will get Desagna Diop in foul trouble, Aldridge's length will let him score almost at will, and Dallas has nobody who can stay with Brandon Roy.

The Portland advantage is even larger off the bench. When the Spanish Fly starts running and gunning and Travis Outlaw is flying around putting up shots from every angle, Dallas will find themselves in trouble. Barring some super human outburst by Dirk, this one should go Portland's way.

Toronto will arrive next. They have just enough talent to hold off Portland in Toronto...but this is in Portland. Bosh and O'Neal will have nice nights but the Blazers night will be nicer. Portland wins handily.

The month and year close out with a game against Boston. Portland is good enough to win this game. They should win it. But some how, some way, Boston will work their magic and beat Portland to sweep the season series. It will be a tough way to end the year. But there are a certain number of nights when, even on the home floor, the shots don't fall for you but do for your opponent. Maybe it is Ray Allen returning to the Pacific Northwest or Garnett going off. Who knows? But some how, Boston ends the Blazers calendar year on a down note.

Ironically, last year they were 19-13 and it was considered a huge success. How will it be viewed this year?


Blazer Preview:November

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.


Blazer Preview:October

The Blazers look to improve this year. To do that, they will need to beat Western Conference Playoff teams and beat them often. Should they prove incapable of doing that, they will fail to improve their record and the playoff dream will be deferred. Conversely, if they can find ways to beat the Spurs, Suns, Jazz, Hornets, Lakers, Nuggets, and Rockets then they will have a promising season.

Recently I looked over their schedule and figure they should finish within a couple games of a 53-29 record. Over the next few days I will take a look at their projected record in each month. As the season progresses, I will look back at my predictions and see how I did.

The Blazers have just 2 games in October. They open at the LA Lakers on Tuesday and then are home against the San Antonio Spurs for Halloween. Nothing like starting your season off any stretch of the imagination, both teams should be considered pre-season favorites to make the NBA Finals in the West, alongside the Jazz and Hornets. Portland opens with arguably 2 of the top 5 teams in the League.

Starting in Las Angeles is a tough way to start the season. The Lakers made the Finals last year and lost no vital parts. The loss of Ronnie Turiaf is more than made up for by the return to health of Trevor Ariza and, more importantly, Andrew Bynum.

The Lakers are a hard team for me to preview honestly. They are doubtless the team I hate more than any other team. It is not the good type of "oh, I hate that team" where I will watch to see them the case of the Lakers, it is more, if they are involved, I will find something else to do except on rare occasions. Yes, I will admit I watched and loved every second of their Game 6 humiliation last year, but that was an exception.

With that caveat, they are also a team to be feared. Kobe Bryant is unquestionably one of the 2 best players in the League. He is one of a handful of players who can single-handed carry a team. The only other names that come to mind...okay, 1. LeBron James can score seemingly at will. He and Bryant are about the only guys who have shown the capability of banging out repeated 35+ scoring nights, though a few others can have individual nightly explosions. Bryant and James just do it more consistently.

Personally, I would love to see the "tired legs" and wounded finger of Kobe make him ineffective, Bynum do a Kwame Brown impersonation, Lamar Odom become disgruntled and a divisive force, Pau Gasol's defensive lapses put him in Phil Jackson's doghouse, age catch up to Derek Fischer and the Lakers run the table in reverse going 0-82. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen.

That makes opening in L.A. a tough game.

Yet Portland is talented enough to stay with them. Let's project the starting line-ups;
C: Andrew Bynum
PF: Pau Gasol
SF: Lamar Odom
SG: Kobe Bryant
PG: Derek Fisher
C: Greg Oden
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge
SF: Nicolas Batum
SG: Brandon Roy
PG: Steve Blake

Of course, both line-ups are susceptible to change. I have heard rumblings the Lakers will start Trevor Ariza at the small forward and Jordan Farmar at the point. From Blazer land have been rumors that Batum will get the nod with other rumors that Travis Outlaw or Rudy Fernandez will slide into the starting slot for Portland. Those would be key changes and result in a reassessment of both starting line-ups and bench strengths, but the overall outcome would not change I do not believe.

There is some potent offense there for both teams in the starting line-ups. Both teams can score inside, outside, or from mid-range.

At Center, Oden will get his points mostly on offensive rebounds and free throws early in the season. It depends on who the Lakers put on Oden. I would assume the younger, stronger Bynum will match up with Oden with Gasol taking on the more agile Aldridge.
This match-up will go to whoever gets the calls. Either Bynum or Oden will spend some bonus pine time in this one, and expect Bynum to gain a slight statistical edge in points and rebounds with Oden having more blocks.

Gausol has shown he can get his points against Portland with a variety of backdoor cuts and soft jumpers. However, he can't handle Aldridge, particularly if he is having to help on Oden....which he will need to. Aldridge should end up with a marked statistical advantage, though Gausol will still get his.

Small forward will be problematic for the Blazers. While Batum has shown flashes of brilliance defensively, in Odom he will be over matched should this be a game where Odom wants to shoot. Batum is excellent at deflecting passes, picking off steals, and so forth but sometimes gets eaten alive by good one on one players. Odom will have better numbers but his effectiveness will be determined more by his assist totals: if Batum can force him into some turnovers it will be a real positive for Portland.

At shooting guard we find Portland's best player, Brandon Roy. And still they will find the Lakers are statistically ahead. Bryant scores more, rebounds about as well, and their passing numbers are about even. The point of hope for the Blazers is they traditionally force Bryant into sub-par shooting performances, though that is not always the case.

It is the bench where Portland enjoys a marked advantage. Joel Przybilla is an above average rebounder and shot-blocker, Channing Frye is not a huge drop-off from Aldridge, Travis Outlaw is offensively vastly superior to Batum, and the back court of Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez is deadly, providing top-notch passing and excellent shooting. The Lakers will be hard-pressed to match up with Ariza, Farmar, and Walton.

The teams are relatively well matched. Neither team has enough holes in their line-up for the opponents to exploit. Both teams have excellent offensive abilities and above average defense. Thus it will come down to who executes better.

In a match-up this close, the edge goes to the home team. In this case, it also goes to the team wanting to atone for ending their season one game before the season ended. As a result, the Blazers will compete, be in the game right up to the end, but ultimately lose their opener. In L.A. the Lakers are the better team.

The second game is against the Spurs, a team that year after year gets written off as too old. Yet year after year the Spurs finish near or at the top of the standings. It is not hard to see why. They have superstars in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli. They have excellent role players who know their role and fill their role as well as possible in players like sharp-shooting defender Bruce Bowen, energy guy Fabricio Oberto, slasher Michael Finley, and so forth.

They play such good defense that their seeming lack of offensive firepower is rendered moot. By limiting the number of possessions in a game, the highly skilled nature of the offense provided by Parker, Ginobli and Duncan is magnified.

Oden should cause Oberto fits this year. Aldridge and Duncan will have some wars and come close to canceling each other out. Neither Batum nor Bowen expects to score a great deal so again it is about a wash. Roy will dominate his statistical comparison almost as much as Parker dominates his.

With Ginobli out to start the season, that means the Portland bench should dominate the Spurs bench. Kurt Thomas has a few miles left on him but not enough to cover all the holes in the Spurs second unit. Even if Parker and Duncan destroy the Portland starters...which they shouldn't...the second unit of the Blazers should have such a marked advantage that the Blazers should even their record at one and one.

It is exciting to see that even with rather modest contributions from Oden and with Martell Webster missing the first couple of months, the Blazers are still talented enough to compete with the very best teams in the NBA.

They should split their first 2 games against pre-season Conference favorites and that will get them started on a very entertaining season.


Blazers Preseason: Texas Hold 'Em at its Finest

The NBA Preseason is, in many ways, the most irrelevant thing in basketball today this side of the WNBA. The final scores don't matter, the record bears no relationship to the regular season, and I would be very surprised to see any correlation between regular season success and pre-season success. The good teams use the pre-season to try some funky things to see what works and for little else.

From that standpoint it is very much like Texas Hold 'Em. For example, suppose you pick up pocket Jacks. You raise it, get 2 callers, and flop a set with no straight or flush draws. You raise it, get a caller. The turn is a 10. The river is a 9 and someone wins who stayed in with a 7/8. Even though the end result is bad, you still like the hand because you know you will end the day with all their chips in your possession because you know the percentages are so vastly in your favor.

The NBA preseason is the same. You might win or lose a game by 10, 15, 20 points or more and in the end, it doesn't matter. Far more important is learning how the game is played by your guys, whether frontline, second line, or borderline. That is why I found myself much more excited about a 13 point loss to the Jazz than about a 33 point win over the Kings.

The Portland Trailblazers enter the 2008-2009 season as a good team. They do not need confidence boosting win totals, they simply need to know who can help them this year and to get Greg Oden back into game shape.

So now that we have seen them three times live, it is time to give them mid-preseason grades, with the grades not being tied to statistics but rather to how they accomplished what they needed to accomplish.

Greg Oden
After sitting out a year and change, big things are expected for Oden. He is expected to provide rebounding muscle and a low-post presence on offense that will command double teams and therefore open up the offense for other players. He also needed to get in game shape.

Early on, he had just one interest; throwing down a dunk. Every time he got the ball he simply tried to back his man (or men) down and attempt a dunk. The Kings racked up numerous fouls and finally Oden got his dunk down. After that, I was looking for him to expand his offense a bit. The coaches were too as they experimented with him in the high post.

Unfortunately, that did not work well as he tended to stifle the offense and looked lost at times. He also sometimes struggled to present good targets for entry passes when he was on the blocks. Once he gets the ball, more often than not he still simply tries to back down for the dunk attempt. This leads to a lot of strips when he is double and triple teamed. Also, when he runs into teams with Joel Przybilla like defenders he is in for some long, frustrating and ineffectual nights.

From time to time he will try a short hook shot but they have been fairly ineffective. So far, his best offense has been receiving a pass when the interior defense collapses on penetration or on grabbing offensive rebounds and throwing them down.

His passing comes and goes. At times he demonstrates excellent court vision but other times he accepts triple teams and eschews the pass entirely.

Defensively he has been much better. He has gotten quicker, shows excellent awareness about positioning when shots go up, and he has shown the ability to reject anything from a dunk attempt to short jumpers you would not think he could get to, but he does. He does get lost sometimes in the zone and struggles with quicker centers who float outside for long jumpers.

His conditioning is getting better every game and he will definitely be ready by the time the season starts.

Offense: F
Defense: B
Total: D

Joel Przybilla
On offense, Joel continued what he did last year. I think the next play the Blazers run where Joel is the designated shooter will be the first. Any points he gets come from pick and rolls where the defender drifts too far from him, offensive put-backs, and broken plays. Joel knows his limitations and does not push for more. He does not need shots to be effective. He does a nice job of passing the ball when necessary but for the most part he just sets picks.

Defensively, Joel and Oden are pretty much interchangeable. While not as quick or as good a jumper as Oden, Przybilla is a sharp defender who is not afraid to bang. Just as he did last year, he provides above-average defensive rebounding, interior defense, and shot-blocking.

Offense: C

LaMarcus Aldridge
Coming off the improvement from last year and with the expectation of Oden taking over most of the low-post scoring, Aldridge needs time to find his role. Will he be spotting up from 18' or will he be down on the blocks with his back to the basket?

For most of the pre-season he hung out on the perimeter. It took him a little bit to get going but once he did, he looks every bit as good as he did last year. He also is perhaps the best player Portland has on the fast break. He gets out ion transition better than anyone else on the team, shows excellent awareness when filling lanes, catches the ball in traffic and finishes.

Defensively, he has a little more freedom to roam. He is struggling a bit with rebounding position at times, perhaps counting a bit too much on Oden to dominate the boards, but his help defense has been decent.


Ike Diogu
Initially a throw-in on the Jarrett Jack trade, Diogu got a chance to play after Channing Frye went down with injury. Diogu is a rugged player who always seems to be in the midst of violent contact. He puts forth a tremendous amount of effort every night.

Offensively he is at best raw. When he gets the ball close to the basket he generally tries to muscle his way to the rim. Unfortunately, he often does this against taller, stronger, more agile defenders. He mixes it up occasionally with a turn-around jumper of dubious effectiveness.

He does show a knack for picking up offensive boards. He does not, however, play well alongside similar players. There was one memorable possession where he and Oden fought each other so ferociously for the ball that it took 5 or 6 lay-up attempts before the Jazz could get close enough to them to even foul them.

Defensively he is good against back-to-the-basket bangers. Against more mobile forwards or in the zone he often gets lost and gives up too many easy backdoor layups.


Travis Outlaw
Outlaw was Mr. Clutch for Portland, arguably more important to their fourth quarter success than even Brandon Roy. His ability to create his own shot and fearlessness about doing so were valuable commodities. When Martell Webster went out with injury, the starting Small Forward position theoretically opened up for him. It is Coach McMillan's decision, of course, but it looks to me like he has played himself out of that slot. That hurts because I am a HUGE Outlaw mark. I think he was key to their resurgence last year and has to be a huge contributor this year for them to have success.

Offensively he has regressed. Still unafraid to take a good shot, he is also unafraid to take a mediocre shot. Or a bad shot. Or a horrific shot, the kind that leave you shaking your head and wondering what you just saw.

Somewhere over the off-season, Outlaw forgot how to pass. He has become the ultimate black hole. I stared in disbelief as he passed up an easy pass to an unguarded Oden in favor of dribbling right to take a step back fall-away 3-pointer while moving to his right over 2 defenders.

Anytime he touches the ball on the offensive end now you expect to see a shot. Of course, he has such great jumping ability and such long arms that a lot of those shots fall. But it also inhibits the team offense and causes much more difficult attempts than necessary.

Defensively he also seems to have regressed. He has been getting burned repeatedly both in man to man and zone coverage schemes. He also seems disinterested in helping out on the boards. For a player of his height, leaping ability, and talent to have no rebounds in a game as he has threatened to do more than once in this preseason is inexcusable.

Portland needs him to turn his game around. Outlaw needs to be the focal point of the offense and is not adjusting well to needing to be the 4th option. Hopefully he stays on the second unit and returns to playing his game.


Nicolas Batum
Prior to his arrival we had heard he was an above average defender with no offense to his game. Summer League reinforced this to the point where it was an open question whether bringing him in this year was a mistake or not.

In the first game against the Kings he was fouled. When he stepped to the line I laughed and commented to my wife, "He better make these. They might be his best chance to score all year." About 2 possessions later he shut me up with a gorgeous baseline drive and dunk.

Offensively, he has blossomed. He has a nice 3-point stroke, can drive just often enough to keep defenses honest, and is the Blazer's best shooter coming off a screen for a catch and shoot. His passing is pedestrian but for someone whom nothing was expected of offensively, he has been a revelation.

Defensively, if anything he was undersold. Batum shows some unbelievable instincts. He made 3 or 4 plays against the Jazz alone that had me out of my seat cheering. He is so long that he makes it all but impossible to get a pass by him unless you first move him out of the way. Again and again he steps into passing lanes it seems impossible for him to reach, tips or deflects those he cannot grab outright. He also can block shots both coming off his guy to help or straight up blocking his man.

Against the Jazz, AK-47 was killing Portland but when Batum started covering him, suddenly Kirilenko became a non-factor. He has the potential to be a lock-down defender with a little offensive punch. He also is more than willing to go down in the paint with the big boys and come away with a tough rebound.


Brandon Roy
I have only seen Roy once this year. He played about 20 minutes in the first pre-season game. That was plenty. He is picking up right where he left off. He scores almost at will, including an improved looking three-ball, he passes as well as anyone in the League, and he makes the offense better.

Defensively, he does a great job of getting in the lanes, is a more than capable on-ball defender, and he is an excellent ancillary rebounder.

The only concerns about Roy are health and those are being dealt with by playing him sparingly.

Offense: Incomplete, but an A when in there
Defense: Incomplete, but an A when in there

Rudy Fernandez
His first game was the stuff legends are made of. He scored 6 points on 3 buckets, any of which would not have been out of place on the ESPN highlight package. But it was his passing that was spectacular. His passing was so good it made his alley-oop throwdown look lame.

His offense is spectacular. He can penetrate the lane, find open spots to pass to where none seem to exist, he can drop the mid-range jumper, the 3-ball, or dunk with seemingly equal ease. His does tend to have a couple more turnovers that you might like, but at least a few of those are attributable to his teammates not expecting passes. Once they adjust his turnover total will decrease and Blazer dunk totals increase.

Defensively he is all over the board. On one possession he will look like he has never played defense before and on the next he will force a turnover or a tough shot. He tends to prefer playing help-defense to matching up with his man.

He will also acquire more than his share of rebounds. He has the best offensive court awareness on the team outside of Roy. He teams marvelously well with Sergio Rodriguez and together they have the ability to turn the Blazers into a dynamic half-court team.

Offense: A-

Jerryd Bayless
Bayless is another Rookie with high expectations. He is rumored to be a lock-down on-ball defender who can penetrate at will on offense.

That was summer league. The preseason has been a bit different. Hardly shy about taking his shot, he has not proven to be ready to take those shots. He has gotten into the lane with great frequency but he then tends to force up tough, contested shots instead of finding the open man. He has some potential to score and there will be nights where he is unstoppable. But there will also be nights that will have McMillan pulling his hair out.

His court vision is suspect and that will cost him a lot of minutes. If he does not find his rhythm, his shaky shot will cost him more.

Defensively, he is a good but not great on the ball defender. He tends to go for a first move too often and leaves himself vulnerable to quick guards with good ball-handling skills. He shows flashes of what he can do but is not the stopper Portland needs yet.


Sergio Rodriguez
Rodriguez needed to make a statement with Steve Blake out. Once the regular season starts, minutes when Steve Blake returns to the line-up he will be hard pressed to make a case for playing more. He has gotten an extended look in the preseason so it behooves him to make his case now.

Offensively he has improved a great deal. His shot looks better and he makes fewer flashy passes and more fundamental, effective passes. He still has the ability to penetrate, draw the defender and deliver to the open man.

He still turns the ball over way too often, however. Unless he finds a way to decrease his turnovers by half he will continue developing butt splinters from the pine time.

Defensively he is much improved, though still a below average defender. He allows his man too much freedom to move and does not do a good job of blocking off angles. He looks effective because he comes up with a decent number of steals but he can be the weak point in the Blazer defense.


Martell Webster, Channing Frye both get incompletes due to injury.

Overall, it is very exciting. The Blazers have shown their second and sometimes third units can hold their own against even the Jazz starting line-up for short stretches. The Blazers will win a lot of games via bench, a lot of games via defense, and a lot of games because their starters are so talented.

We saw improvement from most of the players and even some of the poor grades (See Oden, Greg) have more to do with potential than performance. Oden would be a major contributor with the game he showed but has the potential to be a game-breaker if he decides not to dunk everything but instead show some of the skill we know he has.

And when Webster and Frye come back, it only makes an already top shelf, versatile, deep roster even better. The more I see, the more I think this could be the year the Blazers go much deeper in the playoffs than a lot of people think they should. If Portland can get off to a good start in their first 6 games they might not be stopped. Conversely, if they start slow and are 4 or 5 games under .500 after 10 games, the hole might be too deep to get out of. I think the former result more likely.

Then again, in pre-season pretty much everybody looks good.


Will Rudy Fernandez and Greg Oden live up to the hype? Blazers preseason analysis.

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008 marked the NBA debut of 3 highly touted rookies for the Portland Trailblazers; Center Greg Oden, Guard Rudy Fernandez and guard Jerry Bayless. Though they have been practicing for a couple of weeks and last Friday performed in a scrimmage at the Blazer Fan Fest, this would be their first appearance against a rival NBA team.

The game proved to be a laugher. It did not look like it in the first half. Sacramento led by 10 after the first quarter and at the half it was just a 3 point game. The third quarter was the game, however. Last season Portland struggled with the 3rd quarter all season, often turning large leads into small deficits and small deficits into insurmountable mountains. On this night it would be the opposite. 

Led by Jerryd Bayless they cranked up the defense and destroyed the Kings 32-13. To be fair, the Kings were without Brad Miller and Kevin Martin, so if anything it is a tribute to them they stayed with Portland for a half. Then again, this being preseason, how serious can you take results?

One thing we know is the dominant quarter the Blazers put on was something they were not capable of last year. It speaks volumes to how much they have improved that they now have that capability.

Preseason is mostly a time to settle on rotations, try out some new combinations of players, Coach McMillan did that. In the first half he started Sergio Rodriguez and Martell Webster. In the second half he started Jerryd Bayless and Travis Outlaw instead. Was it a fluke the Blazers went on a huge tear? That is a question that still needs to be resolved.

Also to be resolved is whether Greg Oden will be able to rein in his impatience. After sitting out his rookie year he was anxious to show the fans something. Unfortunately, this resulted in him pressing. Early on he tried to bull over everyone and throw down a dunk. Mikki Moore was having none of that and Oden got off to a slow start. Once he had gotten one dunk down, however, he was off to the races.  He shot 5 for 8, showed good court vision when he was doubled, and late in the game he had a spectacular block that brought the Rose Garden to its feet.

He also showed how he can help Portland. He will be a dominant force on the boards once he gets acclimated to the NBA. When the Blazers missed he showed a knack for finding the ball and throwing it down with wild abandon that had the Kings interior players running for cover.

It was great to watch Oden. He improved over the course of the game. Early on it was obvious he was pressing. As a result he stifled the offense. On defense he was so intent on sending back shots that he repeatedly was out of position and the Kings were able to exploit him for easy opportunities. By his last stint on the court he was taking his time on offense, making the correct defensive reads, and showing everyone what he could do. For a first effort it was perhaps a C+. We saw flashes of what he could do but it took him a while to get going.

Bayless meanwhile was an offensive no-show. His vaunted penetration skills seldom showed up, he was not looking for his shot, and he was willing to take a relatively passive role in the offense. Defensively, however, he was every bit the pit bull Blazer brass has advertised. His on-the-ball defense was a key in triggering the Blazers' third quarter run. Bayless will get a B for his effort. When his offense was not there or needed he did not force it. He found his role, fulfilled it, and controlled the game defensively.

Perhaps the biggest cheer of the night was reserved for Spanish sensation Rudy Fernandez. And it was deserved. His stat line was rather modest. He shot just 3 for 6 for 6 points, 1 rebound, and 5 assists. That line is deceptive. His 3 misses were him bombing away from 3-point land after the game was decided and had turned into a bit of a rat-ball festival. They were also about the only unspectacular things he did all night.

He introduced himself in the second quarter. Breaking down his defender, he arched a left handed finger roll over another onrushing defender to score his first points as a Blazer. It was spectacular. He was just getting started, however. Midway through the third quarter Sergio Rodriguez made a no-look pass to Fernandez for a spectacular all-oop dunk that had the Rose Garden rocking as it has not been for quite some time. Later, after showing off his passing skills, he took another Rodriguez alley-oop attempt. This pass was behind him so he caught it, flew to the reverse side of the basket and somehow dropped it in for the score.

Not content with showing his flair for the spectacular in scoring the ball, Fernandez then went to work on his assist total. First he made a spectacular, highlight reel between the legs pass to LaMarcus Aldridge for a dunk. Oh, not his own legs. The DEFENDER'S legs. 

Shortly thereafter he found Aldridge again with a stunning wrap-around pass. Still later he had a high post pass where he found Martell Webster cutting baseline. With his back to the cutter and without turning his head he placed a pinpoint pass in Webster's hands for the dunk. Webster had 2 crowd-pleasing dunks off Fernandez .

It was a phenomenal show by Fernandez. If he does these things with any consistency he will be the odds on favorite for Rookie of the Year. He makes the players around him better and electrifies the crowd. No doubt about it, the Rudy show drew an A+. 

Overall the Blazers showed tremendous improvement. Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw will battle it out for the starting role. Both of them helped their cause tremendously with their showings.

Webster is moving better without the ball, is much more aware on defense, did a tremendous job of helping on the boards, and showed flashes of being a lock-down wing defender.

Outlaw was a bit weaker defensively but showed improved versatility with his step-back jumper, the ability to make spectacular defensive plays, and was a player on the boards. McMillan has two excellent choices. It may come down to who works better with Fernandez on the second unit.

Aldridge showed great maturity. His first half was a complete stinker. He waited, let the game come to him, and ended up having a nice second half. He did not get down on himself and stayed in the game.

Overall it was an exciting showing. The Blazer "veterans" such as Webster, Outlaw, and Sergio Rodriguez showed great improvement. Newcomer Ike Diogu showed a toughness the Blazers were lacking last year. 

Tomorrow night against the Warriors, there are rumors that Oden and Brandon Roy will not be playing. Last year that sort of news would mean a loss was expected. This year, it will still be an upset, even in preseason, should the Blazers somehow lose this game. And that is pretty exciting.

110-81 may have been the final score, but the final result was probably the amplification of expectations for Blazer fans.