We as fans spend a lot of time focusing on our own team, including the player acquisition moves they make and the potential moves on the horizon. Through our analysis we often assume that if the Blazers improve their personal, they'll improve their standing in the NBA. I think that we sometimes forget that our team doesn't play in a vacuum, and just because they make move x or y to improve the team, doesn't mean they'll move up in the standings. After all, the end result of the regular season (i.e. wins and playoff spot) is as much dependent on the moves other teams make as it is the moves the Blazes make.
So I ask this question: As the roster stands now, where do you think the Blazers fall in the conference?
I'll attempt to give an objective answer but I'd like to hear what everyone else thinks. Before I get into the specific teams, I'll make one generalization that I feel there are three basic types of teams that contend for playoff spots.
The first is the "Old Guard." More or less, these are the teams that frequently have achieved prior success and their rosters are comprised of aging superstars who are past their prime. That is not to say they don't have young talent, just that the source of any present success typically lies with individuals whose best years are behind them. The second type of team is the "Up and Comer." As you can guess, this is a team filled primarily with youthful talent, the likes of which we may not have seen the full potential of. These teams commonly have not seen prior significant playoff success, but you know their star is on the rise. The third type of team is the "Mixed Bag." This team features a fairly even mix of established and rising talent and is usually a solid bet to make the playoffs, with postseason success being varied.
Let me start with the defending champions as they are, perhaps, the most painful team to consider not only because they knocked us out last season, but because they serve as an example of a team that got it right. I would consider the Mavericks an "Old Guard" team. Their key players (Nowitski, Kidd, Carter, Marion, and Odom) have an average age of 34. Unlike some other OG teams though, these guys are still potent. Sure, Kidd's, Carters's, and Marion's best days are behind them, but Nowitski and Odom are still forces to be reckoned with. Throw in key role players and reserves like Terry, Haywood, West, and Wright, and you've gotta think the Mavs are gonna be in the upper half of the seeding again, if not number one.
Then you have the Spurs. Last years top seed and definitely an OG team. If you remember, this team started the season great and many thought would challenge records, but in the last month of the season they looked completely gassed and dropped 8 out of their last 12. If their finish to the season wasn't enough of an indicator that age had caught up to them, their first round exit to the 8th seed Grizzlies sure was. Thus far, this team hasn't made any huge advancements with player acquisition and although they still have a few nice pieces, ultimately the weight of age and injuries will outbalance them. Couple this with the fact that Duncan will be severely limited in his ability to play multiple back-to-backs (let alone back-to-back-to-backs) in this shortened season, convinces me that the heroics of Ginobli and Parker won't make up for a weak frontline. At best, I figure them to be competing for a lower half seed with a definite possibility they could be out altogether.
Moving right along to one of our favorites, the Lakers. I'd qualify them as an OG team as well. What was once the most feared frontline in the league, is now weakened with the loss of Odom. Yes, I realize he didn't start and yes, I realize thy still have Gasol and Bynum. All I'm saying is don't underestimate the value of Odom to that team. He gave productive minutes off the bench and provided valuable rest for Gasol and Bynum. Now, Gasol older than thirty, and Bynum's knees not getting any younger or healthier, I predict those two are in for a rough season. As for Kobe, I still think he'll be productive but will become frustrated if he has to carry too much of the team's weight around. Given his temperament in the past, and his obvious current frustration already with the Odom trade, this could be a recipe for friction in La La Land. Still, the level of sheer talent on this team cannot be ignored. I place them as an upper half seed, with a small chance of lower half if the team dynamic falls apart.
Now for our former friendly neighbors from the north. The Thunder pose a legit threat to the take the Western Conference throne. A definite "Up and Comer," this team is loaded with young talent. These guys finished the season as strong, or stronger, than any other, winning 16 out of their last 20. Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka all have PERs > 16 (Durant and Westbrook > 23), and their average age is only just barely the legal drinking age. Not enough size for you? Too soft? Oh, well just throw Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed in to the mix. The only thing this team lacked was playoff experience. Well how's about losing to the eventual NBA Champions in the WCF for playoff experience? Let's not forget, this team has also been blessed with one of the key features for any teams success: Health. In my mind, there's little that can hold this group back this season. My pick for the conference number one.
One of the teams I've developed the most hatred for are the Nuggets. I'd hazard a guess that I've come to hate them more than the Lakers. Hopefully that doesn't get in the way of my analysis of them. This is my first of the "Mixed Bag" teams. On paper, you wouldn't think much of these guys but you may be surprised to find that they had the most potent offense in the league last season. That had to be because of the presence of Carmelo Anthony albeit for only have the season, right? Wrong. For all intents and purposes this team was just as, or more successful without Anthony then with him. Their major offseason move was likely the retainment of Nene. If they had lost him to free agency, without compensation, I'd be placing their chances at less than what I'm about to. You'll also see a couple familiar faces in Andre Miller and Rudy Fernandez on this team. You know what you'll get from 'Dre (except now in a backup role), but I actually think Rudy could find a lot of success in George Karl's system. If Lawson and Gallinari can improve upon the numbers they put up last season, I think this team will continue to be a thorn in the side of other contenders. My guess is a lower half seed.
Next up is last year's darling. The Grizzlies overachieved, knocking out the top seed in the first round and pushing the upstart Thunder to 7 games in the second. Another "Up and Comer" like OK City, but not nearly as young or talented. Still, the frontline of Gay, Randolph and Gasol is nothing to take lightly. In fact, with Gasol's performance in the playoffs last year, I'd fear that frontline now more than the Lakers'. Conley is developing into a very solid point guard, so their only real question mark is at the shooting guard. One of two things need to happen for this team to break into the upper half: Either Gay needs to take his game to the next level (doubtful), or Mayo needs to learn how to play team ball (even less likely). I think this team does better than the 8th seed, and I give them an outside shot at the upper half, but likely they'll be somewhere 5-7.
The last of the "Up and Comers" to make the playoffs will be the LA Clippers. Although this team only won 32 games last season, the continued development of Griffin and the addition of Chris Paul pushes this team over that lottery hump. Even if they lack a true center, the pure athleticism of Griffin and the savvy pay of Butler will be more than enough to hold the fort on the frontline. Their back court is immensely talented and deep with the likely starting duo being Paul and Billups, and guys like Bledsoe, Williams, and Foye coming off the bench. I don't think they're there yet, but give them some time and maybe the acquisition of a solid center and this team could be as scary as the Thunder. Likely a lower half seed in this shortened season, but if they can find their magic, they could break into the top.
Now for the team we all love. I have them pegged as a "Mixed Bag" team whose success largely depends on the continued emergence of LMA as an All-Star player, solid play from Wallace, and an elevation in the games of Matthews and Batum to another level. I'm not counting on any miracle play from their only key offseason acquisition in Felton, but I still think they have a good shot at improvement. This prediction lies mostly in what I feel will be continued improvement from their existing core. If this happens, I give the Blazers a decent shot at breaking into the upper half.
Overall, this is how I see the standings breaking down:
In the end, this could very easily be another one and done year for Portland. Even if they do sneak into the upper half and get home court advantage, with the competition as heavy as it is in the West, I don't think they'll go deep. It's fun though trying to predict where teams will end up and how that affects the Blazers. Let me know your thoughts!