Yesterday we took a look at Portland's guard corps as a prelude to the upcoming season. Today we switch to forwards...clearly the crown jewel of the Blazer lineup.
As far as pure talent goes, the Blazers can bring their top three forwards to any party in the league and not have to wait in line. LaMarcus Aldridge is coming off of a career season and is guaranteed to be named an All-Star in the Western Conference this year. 22 points and 9 rebounds in iron-man performances--in terms of games played and minutes played both--have earned him the central spot on the roster. He is the Portland Trail Blazers and he's stepping up his performance to back that assertion. His mid-range game is still beautiful but he's added a couple back-to-the-basket and driving moves to keep defenses off-balance. Those will be important this year because of the utter lack of a post game anywhere on Portland's roster. Unless the Blazers send a wing down in the block, the interior will be Aldridge's and Aldridge's alone. Outside of the fast break he will bear the burden of scoring the only easy points the Blazers will see. LaMarcus' defense has come along adequately. His offensive rebounding is superb, defensive so-so. This will be another pressure point on his game. He'll get help from his fellow forwards and Marcus Camby but he'll be expected to make rebounding a strong part of his court presence. If he doesn't the Blazer attack may never get off the ground.
Gerald Wallace is also one of the finer forwards in the league. His energy is frenetic. He backs down from no-one. He scores with amazing efficiency. You notice him every time he takes the floor. He looked superb in his brief Blazer tenure in 2010-11. One wonders what he'll produce when he's more familiar with the team and/or when the team starts playing more of his style. His defense may well be the best on the roster. He generates steals. His rebounding is fantastic for a small forward...though the Blazers may continue to play him as a 4 as much as a 3. If there's a fault in his game it's the distance shot, perhaps coupled with a tendency to turn over the ball.
Nicolas Batum remains full of promise, buoyed by a strong performance in Europe during the off-season. He's known as an on-ball defender. His offensive game is fluid, if not always effective. He's like a cat going to the hoop. You think you have him contained, you blink, then he's dunking it. Thus far he's been more cool cat than pouncing tiger, though...the main criticism of his game. He showed a fantastic three-point shot in 2009-10 but the touch left him, along with a big chunk of offensive efficiency, in 2010-11. The Blazers will be looking for Batum to step up in the coming season, returning to his form of two years ago while shouldering even more responsibility. He, not Wallace, is the hope for this team's future. They'll make as much room for him as he's willing to grab. If he doesn't come to the fore, however, Wallace will eat his minutes like crab legs at a buffet. This will be a revealing season for Batum. His future could include a star on his locker or he could be a really nifty 7th man. We'll have to see how much of the moment he can seize.
On paper this trio looked formidable. The big questions are how they'll fit together and how well they fit the Blazers' needs. Each player is versatile, even more well-rounded than the Blazer guards. Batum and Aldridge play well together, Batum and Wallace superbly. The Aldridge-Wallace combo will be the interesting question. They could become a defensive nightmare for the opponent or an offensive nightmare for the Blazers. One of the recurring themes as we peruse the Portland roster is lack of outside shooting. If I'm lining up against Aldridge, Wallace, and any combination of Blazer guards I simply guard the floor 20 feet and in, let them shoot, and then refuse the offensive rebounds upon which the Blazers rely so heavily. At that point the Blazers are relying on the three-point production of Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews. As an opponent I respect those players but I'm also comfortable with the Blazers trying to win games through them, particularly from the arc. The same small lack (streaky distance shooting) spread across the whole roster becomes a crisis. Even the best of Portland's players--which their forwards certainly are--don't alleviate that crisis for Portland's offense.
The forwards behind Portland's main three barely merit mention. Luke Babbitt is...Luke Babbitt. He needs to hit every shot he takes to justify his presence on the court at this point and he's far from that. Craig Smith? Nice enough player but a deep bench guy. Kurt Thomas will split time between forward and center. He's a great veteran playing in relief but he's not going to bail out the team if the best players don't produce.
Plenty of hope rides on Portland's forwards coming into the season. The guards will provide plenty of frosting but the cake itself will rise or fall with these three guys. Are they enough? What's your call? Share your impressions of Portland's 3's and 4's below.