2011-12 Season Preview: The Centers

We round out our pre-season look at the Portland Trail Blazers roster with a rundown of the center position. In actuality the title of this post is a misnomer. The "s" at the end doesn't belong. The Blazers have exactly one proven center in the rotation: Marcus Camby. If you're talking non-franchise-type centers, though, there's plenty to recommend Camby. He's a very good all-around defender, a fantastic rebounder, a smart veteran, and his foul-line face-up shot usually keeps defenses from taking him for granted...or at least completely for granted as they used to Joel Przybilla. Camby is among the best utility centers in the league.

That said, the dream when he was acquired was to sandwich him between Przybilla and Greg Oden to form an unstoppable wall of center-based doom. With Camby the only one of that trio taking the field his weaknesses get exposed and may cost the Blazers. The two biggest: he's not a low post threat and he's not known for his health. The team is overflowing with mid-range-dependent offensive players. Camby ranks about 9th on that list. There's little reason for him to take any shot. Someone else could always hit it better. Another monotone offensive repertoire adds little to a team desperately in need of variety...or at least muscle. The health thing is downright scary. The Blazers can probably survive without big moments from Camby but they absolutely require big minutes. Dude is 37 years old coming off of a 59-game season in which he played the fewest minutes he's registered since his last huge injury. That's not a promising recommendation. And if he goes down...jeepers. Who do the Blazers stick in there?

One option, already a fan favorite, is young Chris Johnson. C-Mobile has springs, a nose for shot-blocking, and (as I'm obviously suggesting) he gets around the court with alacrity. He's exciting. He's also played a grand total of 138 minutes in his career. If you patched together a video compilation of Camby doing nothing taking off his warmups to take the court you'd end up with at least six times as much material. You'd love Johnson as your third center to trot out during blowouts, giving him a chance to show if he's a diamond in the rough. Having him as the second-stringer makes you a little itchy, but there's hope. Maybe he'll shine dazzlingly. Contemplating relying on him for big minutes and/or starting in Camby's absence is cold-sweat time no matter how promising he's looked in limited action. You need to hope for the oft-mentioned (in the last couple of weeks anyway) "lightning in a bottle experience". All the true believers out there will yell at me if I don't say, "Yes, it's possible." But you have to understand that you can't approach an NBA season like it's the lottery and you're taking a chance...not if you want to succeed more than one time in a hundred. It's more like asking the girl of your dreams to marry you. You want a definite "YES!!!" ringing through the air. "It's possible" means something quite different...usually not good.

If you don't go with Johnson you're probably looking at Kurt Thomas. I love the guy and he's going to be a solid vet and a real help to this team. But hanging the center position on him is less plausible than hanging it on Johnson. At least CJ is young and can play big minutes if he stays out of foul trouble. Thomas isn't going to look good if you try to run him much more than 20 minutes per night.

LaMarcus Aldridge could always switch over to center for a while, likely with Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum at forward creating a fast, high-scoring-potential lineup. But Aldridge will suffer playing the 5 for long stretches and the Blazers would be well-served by keeping his stints there situational.

If you think we're going to mention the Other Guy, like we were Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin, not at this point. It goes without saying that the difference would be measurable. But we'll believe it when we see it.

That takes us back to heavy doses of Camby, praying for his health, and trying to rig an offense that's largely low-post free outside of Aldridge's occasional forays. If there's a weak spot in Portland's rotation, this is it. I suppose "thin" is the better word, but a grueling season and smart opponents have a way of turning thin into weak. Portland's ability to adjust, pulling a little three-card-monty with the position if necessary, will be a key to their success this season.

Discuss the Blazer big men below. What do you see as the keys to victory with regards to the center position?

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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