Note: Preview bumped to top. Monday morning news updates posted below.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 2011-12 NBA regular season. It's going to be short, intense, probably nasty, and quite a ride. First up on the list of Portland Trail Blazers opponents is the Philadelphia 76'ers.
After taking a major step backwards under ill-fated rookie coach Eddie Jordan in 2009-10 the Sixers rebounded to a respectable 41-41 record in 2010-11. The good news about that is that coach turned analyst turned coach again Doug Collins tacked 14 wins onto their total in his inaugural season. He did it first through convincing his guys to play defense, second through team-wide rebounding effort, and third by focusing Philly's offense on two proven veterans--forwards Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala--plus a pair of point guards in Jrue Holiday and Louis Williams. That offense was neither fast-paced nor intimidating, just smart and consistent enough to hold down the fort while the defense strangled opponents. This was a direct flip from the previous season when the Sixers tried to be an offensive powerhouse and failed miserably at it.
The bad news about the upsurge is that it took the Sixers no further than they've been in the last decade. Yes they returned to the playoffs but they promptly lost in five games, delineating the vast gulf remaining between them and their opponents, eventual conference champion Miami. You have to go back to the 2000-01 Allen Iverson teams before you find a breakout year for this franchise. Nothing has changed this off-season to indicate that this year will be any different. The Sixers won't be bad. They're just stuck in "good, but not great" territory.
Ironically enough, that designation makes this opening game an exciting matchup and good test for the Trail Blazers, to whom the same designation applies for different reasons. Portland will face opponents they'll definitely beat this season. They'll also face opponents they're all but bound to lose to. The difference between a good and very good season will be winning the nearly tied matchups. Hello, Philadelphia.
Fortunately for the Blazers they match up quite well to Philly's strengths. Iguodala is the main gear for the Sixers, the guy whose motion cranks the team. The Blazers have a similarly physical, similarly talented player to throw up against him in Gerald Wallace. Plus Portland has the agile Nicolas Batum to throw in to keep Iguodala busy. Brand is the central post around which the other gears rotate. Portland has LaMarcus Aldridge to counter more than point-for-point. Philadelphia will also have to decide how and with whom to guard Aldridge. Portland, meanwhile, has the luxury of keeping LMA on Brand or throwing Marcus Camby on him and letting Aldridge guard the perimeter-bound Spencer Hawes at center. Holiday and Williams are potent guards but Raymond Felton has seen it all and should be up to the task of watching, if not containing, either. Jodie Meeks should be matched, if not overmatched, by Wesley Matthews and Jamal Crawford at shooting guard. Marreese Speights and Thaddeus Young are fine bench players but they don't extend Philly's shelf life long enough to counter Portland's top seven. In short, there's no place to point to Philadelphia's roster and say, "They have a clear advantage here." Portland should be favored on talent and lineup.
The problems with the theory are three:
1. This game could fall prey to intangibles...effort, hustle, taking care of the ball. Portland has historically experienced highs and lows in this department. Philadelphia will get overmatched on a given night but they won't usually lose for lack of effort, at least not under Collins. You know what kind of game they're going to come with. You don't always know about the Blazers. That's a Philly advantage.
2. Though talented, the Blazers definitely have weaknesses. Distance shooting, interior scoring, and rebounding are potential issues. Philadelphia plays smarter now than they used to. If Portland gets stuck in a halfcourt grind taking nothing but 20-foot, face-up jumpers they're going to struggle no matter what the lineup cards say. If the Sixers can force a slow-to-middling pace on the already slow-pace-prone Blazers all of a sudden the grinding offensive games of Brand and Iguodala look stronger than the pass-pass-pass-20-footer Portland attack. The Blazers have to control possession and then spread the floor either by running into a quick offense or by hitting enough outside shots to spread the defense and keep those halfcourt attempts free and open.
3. Portland should be teflon-coated at the normally precarious center position tonight. Even if Camby doesn't play big minutes the backup centers should suffice versus the Philly attack. BUT the Blazers are ultra-vulnerable at the point. If I were Coach Collins I'd be circling Raymond Felton's name and asking my guards to run him around trying to draw early fouls. I'd also be running screens with Iggy, trying to get Felton switched off for the same purpose. If the Sixers can get Felton out of the game their potentially-deadly point guards have a HUGE advantage.
Either team is capable of winning this contest. Assuming all the usual players make full appearances this may end up a test of the Blazers' will and effort as much as anything. Those are exactly the categories hopeful Blazer fans are betting on to propel their team to a record above that which their talent would indicate. If Portland wins the battle of will and energy you start speculating how long they can keep it up and how much success it might bring. If Portland loses that battle in their very first game you start wondering about how long this short season could be.
For those awaiting the Jersey Contest, we're going to let the first few games of the season go by before we get hot and heavy into it.
You can read the Philadelphia story at the oh-so-fine Liberty Ballers.