I've been reading some of the pre-season talk around the interwebs just to get a pulse on where people think we are going into the season. There are a few common threads to the discussion: people are excited, the Blazers should do well, most are expecting improvement, people love to speculate how Portland will match up against the L*kers and whether they can crawl ahead of the Spurs.
There's something missing here.
For my money one of the scariest teams for the Blazers is also one folks have apparently put on the "pay no mind" list. That would be the Denver Nuggets.
Denver and Portland finished as co-division champs last year with identical 54-28 records. Denver grabbed the tiebreaker giving them the seeding advantage against the Blazers. The standard line of reasoning seems to be that Portland's growth curve accelerates much quicker from this point on so the Blazers should leap ahead of the Nuggets this season and not look back.
I wouldn't argue against the Blazers chances of outstripping the Nuggets in overall record, though I am on record saying that wins 55-60 are among the toughest to get and I don't believe that Portland's improvement can be taken for granted. It wouldn't surprise me to see the Blazers squeak out a couple more than Denver does this year. The reverse wouldn't shock me either, but it's nicer to lean Portland's way, eh?
However just in terms of head-to-head matchups the Blazers can't even come close to taking the Nuggets lightly. Denver is one of those potentially toxic teams for Portland.
The problems start in the frontcourt. There are plenty of starting duos I'd choose over Nene and Kenyon Martin. But against Portland you can only pick out a couple worse. Both men are strong and fairly quick. Greg Oden is strong but not that quick. LaMarcus Aldridge is quick but not as strong. Moreover Nene and K-Mart are mean and hard which are characteristics their Blazer counterparts haven't cultivated yet. These are men...bullies to boot. We have trouble keeping up with them. We can't really shove them around. Our reserves at four and five don't alter that equation. That's not a good situation.
Last season Chauncey Billups showed everyone how much he has left in the tank and how much he has stored in his head. He doesn't present the same kind of blow-away problems that the big men do but it's been years since the Blazers have been great at containing opposing point guards. Andre Miller brings experience but he isn't the kind of defensive go-getter to slow Chauncey down. No matter which point guard we throw out there (short of Brandon Roy) this is a matchup disadvantage.
I'm not a huge fan of either Carmelo Anthony or J.R. Smith. I don't think they play winning basketball. I wouldn't want them on Portland's side. That doesn't change the fact that both can cause problems, Smith with his athleticism and ‘Melo with his near-boundless offensive potential. Smith versus Roy obviously goes Portland's way overall but Anthony versus our small forwards tilts heavily Denver's way until more growth is demonstrated. Even disliking these guys there's little doubt they're explosive. You never feel comfortable against that kind of opponent.
People are going to argue that Portland's bench kicks the you-know-what out of Denver's and that's probably true. It's one of the reasons the Blazers have a chance to score more overall wins than the Nuggets. But head-to-head in games fraught with importance Denver's bench is not going to see heavy use. The Blazers can sub in anyone they wish. They're still going to be dealing with the Nuggets' A-List when it matters.
If you were to ask me what team's I'd least like to see in a playoff series this year the L*kers' name would still be at the top for the experience factor if nothing else. Denver's name would be second, above San Antonio, Houston, or anyone else in the West. And I'm not sure Denver's name would be that far behind L.A.'s for us. The L*kers present a couple of intensely difficult matchups but also potential avenues of attack. The Nuggets cause more mismatches in more places.
It's unlikely that Portland could pull Denver in the first round. A second-round matchup is certainly a possibility though. That would be a more intense battle than most folks are crediting. Naturally the feeling would be that Portland could overcome anything. Overlook the Nuggets at your peril, though. They're not a nice team for us.