As I said yesterday, I am waist deep in comparative team studies right now in preparation for the upcoming season preview. I won't be ready to make hard and fast conclusions until the Blazers' spot comes up in said preview (traditionally last) but one of the advantages of poring through NBA rosters and stats until your eyes bleed is that you do get a bird's-eye view of the league as a whole. One of the pitfalls of following the team every day is the trees obscuring the forest so this kind of opportunity is refreshing...and sobering.
Even a knee-jerk, first-blush run through the league reveals that Portland's prospects, while strong, are by no means guaranteed...at least not on the basis of talent alone. When we did the season prediction thread a little while ago many of the predictions hovered around the 60-win mark for the Blazers. Some special alchemy will have to happen to bring those prognostications to fruition.
What do the Blazers have compared to the rest of the league?
- They have an incredibly good shooting guard. Though Brandon Roy is not at Kobe Bryant's level of production you'd not be ashamed to field him against anyone in the league, including the elite, big-name off-guards.
- They have a fine, young power forward who probably hasn't hit his production ceiling yet. While LaMarcus Aldridge has holes in his game he's able to make up for most of them with his combination of speed and skill. You can still name a generous handful of power forwards more accomplished, however.
- They have a promising defensive center with a bunch of question marks surrounding him, the biggest of which is his ability to keep up with the game and avoid fouls long enough to stay on the court.
- They have an aging-yet-competent veteran point guard who knows how to pass the ball pushed by a classic utility player who will want to keep his starting spot.
- They have three young-ish small forwards all of whom bring different skills and none of whom yet have a total package.
- They have bench potential that makes them the envy of most teams. But depth is far more useful in maintaining a top spot than it is in earning you one. In fact among developing teams depth, especially depth based on potential, is usually overrated. The odd play versus the Celtics aside, you can only play five guys at once. You can only give seven guys (eight on the outside) major minutes. Potential needs playing time in order to develop and there just aren't enough minutes to go around to make a team with astonishingly "deep" potential practical. Yes, such depth is a benefit. It's just not as telling of one as people estimate. A team with seven talented, established, experienced players who know their roles will usually beat a team with ten guys who could all start someday (or, as the saying goes, could start for other teams now).
Other teams have their own drawbacks, of course. The point isn't that the Blazers are secretly worse off than everyone else. But they're not automatically better off than everyone else either. Collectively this isn't a recipe for a tour de force through the season. That tour could happen, but it's not going to happen just because the Blazers showed up. (Compare them with, say, the L*kers or Cavaliers, whose march looks much more evident.) If the Blazers do make another leap forward it'll be because one or two key players stepped forth definitively (or were traded for someone who steps forth definitively) and because they play as a cohesive unit with a single agenda. The latter factor will likely prove the deciding one. There's no roster-based reason to forecast the Blazers having a major edge against Denver or San Antonio, let alone overtaking the L*kers. There may be reasons on paper to bump Dallas or New Orleans further ahead than they were last year. The Blazers have to hope that their vaunted chemistry, commitment, and unselfishness provide the crucial advantage they need in order to tip the scales when talent alone won't do so. Simply put, they're going to win together as a team this year or they're not going to advance much further than they did last year.
Fortunately the Blazers have shown themselves up to this kind of challenge at the levels through which they've already passed. But the stakes are higher this year and the competition less forgiving. There will be plenty of reasons to anticipate and celebrate the start of this season. But there will be reasons to sweat as well.