This preview is part of a league-wide collective of previews covering all 30 NBA teams through the eyes of the people who follow them the most closely. Here's the rundown on the 2010-11 Portland Trail Blazers.
2009-10 Record: 50-32, tied for 6th in the Western Conference. Lost in 6 games to the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs.
Major Roster Subtractions since the start of 2009-10: Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake, Juwan Howard
Major Roster Additions since the start of 2009-10: Marcus Camby, Wesley Matthews, Luke Babbitt
The Game Plan:
Defense is the new byword around Portland in 2010-11. Coach Nate McMillan has preached defense since Day One with the organization but his rosters have been populated by young, potential-laden players whose "potential" erupted mostly on the offensive end. Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake...these were converted defensive players at best. All have been moved. In their place have come veteran center/forward Marcus Camby and second-year guard Wesley Matthews. Camby needs no introduction to league observers. His calling cards are shot blocking, rebounding, and mobile defense in the middle. During the Jazz run in last year's playoffs Matthews showed the willingness and toughness to guard anybody, including superstar wing Carmelo Anthony (at press time still a member of division rival Denver). The Camby trade and the Matthews signing telegraphed the Blazers' shift in focus.
The Blazers hope to see growth from small forward Nicolas Batum and center Greg Oden as well. Batum, entering his third season, has been Portland's go-to defender, assigned almost automatically to the opponent's best scorer. Oden has famously struggled with injuries but is scheduled to return in November. During his healthy stretches he dominated the paint, protecting Portland's basket with shot blocks that had even jaded veteran drivers shaking their heads and pulling up for the jumper. Center Joel Przybilla, also recovering from injury but expected to return in the first half of the year, completes a pivot triumvirate which will be as defensively imposing as any in the league.
The flip side of the story is that the Blazers need that massive defensive arsenal because the players populating the rest of the roster aren't defenders and are dicey bets to improve. Guards Andre Miller, Brandon Roy, and Rudy Fernandez have been liabilities on that end of the court. Guard Jerryd Bayless has an intimidating body but hasn't learned how to apply it yet. Forward LaMarcus Aldridge has lateral quickness but not blinding reaction time. He could be a deadly help defender but he's not likely to become a stopper. Forward Dante Cunningham, a 2009 second-round pick from Villanova, maybe be Portland's sleeper player in this regard. He's the only Blazer whose energy burns incessantly on every inch of the court.
Portland's basic plan will be to send Batum and Matthews to dog any hot scorer and depend on the three-headed center to cover any of their mistakes. At any position that their defensive wings don't watch the Blazers will be satisfied with a shot coming over the top whether it's well-guarded or no. Keeping opponents away from the rim will be their strongest priority.
Rebounding will be a huge key to Portland's success this year. With fantastic rebounders at every position save starting power forward they will expect to dominate. This will not only put the punctuation on the defense, it should inspire more confidence in taking fast-break risks. The Blazers have played at a glacially slow pace the past few seasons. That's not going to change completely as Portland's coaching staff values possessions and efficiency above all. But knowing the defensive rebound is safe will allow natural break-hounds such as Miller, Batum, and even Aldridge to get out.
When running isn't an option Portland will depend on offensive versatility to save the day. This starts with Roy, who when healthy has proven dangerous from any place on the court, particularly during important moments. He can drive, hit the shot, draw the foul, and go in literally any direction without tipping his hand. The Blazers have surrounded Roy with shooters in Batum, Matthews, and Fernandez to spread the floor. Aldridge also has a fine outside game and range out to 20 feet. The odd men out in this equation are the point guards and centers. Andre Miller is versatile and a deadly passer but watching his outside shot is like torturing kittens at a screening of Gigli. Nobody wants to see that. Bayless has developed a jumper but he's still best on the drive, drawing fouls. Oden is the Blazers' only low post presence and his offense is raw. Camby can play the high post and hit from 15. Przybilla has no offensive game to speak of. For the most part Portland will catch as catch can, getting up a good shot and utilizing size on the offensive boards. Other than the aforementioned low-post threat, the Blazers probably miss a bona fide scorer most. They can hit from anywhere but "can" isn't where it's at. "Will" is what you're looking for, and "will hit" still isn't part of the Blazers' offensive repertoire.
Ideally the Blazers will be a strong defensive team that's indomitable on the boards. They'll threaten from so many positions that the opponent won't be able to watch them all, leaving key players such as Roy, Aldridge, and even Oden single-covered...theoretically a walk in the park for any of them. Once the double team comes on anybody, a couple passes should find a dangerous player and an easy hoop.
Not-so-ideally the Blazers will pay for having to sacrifice defense at key offensive positions, getting their centers in foul trouble trying to cover and losing their effectiveness. They could easily stall from lack of proven offensive options outside of Roy and Aldridge as well. Portland is depending on the growth curve of some young players...growth which is primed to happen but hasn't yet.
The good news for Portland is that their best case and worse case scenarios are a lot closer together than they once were. When the Blazers were populated with only terribly exciting recent draft picks you could drive six semi-trucks, two cruise ships, and the Stanford marching band in the space between what could go right and what could go wrong. With the former young guys coming into their early primes and some seasoned veterans mixed in, the ceiling is rising and the floor isn't far behind.
The bad news for Portland is that we're doing the season preview and we've already used the word "injury" a half dozen times. Marcus Camby is currently the only operational center the Blazers have. Brandon Roy is coming off of an injury-plagued year, including most famously showing up as a shell of himself in the playoff losses to Phoenix. If Portland doesn't get its center corps healthy the game plan is going to wilt. If anything happens to Roy the Blazers lose the threat that frees up all of the other players. Everybody but the team mascot sat out double-digit games last season. That had to be an aberration. If it wasn't...
Despite being more stable, blended, and complementary than any year in recent memory Portland's lineup isn't in final form yet. Rudy Fernandez famously wants out of the uniform, preferring to return to Europe. Andre Miller is an uneasy fit next to Roy on both ends of the court, semi-deficient on defense and functioning best with the ball and a lane to drive on offense. Nobody yet knows if Jerryd Bayless is the next answer at point guard or just a very nice combo-guard scorer. The first would be ideal. The second leaves little room for him on this team. Though the outlook is generally rosy it's hard to predict how high the team will ascend until the major players at least are completely settled.
Absent a series of disasters (and remember this team lost everybody last season and still won 50) Portland will be a playoff team again this year. Their immediate goals are two: win the division and make it out of the first round. Though the Thunder are the media darlings of the moment, shifting stars in the Northwest division have left the Blazers a legitimate chance to accomplish the first. No matter what their division position or seed, however, they must get to the second round of the playoffs (at least) this year or serious changes are in order. Whether the Blazers can go beyond that still depends on the opponent and the health of Greg Oden. When healthy and clicking this team is going to be as formidable as any in the league. But when half of the clicking comes from Oden's knee they lose the chance to be great and fall solidly into "good" territory. Chances are the Blazers will need another year under their belts before they can come full force every night. 2010-11 should show whether that's in the offing. This pivotal season will herald either successes to come or a legitimate return to the drawing board.