This piece is part of a national series of team previews. Regular readers, we'll link you to previews for other teams as they come along, particularly those of Portland's Northwestern Division rivals. National folks, welcome to our humble abode. Enjoy the preview!
Two kinds of Portland Trail Blazer fans populate the landscape as the 2011-12 season approaches. One group pines in misery for the heady days of 2007 when Greg Oden's promise seemed boundless and Brandon Roy was among the league's hottest young stars. These folks are dressed in full emo gear. They're hanging out behind the stadium chain smoking, looking at their feet, and muttering that life isn't fair and nothing will ever be right again now that Oden's and Roy's knees have collapsed. The other group steadfastly maintains that nothing is wrong that can't be fixed. Like Hare Krishnas at the airport they bounce up and down offering mantras of peace, love, joy, and Blazer success to anyone who will listen. Remember Homer Simpson chasing that flying pig in the episode where Lisa became a vegetarian? "It's OK! It's OK! We can still use it! We can still use it!"
We'll eschew both approaches here. Let's assume Greg Oden isn't going to save the franchise. Let's assume Brandon Roy is the NBA equivalent of a gem-encrusted platinum paperweight at this point. Where does that leave the Blazers?
Portland's core strength lies with their group of forwards. LaMarcus Aldridge had a break-out season in 2010-11, averaging 21 per game by mixing post moves and alley-oops with his standard face-up jumper. Though welcome, Aldridge's improvement wasn't impossibly dramatic. He'll likely be able to sustain that level as long as he's the focus of the offense. Former Bobcat Gerald Wallace and French phenom Nicolas Batum are his wingmen, both defending well, Wallace providing scoring and Batum distance shooting. That's as solid of a forward rotation as you'll find in the league.
The backcourt situation is shakier. Newcomer Raymond Felton replaces Andre Miller at point. Portland still has a hodgepodge of untried players in reserve with no clear backup to Felton. Defender Wesley Matthews mans the shooting guard position with the hobbled Roy in the wings. The name power is there but the Blazers have yet to put together a consistent guard attack since Roy's knees buckled. They'll need great performances from Matthews and Felton to keep up in the West.
Center is an area of concern for Portland. Marcus Camby has seen better days. Behind him lies a huge void. Unless Oden returns to decent minutes Portland will be playing small lineups frequently.
Outside of Roy and whichever of the Batum/Wallace duo doesn't start the Blazers have no bench to speak of and no help on the way from developing players. Recent drafts have come up empty and the Blazers appear stuck in the dreaded doldrums surrounding the draft equator, good enough to finish out of the lottery but not enough to excel.
The team that was once full of promise has plateaued at a level far short of their original aspirations. Barring further injury the Blazers won't be bad this year. There's plenty of talent here. But "not bad" won't cut it. The big question facing the team is how to get better and take the next step. Aldridge's stock is high but the distance between "most egregious All-Star snub" and the Kevin Garnett level of dominance required to lead a team into contention is vast. Matthews and Batum may improve but neither one of them is a messiah either. Felton is unlikely to provide enough upgrade over Miller to make a difference. Wallace exploding onto the scene is probably Portland's best hope of gaining ground.
Adding to the unsettled atmosphere, the Blazers will have to make contract decisions on several key players within the next two years. They need to separate the wheat from the chaff soon, perhaps making trades to get value for departing assets in the process, all the while finding enough chemistry to keep them afloat.
In the final analysis the Blazers are wallowing through a swamp of unknowns: health, growth curves, talent, chemistry, contracts. Once again they're praying for a miraculous medical recovery to erase all of their doubts. Despite three straight seasons of entreaties the pig still flies far out of reach. Absent it landing smack dab on their dinner plate the team will once again be good but nowhere near the league's elite. The emos claim that plate is laced with arsenic. The krishnas argue a gourmet feast is in the offing, just awaiting the dinner bell. In reality we're looking at a back-up plan of peanut butter sandwiches with some really nice jelly. That's a great standby but you're not going to win awards with it.