The Portland Trail Blazers open their 2012-13 pre-season schedule tonight against the Los Angeles Lakers in Ontario, California. The contest begins at 7:00 p.m. and will be televised in the Portland areas on CSNNW.
Trying to judge too much from any pre-season contest--or even the entire pre-season aggregated--is perilous. Records mean nothing. Star players might go 30 minutes, 15 minutes, or no minutes depending on the game. Unfamiliar units get long looks. "Both teams played hard" might apply, might half apply, or might go right down the tubes. Defense could be pristine or non-existent. The number and weight of variables precludes drawing hard conclusions.
Nevertheless, careful observers should be able to glean an inkling or two from the proceedings. Here are five legit items to watch as the Blazers and Lakers tilt tonight:
1. Even though they're working in Steve Nash (and won't have the chance to work in Dwight Howard) the Lakers are a far more established team than the Blazers. With a new coach, new system, and plenty of new players trying to earn rotation positions and roster slots, the Blazers will be invested in establishing a regular-season rhythm early. They're going to run their new schemes and work hard to execute them. That sneak peek will be valuable. Who shoots where? How much do they concentrate on offensive and/or defensive rebounds? What's the policy on screen defense? How are they getting points in the paint? Just how green is that green light from the three-point arc?
2. The most telling individual performances will come from the rookies. Forget numbers. Watch for floor positioning, brisk movement, confident offense. Who looks like they belong on the court and who's emulating a deer in the headlights?
3. Also of interest: which deep bench players are playing and which subset of them look like they're going all-out to win a spot? Effort is the key here.
4. Then you have tweeners, guys older than rookies and higher on the food chain than the 15th man candidates but still not established. Two of the most interesting candidates--Elliot Williams and Will Barton--are down. Nolan Smith is listed as day-to-day with a left knee injury. But we can still get a gander at Luke Babbitt. He's got plenty riding on this season and needs to impress early. We get to see how he responds to pressure, and not just the defensive kind.
5. By far the most interesting contest of the season will be the one for center minutes. Unsurprisingly, Meyers Leonard is struggling early on. This leaves J.J. Hickson and Joel Freeland locked in the immediate battle at the five-spot. Even though we've not seen him at center, we know what Hickson looks like. Watching Freeland against semi-NBA-level competition may be the single most interesting aspect of the pre-season. Hickson has the initial nod. Does Freeland look like he wants to chase down J.J.'s minutes? What can he provide at that all-important (to him anyway) pivot position? The difference between a motivated, competent Freeland at center and a mostly-power-forward Freeland getting lost in the shuffle could be huge for the Blazers and for Joel's early career.
What will you be watching or hoping to see? Weigh in below as we count down the minutes until tip-off. Timmay will have your GameDay thread tonight. I'll be back for post-game analysis and Ben will keep you updated with the latest news throughout the day. Enjoy the start of the next season!