Well folks, it's finally time for the 2013-14 Portland Trail Blazers season opener! I'm Chris Lucia, new Blazer's Edge game preview writer. I was brought on staff here this past May to do previews, and I'll also be doing a few other Blazer's Edge-related odds and ends. I just wrapped up the NBA league-wide preview series and capped it off with a two-parter on the Blazers.
I know you've all come to enjoy Dave's game previews over the years -- I've been a reader since the early days, myself -- and you can trust that I'll do my best to live up to that standard.
Anyway, we have a season to kick off, so let's light this candle!
The Phoenix Suns won 25 games last season. Following the trade of center Marcin Gortat to the Wizards, it's now pretty clear the Suns are all-in on tanking this season. The Blazers, on the other hand, appear ready to compete for a playoff spot, though their final rankings could easily swing several spots in either direction due to the glut of teams in the middle of the Western Conference.
Though the Suns organization has both eyes aimed at the prized 2014 draft, there are still a few players on the roster who can make things interesting on any given night. Point guard Goran Dragic is likely Phoenix' biggest threat at scoring, passing and penetrating. He finishes pretty well at the rim, but his outside shooting has slumped the last couple of seasons. He might be the Suns' best player -- certainly the most proven -- but he'll share that distinction with perpetually ready-to-break-out guard Eric Bledsoe.
These guys form what should be a potent backcourt duo, and they will certainly make the Blazers' guards work on defense. Both Dragic and Bledsoe can get to the rim, and this is a good opportunity for Damian Lillard to show how much he's improved his defense in the offseason. Wesley Matthews is a good perimeter defender, but Suns coach Jeff Hornacek will probably try to exploit the matchup between Lillard and whomever he's defending. When Lillard and Matthews are out, things could get a bit ugly if Mo Williams and Will Barton or Allen Crabbe are relied upon by Blazers coach Terry Stotts to corral the Suns' two-headed backcourt monster.
If the Suns do get some penetration -- and they will at some point, depending on Stotts' backcourt rotation -- things get a little murkier from there. With Gortat gone, Phoenix will be relying on a center rotation of second-year man Miles Plumlee and rookie Alex Len. Neither should make life very hard for Portland centers Robin Lopez or Joel Freeland on defense, allowing them to help out in the paint.
The kick-out might be there for the Suns with some combination of forwards P.J. Tucker, Channing Frye or Gerald Green on the receiving end, but which one of them will make the Blazers pay from outside? So far, the only legitimate outside shooting threat for Phoenix looks like it would be Frye, but he's 18 months removed from his last regular season NBA action and will have to adjust to game speed. Tucker is not good from outside and Green has never been consistent there, either. Backup forward Marcus Morris might force Aldridge out a little, but he'll have to prove capable first. The third man in the guard rotation is rookie Archie Goodwin, and he is the worst three-point shooter of the bunch.
In short, the Suns are not really a threat to punish the Blazers from outside, and they were one of the worst teams in the league last year from behind the arc. Unless Frye comes back full-throttle or someone else on the roster reverses career trends, don't expect Phoenix to light up the scoreboard from downtown.
As said before, the Suns do have a couple of interior finishers with Dragic and Bledsoe, but who else on their roster is at all intimidating? No one yet, really. Len and Goodwin were promising pick ups in the draft, but they're not going to swing the balance. Tucker, Frye, Plumlee and the worse Morris brother? Phoenix' active roster for opening night is pretty devoid of talent, and the Suns' ability to get scoring from anywhere other than their starting back court looks a little bleak.
How about when the Blazers have the ball? This should be a good tuneup game for at least a few of the guys. Lillard will have to worry about Bledsoe's man-on-man defense, but that can only do so much. Who's going to guard LaMarcus Aldridge? Neither Frye nor Morris has a chance one-on-one. The help defense will come from Plumlee and Len. Both Aldridge and Lopez should have this game circled on their calendars, because the Suns are going to have a hard time getting stops at the rim if they're platooning in Plumlee and Len at center, both a little raw and inexperienced.
If that inside-out game gets going for Aldridge -- and it should, considering he'll be far and away the best big man on the court -- Portland will be able to spread the floor and allow clean looks for everyone from Lillard, Williams and Matthews to Nic Batum and Dorell Wright. Seriously, Phoenix was the worst team defending the three-point line last year. Bledsoe should offer some relief on that end, but he can't play 48 minutes or guard two guys at once. If Portland's outside shooters are connecting on open shots consistently, Phoenix may not have the horses to keep up in this one.
The advantage on the boards should easily go to the Blazers, too. Phoenix' frontcourt will have their hands full on the glass with Lopez, Aldridge and Thomas Robinson feasting on their youth and inexperience. Tucker, Bledsoe and Dragic are all effective rebounders for their positions, but the Suns are otherwise outmanned from every other angle on the glass.
The Suns should be pretty good at forcing turnovers again this year, especially with the addition of Bledsoe. Portland was decent at holding onto the ball last year, but turning the ball over was an issue this preseason for them. Phoenix' best shot at staying in this game would be forcing Portland into making mistakes and turning the ball over, as that's really their only considerable advantage over the Blazers.
This game should be a good opportunity for Portland to start off the season with a solid road victory. Phoenix may see some success getting into the lane and finishing at times, but they're not very potent from anywhere else on the court and have holes up and down their lineup outside of their starting backcourt. Heck, even Bledsoe has never topped 23 minutes and 8.5 points a game in his three-year career, and he's considered one of their two best players!
For a Portland loss, a lot would have to go the Suns' way while an equal amount would probably have to go wrong for the Blazers. It's not likely, but it could happen. A Portland win, on the contrary, could be had on the back of a pretty average effort all-around just by virtue of a clear talent advantage over the Suns -- an advantage that will only be this blatant against a handful of teams, and especially not throughout the crowded middle-ranks of the Western Conference. If the Blazers are serious about the postseason this year, they need to prove it against teams like the Suns that they clearly overmatch on paper. Tonight would be a great start.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter