When it comes to the absolutely loaded Western Conference, the Portland Trail Blazers have the unenviable task of running down the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, an Oklahoma City Thunder squad with a once-in-a-generation player in Kevin Durant, a reinvigorated Los Angeles Clippers team with the always dangerous Chris Paul, and a Houston Rockets group with a bitter vendetta against Portland. Those are the teams that finished ahead of the Blazers in the standings last season. You can ask any Houston fan how much that mattered when they had to stay home for the second round.
While it is tempting to look at those four teams and wonder how far the Blazers can go against them, the teams coming up from behind are every bit as dangerous. The Dallas Mavericks have a strong core of players, even if they are getting old. The Phoenix Suns have a good, young squad and the Memphis Grizzlies have the defensive skills to hold serve with anyone.
The team in the rear-view mirror the Blazers need to be wary of most, though, is the Golden State Warriors. Guard Stephen Curry can score at will against virtually anyone, a threat to drop 40 on any given night. David Lee is a bit overrated as a power forward, but is still a strong contributor and his defense has improved from his earlier years. Guard Klay Thompson is exploding onto the scene, and will be a fierce scorer and defender for years to come.Forward Harrison Barnes and Center Andrew Bogut are serviceable starters, eating minutes. Wing Andre Iguodala might not be the scoring machine he was in Philadelphia, but many teams would kill to have his talent level in their sixth man.
The Warriors present matchup problems for Portland, especially at the guard positions. Wesley Matthews can only guard one opponent (likely Curry) leaving Damian Lillard in a bad matchup with Thompson. Nicolas Batum may be able to help in a rotation, but that leaves Barnes by himself on the outside. LaMarcus Aldridge can easily hold his own against Lee, and the Bogut/Robin Lopez matchup is a coin flip. While Portland does not have a high-volume bench scorer like Iguodala, the second team of CJ McCollum/Dorell Wright/Steve Blake/Chris Kaman/Thomas Robinson tops the Warriors' second unit of Iguodala/Brandon Rush/Draymond Green/Shaun Livingston/Festus Ezeli. Kaman can exploit Ezeli's weak offensive game, Robinson has a terrific size advantage on Green, allowing him create havoc on the offensive glass, and McCollum and Wright can match Iguodala's scoring output.
Looking back at last season, Curry went berserk versus the Blazers, averaging 36 points per game. In the only game Curry did not break 30 against Portland (Nov. 23 at Golden State), Klay Thompson scored 30. Despite this, the Blazers salvaged a split series. If the Blazers are unable to keep Curry in check they will struggle. Forcing Curry into passing the ball instead and isolating Thompson has been an effective strategy for teams in the past, and the Blazers outside defenders have the lateral quickness to make that happen.
Either way, expectations are high of both teams this year and Portland cannot afford to overlook their rivals in Oakland.
-- Ryan A. Chase