Blazers ’10-11 Preview
30 teams in 30 days.
by Jonathan Evans
There was once a team set to take the proverbial next step and shake up the Western Conference elite. Led by a do it all wingman with a stretch four by his side this team raised the hopes for a city feening for a basketball winner. While that description certainly fits the Oklahoma City Thunder, it wasn’t too long ago that the Portland Trail Blazers were the upstarts on the cusp of breaking through the power structure out west. Now, after torn ligaments, broken kneecaps, and a host of other shortcomings have taken the shine off, the question is can Portland truly be a contender in the West? Or are they stuck in the playoff purgatory of being cool enough to be invited to the party but not cool enough for the after parties in May and June? They’ve been good enough to win 50 games in back-to-back seasons, and they’ve also been not good enough to get out of the first round each of those two years. Going into this season can we expect more of the same of the seemingly stagnant Blazers?
First there’s the givens. There’s Brandon Roy, the low key guard whose quiet exterior belies the fact that he’s arguably one of the 10 best players in the League, a two time all-NBA talent, and basically a walking 20-5-5. There’s the smooth offensive game of LaMarcus Aldridge. There’s the steady point play of Andre Miller whose fit with the Blazers has been far from perfect, but better than most expected. There’s the stingy defense of Nicolas Batum. There’s the deep bench flaunting a suddenly homesick but still dangerous Rudy Fernandez, the explosive Jerryd Bayless and newly acquired Wesley Matthews. All in all the Blazers have a talented roster that is in great shape to contend for the Northwest division title and home court advantage in the Playoffs. But for the Blazers, moving deeper in the Playoffs hinges on staying healthy and getting improvements from key players.
Last season the Blazers suffered injuries to 13 different players and if this preseason is any indication, Jeff Pendergraph’s torn ACL shows that injuries are still very much a part of life for Portland. While losing a guy who was at best contending for backup minutes at the 4 isn’t going to shake up any power rankings too much, it’s still yet another reminder of just how snake bitten these Blazers have been.
Of course one can’t talk of the Blazers and injuries without mentioning Greg Oden who has played just 82 games in his first three seasons. Before fracturing his kneecap in December of 2009 it looked as if Oden was finally starting to put it together and be a productive force in the paint. If he can get on the court, stay on the court and eventually develop something resembling fluidity, he can still avoid joining Kwame Brown and Michael Olowakandi in the annals of draft busts. With reports of his knee still swelling the jury may still be out on Oden until Christmas. Smartly new GM Rich Cho and the Blazers are moving forward without Oden, seeing him more as icing on the cake rather than a critical component of the team. In Marcus Camby and Joel Pryzbilla there’s enough frontcourt depth to lock down the middle for Portland.
Looking at the bench, it should be interesting to see how the play of Matthews impacts that of Rudy Fernandez who suddenly wants out of the NBA badly. While his recent comments have affected his wallet, they certainly haven’t affected his play. The petulant Spaniard has been tremendous in the preseason hitting from deep and giving Portland a big scoring punch off the bench. Cho and McMillan might want to try and make Oregon feel more like Spain because Fernandez brings an open court game that the Blazers are in need of.
Perhaps no player symbolized Portland’s purgatory as much as LaMarcus Aldridge. The finesse four put up 17.9 points and 8.0 boards per game last season. Nice enough numbers to grab your attention but not quite enough to truly put a scare into anyone. After three seasons of the same production, the time is now for him to move from promising youngster to legitimate nightly threat if Portland is to truly contend. Answering the call – surely much to Lang Whitaker’s amusement – Aldridge gained 20 pounds of muscle this offseason. He’s reportedly been working to add some much needed power to his game and further develop his post up arsenal in hopes of shaking off the soft label that’s dogged him his whole career. If this work can propel him to 20-10 status it can give Portland the legitimate 1-2 punch needed to take on the heavyweights in the west.
Night in night out, you know what you’re going to get consistent excellence from BRoy. Its Aldridge whose name brings up the ifs and buts of yet fulfilled potential. If Aldridge becomes a steady, legit presence then the dynamics of Portland change. We’ve seen that Brandon can single handedly lead the team pretty far. Going from a singular star to an All-Star tag team — and potentially a triumvirate with the ever improving Batum – means a lot more trouble for opposing defenses, a lot more easy buckets, and a lot more meaningful games in May and June.
Previous Season Previews can be found in the archive.