Philly center Spencer Hawes hanging out with new Blazer PG Raymond Felton at LaMarcus's charity game during the lockout.

A Big Ol’ Preview

Happy Boxing Day. I hope everybody had a great Christmas. Because I spent the last few days in an area without cable or much Internet access, I decided to wait until today to get my previews out, and since I partook in a familial addiction to Downton Abbey—a BBC/PBS collobo that I highly recommend—tonight will be my first taste of real NBA basketball in this post-lockout era.

I did see the video TNT led-off with last night. I have to say, I’m impressed but not surprised. It makes sense that right off the bat the Association would go straight for the fans’ sympathy, and there’s no better way to generate sympathy than to hit you square in the nostalgia muscle.

I also saw some stuff about the Christmas Day games. Again, I wasn’t too surprised that the teams of the moment LA Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder won, and that Dallas—an old team that let a couple of pieces go and one retire—got served by the Heat. Boston and the LA Lakers would seem like surprises, but this is going to be a season that doesn’t favor the old. Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm asked on Twitter this afternoon when Laker fans should start worrying. Now would be a good time.

As far as the Portland Trail Blazers, their season jumps off tonight at the Rose Garden. It wouldn’t surprise me if some residents of Portlandia went straight to the RG following their present opening yesterday morning; camping out for the doors to open on the season for the first time. This city is ready.

So, to appease the preview gods, I’m going to give you a three-part preview. One thing that I would like to implement this season is a monthly preview. Just a quick and dirty breakdown of the month’s games, nothing too drastic, just an encapsulation of the upcoming slate of game, which the team should win, which they might lose, and what it means as part of the big picture. Because the first month of the season is only three games, I’m going to add my first month preview to my regular game-day preview, and to cap it all off, I’ll give you my season preview.

I’ll start with tonight’s game:

Game 1 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers vs. Philadelphia 76ers

Blazers: 0-0 (preseason 1-1; 2010-11 48-34)

76ers: 0-0 (preseason 2-0; 2010-11 41-41)

Game Details: Rose Garden Arena, Portland, OR. 7:00 PM. TV: KGW. Radio: KXTG (750AM)

Projected Portland Starting Lineup: PG Raymond Felton (#5, 6’1”, North Carolina), SG Wesley Matthews (#2, 6’5″, Marquette), SF Gerald Wallace (#3, 6’7″, Alabama), PF LaMarcus Aldridge (#12, 6’11″, Texas), C Marcus Camby (#23, 6’11″, UMass)

Projected Philadelphia Starting Lineup: PG Jrue Holiday (#11, 6’4’’, UCLA), SG Jodie Meeks (#20, 6’4’’, Kentucky), SF Andre Iguodala (#9, 6’6’’, Arizona), PF Elton Brand (#42, 6’9’’, Duke), C Spencer Hawes (#0, 7’1’’, Washington)

This is going to be an interesting kick-off to the season, and very little of the intrigue comes from Portland’s opponent. Philadelphia is an up-and-coming Eastern Conference Playoff team that has a history of giving the Blazers serious headaches. I’ll get to them in a minute.

What makes this game so interesting is the fact that it’s happening at all. There’s of course no need to re-hash what’s been thoroughly hashed—the lockout and stuff that falls under that rubric—but this season is going to happen at such a fast pace that every game is going to important. And because David Stern et al. made the financially wise decision to start the season on what is regularly the League’s early-season marquee night, there is no way that any team is ready to play good, NBA-caliber basketball on this 26th of December.

That means is that the team that messes up the least on Monday night will be the winner. Portland looked decent, not great, in a split with Utah in the “preseason.” Philly dispatched the Washington Wizards, or the Washington Professional Basketball Team as Joe House referred to them on the B.S. Report Closest to the Pin episode that I recommend everybody listens to both parts of, in the City of Brotherly Love and the Nation’s Capital. What does that mean? Not much, in my opinion.

Utah’s not a great team, gotten nominally less good by trading Memo Okur for some future Jazz; Washington is going to be a terrible team. But even subpar competition isn’t why two preseason games will bear little responsibility for the start of the regular season.

Professional basketball players that have the luxury of playing in the NBA care a lot about winning, and they also know when games do and do not matter. Apart from the last game of the season sometimes, or the last few or the last month depending on a team’s record, every game in the regular season matters, none of the preseason games matter. Not now, not ever. Sure, preseason is a good time to get lineups together and rosters down to legal levels, but winning doesn’t matter. And winning is what pro basketball players care about.

Tonight, winning is important. If Portland can flip the switch from sloppy basketball that doesn’t matter to what will be sloppy basketball that does matter before the 76ers do the same, they’ll win. If they don’t, they won’t. And if Portland can’t get right with the seriousness of the regular season in a hurry, they’ll be in trouble. There is not going to be a chance to adjust during the regular season. A four or five game skid means curtains.

Here are a few things I’m going to watch for tonight:

  • Philly’s young guys: As I said, the 76ers are an Easter Conference Playoff team, and they have a crop of young players that could be very good. None stands out more than Evan Turner. I kept him out of my projected starting lineup because he didn’t start Philly’s last preseason game. Turner might be one to watch for Most Improved Player of the season. He’s a big two guard, he can handle the ball, and he can create his own shot. His problems at this point are mostly mental—if you don’t believe me follow him on Twitter—and court time might be able to change that. Coming off the bench in the 76ers second win over the Wizards, Turner logged 31 minutes and scored 13 points. If he’s a sixth man on Monday, Portland will have to key on him. If he starts, he could give the Blazers nightmares in one-on-one defensive matchups. After Turner, the guys to watch out for are Jrue Holliday—some Pac-10 12 hoops fans might remember him from UCLA if they don’t watch East Coast NBA games—a speedy and capable point guard that still needs seasoning; Jodie Meeks, another backcourt player with a big upside; and Marreese Speights, an inside presence with a variety of skills to draw from under the hoop.
  • Philly’s old guys: The 76ers have a bunch of guys with some miles on them that can still play, and have hurt the Blazers in the past. Starting with Andre Iguodala. Another Pac-12 guy, Iguodala is always about to be traded, sometimes even to Portland. Through it all, he’s managed to stay pretty consistent, and pretty good. Iguodala will shoot more than he probably should, and might get a fast break, highlight reel dunk. It doesn’t sound like much, but if Portland’s not careful he’s the kind of player that can kill them. Elton Brand has 12 years in. Like Iguodala, at this point he’s a known entity. Portland’s biggest hole at this point in the season is lack of depth at the frontcourt position. If Brand makes LA work on the defensive end all night that could limit his offensive effectiveness. Brand is not super consistent though, and he will probably have to defend LaMarcus a lot, which should wear him down. Louis Williams isn’t as old as Iguodala and Brand, but anybody that came straight out of high school at this point counts as a veteran. Sweet Lou is a hard variable to control for. He’s a shooter, so the Blazers’ defense will have to focus on him when he’s in. But he’s also a good playmaker, so there’s that to consider too.
  • Which team wins the hustle game: Monday will be sloppy. There will be a ton of turnovers, the ball might get dribble off some feet, somebody will catch the ball in the corner with both feet firmly out of bounds. The team that makes up for these errors with hustle will win. Hustle meaning offensive boards, steals, free throws, blocked shots, stats like that. If Portland wins the free throw line they’ve got a great chance.

Month of December Preview

So this is the new thing I’m going to try. At the beginning of each month I will run a quick breakdown of Portland’s games, highlighting a few, just to help get a sense of the big picture as it develops. I haven’t landed on a format, but I’m going to try it like this:

Number of Games: 3

Game Breakdown: 12/26 vs. Philadelphia, 12/27 vs. Sacramento, 12/29 vs. Denver

Games to Watch: All of them. This season is going to be about fast starts. Portland’s season won’t be over if they drop one, two, or all three of their first games, but since it’s a home stand, and holding home court is important, the Blazers should be disappointed if they don’t come out of the first week 3-0.

Game of the Month: 12/29 vs. Denver. A lot of people are going to be hyped for opening night, since it’s opening night, and Tuesday will be the second professional basketball game played by Jimmer Fredette, but the game of the month is easily going to be the Denver Nuggets first appearance at the Rose Garden. In my schedule preview I selected this game as one to watch since it will be Andre Miller’s return to Portland. Since then this game has gone up a notch in importance. It will also be Rudy Fernandez’s return to Portland.

Dre will get a standing ovation, I’d bet my two copies of Paul Allen’s memoires on it. Rudy? Who knows. To be honest, I thought that he wasn’t even going to come back to the NBA after Portland traded him in the offseason, not to mention after Dallas traded him after the lockout ended. I was a huge fan of Rudy in his rookie year. After the injury he sustained at the hands of Trevor Ariza, and his play and behavior started to spiral, I held out hope that he would get better. He can be a good, or even great, NBA player. It will be quite a thing to see how he responds to the Rose Garden crowd. He’ll either go off and hit like eight threes, or he won’t make it out of the tunnel. We all know what Dre is going to do; make everybody in the crowd miss him even more than we already do.

Prediction: 2-1. I’m not saying which one Portland will lose. I doubt it will be opening night, and the Blazers shouldn’t lose to the Kings. Ok, I think Andre Miller and Rudy Fernandez are going to have the last laugh, running the Blazers out of their own house.

What does it all mean?: Not a whole lot. After three games, Portland will at least know how they play together in game speed situations. Hopefully they’ll be on the way to getting their sea legs. November starts in Dunk/Lob/Alley-Oop City, and has a lot more than three games.

Season Preview

Ok, I’ll keep this pretty short, or at least as short as I can. The shortened season is going to be tough on everybody. The teams that will do the best will first be the young teams, and second will be the deep teams. Oklahoma City is the closest to having both things, youth and depth, and that’s one of the reasons they are the out-and-out favorite to take the West and maybe the title.

I’m not going to make those kinds of predictions. I do think OKC is going to be at or near the very top of the league. A return trip to the Conference Finals feels almost like a conservative prediction. But I’ll leave full league previews to those more qualified.

As for Portland. They aren’t young, but they are remarkably deep. Barring injury—KNOCK ON WOOD—Portland can go 10 deep. The Blazers start a great group of scores and defenders. Pulling Jamal Crawford and Nicolas Batum off the bench will be huge. Craig Smith will break some people’s faces, Kurt Thomas can and will be an effective backup power forward, Chris Johnson can bring a lot of stuff to the post positions, and Nolan Smith will probably turn into a formidable fourth guard. After that, Elliot Williams will have at least one big night, and there’s a slight chance that Greg Oden will play at some point. Portland will win some games on depth alone against teams that can go only six or seven deep and are on the second night of a back-to-back or the third night of a back-to-back-to-back, or the last night of a four-games-in-five-nights ad nauseam.

How many games Portland wins on depth remains to be seen. The Blazers won’t make the leap into the upper reaches of the West because of a long bench, though, that’s for sure. What this team needs to do is gel. And they need to do it fast. Nate McMillan has talked about giving Gerald Wallace some more freedom. That’s good. He’s showed early confidence in Jamal Crawford, that’s also good. He, for the first time in a long time or maybe ever, has a veteran core that understands what it takes to win in the NBA. Again, good.

The Blazers will once again fall apart should injuries become a problem yet again. But at this point, that’s a given. My brief prediction is this. Portland will win some big games this season. I imagine that they will get wins against a few high profile teams—maybe Miami, hopefully the Lakers.

I also think there’s a good chance they’ll lose a couple they should win. Some of the Blazers’ major minutes players are getting a bit long in the tooth. There is no doubt in my mind Portland runs up against a team with five or six guys born in the 1990s at the end of a wicked stretch of games and just gets out fitness-ed.

The hope is the team’s depth will help limit those occasions. Also, every team is going to play the same type of absolutely insane schedule. There are a lot of teams older and less deep than Portland. The damage should be limited overall because a few teams that might finish ahead of the Blazers in the conference (Dallas, San Antonio, LA Lakers) will have to take nights off just to make it through the season.

Prediction: 40-26. Forty wins is the equivalent of 50 wins this season. I think Portland has a 50-win type team. Because this win number is not based on any kind of crazy mathematical equation that includes all the records of every other team in the NBA, I don’t know where 40 wins puts Portland in the Playoff picture. My guess is finishing 40-26 gives Portland the fifth or sixth seed. Not great, not home court, but still in there. A good first round draw, and I think this could be a great chance for the Blazers to slay that first round Albatross.

email me: [email protected]

Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject

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Tags: 76ers Blazers Chris Johnson Craig Smith Elliot Williams Gerald Wallace Jamal Crawford LaMarcus Aldridge Marcus Camby Nicolas Batum Nolan Smith Raymond Felton Regular Season Wesley Matthews

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