I’ve waited until the day of the regular season opener to write my season preview for two reasons.
First, I didn’t want to get caught in a James Harden situation, putting some thought and effort into an in-depth preview only to have to re-think the whole thing after a blockbuster trade or something along those lines. Second, I’ve held off on previewing 2012-13 until I’ve had a chance to read most of what’s out there, which I have now done.
So here’s what I have to say about what we might see over the course of this upcoming Blazer campaign.
I was thinking the other day about Blazer seasons that were similar to the one we are about to see. You don’t have to go back too far to find a Portland season that featured a trio of rookies playing heavy minutes, one of those rotation rookies being highly touted, two unknown foreigners, a budding superstar, and a potential All-Star.
You know what season that was? 2008-09. That season, Portland started the season with two foreigner players that were basically unknowns (Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum), three rookies that would feature significantly in the rotation (Batum, Fernandez, and Greg Oden), a rookie with Rookie of the Year potential (Oden), a superstar on the brink coming off his first All-Star Game selection (Brandon Roy), and an All-Star in the making (LaMarcus Aldridge).
If you’ve been tracking Portland’s roster this season, as I know you have, you can already see some of the obvious similarities between that roster and this new one. In 2012-13 the Blazers again bring in two relatively unknown Europeans (Victor Claver and Joel Freeland), a bunch of rookies (Claver, Freeland, Meyers Leonard, and Damian Lillard), one very high profile rookie (Lillard), one possible superstar (LaMarcus Aldridge), and a couple of guys auditioning to make that jump to the next level (Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews).
The biggest knock on the Blazers this season is the lack of depth on the bench, but Portland’s bench in 08-09 was nothing to write home about either. Fernandez turned out to be better in his rookie season than anybody expected, but the Blazers’ third leading scorer and the player who logged the third most minutes was Travis Outlaw. Also that season, Sergio Rodriguez played more than 1,200 minutes, the ninth guy on a nine-deep rotation.
How did the Blazers fare in 08-09? Well, if you remember they won 54 games, clinching home court in the first round of the Playoffs. Did anybody expect Portland to improve by 13 wins that season over their 07-08 total? Not that I remember. Were NBA fans surprised to see the Blazers as the number four seed? Also no. They played amazing basketball down the stretch, and given a more favorable first round match-up they might have avoided giving a great season an extremely disappointing end.
So, do I think this Portland team will be like the best Blazer team we’ve seen since the end of the Jail Blazer era? Let me be very clear, I do not. The comparison between the 2012-13 and the 2008-09 rosters is just my roundabout way of saying that anything is possible.
There are some marked differences between this season and Brandon Roy’s best season in a Blazer jersey. One of those major differences is Portland has no Roy. Aldridge is the superstar of this season’s Blazers, but he isn’t the kind of scorer Brandon was at his best. Another element unique to this upcoming season will be the working in of a new coach and a new system.
The core of Portland’s roster in 08-09 was going into year three of running Nate McMillan’s system. It can be speculated that the Blazers were as good as they were that season because players were maturing and mastering a system that was built to their strengths at the same time. Not even the most optimistic of Blazer fans can expect that same kind of thing to happen in Terry Stotts’s first season.
But just like there are differences between 12-13 and 08-09, there are similarities. In that season, as in this season, Portland was home to a first-time All-Star intent on proving they deserved being named as among the league’s best. LaMarcus is a legitimate All-Star with superstar potential should everything break his way. Brandon Roy was in the same situation in 08-09. All Brandon did that year was have his best season as a pro. Is that what we’re going to see from LA? I’m not going to guarantee it, but I also won’t be surprised when it happens.
There are other similarities too. Rudy Fernandez is now and will always be remembered for what he wasn’t able to do with the Blazers in the NBA. But before he was persona non grata in Portland he was a flashy rookie who could bring the Rose Garden crowd to its feet. He was also basically an unknown entity entering the season.
The Blazers have more than their fair share of unknowns on the 12-13 roster. Will one of them have a breakout season like Rudy did? As a rookie, Rudy played about 25 minutes a night and scored around 10 points a game. That will be a stretch for unknowns like Victor Claver, Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard, or Will Barton. There is a chance though that one of those four breaks out in a statistical category that wasn’t Rudy’s specialty. Rudy averaged only 2.7 boards a game. I could see Joel Freeland collecting more than three rebounds a night, banging in the paint, and making a name for himself in the NBA in the process.
Along with the similarities between 08-09 and 12-13, there are some things about this season’s roster that might actually be favorable. Reading from top to bottom on that 08-09 roster, Portland’s top five in per game minutes played, points scored, and field goals attempted were Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake, and Rudy Fernandez.
This season, Portland’s top five in those categories will likely be some combination of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wesley Mathews, Nicolas Batum, and J.J. Hickson: a push at the worst, in my opinion. As I said earlier, the 12-13 bench is rough, but I think it would be a fool’s errand to try and track down a Blazer fan who would choose Sergio Rodriguez over Ronnie Price backing up Lillard at the one.
So what do I think this all means for the Blazers in 2012-13? First and foremost, I think this season is going to a combination of some high highs (when the team is over-achieving and wins a big game or two) and lows that aren’t actually going to be so low (when the team shows it’s weaknesses and is on the wrong side of a blow out). To be successful this season, Portland has to win its winnable game and learn from the nights when they get run off the court by the NBA’s best teams.
I do think its possible for the Blazers to get on a streak and rattle off a couple wins. They’re that kind of team, young, motivated, and they don’t know that part of a multi-year rebuilding plan is being bad two years in a row.
So do I think this is a bad team? Yes and no. I don’t think it’s a good team, but they’re a team that is going to compete every night 82 times this season. They have a superstar in the making that apparently wants to stay in Portland. They have a very good rookie point guard who’s desire to prove himself every time he steps on the court is perfect for this team at this point in time. They have two guys in Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum who need to earn their contracts. And they have a guy in J.J. Hickson who has been written off but is playing for a free agent payday.
Again it comes down to the bench, but I say let them prove they can’t play before we decide that they can’t play. Luke Babbitt, Nolan Smith, Jared Jeffries, Ronnie Price, and Sasha Pavlovic are known entities, but Victor Claver, Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard, and Will Barton haven’t played a single regular season NBA minute between the four of them. Four untested rookies on the bench looking to get minutes isn’t a great place for any team to be, but instead of seeing the potential to lead this season down a rabbit hole of losses, I’m choosing to see plan old potential. Maybe I’m too optimistic. Quite possibly, I’m wrong.
And finally, for my prediction. Yes I think this team will struggle. No I don’t think this team will make the Playoffs. But I do think they just might be a little bit better than some people think. I’ll give them between 30 and 35 wins. If they reach the All-Star Break and they’re at or over .500, there’s a chance they do better.
There is, however, always a chance they’ll do worse. Six of Portland’s first seven games are against teams that made the Playoffs last season. Only four of their first 10 are on the road, but of those four one is at Oklahoma City and one is at Dallas. Their first six home games are against the Lakers, the Clippers, the Spurs, the Hawks, the Rockets (the only non-Playoff team), and the Bulls. It could get ugly in a hurry. If a rotation player goes down, the Blazers could go a week and a half before getting their first win.