The Portland Trail Blazers are lurking in the Western Conference. They won 48 games a year ago before being Dallas’ first victim in the playoffs and with a nationally televised win over the LA Lakers on Thursday night, Portland is up to 5-2. Can the Trail Blazers keep right on blazing and become a contender in the West? Or is another #6 seed and early exit the most they can hope for. With the Notebook doing its NBA previews “on the fly”, as the early season develops, Portland leads up a group of four teams we look at today.
Gerald Wallace and LaMarcus Aldridge are a potent tandem at forward and it was their scoring that keyed the Laker win. Raymond Felton is a talented floor leader who can the offense flowing. The production from the two-guard spot is respectable enough, with Wesley Matthews and Jamal Crawford, one of the game’s best sixth me, sharing responsibility. Where Portland’s fate will be determined is up front. If Marcus Camby rebounds consistently and occupies the paint, the Blazers can advance in the postseason. If not, a finish like last year’s—decent, but nothing special—is the most they can hope for.
Elsewhere in the NBA…
Utah: The Jazz only won 39 games a year ago, and while they would be good enough to make the playoffs in the East (and in fact the win total itself would be higher in the East because of softer competition) it won’t hack it in the West, where Utah has got serious problems in the backcourt and no real scoring punch at forward with Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward. They get some serious work in the middle from Al Jefferson, but if this team is playing in late April, I will be stunned.
Atlanta: After 44 wins and beating Orlando in the first round of the playoffs, the Hawks are looking to build on that in a conference that isn’t very deep, but does have a tough glass ceiling to crack with Chicago and Miami. The Hawks play pretty good defense, but they need to do a better job of rebounding the misses they force and that falls on Al Horford. Atlanta has a good inside-out scoring combo with guard Joe Johnson and power forward Josh Smith, but they need better play both in the post and on the point if they’re going to even get to the second round again.
Cleveland: A 19-63 record was the result of LeBron’s departure for Miami. The Cavs used the #1 pick in the draft to take Duke point guard Kyrie Irving. In spite of only spending one year in college and having that marred by injuries, Irving is off to a god start and the Cavs have won four of their first seven. With only Irving and forward Antwan Jamison—a North Carolina man to pair up with the ex-Dookie in the backcourt—playing well, I don’t see how this sustains itself. But at least Cleveland has the building block to get back to respectability again. For all the heat that LeBron gets over his failure to win a title, it has to be noted that he somehow carried this franchise to the Finals in 2007 and more playoff advancement in 2008-10, in spite of the fact his supporting cast was immediately exposed as awful after he left. I’m no LeBron fan, but he deserves credit for this. And I don’t blame him for taking his talents elsewhere.