Enemy: Portland Trail Blazers
Coach: Terry Stotts
Potential Starting 5: Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Lamarcus Aldridge, Meyers Leonard
Other Key Players: J.J. Hickson, Victor Claver, Sasha Pavlovic, Nolan Smith, Will Barton
Threats: Length, Face up ability
Grizzlies 2011-12 Record vs.: 1-2
It seems like a distant memory at this point, but it was only a short few years ago that the Portland Trail Blazers were expected to catapult into contention. With a core group of the emerging Lamarcus Aldridge, slick, smooth, Dwyane Wade-esque Brandon Roy, and what was believed to be an eventual return of Greg Oden, the Blazers figured to be one of the developing forces to be reckoned with for years to come. They had successfully picked themselves up from the p.r. black hole that was the “Jail Blazers” era, by cleaning house and building anew with youth. Not only were the Blazers a rapidly rising stock in the NBA market, but they were looked at by many with the same wide eyes that have shifted focus to the Thunder. Again, it was just a short few years ago that Portland was looked at as the model for smaller market success, by building through shrewd draft picks and draft-day transactions. Well the winds of fortune were not very kind to the Blazers, as the injury bug knocked them off the NBA’s version of the Oregon Trail, quicker than a snake bite and a case of dysentery. I’m not sure that there has been a team in the past few years that has been struck harder by injuries. Brandon Roy and Greg Oden were both basically forced in and out of retirement thanks to their knees, rocking the foundation of what was to be the promising Blazers’ future. So now it’s time for them to again do what they’ve done with some grace before: move on. Through the draft they brought home lottery picks Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard, and second round University of Memphis product, Will Barton. After the draft, they made an aggressive play for Roy Hibbert in attempts to fortify their post play, only to have it thwarted by the knowledge that Indiana would match. So ultimately, the Blazers rounded out their offseason by matching Nicolas Batum’s offer sheet with Minnesota, trading for Jared Jeffries and a few second-rounders, signing some leftover draft picks from previous years, and snubbing interim coach Kaleb Canales in favor of Terry Stotts.
Despite the health implosion of the Blazers roster in recent years, they have not been downright awful. The most reliable of the bunch is obviously their front-line. While they could really use a true big man, and would be ecstatic if 12th pick Meyers Leonard proves to be capable, they can get away with J.J. Hickson and Lamarcus Aldridge manning the post for the majority of the time in today’s NBA. Aldridge is easily going to be the key for this team, as a leader and performer. Aldridge can do it all, from rebounding to operating in the post, to stepping out to 20 feet. While he hasn’t been snagging as many headlines as some of his peers, he is easily one of the best power forwards in the game. The Blazers go as he goes, and have to be hoping he is full strength after having hip surgery. Hickson has bounced around teams in bad situations, from the post-Lebron Cleveland, to the “are they staying or are they going” Kings, to Portland, and has made the best of the opportunities, providing quality minutes at a bargain price along the way. Import big forwards Joel Freeland, and Victor Claver, who is more of a tweener, have not shown a large deal of upside of late, but figure to get a chance to prove themselves valuable on the NBA stage this year. On the wing, Wesley Matthews may be a bit overpaid, but is solid, and Nic Batum is leaving the fan base hoping that retaining him at his price was not a mistake. Batum is an athletic player with some potential and decent ability, but is going to have to step up a bit to be worth shelling out the big bucks for. Rounding out the Blazers outlook is possibly the most important piece to their puzzle: Damian Lillard. Setting the Summer League world ablaze, and snagging the co-MVP honors along with our own Josh Selby, Lillard displayed to the league what the Blazers saw in him on draft night. How this all translates to true NBA competition will take some time to flesh out, but as a fan, you have to like his potential to be a Monta Ellis-like assassin. In a league where exceptional point guard play has almost become the norm, much of Portland’s future hinges upon this guy’s development.
Last season, the Blazers were able to take two out of three games against us. One of those victories, however, was bolstered by Marcus Camby’s 22 rebound effort, and the other by a solid Raymond Felton showing with a little bit of Thabeet’s presence sitting on the bench. None of the above factors are with the Blazers this coming season. Looking at how our rosters stack up, Lillard appears to be the type that will elevate his game against Mike Conley. He’s bigger, protects the ball, and is comfortable with scoring responsibilities. However, Mike has the savvy to pick a rookie apart on the other end of the floor. Wesley Matthews likes to hoist the three-ball against us, and will make Tony Allen pay for gambling, but Tony’s gambles should pay off frequently enough to neutralize this. Nic Batum can go off on a given night, but can he outplay Rudy consistently? Aldridge is a tough handle for Randolph with his length, and we might not have much of an answer for that one, unless, the Blazers go smaller and play Aldridge with Hickson for much of the game. In this case, Marc can man Aldridge and his length (though he’ll still have issues stepping out to defend his jumper), and Zbo could pair up with Hickson. Bench-wise, Darrell, Mo, and the gang, provide the depth to trump the reserve unit that the Blazers have to offer, any day. So while things may be beginning to look up again in Portland, with a changing of the guard in the coaching unit, and the strength of our roster, I don’t expect it to be reflected in their record against us this year. Advantage: Grizzlies.