There are caveats to the Portland Trail Blazers' 2-0 record. Both wins have come in the comforting confines of the Rose Garden, where the Blazers went 30-11 last season as compared to 18-23 on the road. Neither opponent was elite: the Philadelphia 76ers came in as a low East playoff seed, a team that should crawl a few games over .500 if things go well. Tuesday's opponent, the Sacramento Kings, are young and promising, but primarily young.
But the way in which the Blazers have played, mixing the tough defense you know Gerald Wallace and Wesley Matthews will bring with the smooth scoring ability of LaMarcus Aldridge and deft shooting of Matthews and Nicolas Batum, mixed with able playmaking from Raymond Felton and Marcus Camby -- despite the caveats and despite the great misfortune of losing Brandon Roy forever and Greg Oden for a while longer, Portland looks like a real contender in the West.
Understanding Portland's 2010-11 season in intrinsic in assessing the team's 2011-12 chances. The team improved quite a bit last season after trading Joel Przybilla and Dante Cunningham for Gerald Wallace -- two low reserves for an All-Star, imagine that! -- raising their winning percentage from .571 to .615 and their average point differential from +0.8 to a very good +3.2. The key improvement came on defense, and the key improvement came from the team fouling much less than before. That's a two-pronged impact from the Wallace trade: Crash is a great defender who doesn't get whistled often, and the trade led to more Aldridge at center, where he's a good defender who never fouls.
In the end, over the full season, Portland's offense was better than its defense, which ranked No. 14 in the NBA. But the defense was improved with Wallace in place, and one assumes it will look better giving Crash's presence for a full season. It certainly held back Philadelphia in the opener, and it smothered a Kings attack that had, the night previous, giving the L.A. Lakers fit after fit. The Blazers' backcourt smothered high-scorers Marcus Thornton and Tyreke Evans, and Wallace and Aldridge joined forces to take John Salmons and Chuck Hayes out of the game with foul trouble.
On offense, the gameplan is clearly to set up Aldridge where he's effective, which happens to be almost everywhere. He's just lovely when he faces up, he makes brilliant cuts off the ball and rolling out of a screen to get free on lobs and he's a credible post force. In the small West, he could use more touches down low. When he's not setting up down there, Wallace should be. Not only is Crash stronger than nearly all of his match-ups at small forward and quite a few at power forward, he's actually a crafty finisher at the rim.
The other pillar of Portland's offense is three-point shooting, which they get from Matthews, who finished No. 7 in makes last season while hitting 40 percent. This is where the trade for Felton -- with Andre Miller and Rudy Fernandez going back to Denver -- helps: Felton isn't a great deep shooter, but he's much more credible from long-range, both as a threat and in execution, than Miller. Batum is a solid shooter off of the bench, and Jamal Crawford has hit plenty of threes over his career. If rookie point guard Nolan Smith, a good shooter at Duke, can add more shooting in his minutes, this squad could be much improved in that department compared to last season.
The bit of trade churn that remains concerning is the playmaking ability of the squad. Felton is hardly full of court vision, especially compared to Miller. Matthews, Batum and Wallace are decent passers, and Crawford has been playing the role of corrupted point guard his entire life. But this is where old man Marcus Camby has been very helpful thus far. Camby has 11 assists over two games, and we may forget that for a few seasons earlier in his career he averaged better than three assists per game. The playmaking pressure will largely rest on Felton's shoulders, but having Camby there to help run the offense out of the high post should help.
As with just about every team in the NBA -- the Heat and Thunder are the exceptions -- one major injury spells doom for this team. But so long as this roster is in place, Portland could be trouble for the rest of the West.
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