Tuesday, October 31, 2006

:: Portland : Could the Blazers manufacture a massive turnaround? ::

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The Portland Trail Blazers finished last season 21-61.

Even the New York Knicks, the haven of all that is failure (if you belive the media) finished with two more wins than the Blazers. Third last? The Atlanta Hawks -- the team that everyone loves to lambust with talk of poor personnel moves and a lineup solely consisting of 6'8" swingmen. Atlanta managed 26 wins.

The media will have you believe that this off-season has been as with any other in Trail Blazer recent history -- unrest, upheaval, lawlessness and fractured personalities. These Trail Blazers might just surprise a few of the pundits.

Joel Przybilla is talking playoffs. "It's a change. I can tell. I can sense it. We've got a lot of talent on this team. There's no doubt in my mind we can make the playoffs. Why wouldn't we?"

He's right. Why wouldn't they?

There has to be good reason as to why Przybilla, a highly sought-after free agent this past Summer, didn't sign with San Antonio or Detroit (amongst others). He could have been combining with Tim Duncan or Rasheed Wallace and looking at instant title contention. Obviously he saw something more in Portland -- the chance to build something great with a team from the bottom up.

The building blocks are in place. The Blazers have the perfect coach to suit a young team looking for structure in Nate McMillan. His defense-first, strict approach will ensure that the wayward young minds of the future cornerstones of this team's success are put in the right places.

A young low-post scoring presence in Zach Randolph. Randolph has once again worked incredibly hard over the off-season in losing weight and honing his body into the 20-10 player he should be on a nightly basis. He has shown over the pre-season that he is ready to roll. Take all of the media hype surrounding late night sexcapades and police pulling his car over with a grain of salt. Media hype is often just that -- hype. The boy may have made some questionable decisions off the court, but he certainly has been working hard on it.

A potential superstar and rookie of the year in Brandon Roy. Roy's style perfectly complements the inside skills of Z-Bo with a pentrating, creative guard who is just as comfortable manning the point as scoring at the two spot. It's too early to expect too much from the rookie, but early indications have a lot of people excited in Portland. Numbers like 15-4-4 this season are far from outrageous estimates.

A solid stable of big men with differing skills to ensure that Portland will never be wildly outmatched down-low, no matter who comes to town. Przybilla provides a legitimate center who can block shots, rebound and knows his limitations. And as his off-season signing shows, he has commitment to the Trail Blazer cause and wants to make this team win. Jamaal Magloire's acquisition in the off-season from Milwaukee means a big body can be brought in off the bench with a scoring touch and an ability to rebound with the best big men. Magloire has proven that as a starter he is a double-double waiting to happen. He will get plenty of opportunity to prove himself in Portland. Raef LaFrentz's acquisition from Boston gives a different look again, as he can hit the outside shot. This gives either Magloire or Randolph to work in the low block, spreading the floor on offense.

LaMarcus Aldridge is the almost forgotten factor this off-season. The #2 overall pick in the NBA Draft, at 6'11" provides an exciting future for Portland. His shoulder injury and subsquent surgery is a setback to his start, but given the depth the Blazers have up front, this season is likely to be a learning process more than anything for him regardless. Most lottery picks are thrown in at the deep end with outrageous expectations, but Aldridge's tutelage will be more of a battle for minutes. His time to play will come in the near future and he will have had the right amount of 'on-the-job' training to be ready for it.

Martell Webster and Jarrett Jack are perhaps the two biggest unknown quantities on this team. Both will be given significant minutes -- likely as starters -- in which to shine. Jack's ability to handle the point will often determine how the Blazers fare from night to night. So far he looks like he will be solid. Just what this team needs. Webster's outside shooting brings a balance to the squad's inside power and similarly, his form will have a big effect on the Blazers' fortunes.

Darius Miles is another of the media's poster-boys for all that is wrong with the Blazers. He comes into the season injured, meaning that Webster and Travis Outlaw will take most of the minutes at small forward. When his head is in the game, Miles is a spectacular scorer. There is still every chance that the Blazers will look to trade him where possible.

Two young backup point guards in Sergio Rodriguez and Dan Dickau, give the team some other options should Jack be unsteady. Meanwhile, the feel-good story of the off-season, Ime Udoka has made the roster for opening night. On the form he has shown in the pre-season, he may well be given minutes at the three. Canny scorer Juan Dixon provides another threat off the bench at shooting guard -- a luxury the Blazers may not need to employ too often if the youngsters are doing their thing.

All of this makes for a very well-rounded team. Are the playoffs out of the question this season? Not at all.

The Blazers may possibly manufacture one of the best re-ascensions to prominence in recent NBA history with a move from last place to a playoff berth in 2006-07. The way I see it, there is really one spot in the Western Conference eight that is up for grabs and Portland may just have their eyes set on it.

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