- I want to clarify: this upcoming declaration is not rooted in baseless, reactionary compulsions. After a couple of weeks of blistering basketball, I’m prepared to claim that I think the Portland Trailblazers look like the team to beat coming out of the Western Conference. In no other organization out West remains such a collection of roster depth, superstar-level talent, experienced and battle-tested coaching, infinitely rich ownership and a beyond healthy home-court advantage, and none of that even takes into account changes to the team’s general makeup that have pushed it over the edge from “possible contender” to “frontrunner” status this season. While the addition of Jamal Crawford may have seemed short-sighted to those of us NBA observers who knew all of his gunning, relentlessly frustrating limitations, the Blazers appeared well aware of the dynamism his long-range shooting and playmaking abilities would bring to this squad, one which seemed destined to cause damage in last year’s playoffs prior to a surprising exit at the hands of the soon-to-be-champion Dallas Mavericks. Bizarrely enough, the Mavs’ title team represents the ideal template for what Portland could do deep into this year’s abbreviated season: a pick-and-pop attack based around a dangerous outside shooter of a big man strong and large enough to punish any undersized defender that would dare take his post-up abilities for granted, surrounded by top-rate shooters (although, as Zach Lowe pointed out, taking an unhealthy amount of deep two-pointers) and a wing who can operate on the perimeter, on the block or gobbling up offensive rebounds. Given the addition of Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby’s enduring presence in the middle, the parallels to Dallas’ miracle struggle toward the ring run through and throughout, except for a couple of key differences that are actually in Portland’s favor: speed and youth. While Dallas’ multi-pronged assault from the pick-and-roll came at other teams slowly and methodically, the Blazers, easily the slowest team in basketball throughout the Brandon Roy era, power the ball across the floor, playing at the league’s fourth-fastest pace in this short season (Dallas played the league’s 19th fastest pace last year and 10th in the playoffs). The replacement of Andre Miller with Raymond Felton has allowed the latter to test any opposing team’s transition defense when given an opportunity, of which he was spotted many by a seemingly step-slow Lakers D Thursday night. This change has given a team that had a solid, well grounded half-court attack a new offensive weapon that just might be the difference between this campaign and past ones come postseason time. As for youth, Portland’s top eight players in terms of minutes played, outside of the two veteran centers Thomas and Camby, are all under the age of 32, and that number drops to 30 when X-factor Crawford is excised. The Blazers look like everything a title team should be: stout on defense, solid in the half-court and explosive on the break, with depth and a superstar capable of dragging them out of logjams. Don’t be surprised if this year’s Western Conference title runs through that noisy Rose Garden that America just saw bother the Los Angeles Lakers to no end.
- Our own Kyle Lowry, the one with the puppy-dog face and tenacity of a giddy child, accused of battering a woman? Of course, in the midst of a season that seems quickly headed for a middling lottery pick (is that a good thing? Isn’t that what we want, sort of?), the Rockets’ only semblance of a bright spot has quickly dulled as the stud point guard was formally charged with one count of misdemeanor battery in Vegas Thursday. I kind of wish I had more to say about this besides, “What in Christ’s name else could go wrong?”, but even that invites the kind of “luck” for which this team’s been famous in the last few years. Perhaps this will lead to nothing, but it’s certainly strange that Lowry’s been playing throughout while waiting for the other shoe to drop.Work can be a man’s sanctuary in a time of crisis, but no one could be happy that the climax of said situation comes concurrently with his or her own peak of personal success.
- Looking at the league’s top 10 defensive teams can be downright befuddling at the beginning of this season, even though the vast majority of the list makes perfect sense. Orlando and its human pendulum round out the list, topped by Philadelphia, Indiana, Miami, Chicago, Milwaukee and other teams with sterling defensive reputations. But at the top of this list? The Denver Nuggets. What statistical aberrations a few games playing the selfish Kings, flailing Mavericks and confused Jazz can produce, but still, something strange must be brewing behind a George Karl team leading the league in defense even just two games into the season. Given the losses of well reputed defenders Kenyon Martin and Wilson Chandler to Far East, a Nuggets D that had not ranked in the top 10 for years seemed less than primed to make the jump this year. Alas, after a closer viewing of the Nuggets against the Kings Wednesday night, little was clearer than that the effort of the Nuggets has changed. Against a team ready and prone to taking bad shots, Denver’s perimeter defense shined, chasing shooters off of their spots and (more often against a team full of mindless gunners like Sactown) putting the hands in the faces of all men daring to pull up for one behind the arc. Add to that center Timothy Mosgov’s nimble feet that are more than capable of showing hard on PNR plays before getting back to his assignment, and suddenly the Nuggets’ emergence, at least given the competition, is less surprising. Still, let’s hope that calms down before the mighty Northwestern Division soon swallows this entire conference whole.
- Where the hell is Marcus Morris? Chase Budinger’s experience makes sense to ensure the volleyballer the starting spot, and Terrence Williams needs to get as many reps in as possible before he is piled onto the rest of the screw-ups and jokes from the 2009 NBA Draft class sitting on Houston’s bench. Still, Morris looked to be a major part of the rotation coming into the season, especially after that breakout preseason game against San Antonio, but somehow high-flying white boy (sound familiar?) Chandler Parsons has found his way into a lineup desperately lacking a true wing. As Morris waits patiently on Houston’s pine, I can’t help but wonder exactly what the hell happened to the kid or whether Kevin McHale’s good graces are really that fickle.
- After gobs of Rockets bashing, let us all remember when giant stars roamed the Toyota Center floor through the inspiration power of David Banner’s new single, “Yao Ming”. *****, may we all be as tall as Yao Ming.
Catch me on Twitter @JacobMustafa and in this weekly notebook every Friday. Thanks for spending your time here.