Most NBA analysts aren't expecting much out of the Portland Trail Blazers this season.
And maybe that's for the best. The Blazers are, after all, in the midst of a giant rebuilding project, with a new coach and a host of new players heading into the 2012-13 campaign, which kicks off Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Rose Garden.
Meanwhile, I'm looking at this roster, and the returning talent, and seeing no reason Portland can't slip into the playoffs this season.
I know, it sounds crazy, but I'm not alone. ESPN's Bill Simmons sees the Blazers "winning 41 games and being the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs" this season.
Yep, we're talking about playoffs.
I admit it sounds a bit far-fetched right now, considering all the new, young players who are in town. But remember that last season was, in many ways, considered a disaster for the Blazers, and yet they still had a shot at the playoffs down the stretch.
They wound up eight games behind Utah, which finished eighth in the Western Conference, but even after firing Nate McMillan and installing Kaleb Canales as interim coach, the math was still telling them they had a chance.
Portland ultimately couldn't make enough of a push at the end to extend its season, but circumstances are much different now. For starters, the failed Raymond Felton experiment is over, and in his place is a point guard many are considering a Rookie of the Year contender -- Damian Lillard.
This kid is the real deal, and stability -- and scoring -- at that position was one major key missing component last season.
Back are LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum, a great 1-2 punch. I'm a big fan of J.J. Hickson's after what he came in and did last season, and Wesley Matthews returns as starting shooting guard. Those four, with Lillard, make up a starting unit that looks solid with the potential to be great.
Yes, Hickson is a bit undersized at center, at 6-foot-9, but he's tough and can play the position, with 7-foot-1 rookie Leonard coming off the bench.
I'd like to see what sharp-shooting small forward Luke Babbit can do with a few more minutes, and it'll be interesting to see if point guard Nolan Smith takes another step forward this season. I'm also eager to see how Claver and Freeland develop over the course of their first NBA seasons.
There's a lot of talent on this roster, but much of it needs to be further developed. If that happens sooner than later, the Blazers will be a team with some nice depth, particularly at small forward and power forward, and one that can definitely slip into the playoffs.
Sources:2011-12 NBA Regular Season standings
Adam Sparks has followed the Portland Trail Blazers since the early 1980s, and has written about the team as a freelancer since 2009.
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