So with Oden back healthy to make a top three that also includes Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, there are high expectations for Portland this season. And well there should be. Figure the Blazers to make the playoffs. At whose expense? Well, my guess is the Rockets or possibly the Suns.
Just over two months into the season it’s clear that six clubs in the Western Conference — the Warriors, Grizzlies, Clippers, Kings, Timberwolves and Thunder — are not going to even sniff the postseason. That leaves nine teams for eight playoff spots. Of those nine only Portland didn’t make the postseason last April, but Oden is worth wins and that enhances the Blazers’ chances of making it into the NBA’s second season this year. Portland isn’t ready yet to win the Northwest Division, but this young, talented team is ready to earn a playoff berth.
Phoenix is starting to figure things out after the Dec. 10 deal which sent Raja Bell, Boris Diaw and Sean Singletary to the Bobcats for Jason Richardson, Jared Dudley and a 2010 second-round pick. If the Suns continue progressing, they’re not likely to lose a playoff spot to the Blazers.
That’s not the case with Houston, not at this point in the season anyway. As we’ve seen in past years, the Rockets can’t seem to stay healthy. Already this season injuries have hampered Tracy McGrady, Ron Artest and Shane Battier, prompting the inevitable question: is Yao Ming next?
The Rockets hit a skid since just before Christmas. While their offensive woes can be traced at least in part to the injuries and the juggling of the lineup, it’s puzzling why their defense broke down. They’re not getting to the playoffs defending the way they did late last month and early in the New Year. Houston is no lock for the postseason and that opens the door for the rising Blazers.
Portland has a legitimate stud in shooting guard Roy, who is in his third NBA season. He started out by winning Rookie of the Year, followed that up last season by being selected to the All-Star team and all signs point to him being even better this season. A sore right hamstring which came on in late December has cost him some time, but the good news is an MRI on his surgically repaired left knee was negative.
Roy has been the catalyst to Portland’s improvement. In his rookie year the Blazers won 32 games after winning just 21 in 2005-06. Then last season a jump of nine victories to 41 wins. And Portland closed out the '08 portion of this season already having reached 20 wins.
Every season Roy has grown, both as a player and as a leader of the Blazers. He made a big leap from his rookie season to his second season. There is an air of confidence that Roy has not only in his game but in his teammates, and that makes the Blazers push themselves to a higher level of play.
Roy reminds me a lot of former Knicks great Walt Frazier. He’s very controlled, very smooth and knows what he wants to do all the time. He’s smart on the floor and extremely focused, utilizing his excellent court vision to make strong plays from all over the court.
Like Roy, Aldridge, who is averaging around 17 points per game, is in his third NBA season. The 6-foot-11 power forward has proven to be a legitimate impact player who has improved each season. He can score around the basket and also step out to drain jump shots from the perimeter. If you want to compare him to a player who when he was young was gifted like Aldridge is, the comparison would be to Rasheed Wallace.
Once Aldridge gets to the point where he can put the ball on the floor for a couple of dribbles and get to the rim in traffic, then he’ll be even a greater force than he is now. One thing he must work on is getting to the free-throw line more. Last season he averaged just four foul shots a game.
Aldridge has a very competitive attitude and he brings that to all facets of his game as he does more than just provide offense. He can run and he can defend. Unless he somehow gets sidetracked, he’s on his way to future stardom.
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