PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS PREVIEW 2011
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Portland finished 48-34 in 2010-11, a year in which Blazers cult hero Brandon Roy missed the first half of the season with a knee injury and LaMarcus Aldridge emerged as a premier power forward in the NBA. The Blazers made the playoffs as the sixth seed in the West, pushing the Dallas Mavericks to six games in a first round loss which included typical Roy heroics. The eventual champions later acknowledged that the Blazers were the toughest team they faced. Roy, who went into this season slated as the starter at the two, embodied that toughness, but his knees failed him again, forcing him to retire. Aldridge will lead the team this season, though he will miss much of training camp due to a heart procedure. When he returns, Portland will rely on a starting five composed of grizzled vet Marcus Camby, Aldridge, stat-stuffer Gerald Wallace, the hard-working Wesley Matthews, and offseason trade acquisition Raymond Felton, formerly of the Denver Nuggets, who replaces Andre Miller. Frenchman Nicolas Batum, a flexible backup, can man the two, three, or four effectively and could soon be considered a top sixth man in the league. The Blazers' lone free agent pick-up, Kurt Thomas, is a wizened frontcourt player who will provide defense and rebounding behind Camby and Aldridge. The rotation is rounded out by rookie point guard, Nolan Smith, a great all-around scorer out of Duke University who can guard both the one and the two. Portland has built a lineup with impressive depth and interchangeable parts that can adapt to whatever an opponent throws at them.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Despite his age, Camby should play 28 minutes per game at center, with 10 of the remaining minutes left to Thomas. When the Blazers decide to run with Felton in a small lineup, Aldridge should earn 10 mpg as Portland's center. If an injury afflicts either of the veterans, Aldridge can move into the center slot and take on a larger role, as he did a year ago when Camby missed 23 games. Meanwhile, Chris Johnson and Oden will find it difficult to see the court. The power forward spot will feature Aldridge, where he should log 30 minutes per game. Thomas and Batum should each see seven to 10 minutes as Aldridge's backups at power forward, and Wallace will grab the few remaining minutes. At small forward, Wallace should play his natural position for 35 minutes per game, with Batum earning the other 10-15 mpg. Luke Babbitt will take on any garbage minutes that remain at the three. Shooting guard is locked up by Wesley Matthews for 35 minutes each night. Batum will pitch in once again with 10 mpg at the two, with Elliot Williams seeing the remaining minutes. The starter at point guard is Felton, where he should average 35 minutes per game. Smith will earn 10 minutes per game as Felton's primary backup with Armon Johnson taking on the remainder.
Marcus Camby: The defensive-minded Camby, 37, achieved elite numbers by averaging 10.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in only 26 mpg in his first full season with the Trail Blazers. Despite missing 23 games, including a stretch of 16 games missed with a partially torn meniscus, Camby comes into this season fully healthy. The condensed 66-game schedule is sure to test the 15-year pro, but with a competent center in Thomas to ease his minutes, he may be able to stave off the nagging injuries that accompany an aging veteran like himself. If that occurs, Camby should contribute strong numbers in rebounds and blocks once again.
Kurt Thomas: Thomas is long on NBA experience, with 16 years spent plying his trade as a savvy defender and rugged rebounder. In 2010-11, the 39-year-old appeared in 52 games for Chicago, averaging 4.1 points and 5.8 rebounds in 22.7 minutes per game. As the result of Portland's only foray into free agency to date, Thomas' primary service will be as a backup to Camby at center and Aldridge at power forward. If Coach Nate McMillan manages his minutes well in such a condensed schedule, he could have value in very deep leagues.
Chris Johnson: The 2010-11 NBA D-League Defensive Player of the Year does not have a guaranteed contract with the Blazers, something he hopes to earn during an extremely short training camp. Even if he makes the Blazers squad, he's unlikely to see enough of the court to be of value in most fantasy leagues.
Greg Oden: Oden was cleared by his doctor to expand his basketball activities, only for the Blazers medical staff to determine the next day that he did not have a high likelihood of returning to the court this season due to a setback with his injured knee. His return is indefinite.
LaMarcus Aldridge: Last season, Aldridge established himself as one of the top power forwards in the NBA and became a remarkable post presence. Unfortunately (a word that Blazers fans have become too accustomed to hearing), he experienced a recurrence of Wolf-Parkinson-White syndrome this training camp, a heart condition that he became aware of as a rookie. Before the setback, he revealed that he was studying up on his new teammate, Felton, and working to get used to a low bounce pass that the point guard utilizes in pick-and-roll plays. Aldridge, who will miss much of training camp, should still be targeted in the early rounds of drafts as he looks to improve upon his line of 21.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, and 1.0 steals from 2010-11.
Nicolas Batum: Batum is a 6-8 super-sub at small forward who can also play the two and the four. After Roy's unexpected retirement, McMillan announced Batum as the primary backup to Matthews at shooting guard. Then, with Aldridge sidelined from training camp with a heart condition, it was revealed that McMillan had used a run-and-gun offense in practice with Batum playing power forward. These developments, as well as the Frenchman's successful stint with SLUC Nancy - 15.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 5.2 assists - in Euroleague play during the lockout, make Batum worthy of selection in the mid-to-late rounds of standard fantasy league drafts. He should also be helped by the departure of Rudy Fernandez this offseason.
Gerald Wallace: Acquired at the 2011 trade deadline from Charlotte, Wallace was forced to play out of position at the four during most of his time with the Blazes last season after Camby suffered a knee injury. He is now firmly entrenched in his natural small forward spot, even with Aldridge absent from practice following a heart procedure. McMillan has experimented playing at a faster tempo in training camp and has given Wallace more leeway to shoot threes. As a result, Wallace could produce an even more stacked stat line than normal.
Luke Babbitt: In 2010-11, Babbitt had a rather forgettable start to his NBA career - 27.3% shooting from the field, 18.8% from beyond the arc, and 33.3% from the free-throw line. He sits behind Wallace and Batum on the depth chart at small forward, though Babbitt could see playing time as a stretch four in some lineups. If he can regain the shooting touch that made him a first-round pick, the second-year player could be valuable in extremely deep leagues with offerings of three-pointers and rebounds.
Wesley Matthews: Roy's retirement benefitted no one more than Matthews. Drama appeared to be on the horizon for the Blazers with two capable starters for one starting spot. The sudden news, though, ensured Matthews' place as the Blazers' starting shooting guard. Matthews, a tireless worker, has shot 40% from three-point range for his career and averaged 2.1 threes made per game in 2010-11. He also contributes better than average steals numbers, making him an ideal shooting guard to pick up in the middle rounds of standard fantasy league drafts.
Raymond Felton: The fortunes of the Trail Blazers fall on the shoulders of the quick and compact Felton, who was acquired by Portland in a draft day trade that sent Andre Miller to Denver. His leadership qualities and up-tempo style of play could lead to vast changes in Portland's typically slow and deliberate offense. Felton believes that Aldridge could develop the type of pick-and-roll chemistry with him that Felton and Amar'e Stoudemire had in New York last season. The point guard averaged 17.1 points and 9.0 assists with the Knicks before his involvement in the Carmelo Anthony trade. Felton could come close to replicating those numbers if Portland makes the transition to the faster paced offense that they've been experimenting with in practice and Aldridge returns to the court fully healthy from his heart condition.
Elliot Williams: The high-flyer was the 22nd-overall selection of the 2010 draft. He injured his right knee in November 2010, underwent surgery, and missed all of his rookie season. While the situation was unfortunate, Williams is still buried on the depth chart at shooting guard behind Matthews and Batum and is not likely to have value in most fantasy league formats this season.
Nolan Smith: Smith, a 6-4 rookie, hopes to avoid the pratfalls encountered by the Blazers' first-round picks from last year, Babbitt and Williams. He has a leg up on Johnson to win the backup point guard slot since he is capable of defending both guard positions. Matthews and Smith take up the bulk of those minutes, though, leaving Smith with little immediate fantasy value.
Armon Johnson: As mentioned previously, Johnson is fighting Smith for the role of Felton's backup. Optimally an off guard, McMillan considers the second-year guard to be more of a score-first point than one who sets up his teammates. Johnson averaged 2.9 points and 1.2 assists in 38 games last year in a role that diminished gradually as the season progressed. Unless he wins the backup role, consider Johnson to have little value in fantasy this season.
Nicolas Batum: Unlike last year, Batum will enter the season on the bench behind Wallace at the three. However, his flexibility, the compressed 66-game schedule, and the fact that his stats have gradually increased during his three years in the league, all point to a coming out party for the 23-year-old. Don't be surprised if Batum averages more than a steal and nearly a block while approaching two threes made per game, making him a high-value pick in the middle-to-late rounds of standard fantasy drafts.
Marcus Camby: Camby, who turns 38 this season, fell below two blocks per contest last year for the first time since 2002-03. The condensed schedule may take its toll, requiring at least one extended stay on the sidelines. For a player whose only valued stats are rebounds and blocks, Camby's outlook is dim.