It is that glorious time of year for sports fans where the NFL and NCAA football seasons are in full swing, the MLB playoffs are reaching a fever pitch, and NBA and NHL seasons are kicking off.
With Portland being largely a one-team-town, it is all about the Blazers. Despite the excitement of the season being dampened by a post-season sweep a few months ago and the untimely death of the franchise owner Paul Allen, the fan base will still fill the Moda Center Thursday night for the opener against the Los Angeles Lakers.
While I believe that the rivalry with the Lakers has been largely overstated by the fan base, the Lakers are now in the discussion of contenders in the Western Conference after missing the playoffs the past 5 seasons. Adding arguably the best player in the world to their team is a fairly simple way to get back to the playoffs.
When the two teams tip off against each other Thursday night in Portland it will be a team largely consisting of the same group as last year, and a team that has drastically changed over the last few months.
Let’s evaluate the likely starting lineups…
Damian Lillard vs. Rajon Rondo
Lillard is coming off a First Team All-NBA campaign and is looking to continue to be the face of the franchise in Portland. Lillard is building on what many see as the most impressive career of any Portland Trail Blazer in the franchises’ near 50-year existence. Lillard has career averages of 23.1 points, 6.2 assists, and 4.1 rebounds per game. He has the clear advantage in this matchup.
Rondo is entering his first season with the Lakers and was brought in to mentor and compete with Lonzo Ball. Ball will likely be the starting point guard for the Lakers this season but is still recovering from an off-season knee surgery. Rondo played last season for the New Orleans team that swept the Blazers in the first round and will look to build on that Thursday night against Lillard and the Blazers.
C.J. McCollum vs. Josh Hart
Both McCollum and Hart are great shooters from beyond the arc. McCollum has a career shooting percentage of 40.8% from beyond the arc while Hart shot 39.6% from 3 in his rookie season. McCollum is likely the primary ball handler behind Lillard after losing Shabazz Napier in free agency. Expect to see McCollum’s assist number and overall impact on the game increase from over the past few years. Even though Hart has a bright future in the NBA and the potential to get hot from the field, McCollum is the superior perimeter player.
Maurice Harkless vs. LeBron James
While it is still yet to be determined whether Harkless will be ready to play on Thursday with a left knee issue, he said on Wednesday “I’m preparing like I’m going to play.” Well congratulations and welcome back to the court, you get to spend the first game of the season trying to contain the best player of this generation. Every season it seems like there are stories about how this is “Harkless’ season” to breakout. Still only 25 years old, Harkless has the potential of being a gamechanger for the Blazers this season.
James is putting on the Lakers’ purple and gold for the first time in a regular season game on Thursday. If you don’t think that this is going to be a national spectacle, you are in for a surprise. James has transformed one of the most successful franchises in the league and infused the team city with hope after some of the leanest years in franchise history. James is the best player in any matchup.
Al-Farouq Aminu vs. Brandon Ingram
This is the matchup that I am most looking forward to in this game. Aminu is a defensive specialist and has helped transform the defensive philosophy for the Blazers, helping them in becoming the 6thbest defensive team in the league last season. While Aminu is limited offensively, he has enough tools to help Stotts’ flow offense work.
Ingram is cut from the Kevin Durant cloth and it the future of the Lakers. Last season he averaged 16.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game. Under the tutelage of James, Ingram is likely to become an All-Star caliber player.
Jusuf Nurkic vs. Javale McGee
Nurkic signed a 4-year contract with the Blazers over the off-season and looks to be the center that the team has been searching for the past decade. Nurkic is entering his 5thseason and is only 24 years old entering the season. At his full potential Nurkic could become an All-NBA defensive team player who averages 20 and 10. With his chemistry with Lillard and McCollum the sky is the limit for Nurkic.
Nothing to be said for McGee. I’ll let the following video do the analysis for me…