The Portland Trail Blazers open their 2018-19 campaign mired in a great deal of uncertainty, short-term and long-term. After a summer of stagnation and amid an autumn of loss, in a stretch of the most beautiful weather we’ve had in a long time (sunny and a constant 72 degrees is welcomed by almost everyone, especially in October), Rip City returns.
The joy of basketball is offset somewhat by that uncertainty I mentioned. In the short-term, the Blazers have fallen out of favor with many pundits and observers. They see the improvements of the Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies, see the potential of the Denver Nuggets, and the powerhouses at the top of the Western Conference and think that the Blazers are overmatched. Outclassed. Staid. Predictable.
There are as many as 11 teams that could reasonably make the playoffs in the West this season, but there are only eight spots. And the lines separating that middle classes of the West are so thin, so fragile, that even tiny improvements can make a huge impact.
Every team of consequence in the West got better in the offseason, except perhaps Houston. The Rockets won 65 games last year, however, and have the reigning MVP in James Harden. They’ll be fine.
The real question is, did Portland get better? The general consensus—and my personal opinion—is no. Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas are replacement-level fodder similar to Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton, and the Blazers lost Ed Davis. Davis’ minutes are going to Zach Collins, which is good, and Meyers Leonard, which is not good.
It can be argued that the Blazers may have gotten a little worse, if anything. In this year’s West, they’ll face an uphill battle to even make the playoffs—with their reward probably being an opportunity to get destroyed by the Golden State Warriors, yet again.
The short-term issues pale in comparison to what happened on Monday. Paul Allen, the owner of the Trail Blazers and co-founder of Microsoft, passed away at the age of 65 from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Cancer is an insidious beast; I lost my father to brain cancer three months ago, a disease that also claimed my grandfather and Dad’s adult nephew Randy.
Among the many questions that sprung up after Allen’s sudden passing (he’d announced that the cancer had returned just two weeks prior to his death) are what’s going to happen to the Trail Blazers. Right now, Vulcan, Inc., the company Allen founded to manage his many holdings, holds the franchise in trust while Allen’s estate auctions it off; Allen’s sister declined to assume ownership of the team.
While the lease on the Moda Center doesn’t expire until 2025, the person or group who eventually acquires the franchise will hold its fate in their hands while the rest of us watch anxiously. We all remember what happened to the Seattle SuperSonics; the specter of some Seattle technocrat buying the team, then moving it up to Seattle to revive the Sonics, will haunt my dreams for a while.
The Moda Center itself may be another demerit toward a buyer keeping the Blazers in Portland. While the arena is only 24 years old, it was built just before the luxury-box boom that has altered the architecture of arenas ever since. By that measure, some people might consider it as ancient as the Roman Coliseum.
When the lease runs out, the owner might test the appetite for basketball in Portland by pressuring the City Council to fund a new arena. It would be a preposterous suggestion, but the super-rich live in a constant state of preposterous, even unassuming men like Allen and Warren Buffett.
As for the city itself, we can’t even afford to keep people from living in every street corner, public park, and greenway; there’s no way we could shell out $500 million or so for some asshat’s vanity project in Troutdale, Tigard, or Hillsboro. Hell, Allen himself contributed hefty funds to help build the then-Rose Garden.
The new owner(s) might be a decent enough person (people). There’s no way they could match the legacy, generosity, or fandom of Paul Allen. And that should worry everybody in Rip City as they mourn.
And on that dark note (I apologize for that, but I’m a realist), let’s get to the first Weekly Preview of the 2018-19 Portland Trail Blazers season.
(All games are available on 620 Rip City Radio.)
Thursday, October 17: vs. the Los Angeles Lakers, 7:30 PM, TNT
The Skinny: So, I don’t know if you’ve heard or not, but there’s this guy called LeBron James. You might know of him: multi-millionaire, emerging media mogul, mastermind of multiple philanthropy projects, best basketball player in the world (some say the best ever). He happens to play for the Lakers now. Yeah….
I’ve been told that the lure of LeBron’s first regular-season game in a Lakers uniform has drawn a swarm of media members to Rip City, which is not surprising in the least; James has been a media circus ever since his first season, way back in 2003. This first game of the season may be the Blazers’ home opener, but make no mistake: This is LeBron’s show.
As for the basketball part of things, James has a weird supporting cast in youngsters Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram, as well as veteran misfits Javale McGee, Lance Stephenson, and Rajon Rondo. This team was slapped together just for it to be pulled apart at a moment’s notice, since the vets are all on one-year contracts, but LeBron will still use all his considerable talents to bring it together. He may not be as obviously alpha-dogish as Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant were, but he still demands excellence and expects his teammates to deliver…or else.
That might cause issues with the younger players on the Lakers, but this is the honeymoon phase of the season for them. Any issues regarding play or effort will arise in January or February—the dog days of the NBA season—rather than in October or November.
Matchup to Watch: LeBron James vs. every Blazer on the court. It takes a village to stop James, both shooting and passing. Al-Farouq Aminu will likely be on the ball when he has it, but Jusuf Nurkic must be ready to help out on drives, and the other perimeter players—especially Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum—need to close out on open shooters quickly. Any moment of laziness on the Blazers’ part will be punished by James, even if he’s only about 60 percent engaged.
Prediction: I’m going to say the Lakers take it. The Lakers’ curse in Portland may have applied to Bryant, but James has had great games in the Northwest his whole career. He’ll shrug it off, especially today.
Saturday, October 20: vs. the San Antonio Spurs, 7:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: Losing Dejounte Murray, the Spurs’ young point guard, to an ACL injury for the year hurts, and hurts very much. After letting franchise icon Tony Parker go this offseason, the Spurs could ill afford having what just happened to them happen to them: losing a perimeter player to injury.
The offense may not suffer so much, I think; the ball would be primarily in the hands of DeMar DeRozan, the guy the Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green for. LaMarcus Aldridge might have a tougher time getting fed in his office on the high post, but Murray was a work in progress in terms of passing and distributing. Aldridge is so long, and Gregg Popovich is so good at scheming his players into their sweet spots, that whoever feeds him the ball will have an easy time of it anyway.
On defense, Murray is a long-armed pest who has some Jrue Holiday in his game. Imagining him with Leonard and Green flanking him on defense, long arms and huge hands flailing everywhere, is scary. Alas, we’ll never get to see the Spurs’ vision come true. I’m not sure Pop would have let Green stay on the court long enough, anyway.
The long-term prospects for San Antonio are not great, but they should still be capable of making a good account of themselves this season. As for what comes after, that’s up to the folks who take over from Popovich, both on the bench and in the front office.
Matchup to Watch: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Al-Farouq Aminu. Aldridge, as we all know, loves to park himself on the perimeter and shoot 20-footers. Nurkic, as we all know, is a plodding center who stays in the paint and is reluctant to chase players around the perimeter. Aldridge’s days of running around were done years ago, but given what we know about Portland coach Terry Stotts’ defensive tendencies, I expect Aminu to get the assignment on LMA, with either Collins or Leonard (gulp) to take over when Chief needs a breather.
There’s no bothering Aldridge’s jumper, but the key to limiting his scoring is making him take that turnaround from 20 feet, not 13 feet. Aminu’s strength is going to be tested a great deal on this night.
And please, Chief…make your threes.
Prediction: Blazers bounce back and defeat the Spurs, with Damian Lillard posting 40 points two nights after getting stymied by Ball and Rondo.