Anyways, moving onwards with what I'm actually supposed to be writing about here, I would argue that the Blazers are probably the 3rd best team in the Western Conference. Some would argue the Nuggets, some would possibly even argue the Jazz, but to me, the Blazers are definitely up there in terms of talent and depth. The youth of the Blazers also lends them a very viable in the long run. To me right now, the Blazers look kind of like the Lakers, minus Lamar Odom. I'm not really going to go very in depth about how and why, but if you really want to know, just ask me. I'm sure you can see it for yourself if you look hard enough. Anyways, let's get moving:
San Antonio Spurs
PG - Tony Parker, George Hill
SG - Roger Mason, Manu Ginobili, Malik Hairston
SF - Richard Jefferson, Michael Finley, Marcus Williams
PF - Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair, Marcus Haislip, Matt Bonner
C - Tim Duncan, Ian Mahinmi, Theo Ratliff
PG - Andre Miller, Steve Blake, Jerryd Bayless
SG - Brandon Roy, Rudy Fernandez
SF - Nicolas Batum, Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster
PF - LaMarcus Aldridge, Jeff Pendergraph
C - Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla
I'm not really sure about whether or not the Blazers signed any of their draft picks, but remember hearing something about Victor Claver not coming to the states, so for all extensive purposes I'm going to list Pendergraph there, since he's the next highest pick. However, if I'm Nate McMillain, I might toy with the idea of playing Outlaw at the back PF spot if Webster does come back healthy. Which brings about another question, is Martell Webster fully recovered from his injury? Webster was supposed to be the glue guy, the guy that would defend the opposition's best player and hit crucial threes when needed, like James Posey for the Celtics, like Shane Battier for the Rockets, but due to injury, he only played 5 minutes the entire season. Nicolas Batum then stepped up, and was able to deliver effect defense and decent offensive touches for a rookie. Naturally, I'm sure that Pritchard is still working to move both Outlaw and Blake somehow before the trade deadline, so the team could change pretty drastically, but all in all, the core of the team, and the general mindset offensively and defensively should be the same.
If you recall from last season, Portland was offensively, the most efficient and effective team in the league, despite running a snail-like pace. Defensively, there were a lot of deficiencies, but Portland is probably hoping for Greg Oden's development to solve some of those holes. If you haven't already, there are a couple of very good pieces at BlazersEdge on both Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge that you should read. While I wasn't a huge fan of the Andre Miller signing, Kevin Pritchard could've done much worse with the available cap space that he had, much worse. In terms of production from the PG position, Miller is much better than Blake, but it's yet to be seen if he's a great fit in the system, I think you can work around what he brings to the table, but he'll only fit to a certain extent. However as it has been for the last two seasons, the players that any team playing the Blazers have to watch out for are Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. Roy is a very crafty player, and the ability of his to create shots for both himself and teammates often draws him comparisons to the likes of Kobe Bryant, whereas LaMarcuas Aldridge's versatile game has likened him at times to the Spurs' own Tim Duncan.
I think this is one situation where matchups in the frontcourt might actually start proving to be somewhat problematic for the Spurs. While Oden is no David Robinson, I won't hesitate to say that the pairing of Oden and Aldridge is somewhat reminiscent of the heyday of the original Twin Towers (in 1999) of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. The primary difference being that I don't see Oden as being or becoming anywhere near as versatile as the likes David Robinson, even towards the end of his career. It goes without saying that if Tim Duncan had the opportunity to take Aldridge under his wing, and if Aldridge would've somehow become a Spur, I would've been drooling at the dynasty that the Spurs could have built, but alas and alack, it's but a dream. Back to the matchups, I think that if Oden starts showing flashes of something of an offensive game, we might have to just play size, unless McDyess can effectively contain Aldridge, I would expect Pop to put Duncan on him and put McDyess on the offensively less proficient Oden. If Ian Mahinmi's development isn't as far along as we would like it to be, especially on the defensive end, I can expect us to be seeing a fair share of Theo Ratliff in this matchup too. If we are to probe deeper into the bench on this matchup, San Antonio has more players, but Przybilla in and of himself is probably one of the better backups in the league. The issue then would be at the backup PF slot and if we could exploit that. The minutes are limited, but anything the Spurs can get is something. I wouldn't be surprised if he's not traded, for Nate McMillain to start playing Travis Outlaw at the PF spot at times to stretch the defense and to spread the floor. Running a smaller lineup of Miller, Roy, Batum/Webster, Outlaw, and Aldridge could cause a number of matchup nightmares for other teams. Outlaw is probably the closest thing Blazers have to a Lamar Odom type player right now. I don't know if Pop will try to match suit by playing Parker, Mason, Ginobili, and Jefferson next to each other or not, but again a lot of it depends on how well players like Haislip, Blair, and Mahinmi pan out.
The key in the backcourt will be for Pop to force McMillain to keep his scorers, namely Outlaw, off the floor. I think if it gets into a scoring match, Portland has enough firepower, youth, athleticism, and versatility to outgun the Spurs. A lot of it will depend on how much Batum's offensive game has developed, but Parker, Ginobili, and Jefferson all have to make the Blazers work on defense, make Brandon Roy have to play aggressively on wing defense, make the bigs pay attention when Tony Parker is cutting into the lane, make Nate McMillain have to keep Webster or Batum in the game instead of Outlaw's apathetic defense. It'll be difficult because there is so much firepower in that backcourt, with Blake and Fernandez coming off the bench as instant offense, the Spurs defenders will have to stay on their assigned players and resist the temptation to move over on help defense. While Brandon Roy is a proficient 1-on-1 player, Miller doesn't have enough of a well-rounded game to be as effective if you can stop him. The Spurs need to clog the paint and harass Miller into taking a lot of jump shots, one of the aspects of the game that he's not good at. Additionally, since Miller isn't great on defense, I can see Parker and Duncan attacking the paint a lot, a common goal of Popovich is to get the opposing bigs into foul trouble, and if Duncan and Parker can do that in the paint, it would be to their great advantage to saddle Oden and Aldridge with petty touch-fouls early on.
As has always been the case, despite the proficiency in defense, the offense just has to be running. Jefferson has been crucial in these matchups and will continue to be so. Richard Jefferson has to make the opposing defense work, making them either pay for ignoring him or forced to give him significant defensive attention thereby relieving pressure on Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan. While the same generally holds true for McDyess, his main goal is just to make open shots so the other big can't leave him to double Duncan. I mean, if Malik Rose could do a good enough job (see #1) then I trust McDyess to hold up the fort. While Duncan is getting older and the competition getting stiffer, he's still the closest thing to an automatic two points when he's in the paint. I can understand with how Duncan plays why his knees are starting to go, but he's still amazing despite that. While people like to cite Ginobili's health as an X-factor, where if completely healthy he's nigh unstoppable, I would like to point out that the biggest X-factor will be how the Spurs' youth movement pans out, while we know Parker, Duncan, and a healthy Ginobili will get their own, and that Jefferson and McDyess are both known factors, the question will be how well do Mahinmi, Blair, Haislip, Hairston, and Williams pan out. No one is asking anybody to be the next Bruce Bowen or Robert Horry, but if they can put out the same amount of defensive effort as say Stephen Jackson, Malik Rose, Rasho Nesterovic, or even Jaren Jackson, and then make their open shots, then the Spurs are on the right track. Aggressive, but smart, Pop hates dumb fouls.
Pic via NBA