Tuesday Mailbag: April 12th

The Tuesday mailbag is officially blowing up. Not only did we match last week’s total with three questions, but they came from three different people! Two weeks from going global, I say.

Thanks to everyone who submitted a question. Let’s get to it.

What weakness of the Blazers do you see most being exploited in the playoffs?

The three things I can think of are: Size/interior defense, speed at point guard and depth. I was talking with a scout a month or so back that said, while he likes the Blazers and thinks they’re a great story, they simply have too tough a time guarding anyone down low to make a run. Obviously, Marcus Camby’s one of the better defensive centers to come through the league, but he’s getting older. And while LaMarcus Aldridge is having an All-NBA type year, he’s not a lock-down defender. True, Gerald Wallace adds size to the lineup, but one of the reasons the Lakers would be a particular tough matchup for Portland is because of that height on the front line(which is why the Blazers tried to exploit that size last week by getting out and running).

The next problem is having to defend quicker guards. Russell Westbrook of the Thunder most specifically comes to mind. His athleticism makes it virtually impossible for Andre Miler to guard him no matter how smart he might be, and once defenders have to leave the likes of a Kevin Durant, that’s when things can get messy. Tony Parker, Ty Lawson or Chris Paul can pose the same problem if there’s a first-round upset.

As for depth, well, if Nicolas Batum was in this reserve role all season, he might be taking home the Sixth Man of the Year award. But after him come Rudy Fernandez, Brandon Roy and occasionally Patty Mills, all of whom can be great, none of whom have been consistent.

But all that’s a good segue for this next question.

The #2, #3 and #4 spots seem to be not locked up by any team (Oklahoma City is right now 1 game behind Los Angeles, but I don’t know if they can actually catch them based on the tiebreakers). Which of the Lakers/Thunder/Mavericks would be the best opponent for the Blazers to face in the first round of the playoffs to get a shot at making it into the second round? Or would the Spurs be better should the Blazers fall to the 8th seed?

A couple weeks ago, three games separated the Lakers from the Mavericks for the No. 2 seed, and another three games separated Dallas from the Thunder for the No. 4 seed. Now the Mavs are up a half game on the Lakers and OKC is a half game behind L.A. (although the Lakers hold the tiebreaker over both teams.) It’s at the very least an interesting situation for the Blazers, who may desire a particular matchup but don’t know if winning will hurt or help their chances.

The first thing is —they should focus on winning. The next thing is…they should really hope to draw Dallas. Most of the weaknesses I mentioned above would evaporate in a Blazers-Mavericks first-round series. Jason Kidd, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, is by no means someone who’s going to blow by Miller. Center Tyson Chandler, while a major acquisition, is not a dominant post player, nor is power forward Dirk Nowitzki. Knowing that Dallas has won three straight, the Thunder five straight, and that the Lakers have dropped five games in a row, it’s weird saying L.A. is the one team Portland doesn’t want to face in the first round. But unless a championship is the only acceptable outcome for this franchise, I don’t think many Blazers fans would disagree.

As far as the Spurs go, that series seems highly unlikely at this point, but teams that have four titles and have won 60 games are never desirable playoff opponents.

What is the difference between this year’s team, which presumably won’t make it past the second round (in the most optimistic projections) and Blazers teams of the past that made long playoff runs? For example what does this team lack that teams like the 2001 and early 90s teams possessed?

Jared Cowley
Santa Rosa, California

Making me go Google here, are you Jared?

While those Portland teams in the early 1990s went to the Finals twice in three years, the closest the Blazers have come to winning a championship in the past 34 years came in 2000. That squad, in many ways, resembled this year’s Spurs. No player scored more than 17 points per game and only one (Rasheed Wallace) averaged at least 35 minutes. But they also had impeccable balance and depth: A speedy, capable point guard in Damon Stoudamire, a 3-point shooter who could create his own shot in Steve Smith, a veteran scorer/brilliant defender in Scottie Pippen, a power forward with speed, range and post-up skills in Wallace, a 7-foot-3 center with off-the-charts basketball smarts in Arvydas Sabonis — and Bonzi Wells, Detlef Schrempf, Greg Anthony and Brian Grant coming off the bench. They didn’t have the A-list celebs of that Lakers’ roster, but they were untouchable from top to bottom.

The early 90’s teams weren’t much different. Granted, Clyde Drexler played on a higher level than anyone above (unless perhaps you count Sabonis’ European years), but when surrounded by Terry Porter, Kevin Duckworth, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams and Cliff Robinson — it’s again a perfect example of balance. It’s what’s been working in Boston. It’s what’s working in Oklahoma City. It’s what isn’t working in Miami and what may ultimately cost the Heat a shot at the title.

The sad thing for Blazers fans is, with a healthy Roy and Greg Oden, this year’s team could have been another example of that top-to-bottom strength that guys like me would be referencing in 10 years.

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