Jeff at CelticsBlog has once again mobilized the network of NBA bloggers to produce previews of all 30 NBA teams this season. Here is the …a stern warning take on the Blazers this season.

Team Name: Portland Trail Blazers

Record Last Year: 41-41 (.500)

Key Losses: James Jones (Miami Heat – free agent), Jarrett Jack (Indiana Pacers – trade), Josh McRoberts (Indiana Pacers – trade)

Key Additions: Rudy Fernandez (rookie), Greg Oden (rookie), Jerryd Bayless (rookie), Nicolas Batum (rookie), Ike Diogu (Indiana Pacers – trade)

1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?

This offseason was not about making moves, it was about capitalizing on moves already made. The biggest transactions for the Blazers that come into effect this year, actually happened in the Summer of 2007. That was the draft that netted Portland both Greg Oden and Rudy Fernandez. The potential of Oden has been a topic of both excitement and curiosity for a long time now and the fact that the NBA had to wait another year to see him in action only adds to the anticipation. Not much can be said about the big man that hasn’t already been said. One thing is for sure, his size on both ends of the floor instantly changes the makeup of this team and adds an extra headache for opposing coaching staff in preparing to face this rising unit.

Fernandez wowed basketball fans worldwide at the Beijing Olympics and proved GM Kevin Pritchard’s instincts right, as he played like a seasoned veteran on the Spanish team that claimed the silver medal, falling only to Team USA. Fernandez’s dunk over Dwight Howard was a show-stopper that garnered instant highlight reel recognition and cemented his reputation as a player to watch in the NBA this coming season. Fernandez has an outside stroke which must be respected, an athletic yet wiry frame and a level of composure rarely seen in rookies. In short, Pritchard’s decision to buy the 24th pick of the 2007 draft from the Phoenix Suns was vindicated.

Pritchard has a reputation for identifying the players that he wants and then going out and doing whatever he has to do to get them. Portland fans have a massive level of respect for the man who has essentially turned the franchise around from the Jail Blazers into a team full of talent-laden, team-oriented, community-minded players (now you try to get that many hyphenated words into a sentence!). Thus fans applauded when the Blazers made a draft day trade (consummated later due to collective bargaining agreement restrictions) to acquire Arizona scoring guard Jerryd Bayless (11th pick in the draft), along with big man Ike Diogu from the Indiana Pacers in exchange for rotation point guard Jarrett Jack, bench-warmer Josh McRoberts and swingman Brandon Rush (13th pick). Many pundits had mock drafted Bayless much higher in the order of proceedings, however many surmise that his fall was a result of a attitudinal problems. Bayless’ attitude has been something of constant question since his arrival in Blazer black and red. He is somewhat of an enigma as he does not seem to be the type to joke with teammates and also seems extremely assertive for a rookie. Despite this, Blazers fans were thrilled with his Summer League play which saw an MVP performance, propelled by amazing penetration to the hoop and a procession of free throws. The big question on Bayless, which has not been positively answered yet, is can he play the point as a passer? Time will tell.

In other draft day manoeuvring, the Blazers acquired the draft rights to Nicolas Batum, a French swingman with a tonne of length and potential. Batum is one of those players who instantly has phrases like “ridiculous upside potential” and “long” attached to any description of his game. The 6’8” Batum’s wingspan is reportedly greater than 7’0” and with his defensive instincts already in place, he has the potential to be that defensive stopper that every great team needs. Upon the drafting of Batum, most thought that he would be too raw to contribute immediately and spend a lot of time in the D-League. His performance in Summer League seemed to confirm that as he looked lost on the court and his shot was not falling. However he has been a positive revelation during preseason games, showing an outside shot that will go down with increased confidence and an innate ability to get to loose balls and shutdown players. So great has the turnaround been that coach Nate McMillan has installed Batum into the starting lineup of late and the biggest surprise of the early-going may be that Batum finds himself a starter on opening night. This is largely driven by injury to incumbent starter Martell Webster and the desire to keep Travis Outlaw with the bench group to provide punch as games progress.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

The Blazers’ biggest strength is their team unity. The team is filled with “good character guys” and they all seemingly get on like a house on fire. This ability to enjoy each other’s company is much-desired trait around the league when it comes to playing an 82 game season plus playoffs (and there will be playoffs). The cohesiveness of the team is also important when it comes to countering one of the team’s greatest weaknesses – a multitude of talented young players at every position (not a bad problem to have by any stretch of the imagination). As coach McMillan tries to shuffle minutes throughout the season, he will be relying upon the comradery of teammates to minimize minutes-envy amongst his troops. Team leader Brandon Roy, whilst young, has a maturity beyond his years and the respect of his teammates.

Yes, the Blazers’ depth across the chart is well heralded. This squad seems to me to be one of the most micro-examined teams in a very long time in the league, as fans analyse the potential minutes and characteristics of even the 15th man on the roster (and 16th for that matter). Realistically, the Blazers have two lineups that they can go with at any time, with a couple of players to slot in as spare parts when need be. The likely starters, Steve Blake, Brandon Roy, Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Oden can be subbed for the second unit without losing a great deal in momentum – this is very important as the season goes on and fatigue hits. The famed second unit, which has been gelling well in practice, includes the Spanish backcourt of Sergio Rodriguez and Fernandez along with impact scorer Outlaw, Channing Frye and Joel Przybilla. When you remember that the injured Webster is to return to this lineup, promising rookie Bayless will be expecting minutes and Ike Diogu can work well in the paint, you realise that there is a huge arsenal of talent at the team’s disposal.

The Blazers have one of the strongest supporter bases in the league. The home sell-out streak from 1977-1995 of 744 consecutive games is well-documented, curtailed only by an era where the team became a laughing stock around the league. Despite the “Jail Blazer” period, the fans remained in support of the team and have come back in droves in recent years as the squad has taken a turn for the better, culminating in the massive level of support which can be seen currently.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

Injuries. And recovery from them. However I refuse to talk about that for fear of further jinxing.

As mentioned previously, one of the biggest weaknesses for this team lies in one of their biggest strengths. It is clear that at some point of the season one player or another will grumble for greater playing time. Fans have already speculated that Outlaw wants more shots and more minutes, as a result of one feature piece on him in the Oregonian. However, the unity of the team and the tight reigns held by McMillan will be the means through which Blazers management hope that this will be as small a problem as possible.

Inexperience is always a concern in a league dominated by grizzled veterans, capable of enduring the pitfalls of one of the longest seasons in professional sports. The Blazers are led by young players with old heads on their shoulders – but despite these old heads, there will no doubt be nights where opponents get the better of Portland’s finest purely through the wiles of veteran savvy. Relative veterans Blake and Przybilla will be relied upon to keep the locker room in sync.

4. What are the goals for this team?

The Blazers do not have any illusions of grandeur in their goals for this season. The team knows that they are young and will need at least another year to bond as a unit that can even consider challenging for a title. Integrating four rookies into a squad is never an easy task, regardless of their talent levels. Last season was an unexpected surprise, as a team that was predicted to fall dismally with the loss of starting 20-10 player Zach Randolph and the season-ending injury to Oden, managed to pull to .500 with the second most exciting winning streak of the season (after that of the Houston Rockets). Thus this season the expectation is that the Blazers will do one better, move into the playoffs and whilst not looking to go all the way, will pick up the experience needed to take them where they want to go in future seasons.

Outside of winning and losing, the Blazers will be looking to see how Oden integrates with frontcourt running mate Aldridge and no doubt will be focussing on getting his offense to a level where he becomes a threat down low with more than dunks. The coaching staff will also be trying to determine where Fernandez fits in this squad – as a starter at shooting guard with Roy at small forward, or as a punch off the bench in the backcourt. Perhaps the biggest unanswered question in Blazerville is who will be the big-minute point guard by season end. Blake is clearly the tried and tested choice, who has reportedly improved his game with a strict offseason regime. Bayless’ Summer League showing turned a lot of heads but many question if he is a pure point guard and so far the answer is ‘no’. Rodriguez is my tip to surprise and garner a larger share of minutes. Already he has gotten the nod over Bayless in McMillan’s second unit and his relationship with Fernandez should do his game no limit of wonders. He has worked hard in the offseason to improve his game and by the end of 2008-09 we should know if he has a solid future with the Blazers or if he will be packing his bags.

5. Is Greg Oden the next superstar centre in this league or another Theo Ratliff?

This is a question that has been put into cryogenic freezing for a year now. When Oden was drafted in 2007, many pointed to Kevin Durant as a better option at number one. However with the current makeup of the team, it seems clear that a dominant and imposing big man is exactly what this team needs to complement the finesse of Roy and Aldridge (the other two components of Portland’s very own “Big Three”). 2007 Summer League play showed an Oden who was hamstrung by foul trouble, lack of conditioning and ultimately ended in season-ending heartbreak for Blazers fans.

Now that big Greg is back, many a fan and media hound is waiting to see the signs of the next David Robinson or Shaquille O’Neal and not merely an imposing big man who pulls down 10 boards a night and blocks a couple of shots. We’ve already seen Theo Ratliff in Blazer colours and he didn’t bring a championship our way. Whilst it seems clear that Oden will be no Ratliff – already his in-game dunks indicate that – what he will be is the biggest elephant in the closet for this team. His teammates can not stop boasting of his size and ability to dominate the key. Whether that translates to games is another question.

It is worth noting that the Blazers had the lowest number of fast break points per game last season. Fast breaks start with defense and the addition of Oden down low, with a fresh Przybilla backing him up means that many a Blazer break will be ignited from blocked shots and rebounds. When combined with the addition of Fernandez’s fast break artistry and his chemistry with Rodriguez, Portland fans are looking at a much more exciting team this season.

Predicted Record: 45-37 (first round playoff exit)