Lakers-Blazers Preview: Teams Headed in Different Directions

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 20: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers is defended by Nicolas Batum #88 of the Portland Trail Blazers during the first half at Staples Center on February 20, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Tonight the Lakers take on the Portland Trail Blazers for the third and final time this season. The teams split the first two contests, each winning on its home floor. The Lakers-Blazers mini rivalry has been well documented. It may not have the luster of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, but make no mistake, these two teams have played each other tough, with the home team usually being the victor. The Lakers are favored to win tonight, not only because the contest will take place in Staples Center, but because of the two different directions these franchises decided to take at the trading deadline.

Portland and Los Angeles were the two most active teams at the trade deadline, each pulling off two trades. While the quantity of trades may have been similar, the quality of the transactions were in stark contrast. The Lakers management decided to keep the core of a two-time NBA champion together and looked to improve the supporting cast for another run. The Blazers went the opposite direction, deciding to dismantle what was left of a once-promising core, and pushing the reset button on the franchise.

Three years ago the Blazers were one of the darlings of the NBA. They had assembled a young quality core that was prime to compete for championships over the next decade. In fact, ESPN’s initial Future Power Rankings debuted with the Blazers in the #1 spot and included the following:

On paper, no other team possesses as bright a future as the Portland Trail Blazers. It all starts with the players. Nobody, not even Oklahoma City, can match the stable of young talent the Blazers have built. Brandon Roy is already a superstar, and joining him are potential stars like LaMarcus Aldridge (24), Greg Oden (21, even if he looks more like 51), Nicolas Batum (20) and Martell Webster (22).

Unfortunately, Portland’s visions of banners hanging in the Rose Garden were quickly dashed when two of their three cornerstones succumbed to knee injuries. Brandon Roy, once regarded as the third best shooting guard behind Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, retired this season at the young age of 27 after doctors advised him that continued play could result in an inability to walk in the future due to his degenerative knees. Greg Oden, the first pick of the 2007 draft, suffered multiple knee injuries and then continuing setbacks to his recovery efforts. The Blazers cut ties with the young man at the trading deadline. Left with only LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers decided to blow up the roster and move some of the assets not in the long term-plans of the organization for draft picks. They sent Gerald Wallace, who led the Blazers with 31 points in the win over the Lakers earlier this season, to New Jersey for a draft pick. They moved Marcus Camby to Houston for young players Jonny Flynn and Hasheem Thabeet. Then the hammer came down as they fired head coach Nate McMillan.

While the Blazers no longer possess some of the talent that made them post-season participants, they should not be underestimated. They still possess an all-Star in Aldridge, a superb perimeter defender in Nicolas Batum, an explosive offensive player in Westley Matthews, and 2010 Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford. Last night they beat a very good Memphis Grizzlies team at home so clearly they are capable of playing some good basketball.

There is no doubt the Lakers are favorites tonight. They have more size, more talent, and are playing at home, where they are a stellar 19-3. But simply having those three things doesn’t automatically produce a victory (just see this week’s game against Utah as an example). The Blazers still have the type of players that can give the Lakers fits. Batum is capable of making things difficult for Bryant, and Matthews is the type of shooter that can have a big game against him if Bryant doesn’t stay close to him. Aldridge is a beast who can face up from 20 feet or post up on the block. Crawford is capable of coming in and dropping 30 points off the bench if he gets hot. Hopefully the Lakers' coaching staff is showing the team a replay of the 1st quarter the last time these two teams played when the Lakers jumped out to a dominating 29-7 lead. Replicating some of that effort and focus will help the Lakers continue their home dominance over the Blazers.

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