As part of a new series we're doing here at SB Nation Dallas, we'll be conducting a back-and-forth with other SB Nation writers from around the country to preview big games for area teams.
For the Mavericks -- Trail Blazers basketball game, we've brought in Dave from Blazer's Edge, one of the NBA blogosphere's first "trail-blazing" site, which has covered Portland's NBA team with unrivaled depth for years.
Head over to their site for a look at my responses to his questions about the Mavericks season so far.
1. Basketball fans in Dallas remember LaMarcus Aldridge from his days at Seagoville High School, so it's nice to see him put it all together this year. Where would you rate him among the NBA's top power forwards?
This is a case of everybody being pretty happy with what they have. Minnesota fans are rightfully agog over Kevin Love's statistical production and the wins he's bringing their franchise. It's hard to argue with 25 and 14. Blake Griffin has great offensive moves, great finishes, and enough natural star power to make him the best bet among today's good power forwards to shine in a league that values same. Clippers fans wouldn't trade him for the world. Aldridge scores almost as much as Love, also brings his team wins, and probably has the best all-around game of the three even though he'd be in second place to either Griffin or Love category-for-category. He'll probably not start an All-Star game like Griffin or be the first pick in a fantasy league like Love but he may secretly be the most valuable of the three.
On the other hand, if you were looking to win a single playoff series right now you might take Dirk Nowitzki over all three. Nobody in this group has reason to complain. Nobody can make a clear claim that their power forward is better than all the rest, though. All four fan bases are rightfully enjoying their great players.
Aldridge's big advantage is that he's already a better defender than any of the other three. He has the potential to become jaw-dropping, eye-popping great in that department. On the other hand he's nowhere near the rebounder that Love and Griffin are and never will be. Also Aldridge hasn't proved, as Dirk now has, that he can load a team on his back and taken them to victory no matter what the opposition does. He's Portland's best player and one of the best in the league, but very good players don't always become the kind of transcendent players who wreck the league and wrest titles--or even deep playoff runs--from the grasp of opponents. To be fair he's only had to face that burden for a couple years. Brandon Roy had that quality in spades and it was his job, his team. Aldridge playing second banana was actually an asset. But now he has to be the Big Banana. He's grown into that skin fairly well but the fruits of his labors remain to be seen. The Blazers need him to be Mr. Everything now.
Of the three I like Blake Griffin better from an NBA basketball perspective. He's going to get the cameras and lights which usually make the path easier not only to stardom but to playoff success. But I think Aldridge is the more complete player and the favorite of basketball purists.
2. From an outside perspective, Portland certainly looks like a talented team, how do you explain their 3-9 road record?
The Blazers are capable of great games when everything goes well. They have talent at every position, a couple of nice players off the bench, plus Aldridge, of course. You like this team in most situations. But the team has basic flaws. Nobody can get to the rim off the dribble and finish. Almost every player in the rotation is most comfortable working for the same kind of shot: the mid-range jumper. That's the least efficient shot in basketball. The only true low post player they have is Craig Smith. (Who?!? That's the point.) Their three-point shooting is streaky.
Aldridge and Nicolas Batum have stepped up on defense but they still rely heavily on Marcus Camby to watch the interior and rebound. He's good for 25 minutes per night when healthy. If you play him more his legs are shot the next game. Their second best player, Gerald Wallace, has trouble performing on either end on the road and is playing below the rim in almost every situation. If you know Gerald Wallace at all then "below the rim" is going to make you shake your head. The guard defense is spotty and the Blazers have zero reliable point guard options outside of Raymond Felton (who is doubtful for this game and will not start, by the way).
Then you have to factor in that, while talented 1-8, this team runs at most 8 deep right now. Start doing the math on 8 players with back-to-backs and road travel and what have you and you start seeing fatigue, loss of focus, being unable to impose their will physically. This team will start out great and then fade throughout the game. Or vice versa, they'll start out horribly and scramble to make it up in the late third and fourth. Either way, that's a recipe for a spotty record. Being at home provides rest and an emotional lift from the crowd, but on the road this team looks tired already.
3. The Trail Blazers have the biggest point differential in the West at +5.6 even though they're currently in 9th place. What do you think is a more accurate reflection of their talent and where would you rate them among the other playoff contenders?
I am waiting for the halfway mark of the season to rely on point differential, which is normally a good barometer for success. In this season, though, it's skewed early. Normally by the All-Star break you've been around the league once. Not this year. Variations in schedule will render the stat less valuable. I believe this is a playoff team. I believe it would take the right matchup and probably homecourt advantage to get them out of the first round. Nothing I've seen this season--and there have been great highs and lows--has changed that assessment.
Right now it looks like the Blazers will have trouble earning homecourt even in the first round. That can change in the blink of an eye. They and every other team are one injury away from disaster in a season like this. Also teams can go on wicked streaks either way because the games are bunched together. But assuming everything lands near average I don't think the Blazers make it out of the first round. Their weaknesses are going to be too exploitable when a team has time to prepare for them for seven straight games.
4. Almost hate to ask, but what's the latest on Greg Oden? Do you think he'll ever be able to stay on the court?
Yup. There's a nice wheelchair league starting up, I hear. As long as they allow over-sized rigs he should dominate.
5. What do you think is the key to tonight's game?
Aldridge versus Nowitzki is always an interesting matchup. LaMarcus seems to love that one. But the real test comes at the guard and small forward positions. Raymond Felton, Wesley Matthews, Gerald Wallace, Nicolas Batum, Jamal Crawford ... all can be great or awful. They'll need to put pressure on the Dallas guards/wings to defend them. If not the Mavs will be free to hound Aldridge all night. Rebounding has been another huge question mark for the Blazers lately. If Portland rebounds well and hit some shots this should be a game. If the guards fizzle or the Blazers can't secure the boards it probably won't matter what Aldridge does.