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Breakthrough season possible for Trail Blazers

by: Christopher Onstott Veteran guard Jamal Crawford is one of several new faces in the Trail Blazers’ rotation.

The Trail Blazers aren't a shoo-in for a breakthrough season, but the opportunity will be there for the franchise's first playoff series victory since 2000.

And in Nate McMillan's mind, nearly every Portland player - even the coach - has some extra motivation this season.

Brandon Roy has retired, Greg Oden's season could be lost, and the national perception is the Blazers - even with talent such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford - could be in trouble.

'With us losing Brandon and the situation with Greg, we're losing some guys who on paper had that potential to make us a team that could be amongst the elites,' McMillan says.

The questions regarding Portland, McMillan says, are numerous.

'Can we win without Roy?' the seventh-year Blazer coach asks. 'Can we get back to the playoffs? If we get to the playoffs, can we get out of the first round?

'Crawford's supposed to be sixth-man-of-the-year talent. Raymond is in his prime, taking over a team. LaMarcus, can you be an All-Star? Nicolas and Wesley, will you become better? Nolan (Smith) and Elliot (Williams), who are you? Coach McMillan, can you win in the postseason? We all have something to prove.'

Portland has made more major personnel changes than any team in the Western Conference going into the 2011-12 NBA season, which opens for the Blazers Monday night against Philadelphia at the Rose Garden.

Since the end of last season, Portland has five additions who could be members of a 10-man rotation. Besides No. 1 draft choice Nolan Smith of Duke, the Blazers have acquired veterans Felton, Crawford, Kurt Thomas and Craig Smith.

Here's what the Blazers have lost, and what they have gained, as they head into their abbreviated regular season:

• The Closer, Roy, has retired. Few players in franchise history have come through in the clutch more often than Roy, whose chronic knee problems forced him to have played his final game at age 26.

Step up, LaMarcus Aldridge.

'I need to be that guy for us,' Portland's 6-11 forward says.

After playing with a tight collar late in games through his first four seasons, Aldridge looked more comfortable in the fourth quarter last season. He'll be the go-to guy with the game on the line.

• The starting shooting guard spot belongs to Matthews. He had the job through most of last season, but with Roy looking over his shoulder.

Now Matthews is the starter, and Crawford is comfortable in his role as backup at both guard positions. It's a solid guard rotation, with either Nolan Smith or fellow rookie Williams probably due for the remaining minutes.

• McMillan fingers two areas that will provide clubs an advantage this season.

'Teams that have been together, and teams with depth,' the Blazer coach says.

Portland's slate calls for a six-game road trip in mid-January and a seven-game swing in mid-March. That means the coach may have to go deep into his bench.

The Blazers would appear equipped to go two-deep at every position, with Felton and Nolan Smith at point guard, Matthews and Crawford (and possibly Williams) at shooting guard, Wallace and Batum at small forward, Aldridge and Craig Smith at power forward, and Marcus Camby and Thomas at center.

'We'll use at least 10 guys, and we'll need all 12 to be ready to play every night,' McMillan says.

• It could hurt that the Blazers have so many new pieces. Cohesion within the group may take some time.

And the shortened preseason - two games instead of seven or eight - means the younger players won't have as much chance to carve their niche.

'The established guys, you know what they can do,' assistant coach Bob Ociepka says. 'The younger guys who are trying to show what they can do won't have as much time.'

There are fewer days between games and, in two cases, three games in three nights.

'There's not as much practice time as usual,' Ociepka says. 'We always tell bench guys, 'Your practices are your games.' Now there aren't as many of them.'

• It won't hurt that several of the key players, including Camby and Felton, are on the final year of their contract. Wallace has a player option for 2012-13 (though at $11.48 million, a high figure for a small forward who will then be 30), and Batum's deal can either be extended, or he can become a restricted free agent.

Players in their contract year often get after it with just a little more motivation.

A look at the 15 teams in the West, and how they'll fare this season:

1. Oklahoma City (55-27, reached conference final in 2010-11)

Top returnees: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden

Major losses: None.

Key acquisition: Rookie Reggie Jackson

Outlook: The Thunder chose to keep entire rotation and added only top draft choice Jackson, an athletic combo guard from Boston College. With the stars (Durant and Westbrook) and the supporting cast young or in their prime, and coach Scotty Brooks still at the controls, it should be a successful year in OKC.

Prediction: 49-17, West champion

2. Dallas (57-25, NBA champion in 2010-11)

Top returnees: Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry

Major losses: Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea

Key acquisitions: Lamar Odom, Vince Carter, Delonte West, Jerome Randle

Outlook: Dallas will miss Chandler and Barea, and the lineup is growing old, with Kidd 38, Carter and Terry, 34, Nowitzki and Shawn Marion each 33 and Odom and Brendan Haywood 32. But the Mavs should be able to hold together for at least one more title run.

Prediction: 47-19, will reach West finals

3. L.A. Lakers (57-25, reached conference semis in 2010-11)

Top returnees: Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum

Major losses: Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown

Key acquisitions: Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy

Outlook: Coach Mike Brown has his work cut out with this group. Bryant and Gasol remain as good a 1-2 punch as there is in league, but they'll need some help to get anywhere in playoffs.

Predication: 42-24, will reach West semifinals

4. L.A. Clippers (32-50 in 2010-11)

Top returnees: Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Eric Bledsoe

Major losses: Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman

Key acquisitions: Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler

Outlook: Coach Vinny Del Negro's job is enormous - blend this group and make it gel in 66 games. But talent base is good enough to make the finally good enough Clippers relevant.

Prediction: 41-25, will lose in first round

5. Portland (48-34, reached first round in 2010-11)

Top returnees: LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, Wesley Matthews

Major losses: Brandon Roy, Andre Miller, Rudy Fernandez

Key acquisitions: Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Kurt Thomas, Craig Smith, rookie Nolan Smith

Outlook: Deep roster, with lots of players in their prime. No reason why the Blazers shouldn't win a playoff series.

Prediction: 40-26, will reach West semifinals

6. San Antonio (61-21, reached first round in 2010-11)

Top returnees: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili

Major loss: George Hill

Key acquisitions: T.J. Ford, rookie Kawhi Leonard, rookie Cory Joseph

Outlook: Similar situation to Dallas, with aging stars Duncan (35) and Ginobili (34) along with Antonio McDyess (37) and Richard Jefferson (31). Coach Gregg Popovich will cobble together an interesting mix of young and old, though, and come up with a contender.

Prediction: 38-28, will lose in first round

7. Denver (50-32, reached first round in 2010-11)

Top returnees: Nene, Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo

Major losses: Kenyon Martin, Wilson Chandler, J.R. Smith

Key acquisitions: Andre Miller, Rudy Fernandez, rookie Jordan Hamilton, rookie Kenneth Faried

Outlook: There are a lot of missing pieces, not including Afflalo, who signed only this week and will take awhile to get in gear. If Martin and Chandler soon return from Chinese League, Nuggets might be formidable come playoff time.

Prediction: 36-30, will lose in first round

8. Memphis (46-36, reached conference semis in 2010-11)

Top returnees: Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay

Major loss: Shane Battier

Key acquisition: None

Outlook: Grizzlies kept a young, solid team mostly intact, but added nothing in the offseason. It adds up to a productive season, but nothing more.

Prediction: 35-31, will lose in first round

9. New Orleans (46-36, reached first round)

Top returnees: Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, Carl Landry

Major losses: Chris Paul, David West

Key acquisitions: Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman

Outlook: The Hornets picked up two excellent young players in Gordon and Kaman via the Paul trade, but that won't be enough to get them into postseason play.

Prediction: 33-33

10. Houston (43-39)

Top returnees: Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Kyle Lowry

Major losses: Yao Ming, Brad Miller

Key acquisitions: Jonny Flynn, rookie Marcus Morris, rookie Donatas Motiejunas

Outlook: The Rockets didn't add any significant veteran talent, which will leave them short of the playoffs again.

Prediction: 32-34

11. Minnesota (17-65)

Top returnees: Kevin Love, Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson

Major losses: None

Key acquisitions: Jose Barea, rookie Ricky Rubio, rookie Derrick Williams

Outlook: Minnesota added three important players, leaving a hole only at shooting guard. The Wolves are heading in the right direction.

Prediction: 31-35

12. Utah (39-43)

Top returnees: Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Devin Harris

Major loss: Andrei Kirilenko

Key acquisitions: Josh Howard, rookie Enes Kanter, rookie Alec Burks.

Outlook: Second-year forward Derrick Favors and Burks are great future prospects, but it could be a long season in Salt Lake City.

Prediction: 30-36

13. Phoenix (40-42)

Top returnees: Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Marcin Gortat

Major loss: Aaron Brooks

Key acquisitions: Shannon Brown, Sebastian Telfair, Rookie Markieff Morris

Outlook: It's a sad way for veterans Nash and Hill to head off into retirement.

Prediction: 28-38

14. Golden State (36-46)

Top returnees: Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry, David Lee

Major losses: Reggie Williams, Vladimir Radmanovic

Key acquisitions: Kwame Brown, rookie Klay Thompson

Outlook: Cocky first-time coach Mark Jackson is in for a rude awakening.

Prediction: 25-41

15. Sacramento (24-58)

Top returnees: Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins, John Salmons

Major losses: Beno Udrih, Carl Landry, Samuel Dalembert

Key acquisition: Rookie Jimmer Fredette

Outlook: With signed free agent Chuck Hayes sidelined by a heart ailment, the Kings may have to re-sign free agent Dalembert. Even if they do, prospects don't look promising in what could be the final season of NBA basketball for city of Sacramento.

Prediction: 23-43