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The Darkhorses: Why The Blazers & Grizzlies Will Be Legitimate Contenders

While the Chris Paul and Dwight Howard trade sweepstakes have overshadowed a frantic two-week offseason, the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers have quietly become dark-horse contenders in the Western Conference. They lack the star power of their rivals, but both are built around long, athletic and skilled front-courts, the back-bone of a championship team.

With the re-signing of Marc Gasol, Memphis has the NBA’s best frontcourt rotation. While modern big men have increasingly drifted out to the perimeter, the 7’1, 265 Gasol and the 6’9, 260 Zach Randolph can bludgeon teams in the post. In a first-round upset of the 61-win San Antonio Spurs, Gasol and Randolph averaged 36 points and 21 rebounds on 51% shooting, taking advantage of the Spurs’ lack of a second defensive big next to Tim Duncan.

Behind them is Darrell Arthur, a versatile fourth-year 6’9 235 forward. Still only 23-years-old, the Kansas product had per-36 minute averages of 16.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks last season. He has the length and athleticism to be an effective interior defender and the jump-shooting ability to spread the floor.

Portland’s frontcourt is built around LaMarcus Aldridge, the league’s most complete big man. At 6’11, 240 with a 7’5 wingspan, he can play great defense at the center and power forward positions, and after a breakout year as the Trail Blazers’ primary offensive option, is a legitimate MVP contender.

With the 6’11, 235 Marcus Camby, 6’8, 200 Nic Batum and 6’7, 220 Gerald Wallace surrounding him, Portland has an extremely versatile defensive frontcourt. While Greg Oden, whose health can no longer be counted on, would have been a nice back-up center, the addition of Kurt Thomas should give the Trail Blazers enough muscle behind Camby.

Last season, both teams’ postseason runs were ended by a lack of offensive firepower from the perimeter. Memphis lost to Oklahoma City in a closely fought seven-game series, while Portland lost to the eventual champions in the first-round despite having them on the ropes after Brandon Roy’s legendary Game 4 performance.

The Grizzlies are counting on the return of Rudy Gay, whose season ended in February with a shoulder injury, to push them to the next level. Gay, a super-athletic 6’8, 230 small forward with a 35.2% career three-point shooting percentage, is their only two-way perimeter player. Memphis’ other wing options are either bad outside shooters (Tony Allen, Sam Young), ineffective defenders (OJ Mayo, Greivis Vasquez) or too young to drink legally (Xavier Henry, Josh Selby).

Allen is an elite perimeter defender, but he took only 23 three-pointers last season. That’s why the mid-season deal for Shane Battier, now in Miami, was so important: because neither Randolph nor Gasol have great lateral quickness, the Grizzles want to prevent dribble penetration, meaning they are most effective when pairing Allen with a player who can defend and shoot from the perimeter.

In crunch-time, Memphis could use a line-up of Gasol, Randolph, Gay, Allen and Mayo. That’s three elite shotcreators in the frontcourt, four guys who can stretch the floor, two effective post defenders and two excellent perimeter defenders, depending on Gay’s dedication on that end of the floor.

Portland, meanwhile, played Dallas evenly through four games, before the Mavericks saved their season by zoning the Trail Blazers in Game 5, exploiting Andre Miller’s lack of a perimeter jumper and forcing Portland to go small. And while the Grizzlies are counting on internal improvement, the Trail Blazers made two smart under-the-radar moves this off-season.

During the draft, they dealt Miller for Raymond Felton, who shot 35.3% from beyond the arc last season. Miller, who made only four three-pointers last year, wasn’t well suited for the glacial place coach Nate McMillan prefers. It’s hard to utilize a post scorer like Aldridge when Miller’s man can play five feet off him in the halfcourt.

And with Roy retiring, they signed Jamal Crawford to a two-year, $10 million deal. Crawford, an athletic 6’6 guard with a 6’10 wingspan, incredible ball-handling skills and a good pull-up jumper, is one of the best individual scorers off the dribble in the NBA.

He’ll form an excellent bench tandem with Wallace, and their versatility lets the Trail Blazers field a wide array of effective fourth-quarter line-ups. They can go big with Crawford, Wesley Matthews, Wallace, Aldridge and Camby, and they can go small with Felton, Crawford, Batum, Wallace and Aldridge.

In any scenario, they’ll be playing four solid individual defenders and two shot-creators around Aldridge, a 6’11+ All-NBA caliber player capable of excelling on both sides of the floor. With Aldridge, Randolph, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love all out West, Duncan, one of the ten greatest players of all-time, may miss the first All-Star Game of his career.

And while the Trail Blazers and Grizzlies improved, the rest of the West, besides Oklahoma City, returned to the pack. The Mavericks, without Tyson Chandler, and the Lakers, without Lamar Odom, aren’t as formidable as they were last season. If you count the Spurs and the Clippers, that’s seven teams who could compete for the No. 2 seed, especially with a compressed 66-game schedule that gives less time for separation.

Last season, I got lucky with Dallas at 16:1 to win the championship. This year, I’d say the two long-shot teams with the best shot at getting a ring are Memphis (25:1) and Portland (35:1). Most intriguingly, if either makes it out of their side of the playoff bracket, they are bigger than any of the NBA’s top four teams -- Oklahoma City, Miami, Chicago and New York.
 

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