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Darius Miles, Shaun Livingston, the Blazers, etc.

Browsing through NBA news, I was struck by the parallels between Darius Miles and Shaun Livingston.  Both were high draft picks by the Clippers from High School, both from tough towns in Illinois, both possessing a tantalizing combination of basketball skills, physical gifts and size.  And this off-season, both have been trying to convince the teams of the NBA that their careers are not over - that they can come back from seemingly devastating injury.  In fact, they even went to the same workout guru to rehab - Tim Grover in Chicago (not too surprising given the Illinois roots).  Shaun's injury was more gruesome, but DMiles is the one whose career was pronounced dead.  Miles has signed an (unguaranteed) contract with the Celtics, while Liv is expected to receive an offer from the Heat or the Wolves or the Blazers very soon.  Both still face an uphill battle to ever be significant players in the NBA again.  And we wish both of them luck. 

Some have suggested that ClipperSteve is harboring an unhealthy fantasy of Livingston once again being a Clipper.  Perhaps.  Watching him as a rookie, I was certain he was the most gifted player I'd ever seen in a Clipper uniform.  If any team is going to take a chance on the admittedly long shot that he ever becomes the player I was sure he would be, I would think that team would be the Clippers.  Of course, if he doesn't want to play here, that's his decision.  And if his goal is to be a starting point guard, certainly both Minnesota and Miami are better fits at this point.  I don't really see him signing with the Blazers.

Speaking of Portland, there was a comment in a recent thread questioning whether they should be considered a likely playoff team, as in fact most predictions say.  There would seem to be seven 'safe' Western Conference picks - with Dallas and Phoenix being less certain than others.  But for that 8th spot, while most pundits agree that the Clippers, the Nuggets and the Warriors might make a run at it, the consensus would seem to be that the Blazers have the inside track.

It makes a lot of sense on paper.  They were 41-41 last season, and they're adding three supposedly high impact players this season.  But let's be clear.  The 41-41 is perplexing at best, and hardly indicative of their season.  Based on their points for/points against of 95.4/96.3, the Pythagorean win-loss comes in at 38-44.  Still respectable, certainly.  What's really difficult to resolve is the hot streak.  After beginning the season 5-12, the Blazers won 17 of their next 18 to move to 22-13.  For the final 47 games, they were 19-28.  That's 47 games of .400 ball.  And the team was about as healthy (ignoring Oden) as any team can ever hope to be - the only player in their top 10 who missed more than 8 games due to injury was James Jones, who is now in Miami at any rate. 

As for the three key additions, they're all rookies - and pretty young rookies.  Greg Oden is 20, Jerryd Bayless is 20, and Rudy Fernandez is 22.  Oden is likely the real deal.  If he's healthy, he's going to help.  Rudy Fernandez was great in Europe last season, and great in the Gold Medal game against the US.  But that doesn't make him Manu Ginobili.  For every Ginobili who translates European league stardom into NBA stardom, there's a Marko Jaric or Sarunas Jasikevicius who washes out.  And looking at Portland's roster, doesn't Fernandez have to be a star to make a major impact?  They've got Brandon Roy, Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster all playing on the wing, and they all played really well last season.  Rudy's got to be better than Outlaw and Webster, this season, to add more than injury insurance.  So it's not good enough for him to come in and be Jorge Garbajosa or Anthony Parker - or at least it would not account for a significant leap forward for the team.  As for Bayless - I know he played well in Summer League.  And if he has a positive impact at point guard this season, that will be terrific for Portland fans.  It will also be the first time EVER that a 20 year old learning to play the point had a positive impact in the NBA, but I guess there's a first time for everything.

Don't get me wrong.  I love Portland's roster, and I think they're going to be really, really good - like competing for an NBA title good - in the not too distant future.  They have an absolute vault-full of young talent, and gobs of cap space the next two summers.  (Miles' situation in Boston can impact that some, as his $9M goes back on the books if he plays 10 games this season, but even with that salary their cap situation is enviable.)  But for a team that closed the season 19-28 and added three rookies, the playoffs may be a tall order.  We'll see.

Streaky teams are hard to figure going into the next season.  It's hard to reconcile Portland's 17-1 stretch with their 19-28 finish.  So who are they going to be the next season?  Are they the 41-41 team?  That's another reason that I'm confused about Philadelphia.  They were 18-30 on Feb 4 (.375 winning percentage).  And they closed the season 22-12 over their final 34 games (.647 winning percentage).  Now, in Philly's case, they finished the season playing well, so you figure that's a better sign than in Portland where they were playing .400 at the end.  But something just doesn't feel right.  The 22-12 seems like a fluke.  I'll tell you this - if they were anything close to a 22-12 team, and they just signed Elton Brand, then they really are going to be good.  Very, very good.  I just think they were closer to an 18-30 team last season than a 22-12 team.  That's just me.

But I've been wrong many times before.