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By Jim Brighters, NBA Editor - Archive - Email
Geography yields no respect
LaMarcus Aldridge (#12) The world remains mum on the NBA's other 11-win team, the Portland Trail Blazers.
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - You probably know that the two NBA teams with 12 wins are the Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors.

They are both great teams, built with strong rosters and defensive mentalities.

They were also bounced in the first round of the playoffs last season. Same goes for the Houston Rockets, who flew out of the gate this season, but are still near the top of the Western Conference standings.

The world remains mum on the NBA's other 11-win team, the Portland Trail Blazers.

Why is that?

"We're way up in the Northwest," said Portland All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge. "A lot of media outlets probably don't see us as much other than TNT games. We're not on the east as much. I think being tucked away up there has a big deal to do with it."

Geography is costing the Blazers respect. There's nothing anyone can do about that. I blame Vespucci. Aldridge doesn't care.

"We've never lived for that," he said. "We like being underdogs, we like feeling disrespected at times. I think most of the guys over here have been disrespected at times, so I think that fits our personality. I don't think guys are trying to look for accolades, or being in the media. We just like being us and going out every night and just taking care of business."

Of all the teams off to great starts this season, the Blazers are mentioned least often. Aldridge is probably right, their location hurts them to some degree. The media capital of the world is New York City. The basketball media home may just be Atlanta.

So what is everyone missing with the Blazers?

For starters, Portland is sixth in the league in scoring and seventh in opponents' scoring. Only the Raptors rank higher in both categories than the Blazers, whose point differential is fourth at 9.1 ppg. That's impressive.

They are third in the league in 3-point shooting percentage, but also third in defending it. Portland is third in field-goal percentage defense overall, so what you're missing is an elite offensive and defensive two-way unit, second only to the Raptors.

Oh, they're also the best rebounding team. There's that I almost forgot.

And, you're missing the hottest team in the NBA at the moment. The Blazers have won eight in a row and already own a 4 1/2 game lead over the Denver Nuggets in the Northwest Division. Only the ... you guessed it ... Raptors own a bigger divisional lead.

If today's NBA is superstar-driven, and it is, then what's not to like about the Blazers? Aldridge is a three-time running All-Star and twice was voted a member of the All-NBA Third Team. Shows that some national people see you, LaMarcus.

Damian Lillard is the second superstar, making his first All-Star appearance last season, his second in the league. He was the Rookie of the Year after his first.

The other three starters are above-average with skill sets befitting the Blazers. Nicolas Batum is a good defender and 3-point shooter. Wesley Matthews is the same and Robin Lopez is a vital interior defender, solid board man and master agitator.

What doomed this squad in seasons past was the bench. It was putrid two seasons ago, bad last season, but has emerged a little this campaign. With the main additions of Chris Kaman and Steve Blake, the Blazers' bench went from 30th in the league in second-unit scoring to 24th. It's not leaping the Grand Canyon, but it's improvement.

The personal stories of the Blazers aren't shabby either.

After Walton's Blazers and Clyde Drexler's Blazers, they became the Jail Blazers. That group with Rasheed Wallace, Zach Randolph, Bonzi Wells was talented, but the only stamp they left on the organization came in the form of fingerprint ink.

This group is a solid den of citizens. No legal troubles, just characters like Lopez and Kaman, great leadership in Blake, Aldridge and Lillard and an unassuming man at the helm in head coach Terry Stotts. It's a group of professional men.

Aldridge wasn't supposed to be the man in Portland. That honor was bestowed on Greg Oden. We know what happened there.

Lillard is from Weber State. Sounds like a made-up college for a TV show.

The rest of the group was not highly-regarded coming into the league. The next name you'd think from amateur ranks was Thomas Robinson of Kansas, but he's out of the rotation in Portland.

With this great core, the results have been there. They squashed the Rockets, a team most said was more talented, more star-laden and flat-out better, in the first round of the playoffs. They ran into the buzz saw known as the San Antonio Spurs, but someone had to.

The Blazers can improve on that this season. The improvement in bench scoring will go a long way, but the varied way they've won so far this season, shows a complete team. The Blazers have buried teams under 130-point nights, or pulled out under-100 defensive battles.

Portland is far from complete, however. They don't have a big signature victory yet. The Blazers have beaten LeBron James and the Cavaliers at home, but Cleveland is finding its identity. They crushed the Chicago Bulls on TNT so everyone could see them, but among the other spectators beside a national television audience were Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol and Kirk Hinrich.

Maybe their 21-point victory over the Dallas Mavericks qualifies.

The losses were predictable - on the road to Sacramento and the Los Angeles Clippers and at home to the Golden State Warriors.

One thing this Blazers group is learning is that some people are definitely paying attention to them, namely their peers in the league.

"Every team gets up for you, every team wants to play well against you. We're already getting everybody's best play," said Aldridge.

They slept-walked through the first half Monday night against the pitiful Philadelphia 76ers, then Aldridge took over. The Blazers hung 39 on Philly in the third, then won by 10.

It will take some time for them to appreciate being the hunted. Paul George told me it was an issue for the Indiana Pacers last season, while it was happening, so being able to handle the onslaught is a learned skill.

Portland will continue to learn it. The Blazers are legitimate contenders with no obvious weaknesses, although that bench still isn't exactly an asset.

Just think of the Trail Blazers a little more. Turn on your TV to TNT if they're on, or, fly to the great northwest. The Blazers deserve your respect, geography be damned.

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