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NBA Insider Jim Cleamons:
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Posted: 6:29 AM- Let's talk today about two of the biggest surprise teams in the league, Portland and New Orleans.

The Trail Blazers got off to a poor start and couldn't win on the road. But, lo and behold, they have caught fire and moved into position to challenge for a playoff berth.

I have a fondness for Portland coach Nate McMillan. When I coached in Chicago, we played Seattle in the 1996 Finals. I watched Nate and talked to him a few times during that series and I always thought he would make a fine coach.

I got that one right, didn't I?

Actually, I thought Nate did a good job in Seattle. But for some reason, the Sonics didn't re-sign him. He moved to Portland and, at first, didn't have too much success.

Watching Portland the last couple of years, I thought they had good athletes and I thought they played hard for Nate. It just didn't come together for them. Maybe it was injuries. Maybe it was chemistry. I don't know. But the Trail Blazers struggled, that's for sure.

I give management a lot of credit.

Sometimes when things go poorly, there's panic. Teams do things in a hasty fashion. But the one thing a coach in our league needs is time to implement his system and get his players to understand the system.

Portland's management gave Nate enough time to get his team put together. From what I see, the Trail Blazers play hard and they play unselfishly. They are a very good team, which is interesting because they are playing without the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Greg Oden had knee surgery in the preseason. Just think what's possible when Portland adds him into the mix with Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge and the rest of those guys.

Portland could be a playoff team for a long time, which makes me happy for Nate.

New Orleans is another big surprise team in the league.

Since I coached down there for a couple of seasons (2004-06), I have followed those guys and have a certain affection for them.

Last year, they were bitten by the injury bug. Chris Paul, Peja Stojakovic, David West, Tyson Chandler -- all those guys missed games and they still just missed making the playoffs.

Maybe it should not be a surprise that, with all those guys healthy, they are right there with San Antonio and Dallas at the top of the Southwest Division.

Believe me, New Orleans has that type of talent. The continued growth of Chris Paul and David West has been amazing, and the emergence of Tyson Chandler has been critical for them.

On defense, Tyson has the ability to challenge shots and defend the basket. On offense, he can play uptempo and run the floor. They don't have to wait for him. He can run like a deer. He fits into that system perfectly.

I know I've said this many times over the years, but here we go again.

If New Orleans stays healthy and those guys stay focused on what's important -- winning -- they will probably get a taste of playoff basketball this season. They feel good about themselves right now and I think will have a say about who comes out of the West.

It might even be them.

---

JIM CLEAMONS is an assistant with the Lakers. He has won eight NBA championships as a player and coach. If you have a question for coach Cleamons, contact him at luhm@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">luhm@sltrib.com

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