Submitted by: Mark Bunster for Hoops Talk Nation
We’re roughly 5% into the 2012-13 regular season, four or five games’ worth of data and impressions–certainly not enough to crystal-ball the rest of the schedule, but inklings and glimmerings of what might be to come are possible. And hey–why else are you reading, if not to discover my take on those glimmers and…inklers?
I almost opened my analysis by referring to the Blazers as “new-look,” but really, if the 2, 3, 4 and 5 positions are being manned by the same people who ended last year, how new is it? As I alluded to last time however, the team has certainly moved on mentally from the past cycle, and of course there’s a new coach, a new GM and a new team President. So call them what you want–how do they look?
After four games (three on the road) against teams that went a collective 158-106 (.598) last year, it’s at least evident that the Blazers are not going to lay down and look for another lottery pick. Furthermore, fans hesitant about the emotional toll involved in watching a young team struggle badly should not fear a trip to the Rose Garden; the new group plays an exciting, fast moving brand of basketball that is far more fun to simply WATCH and enjoy than last year’s team of higher expectations. They may not be playoff bound, but you’ll get your money’s worth–and so soon after seeing one “championship potential” group collapse before it even got started, it will take a good deal of pinching to keep from getting overexcited about the prospects of another.
None of which is to say Paul Allen should be making sure there’s immediate rafter space in the Garden for another banner; there is yet much work to do, and already by the fourth game it seems the league is adjusting their collective game plan against the Blazers. Progress in the NBA is less a straight line than it is a stock ticker, subject to adjustment and readjustment by the principals on a continuous basis. And so it will go for Portland. But in the early going, preseason predictions of a season with wins in the 20s seem something of an undersell.
The chief reason for reassessing their chances is the play of rookie guard Damian Lillard, who still has a hard time being called out with his proper name (he tweeted last week that NBA.tv announcers called him “Willard” at least four times in a row during one segment) or where he played college ball (it’s called Weber State, in the Big Sky Conference)–but who has had no trouble forcing pundits to recognize his level of play and impact on the Blazers’ fortunes. Basketball-Reference guru and sometimes Blazers data consultant Justin Kubatko doesn’t mince words:
Although it is too early in the N.B.A. season to draw any conclusions, it appears the Portland Trail Blazers hit a home run with the selection of guard Damian Lillard in the first round of the 2012 draft.
Lillard’s strengths thus far mirror the strengths he exhibited at Weber State, namely the ability to maintain a high rate of scoring efficiency while being a focal point on offense, all while keeping his teammates involved in the action.
Yup. In the Blazers’ most recent game against Dallas, it became clear that the first adjustment strategem for beating Portland is to shut down Lillard’s dribble as quickly as possible–a quick and decisive testament that if you don’t give him due attention, he will hurt you. The young rook was harrassed, poked, bumped, chased and harried immediately, seriously impeded in his offensive flow and drawing two quick fouls on defense that led to a benching for most of the half. (If you needed more proof of the difference Lillard makes, watching backup PG Ronnie Price try to run the same offense with much less success should offer plenty). And still the kid went for 13 and 5, including 8-8 from the line–his first non 20 point game of the year.
Remember my column last week, in which I quoted Brian Berger of CBS saying this?
Whichever side of that argument you’re on, there’s no doubt the Blazers will be positively awful this season. In a pitiful sort of way.
Having watched rookie Damian Lillardlead the plucky Blazers (2-2) to victories over the Lakers and Rockets and give the Thunder all they could handle in Oklahoma City, awful is not a word I’ll use regarding the Blazers any longer.
I also mentioned John Hollinger, who gives us more of a numeric and comparative analysis that nonetheless reaches the same (reassessed) conclusion:
The fact he’s been able to create shots efficiently for both himself (a point every two minutes) and others (8.6 dimes per 40 minutes, and nearly three for every turnover) is a tremendously positive sign. Watching him in person last week, there’s a lot of Chauncey Billups in his game. He’s not as physical as Billups, but he’s a smart, efficient, unflappable point guard who can shoot and knows how to draw fouls. At worst those assets will keep him in the league a long time. At best they’ll propel him to stardom.
Lillard’s is only the most obvious reason to adjust expectations, however. Last week I called JJ Hickson “spastic” on defense, and I largely stand by that view. Even in their wins, I can’t count the number of times a missed shot started out as a Blazer rebound but either fell out of the player’s hands–or was ripped out. One thing the Blazer bigs need to do for sure is hit the weight room and bulk their upper body strength some more.
On the other hand Portland defenders are GETTING to the ball more as well, so the net result has been generally positive. Hickson has a tendency to rush his follow shots a bit, but he is providing a BANZAI!! energy that the team has lacked underneath for some time. LaMarcus Aldridge is working his way toward being a better rebounder, but no one would accuse him of being beastly aggressive on the glass. And if the veteran Hickson can teach guys like Myers Leonard and Joel Freeman to go for the ball like he does–Mufasa on a plate full of Skar-meat tater tots–that will have obvious later-season benefit.
Another player exceeding expectations (of others) so far is Wes Matthews, who appears to have regained his distance shooting form and is showing the same aggressiveness on offense as while guarding guys like Kobe, Durant and James Harden. I continue to maintain that his play is a major key to how many games the Blazers can win. We’ve seen already that teams recognize the potentially deadly inside-outside threat posed by Aldridge and Lillard. If they both have another scoring option to dish to when double-teams threaten–an option that is not each other–the floor widens up like Marc Cuban’s mouth after a Mavericks technical.
Sharp-eyed Blazer followers may be asking about now, “What about Batum? He’s showed a new aggressiveness and willingness to stay involved when his shot isn’t falling–and he’s the big money guy this year.” I do agree that Nic is moving closer to his important goal of bringing a consistent effort every night, but here I think there is an issue of diminishing returns–he won’t improve enough, either for himself or for his position, to make a significant difference on the team’s fortunes. Being more consistent will certainly help, but while Matthew’s play has materially hindered the Blazers in the past, Nic’s issue has been less about previous performance in an absolute sense, and more about the gap between that and his perceived potential.
Another area where the team looks much improved–and I still love ya, Nate–is in coaching. Who’s to say whether McMillan would have adjusted his style to exploit the different skill sets this team provides, relative to his tenure? OK, you got me–it wouldn’t have been likely. The Stotts Blazers move more quickly, show more team effort swarming to the ball on defense, pass the ball around much better offensively in the halfcourt, and just look (so far) to be more committed to bringing the heat every night. Do not mistake me for saying the defense is substantially improved overall–it’s still a horror show of late recognition and missed rotations on any given play–but the lapses now are a matter of inexperience and not effort. Last year, for whatever reason we often saw less Help than a Soviet-era movie theater circa 1965, but when this year’s squad leaves a brotha hanging, it’s a mistake and not surliness.
There are some other good signs–Aldridge has quietly picked up right where he left off at his peak last year, dropping 22 a game while letting others bogart the hype. His rebounding effort is also up, and that low post game is becoming truly scary to opponents on the block.
I’ve also been mildly impressed with Myers Leonard at center, who already could fill a lowlight reel with rookie mistakes at the hands of folks like Dwight Howard–but who, to his credit, has stood his ground and asserted his presence in the lane with all the authority a first-year player can muster. He’s going to be a foul machine until he earns the required NBA respect, but there’s no sign that’s bothering him–against Howard in the 4th he took a hammer forearm to the head while being called for the foul himself, and just smiled in a “whaddyagonnado” fashion. And we’ve already seen a couple beast moments from Leonard at both ends, finishing alley-oops with authority and showing off a little Moses Malone elbow-swing posturing after a tough board.
So as the skies take on their six-month gray hue and the monsoon season begins, optimism nonetheless is blooming once again in Portland. And for the rest of you folks, take note: the Blazers have gone from a talented but nearly unwatchable playoff team, to one that will still probably spend May on the links (not here of course, it will still be raining) but will be eminently more fun to follow. Enjoy!