We’re a little past the quarter mark of the season. It’s time to take stock of the things we’ve seen so far from the Blazers. This is not meant to be a pro-con grading exercise. (That’s at the halfway mark.) Rather it’s an acknowledgement of the questions surrounding the team entering the season and a look at our progress in answering them.
What We’re Seeing from the Team
1. There’s a new definition of “Blazer Basketball”.
One of the recurring themes of the last couple of seasons, even while acknowledging that the Blazers were improving, was that victories depended on our talent and opponent motivation as much as any defined Blazer style. That’s not implying we had no game plan. Rather we weren’t proficient at exercising it every night to the point where you could say, “This is Blazer basketball” using tangible examples. That has changed this year. This team evidences a definite style of play, typified by:
--Team-wide rebounding on the defensive end.
--Offensive rebounding from the bigs
--General rebounding dominance
--Low-post offense with the option to pass out and swing to the weak side for the open jumper
--Slashing drives from the guard with the option to dish to the corner for the open jumper
--Fantastic and frequent distance shooting from every non-center player
--Off-ball movement including a variety of picks
--Selective fast-break attacks
--Unselfishness on offense
--Switching defense using defenders interchangeably
--A commitment to keep opposing drivers off of the baseline, funneling them into big man defenders
--A commitment to sag deep and cut off the post and the drive and risk closing out on opposing shooters
--Emphasizing percentage defense and rebounding over creating turnovers
--Controlled pace from the starters
--Up-tempo pace from the second unit
2. The team is confident but not practiced in that confidence.
However when you do manage to stop them, they have no adequate back-up plan. When their confidence gets rattled they devolve into 1-on-1 offense and standstill defense. Take away one or two hallmarks of “Blazer Basketball” as defined above and this team loses. The Blazers respond well to any kind of offensive attack you put out there. They can match you bucket for bucket. Great defense foils them.
3. The Blazers have trouble dealing with an offensive power game at any position.
The Blazers look fine defensively if you finesse them or come at them with skill and grace. They cannot handle power-based offensive players, however. This is true whether we’re talking a Shaq at center or a muscular wing player. The Blazers just do not have the physical bodies (except in the case of Oden, who lacks the experience) to deal with an in-your-face, hulking star.
4. The Blazers are bucking the trend of young teams on the road and are right on line for the playoffs.
The formula for success in the NBA is as old as the hills: win half of your road games and all of them at home and you’re in.
5. That said, the Blazers have also preyed on the Eastern Conference so far.
The Blazers are 8-1 against the East, 7-6 against the West. They are a respectable 3-4 against the top nine Western teams but own only one convincing wing against such an opponent, a 101-86 victory against
6. The Blazers are still having trouble defending the perimeter.
You don’t see a ton of run-outs on
7. With a couple exceptions the Blazers are making everybody on the team look pretty good.
As you’re about to read in the individual comments, several players are having standout seasons. Part of that is their own talent and growth. Another part is that this team plays the type of ball that maximizes the potential of its players. They cover for each other defensively and they share the ball on offense. The plays are designed to keep individual players in their comfort zones while keeping the ball in the hands of the players with the biggest comfort zones in the meantime. Seldom do you see a Blazer touch the ball on offense where he’s not a threat to score. Seldom do you see an opponent get free without a second, and sometimes third, defender coming over to help.
8. Despite Point #7, with the exception of Brandon Roy the team is still young enough that you can’t count on any individual looking good on a given night.
The Blazers just hope that on a given night most of their players are on, without knowing exactly which those will be. So far it has worked.
What We’re Seeing from Individuals
Brandon Roy remains the heart and leader of this team. He’s successfully prosecuting his role as quasi-distributor with responsibility for running the offense as well as creating it. Statistically he’s a near-wash with last season’s averages. You can see the difference in his style in the play of Steve Blake, who is now more of a catch-and-shoot off-guard and less of a true playmaker than he was last season. Measured by point guard standards
Big Question Entering the Season: How would he would handle being the center of attention?
The answer so far is, “Quite well, thank you.”
Lamarcus Aldridge has been productive but inconsistent. He looks like the lost man in the offense compared to last season when he got a steady diet of touches and shots. Sometimes the Blazers run the offense through him, sometimes he’s the weak side back-up plan that never gets used with all of the three-point shots flying over his head. His shots, points, field goal percentage, free throws drawn, free throw percentage, and rebounds are all down from last season, though none so markedly as to be shocking. Nevertheless that is every major stat category for him. His forte has always been offense but he seems to finesse his shots more this year than he did when he was rolling last season. The face-up jumper and the turn-around fade-away are his staples. We don’t see enough of the sweeping hook across the lane or any interior look, really. When he gets his feet in the paint he scores, he just doesn’t get there enough. Nevertheless he is averaging 16 points per game and remains an indispensible part of the offense. He just needs more time to settle in to the “new Blazers”.
Big Question Entering the Season: How would he fit in alongside Greg Oden and whether he’d be able to adjust his offense?
Answer So Far: We’re still figuring things out but 16 points per game isn’t awful.
Steve Blake has enhanced his Jack-of-All-Trades reputation by morphing from a set-up man into a three-point specialist. The surprising thing is not just how good he is at shooting them (43.3% so far, which would be a career high easily) but how much the team has come to rely upon him hitting for their success. All of those guys who are hounding Brandon Roy and Greg Oden are coming from somewhere. The traditional book has been to spare whoever is assigned to Blake. When Blake hits you can’t do that. You’re stuck picking your poison and praying somebody in scarlet and black an off night. That’s exactly what great teams force opponents to do. The new, off-guard-ish Blake is playing as many minutes as he ever has and his taking and hitting more shots than he ever has. This versatility makes the Blazers “point” guard future that much more interesting.
Big Question Entering the Season: Can he become enough of an offensive threat to keep opponents honest?
Answer So Far: Even though he still can’t create for himself he is doing a fantastic job due to that three-point marksmanship.
Travis Outlaw’s season has been up and down so far. Highlight include a 20-point outing in a victory against the Orlando Magic and a 14-point, 13-rebound game against the Houston Rockets on a night when the Blazers needed every point and rebound they could get. Lowlights include 8 single-digit scoring performances in 22 games during a season in which he’s getting more minutes more consistently than he ever has. Travis’ shots, points, rebounds, shooting percentage, free throw attempts, and free throw percentages are all down even though he’s getting as much playing time as he did last season. Part of this is that the team isn’t setting him up and clearing out as much this year. But the space for a player who needs to work in isolation to succeed on is limited on this team and will become more so as the team gels. The overwhelming positive for Travis has been his success in shooting the long ball--a valued commodity on this squad. Outlaw is taking 3 triples per game as opposed to last year’s 1.2 clip, which was in itself a career high. He’s also shooting 50% from distance which obliterates last year’s career high of 39.6% and puts him in rarified company in the league. Right now he’s James Jones with hops. Outlaw has been switching between small forward and power forward. He seems more comfortable against slower opponents. He’s had little success in getting past quicker forwards. Whether his improvement from range balances his singular (sometimes spectacular, sometimes jarring, sometimes just anemic) performance in other areas and fits the Blazers’ need at small forward remains an open question.
Big Question Entering the Season: Can Travis finally put together a bankable run during which he consistently punishes opponents and allows the Blazers to feel secure playing him?
Answer So Far: Nope.
Rudy Fernandez came into the season with great expectations and has managed to fulfill most of them. His statistics are more solid than those of the typical rookie: 26 minutes, 11.4 points, 3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 43.6% shooting, 43.4% three-point shooting on 5.1 attempts per game, 95.7% foul shooting, leading all Blazer smalls in adjusted field goal percentage and points per shot. It’s not the quantity of the numbers, it’s the quality. The guy is like a robot offensively. He knows where to be on the court, he’s always ready to shoot, he never makes you sorry you passed to him. His oft-mentioned off-ball movement revolutionized the Blazers’ offense. It’s one thing for the coaches to draw it up on a chalkboard. It’s another to see it enacted in real time. Rudy made the Blazers believers that this unselfish, move-and-pick offense could work. He’s still learning the league defensively. He’s also adjusting to the reality that with 82 games spaced so closely there are some nights you’re just going to be off. If those are all the rookie pains you have you’re doing something right. His strongest asset remains his ability to enhance any lineup combination. He’s not dominant, he’s complementary in the best sense of the word.
Big Question Entering the Season: How long will it take him to adjust to the NBA game?
Answer So Far: Done and done. Oh, and I cleaned your gutters, changed the oil in the van, and taught your daughter some Chopin on the piano. Did you have anything else for me to do this afternoon?
Joel Przybilla’s role figured to morph with Greg Oden coming on board and presumably taking the starting center position. Greg’s early-season injury postponed those plans, thrusting Joel into the spotlight once again. It may have been a blessing in disguise, as Pryzbilla got a strong start to the season and hasn’t let up yet. His response to the Big Change has been to cram every bit of goodness he can into every possession. As a result he’s averaging about as many minutes as a reserve as he did in the starting role last year. Joel’s pick-setting and rebounding are as immaculate as ever. He’s still defending well, of course. Now that the Blazer Backstop duties are shared with Oden you see a more carefree approach to the game. He’s not on himself for every foul. He’s just playing ball. Oh, and there’s that 81.4% shooting clip. The combination of deep shooting and penetration dishes on this team leave the center in a Nothing But Dunks offense with nobody between him and the rim. Welcome to paradise, Mr. Przybilla. Joel has been one of the anchors of this team…the guy who does his job every night no matter what. It’s a great example for the young players, star and role-player alike.
Big Question Entering the Season: How will a reduced role affect Joel’s game?
Answer So Far: Hasn’t happened so far because he’s flourishing.
Greg Oden has been occasionally brilliant, often frustrated, and mostly learning on the job so far this year. The best things about his game right now are the ones that come naturally. His huge size makes getting around him difficult for opponents. You can forget the rebound if he’s boxing you out. He’s like a vacuum cleaner down there. He’ll get up and block some shots. And if you ever give him daylight near the offensive rim you can expect an instant and overwhelming flush. Even the base-level Greg Oden has changed the Blazers in a way nobody else could. The attention he draws is irreplaceable. On the other end of the spectrum his mechanics need a ton of work. His offensive footwork is worse than rudimentary. He sometimes breaks the defense through poor (or no) rotations. He doesn’t have much of a shot. He gets stripped a ton because he doesn’t protect the ball. Of all the things he’s missing right now the dearest is his pre-surgery ability to rise from a flat-footed stand and ram the ball home. When your offense is limited to dunks lack of lift really kills you. How many times have we seen him grab an offense rebound under the bucket and then have to hesitate and make an awkward move to try and get free, resulting in a strip, block, or travel? That goes away if he’s 100%. But that’s not going to happen for a while, which should give him a chance to learn other ways of dealing with those situations…like some offensive fundamentals. He also has to bring the fouling under control…a notoriously hard progression for big men to make. That aside, no single big man has created more change in the Blazers since Rasheed Wallace came on board back in 1996. And the player with that designation before Rasheed was Bill Walton. That bodes well for Oden’s career. For now 7.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks will have to do.
Big Question Entering the Season: How much can he show early?
Answer So Far: Just a fraction of his eventual potential, but it’s already helping.
Nicolas Batum surprised everybody around the league by earning the starting small forward role from the second game of the season on. He does it by playing aggressive defense, rebounding, and hitting the open shot when it’s presented to him. He still has a ways to go physically and he has more offensive skill than he’s showing right now. However he does have the ability to blend into the offense instead of warping it…a clear advantage on this team over Travis Outlaw. Whether Batum has been a stopgap measure with Martell Webster’s injury or whether he’s carved out a space in the rotation remains to be seen, but either way he’s acquitted himself well.
Big Question Entering the Season: Can he be a player in this league?
Answer So Far: YES. Defense, rebounding, distance shooting, and offensive continuity are always in style. In fact he might become one of the players to get excited about.
Sergio Rodriguez spent last season in limbo: frustrated, disjointed, and in the coach’s doghouse. His future with the Blazers looked to be up in the air entering this season. Had he come out directionless, mistake-prone, or even discouraged he could have easily gotten buried in the rotation. Instead two things happened. First the Blazers offense opened up. The team is now populated with players who know the value of cutting through the interior and being prepared to shoot outside. That means Sergio’s passes find better targets than they ever have. Second, Sergio didn’t come out directionless, mistake-prone, or discouraged. He came out playing professionally. It’s been a classic case of circumstances opening up opportunity for a player and that player seizing it. Rodriguez is now firmly ensconced as the team’s back-up point guard, not only eating into Steve Blakes minutes but keeping lottery pick Jerryd Bayless on the bench. Sergio’s passing remains as strong as ever. His improvement in three areas has made him more than just an assist machine though. First, even though he’s no better of a perimeter defender than most of the Blazer guards, he’s no worse either. Last year you’d notice Sergio constantly on defense for his glaring mistakes. You just don’t notice him much on that end of the floor now. That’s a good thing. Also he’s beginning to take advantage of the things he can do defensively. He moves his feet quickly and does a better job staying in front of his man without losing focus or getting bodied out of the way. He also roams the passing lane and occasionally generates turnovers. Second Sergio has better recognition of his place in the overall offense as a point guard. Last year you’d say, “Look! SERGIO passed to somebody who scored.” This year you say, “Oooh…nice dunk Rudy! Hey…Sergio set him up there.” Finally, even though he’s not shooting any better overall and still isn’t able to finish well off of the drive, he is hitting the long ball and looking more confident in his shot overall. Considering where he came from, Sergio has shown us a lot. He’s getting more important minutes because of it.
Big Question Entering the Season: How will Sergio approach the season?
Answer So Far: Like a pro.
Channing Frye has had a rough go of it so far. The outside shot is his only reliable weapon. When he hits hit he tends to shoot the lights out. When he’s off it’s a long night. Technically, though, it’s been a short night because he doesn’t do enough other things--defend, rebound, pick, drive, post--to keep him on the floor. He either hits the jumper or he sits. 41.6% shooting isn’t awful if you’re a 6’4” gunner but from your power forward it’s 7-8% below what you’d like to see. The pattern of Channing playing better with more minutes has generally held true. When he gets long stretches you start to see him relax and contribute. He’s just not the type of guy to live or die with a 4-minute stretch. That makes coming off the bench problematic. There aren’t a ton of minutes left on this team and if you can’t claim short ones with authority you won’t get longer ones. Channing hasn’t played authoritatively and that’s pretty much his story.
Big Question Entering the Season: Can he carve out some playing time in a crowded frontcourt?
Answer So Far: Not with a Ginsu he couldn’t.
Jerryd Bayless has barely seen the floor this season. He’s not looked comfortable captaining the offense. He’s not been overly aggressive getting his own either…probably wanting to show that he can be a point guard first, which is what this team needs right now. Most of all, Nate McMillan likes stability from his point guards and so a rookie will have trouble cracking that rotation even under the best of circumstances. With Blake and Rodriguez having the best seasons of their careers Bayless remains nailed to the pines.
Big Question Entering the Season: Will he get a chance to dazzle?
Answer So Far: Not so far. And maybe the better question is whether he’s supposed to dazzle.
The Bottom Line:
The bottom line so far this season is simply the record. 15-7 is incredible. Whatever the Blazers are doing right or wrong they’re pulling out wins. That’s what this league is about. We’ll see prettier ball from the Blazers as time goes by. It’s hard to imagine seeing a better winning percentage.