Portland Trail Blazers All-Star Break Assessment Part 2: The Players

Yesterday we took a look at the Portland Trail Blazers' performance as a team during the first half of the season. Today we're going to look at individual players. It's going to be impossible to treat the entire roster exhaustively. We generally spend a couple weeks or more in this process at the end of the season. There's no way to cram it into one post. Therefore we're going to look at the major rotation guys and hit the highlights. If you want to talk about other players, do so in the comment section and I'll try to chime in with some observations.

LaMarcus Aldridge

LaMarcus Aldridge is having the best season of his career. There's no other way to put it. Although all gains are incremental, he's posting both career highs and improvements over last season in just about every statistical category on a per-minute basis: field goals made and attempted, free throws made and attempted, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, defensive rebounds, total rebounds, assists, steals, points scored, and PER. Better team defense has also floated his defensive boat, freeing him to roam the floor when he can, concentrate on his man when he must, all without worrying whether his backcourt is going to let men blow by into his area.

Oddly enough, he's doing all this without getting inside on offense. He has perfected that left-side extended post-up game. He's still deadly with the face-up jumper. He's still awkward when he goes to the rim. He's not getting nearly as many alley-oops as he did when his star rose at the hands of Andre Miller. But he just keeps on scoring in traditionally inefficient ways. Lots of teams have good power forwards. Few have power forwards who do it like LaMarcus. That's not to say he's better than everybody else, just unique.

However unusual his prowess, it's plenty enough to draw attention and free up teammates. Understand that Aldridge's numbers alone are only half the story. Without him nobody else on this roster gets free...not for threes, not driving the lane, nothing. The rest of the rotation is dicey enough when open. Imagine their percentage if they had hands in their faces for every shot or were forced to rely on their dribbling alone to get free. That should give you chills and send you bowing frantically at the altar of #12.

Despite the impressive performance, Aldridge still carries his traditional weaknesses. His rebounding numbers are low, his blocked shots non-existent. Because of his style of play he doesn't draw fouls commensurate with his talent. He's not a great clutch player, no more likely to shoot the ball in critical possessions than teammates and far more likely to drift to the outside for a tough shot when he does. Aldridge has been dogged by the "soft" label in the past. In most ways you'd have to say, "If so, it doesn't matter." Look at what he's doing! We should all be that kind of "soft". But teams take on the personalities of their leaders and/or best players. Aldridge is clearly both for Portland...the heart of everything they do. His personality is not aggressive. He and this team spend as much time hanging their heads as hanging game-winning shots on their opponents. They're just too...nice. Aldridge is smooth, impressive, talented. He hasn't shown the edge that true superstars do, willing their teams to victory and getting nasty in defeat.

Still, it's unfair to criticize a guy for being who he is. This is still LaMarcus Aldridge but he's the best, most effective, and most reliable LaMarcus Aldridge we've ever seen. He's not only an All-Star but a player ever NBA team would covet. That's plenty of return on investment for the Blazers and darned important to this squad. Take Aldridge away and they're sunk. With Aldridge they have a chance every night. What else do you want?

Gerald Wallace

Gerald Wallace's story is almost the opposite of Aldridge's. His overall field goal percentage is up, as he's doing most of his scoring at the rim. His assists are up. But he's scoring less frequently, notching fewer points, his three-point percentage and rebounding numbers have sunk significantly, as have his PER and the percentages that take into account extra points. His jump shot doesn't even merit mention. If anything Wallace has become a defensive specialist. He's suited for that role but the Blazers need and expect more than that from their second best overall player.

The critical understanding here is that Wallace is a barometer of the team, not a game-changer in his own right. He's like a battering ram. If you're swinging in the right direction he's devastating. But if not he's not going to break down that door himself. When the Blazers play good team defense, rebound and run out, move the ball enough to get him a clear lane or at least a wide-open shot he's a weapon. If the team isn't working hard and the tempo isn't brisk he doesn't get any shots in his wheelhouse. When he has to manufacture points on his own, he doesn't even look ordinary. The offense is forced and ineffective.

Much has been made of Wallace's road woes but his defensive work has been adequate away from home, at least until it's apparent that the whole team has given up. In general the team has played without life and emotion on the road. They've squashed any momentum he could generate, which in turn has sapped his energy, which has made their play poorer and even more lifeless, and so on.

The Blazers had to know from his Charlotte years that Gerald Wallace wouldn't take a team on his back and lead them to victory himself. He could be called the best, most intimidating complementary player in the league. But he needs something to complement. The Blazers, on the other hand, need someone to turn the tide rather than push in whatever direction it's already flowing. So far that's made them a shaky match. Wallace's talent and energy are undeniable. His contributions may be under-appreciated at this point. But at some point you get measured by effect and Wallace hasn't had anywhere near the transformational effect on this team that his early play for them promised.

Click through for a reading on the rest of the rotation players.

Wesley Matthews

Wallace's decline is peanuts compared to the slide of Wesley Matthews so far this season. His overall field goal percentage has dropped from 45% to 41.5%, his three-point percentage from 41% to 35%. His points and points per minute are way down. He's still defending well enough but the Blazers already field one defensive specialist in the starting lineup in Marcus Camby. With Gerald Wallace becoming a de facto second Matthews' downward trend is ill-timed.

Then again, Matthews' teammates aren't looking for him on offense. At no point in his career has he been a good one-on-one player. Outside of Greg Oden he's the least likely Blazer to finish on the break right now and converting a fast break is the easiest form of one-on-one play there is. We've all seen the results when he attempts the more difficult forms. He can be a weapon but he needs to be set up by teammates who understand his strengths.

Matthews had some good outings early in the season, looking confident and ready to fill the starting role. Then he got away from his strengths. Once his confidence fell it appeared to plummet. Even open shots weren't falling. His teammates began to shy away from him and the spiral began. With more experience together as a team and/or a point guard who understood Matthews' needs and importance the Blazers might have gotten him back on track. They have neither, so Matthews languishes. Part of it is his responsibility. Confidence is earned. You cannot miss open threes when that's your calling card. Part of it lies with his teammates. Either way, Portland is left with another defender under-performing on offense at a position of critical need. That's not the way this season was scripted for one of the three young core players this team has committed (or will shortly commit) to.

Raymond Felton

You want to be careful comparing year-to-year numbers when a player has switched teams, particularly when he's done so thrice in a year as Raymond Felton has. But even if you assume some degree of turmoil getting acclimated to a new home, Felton's numbers are beyond the pale. His shooting percentage is in the toilet, 38% compared to his 42.5% aggregate last year. You'd need a plunger and a snake to find his three-point percentage. Last year it was a career-high 46%, this year a career-low 25%. We knew Felton would be wishing for Miller's experience, court presence, connection with LaMarcus Aldridge this season. When Felton is also wishing for Miller's three-point percentage (29%), something has gang agley. (And lae'ing us nought but grief an' pain.)

Felton's minutes per game are up but free throws are down, rebounds down, assists down, turnovers up. Don't even ask about his advanced percentages. It's just ugly across the board.

The clearest critique of Felton's play came just before the All-Star break when Portland coach Nate McMillan sent him to the bench in favor of Jamal Crawford. Jamal Crawford is no point guard. You know that, I know it, Jesus knows it, Nate McMillan knows it, and Jamal Crawford knows it. Heck, Crawford hasn't been playing all that well this season either. But not-quite-a-point-guard not playing well is better at this point than Felton has been.

In Felton's defense he is getting used to the team and the system. He's also had effective moments. And really the offense does look smoother under pressure when he's in there even with the turnovers. His younger counterparts haven't made any claim to his spot. He remains the only true and capable point guard on the roster. Sometimes you need a true and capable point guard. You just wish the cost weren't so high right now: turnovers, missed shots, confidence shot to heck, and Felton seemingly pressuring himself more with every brick instead of putting pressure on his opponents. No matter how you spin it, this is one half-season that both Felton and the Blazers would like to forget.

Jamal Crawford

If Jamal Crawford submitted a cover letter for a job he'd only need one line: Instant Offense, Delivered Nightly. What else does he do but hit the wildest assortment of scary shots this side of Kobe Bryant and bring opponents to their knees?

Therefore there's only one thing you need to know about Crawford's first few months with the Blazers. He's shooting shots at a greater rate than he has ever in his career. He's also shooting the lowest percentage he's registered since 2003-04, and his third lowest in twelve seasons. It's kind of like coveting your friend's girl even though she's kinda crazy because she can really sing, then you start going out with her and find out she's really crazy and can kinda sing.

On the bright side--people who wonder why Crawford doesn't get the same scathing reviews as Felton when both struggle should note that "bright side" would have been a non-sequitur in the previous section--Crawford's three-point and free throw percentages are up. He attempts more threes per minute than anybody on the team and more free throws per minute than anybody outside of Aldridge. Being used as a part-time point guard has also spiked his assist percentage to levels not seen since the Bulls once thought he was a point guard. He's still got some of the magic left in him. But that magic wasn't enough to convince anybody in the league that he could play point permanently. He only excelled when he was left free to score without restraint or worry.

For all the missing, he's definitely the best Blazer at worry-free scoring. Reading the sections on the other guards and forwards should convince even skeptics that the Blazers need somebody to put the ball in the hoop, particularly if that someone can also dribble. Crawford fits the bill. The proper perspective on Crawford's season so far may not be that he turns into a conscience-free ball-hog, rather that the Blazers need him so desperately to do exactly that.

Early returns on Crawford's promotion to starting point guard have been positive, but it's too early to say how that will work long-term. The league has a way of catching up to teams that are faking it. Let's hope what we've seen is for real.

Nicolas Batum

The Blazers finally get some good news in the person of Nicolas Batum, the only guy south of Aldridge and north of the perma-bench crew to exceed expectations so far this year. Batum is playing fewer minutes per game than last season but scoring more, producing more rebounds per minute, shooting better, excelling from the three-point arc (42% compared to 34.5% last season while attempting more), and contributing to the team's solid defense. His blocked shots have made nearly as big of a statement as his three-pointers. He's getting more touches. He's blowing the roof off of effective field goal and true shooting percentages. You like everything this guy is doing right now, including his progression from a relatively timid and shaky beginning of the season to his promotion to starting shooting guard right before the break.

Some have questioned Coach McMillan limiting Batum's minutes earlier in the year. He jumped from 25 minutes per game in January to 33 in February. He did drift through some games in the early part of the year. Some combination of stamina, confidence, and more experienced players ahead of him may have factored in along with the decisions of the coach. This probably won't be an issue going forwards and Batum should be one of the few Blazers fresh for the stretch run of the season...a nice side effect.

We're trying to be balanced in these reviews, giving the positive and the negative but honestly it's hard to find too much negative about Batum's game that isn't a couple months old now. He's peaking, that's great for the Blazers--like an oasis in the desert--and we'll leave it at that.

Marcus Camby

Old Man River, he just keeps rolling along. Aside from a couple fewer minutes played and an insignificant (given his attempts) 61% to 51% drop in his free throw shooting Camby's numbers are in line with last season. The rebounding isn't quite as sharp. Turnovers are up slightly. It's nothing to write home about. Camby is...Camby.

The real storylines surrounding Marcus this year have been two. Fatigue has robbed him of the ability to perform during back-to-backs and sometimes on the road. Also, like Gerald Wallace, he's had some game-changing moments but hasn't been much of a life preserver when the Blazers get washed overboard. We haven't seen the same intensity from Camby that we did when this team was charging towards the playoffs in years past. It's almost like he's running the treadmill, keeping in shape and doing his duty but knowing that this is going to end up short of his ideal. Then again, he'll still punctuate a blocked shot with a wagging finger or dive on the floor for a loose ball, so he's still here and having fun. There's not much to complain about here, just nothing that's going to alter the fortunes of the team either.

Chime in yourself below about these players or any others you'd like to discuss. For my part, I want to see a full season from the other players before making too many statements about them, but don't let that stop you if you want to go on an Elliot Williams or Craig Smith binge.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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