Last week somebody asked a mailbag question about Portland's strengths coming into the season. We've talked so much about the thin bench, inexperience, 1.5-dimensional players, and division cellars that we need a little encouragement. I can't find the e-mail anymore, but here's to you, my strength-seeking friend.
I mentioned early in the summer that the Blazers could capitalize on at least one overwhelming area of strength in the coming year. A couple months and a half-dozen moves haven't changed the assessment much.
Finally, after multiple years of point guard party fouls, the Blazers have a complete lineup of shooters. And by "complete" I mean "everybody who matters can shoot the heck out of the ball from range".
Damian Lillard should be a big step up in this area. He shot 41% from the arc last year in college. Defenders will come quicker in the NBA. Many rookies find their shot deserting them because they're not used to getting it up under pressure. But Lillard also has LaMarcus Aldridge on his team. Anybody remember how many unguarded shots Raymond "Why Are We Mentioning His Name Again" Felton got off of Aldridge double-teams last season? (Hint: If Felton had a nickel for every time he bricked an open three he'd be making Paul Allen swab the deck on his yacht.) Lillard may struggle to find the range early or he may adapt naturally. Either way, his shot won't desert him forever.
Then we move to Wesley Matthews at 38% on threes last year, 39% for his career. Nicolas Batum shot 39% from distance last year and averages 37% for his career. Defenders can't leave those guys either.
Finally you have Aldridge himself. He's not a three-point shooter, nor should he become one. But he does average 51% from the field. That's a decent average for a big man...if we're talking post players. 70% of Aldridge's attempts are jumpers, however. 51% is a stupendous number for a guy making his living from mid-range. Factoring in position and size, Aldridge is as potent of a shooter as any of his starting mates.
Add it all up and this starting lineup will be as good at spreading the floor as any in the NBA. To what end, though?
The Blazers are primed to take advantage of a big guy who can score down low against single coverage. That's part of the reason they went after Roy Hibbert so hard this summer. Having fallen short on that front, both organization and fans would be justified taking yet another moment of silence for He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Blamed and the promise that went down the tubes with the demise of his knees. Imagine what a 7-foot rim-ripping monster could do with dunks and offensive rebounds with every defender but his own glued to a shooter.
Absent the big man, Portland will rely on players getting to the bucket off the drive. Actually strike that. The plural should not have been used there. The Blazers will pray that a player--Lillard--can show off his dribble on the way to the rim. If Batum or Matthews hand handles you could forecast near 20-point averages for either. Neither they nor Aldridge have that kind of game, however. It's Damian or nothing.
Finding points at the cup will be one of the main riddles the Portland offense will need to solve, lest they devolve into a jump-shooting half court team. No matter how honed your skill and pure your form, overall percentages will catch up to that kind of offense.
This year isn't the end of the story, however. Assuming the starting four stays stable for a couple years, Blazer fans may want to begin combing the ranks of future draftees for centers who can finish or wingmen with a awesome driving skills and a little bit of a jumper to go with. Portland might not set the world on fire immediately, but shooting never goes out of style. (Or at least it gets older at a slower rate than any other skill.) Add the right players to the mix and you're going to see the power of this not-so-secret ability.
Until then, though, there's still an Oden-shaped hole in the middle of this lineup.