The Blazers are 10-2, on an eight game winning streak, and have just swept an early season four game Eastern Conference road trip. The schedule has been kind thus far (the four teams on their road trip sport a combined record of 14-32), but is about to get harder. Four of their next seven games come against the Bulls, Warriors, Pacers and Thunder. We'll learn a lot about the Blazers in these next seven games, but for now we should celebrate the Blazers' early success. Here are five observations on the early season.
1. The Blazers have had arguably the best start of any team in the NBA. Coming into the season, everyone predicted the Western conference would be split into three tiers. The first tier was the "big six": San Antonio, Oklahoma City, LA Clippers, Golden State, Houston, Memphis. The second tier would be the five or so teams fighting for the last two playoff spots: Minnesota, Denver, Portland, Dallas, possibly New Orleans and the Lakers. The third tier would be the three teams Riggin' for Wiggins: Utah, Phoenix, and Sacramento. The East was pretty clear, with only Miami, Indiana and Chicago having any chance to go to the finals (and possibly Brooklyn, depending on health and Jason Kidd's success as a first-time head coach).
Roughly 12 games into the NBA season, Portland sits only a half game out of first place in the West. The schedule will get harder, but the Blazers have positioned themselves better than any of the other teams in the Western Conference's supposed "second tier" of teams. Portland can play .500 ball the rest of the way (essentially 35-35) and end the year with 45 wins, which would likely make them a playoff team. I personally think they will do better than .500 the rest of the year, which means 50 wins isn't out of the question. No one predicted 50 wins at the beginning of the year.
2. These Blazers aren't going to ever be a defensive powerhouse. Last year, some fans questioned why Terry Stotts wasn't simply importing the now-famous defensive systems used by Chicago, Indiana, etc. This year, we are seeing Stotts copy those systems run by Tom Thibodeau, Frank Vogel, et. al. The system Stotts is running this year is designed to take away "high-yeild" shots: three's (especially corner looks), and post shots. He wants to force opponents to take lots of low-yeild midrange shots. So far, that's mostly what they've been doing. Portland has been yielding the fewest three's (makes and attempts) in the league through 12 games, only allowing a paltry 0.9 corner three's per game.
However, the fact remains this Portland team won't come close to a top-10 defense this season. Why? For the simple reason that no matter what system Stotts runs, the Blazers just don't have the same quality of players as teams like Indiana. Let me phrase it another way: if your starting five is George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert, that's going to be a excellent defensive team no matter what system they run.
The Blazers just don't have an elite defender on the roster. Wes Matthews, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez are all average or above average defensively, Nicolas Batum has all the tools to be a lockdown defender but just hasn't put it all together, and Damian Lillard is still solidly below average. The Blazers reserves certainly don't help matters. Mo Williams is a below-average defender, CJ McCollum (when he comes back from injury) is going to be a minus on the defensive end as well, Dorell Wright is versatile if unspectacular, Thomas Robinson is solid but still young and experiences growing pains, and Joel Freeland, while improved, is still below average. Is a league-average defense from this group possible? Sure. But they won't be top-10.
3. The offense, however, is awesome. The Blazers are easily a top-10 offense in the league right now. They're 7th in the league in points per game, 6th in point differential (+5.7) and are scoring 110.7 points per 100 possessions, good for third in the Association. They're shooting lights-out too: fourth in the NBA in 3P% (41.5%) and third in the NBA in three's made per game (9.9), behind only Golden State (no surprise) and the
Lakers ... wait, the Lakers? Yeah, that'll change.
Here's the thing about the offense: it's completely sustainable. In the "Terry Stotts not apologizing for jacking up all the three's" article, Dave said Stotts apologizing for shooting so many three's would be like Hersey apologizing for making chocolate. And he's absolutely right. Why should Lamborghini apologize for cranking out world-class cars? The Blazers have elite shooting at four positions on the floor (1-4) and have the personnel to maintain four elite shooters on the floor at all times in Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge, Williams and Dorell Wright. The only times the Blazers don't have elite shooting at all four positions is when Robinson shares the floor with either Lopez or Freeland (which has only happened for 75 minutes this season).
The reason the offense is sustainable - really, the reason the three point shooting is sustainable - is because all of Portland's shooters are above average three point shooters. Stotts has designed this flow offense to create good shots from deep. It's heavy on the ball movement, with lots of emphasis on passing and vision. Lillard and Mo Williams are the two primary creators, with Batum having blossomed into a facilitator and secondary playmaker. The Blazers are unselfish and hunt for good looks. The Blazers aren't pulling a Monta Ellis, dribbling a dozen times and then jacking up a contested 25-footer, they're shooting good, open looks from behind the arc in an offense designed to create those exact shots. Yes, there are going to be some games where the opponent controls the pace, shuts down the Blazers' ball movement, and forces Portland into a 4-for-18 night on three's, and on those nights the Blazers will lose by 15. But for the most part those games will be the exception, not the rule. There will also be games where the Blazers will get absolutely lit up by opponents, but the good news is the Blazers are built for shootouts. If you want to beat the Blazers in a shootout you're going to have to score 125 points, something not many teams are capable of doing.
4. The Blazers don't play small-ball. Ever. Tim Duncan is the greatest power forward of all time. This is indisputable. (Monty Python Corollary: noting is ever truly inarguable.) In an NBA world where the greatest power forward of all time can log significant minutes at center, LaMarcus "The L-Train" Aldridge can also play center. If Terry Stotts wanted to, he could play an incredibly dangerous small-ball lineup featuring Aldridge or Lopez (or in ultra small ball lineups Freeland or Robinson) at center surrounded by four shooters - some combination of Lillard, Williams, Matthews, Batum and Wright. So far this season Stotts has been incredibly reluctant to do so, preferring to keep two traditional bigs on the floor at all times.
Per 82games.com, the Blazers have only logged 25 minutes with one traditional "big" in the lineup. When the Blazers have gone small it is with Aldridge at center and Batum or Wright at power forward (when Batum has played the four Matthews has been the nominal small forward in the lineup). As Zach Lowe points out in the Grantland article linked above, one of the reasons (and possibly the primary reason) that Stotts keeps two big men on the floor is to mimic those systems employed by Frank Vogel and Tom Thibodeau. (Another primary reason for keeping two traditional bigs on the floor at all times is the franchise's commitment to the development of Thomas Robinson. He won't play if he hasn't earned his minutes (see: Leonard, Meyers) but getting him PT is definitely a priority.) However, it should be pointed out that neither Indiana nor Chicago boast particularly explosive offenses.
Neil Olshey and Terry Stotts have assembled a lineup that is tailor-made to play small ball, so it will be worth watching how willing Stotts is to play Wright at power forward and shift Aldridge to center (or to even go small when Aldridge is off the court all together and surround Lopez or Freeland with four shooters). It may be something the Blazers use when they are behind and need points to get back into a game, or it could be used as a tactic against teams to force them to adapt to the Blazers. It's a potentially potent lineup, and something to watch going forward.
5. The Omer Asik trade that should happen, or shouldn't happen, or the Player X trade that should happen, or shouldn't happen, I don't know why don't you go ask Dave he's a really smart guy. Last season the Blazers were a train wreck primarily because no one on the roster was an actual NBA player after Lillard, Matthews, Batum and Aldridge (Hickson was fine, but only as a backup power forward, not a starting center). This year they are succeeding in large part because they have nine players who are mostly worthy of minutes on a good NBA team. The Blazers still have holes (they could use another wing, and an upgrade at center would still be welcome), and the Omer Asik situation in Houston has fired up the trade talk earlier than expected.
First, I want to talk about the Asik trade specifically, because it's been so popular in the past few days here at BE. People trashing him for being a "low character guy" or a "clubhouse cancer" are being ridiculous. There was absolutely zero talk of him being a problem guy this summer. When Houston signed Dwight back in July, Asik made it very clear to the Rockets that we would like a trade because he knew he and Dwight couldn't co-exist on the floor together. Kevin McHale (who is in my opinion and underrated NBA head coach) tried starting them together early this year and gave up after a handful of games, at which time Asik lost his starting job. At that point he didn't play in a few games, and even asked out of the Knicks game because he wasn't in a good place mentally. Him asking for a trade because he (rightfully) believes he is a starting-caliber center in this league does not make him a cancer. As soon as the Rockets signed Howard Asik was done in Houston, and I think Daryl Morey knew that too.
Would I trade for Asik, or any other player for that matter? Well in this, as in all things, context is king. The problem is their resources are limited. They mostly likely won't have a first round pick this year to use in a trade (unless something goes horribly, horribly wrong), and Neil Olshey won't be taking on any bad contracts that would cut into his cap room in the summer of 2015. That leaves them with the players on the roster currently with which to make a deal.
Right now trading any of the "core four" players is inconceivable. They're a young core with a great thing going offensively and it would be a huge mistake to break that up. Everyone else, however, is potentially on the table. Trading Lopez for Asik would be an upgrade at the starting center position, but you're still playing Freeland as his primary backup. I agree with Dave, acquiring Asik only makes sense if the Blazers can keep Lopez and all of the "core four". Would Houston be interested in any package the Blazers could offer that doesn't include any of the current starting five? Possibly, but doubtful.
The only deal I can think of is either a straight-up deal with Houston or a three team deal that sends Freeland and Dorell Wright to Houston (Wright would be the stretch four that can hit three's Morey wants to put next to Howard so badly, and Freeland is a good teammate and happy being a backup), and CJ McCollum going to either Houston or a third team. (Disclaimer: I'm not saying Houston would accept a McCollum-Wright-Freeland deal, or even that Portland should offer Houston that deal. It's simply the best deal Portland could offer without giving up any of their starting five.) The Blazers would get back Asik and run out a top eight of Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge, Asik, Williams, Robinson, and Lopez. The problem with that trade is then the Blazers are forced to move Claver into the minutes vacated by Wright (an obvious downgrade), and are in need of probably two wings to make a serious playoff run. They would need to rely on Allen Crabbe to develop enough to crack Stotts' rotation (a shaky proposition at best), and still figure out a way to acquire another wing.
And that's the problem with any potential trade that is floated around this season: you can't get something for nothing. So when you hear things like "Omer Asik is available" or "OJ Mayo wants out of Milwaukee" or "Philly wants to dump Evan Turner because he's hurting their attempts at Riggin' for Wiggins", we need to think about the opportunity cost of acquiring that player. Is the net gain in upgrading from Lopez to Asik, and by extension from Freeland to Lopez, going to outweigh the loss incurred by losing Wright and McCollum? When your resources are limited (as Olshey's are), it's hard to construct a deal to acquire an impact player that doesn't completely disrupt the team you have now.