Hey folks, before we get started with the Mailbag I have an announcement.
The other day in the "Where are You From?" post I promised that if we got enough replies, we'd have something special. We got PLENTY and as it turns out, our friends at Million Dollar Ballers have stepped up with the something special. They're a t-shirt company based out of Portland and they're giving a t-shirt to three lucky Blazer's Edge readers:
Those winners are: Arby from Downtown Portland, tp90 from northern Idaho, and Blazer All-Star Meal from Ireland. If you are one of those three people, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can hook you up.
To avoid accusations of favoritism, especially since one of the winners lives close to me, here's a photo of the three ten-sided dice used to determine the recipients:
You cannot get any geekier or more random than that, at least not without a license and a reasonable chance that you'll have to dodge besotted chePOrtlanerleaders all afternoon.
Congrats to our recipients and thanks to everybody who let us know where they hail from. On with the Mailbag!
It seems like certain teams have our number. (Phoenix, Houston) Do you believe in that? Is it just about bad matchups or is something more supernatural going on?
Not supernatural, I think, although at some point teams do get into each other's heads. It seemed like Seattle and Portland always played each other tough no matter what the individual fortunes of the teams. You also have the Lakers in the Rose Garden example. World Champs? Not tonight you aren't.
Houston presents obvious matchup problems for Portland. The Blazers should be able to win games from the Rockets but over the long haul Houston will probably be able to hit Portland in their most vulnerable spots. Phoenix presents a different set of issues with Goran Dragic turning into Superman and bigs who can pull Portland defenders outside of the paint. Mental/emotional confidence came into play with Phoenix in those three early matchups too. They caught the Blazers on a horrible opening night, lost to Portland in the Moda Center by a single point (and somewhat by accident) and then won again in Phoenix. Success breeds success. The less threatened you feel the better you tend to play and the easier you make up for your mistakes.
But this same principle has driven the Blazers to early-season wins as well. You can argue (and I would) that a couple of those wins during the big streak and maybe a couple after have come because the Blazers just don't expect to lose right now. They get 15 down and figure, "We'll come back."
I'm not sure any of that amounts to "having somebody's number". To me that's a hindsight narrative explanation in a world where some teams will naturally lose to others because of talent, strengths vs. weaknesses, timing, or sometimes just plain chance. The only numbers that really count are the ones on the scoreboard and the one in the win column.
I'm living in Phan Thiet, Viet Nam.
I'm a huge Damian Lillard's fan. I think the addition of Damian has made this team much better and more fun to watch. Aldridge is finally coming to be an unquestionable All Star. It's exciting to see that he's peaking with his potentials and how cool is it that he's still a Blazers. I hope Alridge and Lillard retire in their Blazers uniforms.
That's a rare accomplishment nowadays. You can take solace in the fact that, between the team's record and their performances, both are untouchable.
It'll be interesting to see what kind of player Lillard becomes. He's done several things well so far this season--cut turnovers, increased three-point percentage, scored more, drawn more foul shots--while blending into the offense much better than he did last year. It's hard to find anything to dislike about his season so far...at least anything that's affected his team.
Aldridge's accomplishments go without recounting. He's had a near-MVP-level start to the season. It'd be impossible to overrate his contributions to Portland's win total.
We live in a world where Clyde Drexler got traded and Brandon Roy got amnestied, so you can never say never. But so far, so good on your wish.
Much has been made about the improved play of the blazers bench this year. While Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson, and Dorrell Wright have indeed provided a spark off the bench, what I think is particularly noteworthy is the improved play of Joel Freeland. Specifically, he is playing much better defense.
I don't have any statistics to pack up this gut feeling, but last year it felt like he led the team (would be interested to know whether he was a league leader for that matter) in giving up "and one's." I am not sure whether there is any truth to this observation but it left like he gave up an inordinate number of baskets in which he allowed his man to score and draw the foul. Whether it is improved general conditioning or basketball IQ, it seems like the "and one's" have decreased this year for Joel.
Well, his fouls per-36 have decreased from 5.1 to 4.9. That's something.
Here are the three things you need to know about why Portland's centers look (and feel, and are) more effective defensively than last year.
1. They're not J.J. Hickson.
2. The coaching staff has schemed to fill the hole, allowing the centers to stay home more often, bringing the defense to their wheelhouse instead of asking them to roam. Part of this is personnel, Lopez and Freeland having more size and toughness than Hickson did. But part of it is Terry Stotts knowing what his centers can and can't do and deciding that he's going to work with it, shaping the defense around them. Notice that almost all the great plays Lopez and Freeland make come when they're deep in the paint and standing still, set up for the offensive player. Notice also how the defense tends to crumble when Robin has to flash out to the three-point arc or when Freeland has to trail a dribbler across the lane. They know who they are, they know what they can do, and they don't overplay their hand. That's not ideal, since you'd rather have more versatile defenders, but it's sure smart.
3. None of this works if Portland's perimeter guys aren't committed to defense and to protecting their bigs. The Blazers' offense has shown more tangible results than the defense so far, but it's been a while since I've seen Trail Blazers work so hard or take as much pride on the defensive end as the 2013-14 Blazers have. It starts with Nicolas Batum, sometimes aided by Wesley Matthews. But Aldridge and Lillard also get after it as best they can. They're not flat-out stopping people, but most of the time they're making sure that penetration gets channeled appropriately and that they're not leaving their big men swinging in the breeze in screen situations.
Here, too, you can see how committed the Blazers have been to this by noting the occasions when it hasn't happened. Witness the first half against Utah in their last game, for instance. The moment they let their guard down the opponent scores in the paint with ease. This team requires all cylinders firing in order to prosper. The nice thing so far is that they've gotten exactly that most nights. It's sure been pretty to watch.
Let me ask a question that you sometimes ask in the summer. If you could have a former Blazer back for this year's team who would you choose? Here's the trick. This team isn't made up of stars so you can't have a star player or even a former star like Scotty Pippen. Which lesser known Blazer would make the most impact and is there a player like that today that the Blazers could get?
We'd have to talk more about the definition of "star". To make sure I answer your question right, I'm going to draw that circle really big and stay away from anybody who would easily come to mind. That means no Greg Oden. He was never a star but you'd want him healthy which means he'd be progressing towards it quickly. If you look at Portland's demands on centers nowadays--stay near the hoop, police the lane, block shots, grab rebounds (especially offensive), score close to the hoop as an outlet or off of those O-rebs--Oden is pretty much the ideal guy. If the Blazers could get rookie Oden back right now and have a guarantee of no injuries I'm not sure you could find a better fit.
Even though G.O. is out of the picture I'm still looking at centers. One guy who would be really interesting is Theo Ratliff. He wasn't a good defensive rebounder but he was more adept on the offensive glass. His block shots were off the chart, of course. It'd be cool to see Lopez when you needed a bigger body and Ratliff when you wanted the center to roam a little and swat every shot that came in the lane.
The other option here is Joel Przybilla. He could also block shots and was a bigger, tougher player. But plenty of folks will think of Joel plus his offense was hard to watch, leaving the opponent to play defense 5 on 4. So I'm taking Theo.
I was watching your videocast this morning with Sam and I noticed you have a sizeable collection of board games. I'm looking to get my cousin a great board game for Christmas. Could you give me some recommendations? He loves strategy games like Catan. I had heard good things about Power Grid but I've never played it. Thanks so much for your time, and as always GO BLAZERS!
Props for noticing the games. It's hard to be definite without more info such as how many players he plays with, is he more of a casual gamer (Catan has a fairly low entry barrier) or a hardcore guy who likes rules and complexity, how long he likes games to take, and what specifically he likes about Settlers. But I can try.
Let's start with the most casual, all-purpose games that you can pick up any time you have 3-5 people over and have a good time. Ticket to Ride comes to mind easily. Also a game called Thurn and Taxis, about setting up a mail system in medieval Germany of all things.
If you have 5-8 people but still want easy, fun, and quick, check out a game called Shadow Hunters. Everybody at the table has a secret identity, either the Shadows (bad guys), the Hunters (good), or Neutrals (each in it for themselves). Shadows and Hunters win if all players on the other team are destroyed. Neutrals each win a different way. Every turn you roll the dice to move, execute a card depending on where you moved to, and then decide whether or not to attack the people around you. Not knowing who is who makes the latter decision tons of fun in the early game. It's easy and it's great for larger groups.
If you want to get slightly more complex but still not insane with a 72-page rulebook and 600 figurines, look at games like Dominion or 7 Wonders. Both deal primarily with cards. The advantage there is that the way each card works is usually written right on it. If you like cutthroat games you can't do better than Genoa. It contains some of the bargaining elements of Catan but you also have the ability to screw over your opponent. Genoa turns friends into Frenemies. Also interesting in the "somewhat complex" department is Blue Moon City. The main drawing point here is that I've seldom finished a game that's separated by more than a point or two. The game system keeps everybody close while still offering plenty of interesting choices and scheming. Infiltration has a couple nice dynamics too if you're looking for something out of the ordinary. It's about spies infiltrating a building. Only spies who also exit at the end get to count their score, however, so the game becomes about getting in, getting as much loot as you can, and then sabotaging everyone else as you leave the building.
Two space-based games also bear mentioning in the semi-complex category. The more complex of the two but an insane amount of fun is Cosmic Encounters. The game sets out tight rules but then you draw an alien race card that determines your identity for the game and allows you to break one or more of those rules all to heck. It comes down to pressing your own advantages hard while avoiding what your enemy is going to try and do to you, kind of like the Blazers do. Also fun (and slightly less rule-heavy) is Ascending Empires. Staring from opposite corners, you explore the galaxy board strategically, trying to use each turn to optimal benefit. But all the cerebral stuff is broken up by the high comedy of trying to move your ships, which is done through finger flicks. Crash into somebody else's ship? You lose your ship. Flick too hard and go off the board? You lose your ship. Playing piece careens to some weird spot you never intended after having bounced off of 6 planets? That's the way the game goes, my friend. It's like combining thoughtful strategy with Tiddly-Winks. Sometimes the most brilliant people get betrayed by their flicking finger.
Finally, if you haven't been introduced to the world of co-operative games, you're missing out. Co-op games pit all players against the game itself. The game might use a mechanism like limited number of turns to complete a task or advancing enemy pieces or what have you. All players strategize together to make best use of their resources before the game overwhelms them. Co-op games are hard to win, usually taking careful planning and smart thinking. But there's no experience like beating a stubborn game with three of your friends. Two of the more accessible and fun in the genre are Pandemic and Ghost Stories. Each will take a little rule-reading to get right, but they're far from impossible. Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings co-op game is also fun and hard if he's a LOTR fan, but it has bunches of pieces that require set-up. No joke, though...I once had a group of high school guys over to play that game and when they won it (a rare occurrence) you'd have thought they won the NCAA Tournament. They were jumping and high-fiving all over the place.
I can almost guarantee that you won't go wrong with any of these games. Stick to the beginning paragraphs (or Pandemic) if your cousin is casual or only plays Settlers among rounds of Monopoly or Clue. If he's a little more advanced, dive in! He'll love you for it.
Keep those questions coming to the e-mail address below. PLEASE put "mailbag" somewhere in the subject line! Some folks have been getting casual about this lately. I only do Mailbags at certain intervals now which means I have to search through my e-mail to find the backlog of questions. "Mailbag" is the search term I use. If you ask a great question on Monday but I'm not doing a Mailbag until Friday it's going to get buried under 500 other e-mails and I probably won't remember it was there unless it comes up in my search.