In preparation for Saturday's Portland Trail Blazers-Dallas Mavericks contest the folks at MavsMoneyball asked a set of questions about the Blazers' 16-3 start. I'm running it today, even before it goes up there, for a couple of reasons:
1. Many of the questions mirror those you guys have been asking in the Mailbag plus those which have been asked, publicly and privately, from other interview sources. Apparently these things are on a bunch of people's minds!
2. I thought it might be interesting for our readers to see how I explain the Blazers to a more national audience, a slightly different perspective and all.
Here's the interview in its entirety.
MavsMoneyball: The Blazers are off to one of their best starts in franchise history. Was that just as much of a surprise to Blazers fans as it seems to be to everyone else? And do you think it's sustainable?
Dave: Predictions run the spectrum every season, let alone hopes and dreams. Some folks called a good start to the season. But I don't think even the most dreamy of dreamers would have called a 16-3 record. Most experts had the Blazers around .500, give or take, on the cusp of a low playoff seed. Leading the conference in December is pretty high on the scale.
As to the second question, it depends on what you mean by "sustainable". A 16-3 ratio works out to 69 wins for the season. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that probably won't happen. In that sense, the pace isn't sustainable.
If the Blazers played .500 ball from here on out they'd end up with 47-48 wins. Add a couple more and they've crossed the traditional border of "good team". Those goals are attainable. Absent a total bottoming out, Portland has built enough cushion to put them in the playoff discussion throughout the year, which is the main thing.
Sports discussion wouldn't be sports discussion without people camping out on opposite ends of false dichotomies. One of those is already trailing the Blazers as we speak. The current discussion seems to run, "Either the Blazers go deep in the playoffs or this start was a fluke." I can assure you that 16-3 is no fluke...and this comes from a guy who's seen his share of fluky things. Portland has benefitted from a little luck along the way but every team gets some of that during the year. But these wins have come from solid execution, trust in teammates, burgeoning confidence, maximized talent, and frankly opponents not being ready for what the Blazers had to offer. Portland has beaten its opponents honestly and needn't blush a bit about wearing that gaudy record.
That said, the Blazers just cleared one hurdle of many that a long season offers. They have to win on the road against decent, non-injured teams. They have to survive the dog days and the playoff seeding push. They have to prove resilient in the face of injury. Given Portland's particular style of play, the second trip through the conference might prove more challenging than the first has as teams are more prepared and seeking revenge. You don't win on credit in this league nor are playoff positions decided in December. We still need to see how Portland keeps pace in the face of new obstacles.
MM: Somewhat related, Wes Matthews seems to have had a breakout early season in terms of his effectiveness. What's changed?
Dave: Chemistry and comfort.
LaMarcus Aldridge is scoring in such dominant fashion and Nicolas Batum has adapted so well to his passing role in Coach Stotts' offense that Matthews is getting better looks on the weak side of the floor than he ever has. His specialty is the catch-and-shoot three and he's feasting on them. On the rare occasions he drives he's finding the lane open thanks to the spread floor, disguising his dribbling weakness somewhat. Plus Matthews seems to have a better sense of himself and his role this year. He doesn't have to run the offense, nor does he have to stuff the stat sheet. He'll get open looks and he's supposed to can them. Then he plays decent defense. He's more than capable of both.
In the last few games opponents have copped wise to Wesley's ways. Active defenders on Matthews' side of the floor cut down on his regular opportunities, impacting his scoring. He's still able to go on runs but they get shorter.
MM: LaMarcus Aldridge is a very similar player to Dirk -- probably more so than any other player in the NBA. Do you see him possibly increasing his range to add another element to his game?
Dave: With these teammates around him I'm not sure he should. If chicks dig the long ball the Blazers already qualify for several harems. They attempt 23 triples per game and make 41% of them...and that's with them cutting back in the last week. The team is better served by Aldridge drawing extra attention with the left-side post and then whipping the ball to whomever is free to shoot the three.
MM: Speaking of Dirk/LMA comparisons, the Mavs have serviceable options at center, but Robin Lopez seems to be a perfect fit next to Aldridge. Why do you think that has been such a successful pairing?
Dave: Lopez has weaknesses. Opponents have often gone right at him with their own center to fairly good success. They're gradually starting to leave him on offense as well, preferring to stop the other four starters and make Robin try to beat them on his own.
But Lopez plays physically, never quits whether he's having a good or bad night, and has great technique and reasonable attention to detail. The Blazers have been sorely lacking in those qualities lately.
I liken the Lopez Effect to a bunch of guys standing around a dirty room with five brooms stacked in a corner. As long as nobody touches those brooms everybody feels free to ignore the mess. But as soon as one guy starts sweeping everybody else has to follow along or they'll seem like jerks leaning against the wall while he does what's right. That's what Robin Lopez does for his teammates. There's no Carmelo Anthonys on this team. When he's putting the work in, everybody else follows suit.
MM: Do the Blazers have any glaring weaknesses? Or what I'm really getting at is, do the Mavs have any shot at winning this and if so, how?
Dave: Weaknesses? Sure. The Blazers are 30th in points in the paint scored, 25th in points in the paint allowed per game, leading to an unholy deficit every night. Offensive rebounds are great but defensive rebounding remains an issue, opponent offensive rebounding correspondingly high. When the Blazers do get controlled on the boards their game takes a nosedive. Guards who can score often have a field day against Portland, particularly point guards. The Blazers don't force turnovers, though to be fair they don't commit many either. They don't block shots. Their transition defense has picked up significantly from where it started but the Blazers can be run on if you work at it.
The real question is, will the opponent be able to take advantage of those weaknesses enough to put Portland in peril? The Blazers haven't really been blowing out opponents. Most everybody has had a chance to beat them. But you have to take advantage of nearly every opportunity on your end and contest every shooter on Portland's for 48 minutes. Somehow, some way, the opponent always seems to slip up. They take it easy for a five-minute stretch, double-team the wrong guy, forget to rotate, let a rebound or two slip by. All of a sudden the Blazers have rattled off 8 points on a couple of threes and a layup and the game turns their direction.
The Mavs aren't a great offensive rebounding team. They're mediocre on the boards in general. They‘re slightly above average defending the arc. They're not distinguished scoring in the paint or on the run. Monta Ellis could be a problem if he's feeling well enough to play and you never sleep on Dirk Nowitzki. Plus the Mavericks have been resting since Wednesday while the Blazers will be playing on the second night of a back-to-back. If Dallas can't prepare for Portland's unique game under those circumstances they never will. Still, the Mavs are going to have to do something special or the Blazers are going to have to come back to earth for Portland to lose in their home building. It's possible, but right now it's pretty hard to predict against the Blazers in any but the most strenuous of circumstances.
Thanks to Rebecca at MavsMoneyball for the questions. Don't forget to check out Chris Lucia's preview of tonight's the Portland-Utah game as you're contemplating the weekend matchups.