Taking a little Sunday afternoon breather I thought it might be good to take stock of how things are going so far, roughly about 7.3% of the way into the season. (Funny how it's only been six games but with all of the changes and ups and downs it feels like ages ago when the season started.)
The most obvious thing to be happy about if you're a Blazer fan is the 3-3 record right now. We've passed one stage of the early-season test--the elite opponent parade--and now we pass into the "mighty hard road trip" phase. Emerging from murderer's row with a .500 record is a fantastic start. If you want to look at tangible reasons this team could make the playoffs, those couple of extra wins early stand among the best. Playoff teams usually manage more wins than they're entitled to and you never know what the race may come down to.
The most laudable facet of the team game so far has been the uptick in rebounding compared to last season. So far the Blazers are staying even on the defensive boards and making hay on the offensive glass. That makes the game easier.
The early play of Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge also inspires confidence. Neither one has gotten off to a steady start, both have better play to reveal, but Brandon is right there at 20 points, 6 assists, and 4 rebounds per game while Lamarcus stands at 19 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2 blocks. This team knows its mainstays and they will provide continuity.
The Blazers also have reason for excitement in the early play of Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum. Rudy is shooting 46% overall and 42% from the three-point arc for his 14 points per game. Batum's statistics are decent (6 points and 2.5 rebounds in 16.5 minutes) but more significant is the hope that the Blazers have finally found an adequate defending, rebounding, and running small forward. Both Nic and Rudy change the energy of the game--Rudy offensively, Nicolas defensively, both in transition--when they are in. You can see the difference.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive treatise on the players, so even though more could be mentioned we're going to leave the general positives there and move to the concerns so far.
The first concern is that even though the record stands at 3-3, there have been clear differences between the wins and losses. Simply put: the losses have all been sustainable and repeatable whereas the wins haven't. We've lost games like you would expect Portland to lose them...getting beaten down the stretch by experienced teams with more developed (if not better) talent. That's going to happen in those type of games. Two of the three wins, on the other hand, happened because of unusual circumstances. Granted the Blazers put themselves in position to take advantage of last-second plays...that's to their credit and IS repeatable and sustainable. They played the kind of ball that gave them a chance. But the wins themselves happened because Michael Finley missed a shot he hits 8 times out of 10 and because Brandon Roy launched a miracle from 30 feet. Summary: play the three losses again in exactly the same fashion and they're still losses. Play the Houston and San Antonio games again in exactly the same fashion and you can flip a coin (at best) as to whether the Blazers come out ahead. The team is fortunate not to be looking at a 1-5 record right now. In other words, despite the record, this team hasn't found its winning stride yet nor played the kind of basketball that inspires confidence long-term. You can't conclude from the record that this is going to be a .500 (or better) team.
The preceding paragraph is reflected somewhat in the Blazers' point differential, which despite the .500 record stands at -5.2. You have to factor in the small sample size there, but the number tells you that the losses so far have been stronger than the wins.
The most glaring issue from a team perspective has been the defense. It took a game against the semi-hapless Timberwolves to bring our defensive field goal percentage down below .500. I don't care what else you do, if you allow that kind of shooting you're going to lose over time. It's like blowing up a hot air balloon with a big rent in the side.
The Blazers have also looked disjointed through most of the early games, depending on runs to get them through rather than sustaining the flow. This is not surprising at all. Consider that the team added three new pieces to the rotation in Oden, Fernandez, and Batum and then immediately took away two pieces in Webster and Oden. Either of those eventualities would impact continuity. Combine both and it's surprising the team looks as decent as it does. But it's still somewhat jarring to expect to see a team on its way to the next step looking like it's tripping over steps you thought were two flights down. Some have tried to assign blame to individual players--Roy, Outlaw, Sergio, Blake--but the truth is these guys just aren't a unit yet. One of the side effects of long road trips is bonding on and off the court. Hopefully that'll happen soon.
If this analysis seems inconclusive or fractured as a whole there's a reason for that: the team's performance has been the same. There are some things to be delighted about, others to worry about. We're like students who have gotten decent grades but you're not quite sure they have the subject matter down. We're going to find out as we progress into the next unit. We'll need the next dozen games or so to show us which of these trends are going to continue for the season and which will fall aside. Hopefully we get to keep more of the delightful than the worrisome.