With 52 games gone and only 30 left, it's time to assess where we stand as a team and reflect on what we've learned about our individual players so far this season. Today we're going to look at things from a team perspective.
The Team's Progress
At 32-20 the Blazers are right in the middle of the playoff race in the Western Conference. Despite some questionable losses in the new year Portland remains in fourth place in the conference. Yes, that's by a hair, but prior to this season fourth by even a whisker would have been considered a miracle. To say that the team has performed consistently would be overstating things. But the team has certainly played more steady basketball than we're used to seeing. Key players like Brandon Roy, Lamarcus Aldridge, Steve Blake, and Joel Przybilla have developed a rhythm, a comfort level on the floor, and dependable production. For the first time in ages you can define what Blazer basketball looks like. And it doesn't look bad. The Blazers have amassed quality victories against San Antonio, Houston, Orlando, Miami (twice), New Orleans (twice), Toronto (twice), Phoenix, Denver, Boston, Detroit (twice), and Utah. Portland is 12-15 on the road and 20-5 at home, both solid marks.
The single greatest improvement in Portland's game this season so far has been the rebounding. The Blazers are very good defensive rebounders and terrific to the point of being overwhelming on the offensive boards. We have not seen glass work like this since the days of Sabonis, Grant, and Wallace. Rebounding keeps the Blazers in most games, allowing them to control the ball and catch up even when they fall behind.
The Blazers' offense has also been a bright spot this season. Gone are the days when Portland passed the ball around the perimeter six times only to hoist a desperation jumper against the shot clock. Bad shots are now a rarity for the Blazers. The offense is more organized and the players more comfortable in it. Sometimes you see a lot of passing, sometimes no passing, but you don't see fruitless passing and time being wasted. There's usually some kind of motion going on as well. The Blazers are no longer easy to guard.
The three-point shot has been a major weapon for Portland this year. They are 4th in the league in three-point percentage with Steve Blake, Rudy Fernandez, Travis Outlaw, and Brandon Roy all drilling them with consistency.
Interior scoring is not exactly flourishing, but Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, and Jerryd Bayless have been scoring at the rim and providing a more credible threat than we've had since Zach Randolph, Bonzi Wells, and Ruben Patterson were still motivated.
The Blazers turn the ball over relatively infrequently for a team so young. Part of that is the heady play of the point guards. Part of it is Brandon Roy taking more responsibility for scoring and shepherding the offense in general. Part of it is the nature of the slow-paced system.
Portland has unveiled a new array of devastating plays as well this season. So far we've seen Roy break backs from everywhere, watched Oden dunk, gaped in awe at Bayless' finishes, and stood up involuntarily for Sergio-to-Rudy alley-oops. And that doesn't even count making the touchdown signal when somebody hits a three. The Blazers are not only signaling they've arrived, they're wanting to be on your poster.
On the other end of the spectrum has been the Blazer defense. Not everything has been bad. Portland is getting back in transition far more often than in previous seasons. The Blazers are also preventing uncontested drives down the lane in the halfcourt. But the bad news defensively outweighs the good.
On a basic level Portland just isn't preventing opponents from getting good looks. The Blazers allow 46.5% shooting, 23rd in the league. They allow 38.3% three-point shooting, good for 26th. They don't have enough good individual defenders. Many of the defenders they do have are just too young--lacking experience, mass, or both. The most basic plays are often a coin flip for Portland defenders. They think instead of moving. They fall back or apart instead of throwing their weight around. Whatever speed or agility allows them to shake free on the offensive end does not translate to defense. They foul with their hands instead of blocking the way with their feet. When the defense becomes more complex, such as when rotations are required, the Blazers are slow and late. They react instead of acting. They cannot seem to communicate effectively or coordinate. Were it not for their rebounding prowess this team would never hold a team under 100. This team needs better, more experienced, quicker, and in some cases bigger defenders. This is one of the major things keeping the team from progressing from good to great.
Of late the Blazers have also shown signs of youth, to their detriment. Most players outside of the four steady ones mentioned above have evidenced wild swings in production, alertness, and effort. The reality of the marathon season appears to be setting in. Fatigue may be playing a role. Since Christmas we've seen outright losses to the Thunder, Bobcats, Clippers, and Warriors plus some wins that were closer than they should have been and some losses to superior teams in which we never seemed to get off of the launching pad. The team has not followed up its amazing start to the season with a sustained push for excellence. Getting by has been more like it. You can tell that they don't understand exactly what it takes to succeed at a high level in this league. The difference between Portland and the more seasoned playoff teams is still night and day. The Blazers occasionally have more exuberance but the elite teams always look more professional even when they are having an off night.
The prospects for the Blazers making the playoffs remain strong. The prospects for them making the playoffs in strong position, let alone winning once they get there, are still shaky. Portland's intensity seems to be slipping just when everybody else's will be ramping up. If they do not come back from the All-Star break motivated, focused, and energized they could be in for a rude awakening. You won't surprise good teams in March and April like you did in November and December. 22 of the Blazers' remaining 30 opponents are from the Western Conference and 18 of the 30 are legitimately in their conference's playoff hunt as of today. Remaining at the same winning percentage (certainly enough for a playoff ticket) requires Portland to win 18-19 of those 30 games. They probably have a little cushion in there but they push the boundaries at their peril. This will not be the year to try and back into the playoffs. The Blazers should do it, but they've also had outings where "should" turned into "didn't" pretty quickly. They'll need to bring their best ball to make the postseason comfortably. Flirting with anything else would be a mistake.
One-Sentence Season Summary: More than we'd hoped for, less than we want.
Tomorrow: Part II--Individual Assessments
P.S. A couple of people had talked to me earlier in the year about their ability to do visual diagrams. If that's you (or if you have the talent to do them well and quickly) please e-mail me within the next few days if you can.