Another mini-break in the schedule, this one more than a third of the way into the season, gives us a chance to look at how the Blazers are keeping up with expectations. The answers will not be surprising but seeing it all in black and white should help put perspective on where the team is and what its challenges will be.
At this point in the season...
Greg Oden was supposed to be in the early stages of his comeback, giving the Blazers an awe-inspiring and indomitable center lineup consisting of Oden, Marcus Camby, and Joel Przybilla.
Instead Oden went under the knife for another microfracture surgery. Camby logged big minutes early in the season and has gone down, albeit temporarily (knock on wood). Przybilla came back from his long rehab only to turn his ankle and go down again. For the last few games the Blazers have had no center besides Sean Marks. (You read that right.) LaMarcus Aldridge has been starting in the middle, posting envy-inspiring numbers against non-enviable opponents.
The Blazers were supposed to be evaluating whether Brandon Roy could lead this team to a championship at the head of an ultra-talented roster.
Instead the Blazers are trying to evaluate whether Roy will ever be the same player again after revelations that the meniscus in his knees is, well...absent. Roy has looked like a shadow of himself, seldom driving to the rim and often unable to elevate in traffic.
Nicolas Batum, the way cleared for him by trades, was supposed to be coming into his own as Portland's starting small forward and a possible star of the future.
Instead Batum has vacillated between the starting lineup and the bench at the whim of circumstance and other players' injuries instead of being propelled by his own play. His performances have been inconsistent, his minutes intermittent. His future looks just as murky as it did in any of his previous years.
Wesley Matthews was supposed to be fitting in on the bench, providing some defense and shooting.
Instead Matthews has burst into the starting lineup and is popping 20-point games like they were candy, picking up some of the scoring slack occasioned by Roy's collapse. Matthews isn't fitting in, he's moving at twice the speed of any other Blazer. He's clearly the bright spot of the season.
Rudy Fernandez was supposed to be traded.
Shooting just under 34% from the all-important (for him) three-point line, Rudy is still making a case for being shipped. But after a summer of grumpiness and general dissatisfaction on both sides, the Blazers and Fernandez seem to have consummated a shotgun wedding (the shotgun being held between Roy's knees). The Blazers need an off-guard off the bench. Rudy wants to play. Problem solved. They can always get an annulment later, but for now both sides are smiling and making nice. Fernandez has posted fantastic stats in a couple games recently and provided much-needed energy and passing.
Andre Miller is going to be Andre Miller no matter what.
But in their current scramble mode, that's pretty much what the Blazers need.
LaMarcus Aldridge was supposed to be freed from the burdens of being a #1 option on offense and a defensive stopper, instead picking his spots for the jumper and swooping in to disrupt plays and reject shots from off the ball.
Unlike last season--also rife with injuries and Roy-free for long stretches--the Blazers don't necessarily go to Aldridge first, let alone only, in the offense. When they do go to him he's either rolling off of a pick or backdoor cutting. The easy looks he's getting are bolstering both his stats and his confidence, not quite enough to make him a true #1 option (without further proof, anyway) but certainly more than he has been heretofore. If anything he's got a little young Rasheed Wallace mojo going, which isn't a bad thing. He's also picked up his rebounding as the team has required more, hopefully a trend he'll continue even when they don't need a dozen per night from him. Factor in seeing more of the floor on defense and you have a positive so far for the season.
We were barely supposed to know the names of the deep bench players, let alone their progress.
That we know both speaks volumes about how far off track the season has gotten.
The team was supposed to be able to up the tempo off of superior defense and rebounding.
The rebounding is all on the offensive end, though. Portland ranks 1st in the league in offensive rebounding percentage but 23rd in defensive rebounding percentage. Opponent field goal percentage ranks 18th, more mediocre than hoped for. In three point percentage allowed the Blazers are 10th, so those rangy wings are doing something. The Blazers rank 21st in free throws allowed, also a semi-sad number. Combined these factors point out a much shakier defense than anticipated. Back to the up-tempo bit, the Blazers have improved in fast break points per game, but have only climbed to 27th in the league. They shoot earlier in the clock more often...that's about the extent of any tempo change.
The Blazers were supposed to be contending for a Top-4 playoff seed.
Instead they're fighting hard for 8th and a date with the Lakers. The season is still young-ish, but this wasn't exactly the plan.
Add all of this together and you get a fairly tough start to the season peppered with some bright spots, a whole lot of questions, and definite work to do. The Blazers saw the light at the end of the tunnel, emerged and cheered, and then promptly derailed. There's plenty of season left but the fact that we have no clue what direction the team will take from here tells all you need to know about where they are.