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The Blazers' Progress So Far: Successes, Weaknesses, and What It All Means

Let's catch up with a summary of recent developments in the young season and look at what they may portend. We'll start with the good side of the ledger, rapidly filling.

The 5-1 record is fantastic. Some are decrying the schedule as "weak" so far but I see no reason to say so except the obvious admission that the Blazers won't win 5 of every 6 games for the remainder of the season. At the beginning of this odd, lockout season it's hard to judge what's what. The start of every season is filled with random play but it's taken to an extra level in this situation. You can't really say that Oklahoma City is going to play as foolishly as they did in their loss to the Blazers in every game this season. Nor can you say the Clippers will play as well. The good teams may not be at their peak yet but the bad teams aren't at their nadir either. On the balance, even with homecourt advantage, the Blazers have played a tough enough schedule to credit this 5-1 record as both legit and quite good. You can only play the games you're given in any case. Winning them is enough without extra justification.

Also to the good is team camaraderie, a development which showed itself from the first game of pre-season. It looks legit. This team is playing with energy and unselfishness every night. Combined with the new, veteran look of the rotation the Blazers have a powerful advantage over teams still looking to find themselves. That has included the Thunder and Lakers though both are ostensibly more talented squads and likely bound for greater glory in the playoffs than the Blazers. Right now Portland is holding the right cards and playing them well.

Three huge on-court developments have typified Portland's development. The team takes pride in defense. Everybody on the floor seems to be making a commitment. When a high defender breaks down Portland's backstop guys have been quick and willing to cover. That's the secret to winning more games than you should in this league. Portland is transcending potential rebounding deficiencies the same way. 3-4 Blazers seem to swarm any contested rebound. None of them would be capable of winning them individually with any consistency. Together they're producing enough rebounds to stay in the game and support their style of play. Thirdly, the Blazers have committed to an up-tempo game typified by converting defense into offense. When they're at their best everybody is running following rebounds. Portland caught the Lakers flat-footed repeatedly in the third-quarter surge a night ago. The Thunder couldn't keep them from getting inside with dives and passes either. The faster tempo and easier looks have converted a potentially fragile (if talented) offensive bunch into a powerhouse.

At this point you have to give a huge hand to the players, the coaching staff, and the front office crew who crafted Portland's off-season acquisitions. Everybody seems to have done the best with what is available and the results have been good.

Nonetheless, the basic issues the team faces have not changed. A half-dozen games early in the season can't mask that. Indeed, they've highlighted it further.

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For all the success and excitement, the Achilles Heel of this year's team is that they will not end up controlling their own destiny as the season progresses. One of the brilliant characteristics of Brandon Roy, even in his half-speed condition, was that he gave you the chance to win any game, anywhere no matter how it was going. With him in the lineup you always had an escape as he could wrest away the game by himself. Therefore the Blazers always controlled their own fate...though Roy obviously couldn't make good on that promise every game.

This group depends as much on opponents' mistakes as their own prowess. Portland's interior game is weak on both ends of the court. They have zero low post players. Their inside scoring is predicated on getting LaMarcus Aldridge the ball on the alley-oop or on his willingness to bang inside and his ability to finish when he does so, both of which are in question. Portland's perimeter players are, for the most part, crippled by a lack of driving skill and/or the inability to finish on the drive in all but the most permissive situations. This leaves the team dependent on the jumper in the halfcourt, an inherently precarious offensive strategy.

The Blazers also require multiple defenders and rebounders against any post player with size. This has worked so far due to disorganized, in some cases lackadaisical, play by teams sporting such players. That will not be the case all season. Portland's ability to stop the inside shot will be sorely tested as soon as the league rights itself and starts to figure them out.

The Blazers' saving grace has been their pace. Their faster tempo depends on great defense, good rebounding, generating turnovers, and getting down the floor into early offense if not a flat-out break. So far the Blazers have had adequate rebounding and turnover-generation in spades. While their defense has succeeded in those departments the actual percentage defense has been so-so. If the Blazers weren't forcing turnovers and nabbing rebounds with alacrity their defense would look average at best.

Look again at the Blazers strengths, their keys to victory: turnover generation, running, rebounding despite the lack of a clear rebounding leader, inside scoring without a bankable low-post player. All of those things are relatively easy for an opponent to take away. Take care of the ball, rebound well, get back on defense, follow cutters...that's it. It's practically Middle School Basketball 101. Teams are not doing these things consistently right now, in part because the Blazers are taking them out of their game, in part because it's so early in the year, and in part because some of these teams are just bad. None of those things will hold true forever. As soon as the league gets wind of Portland's needs they're going to compensate and the good and/or focused teams are going to prevent the Blazers from playing the type of game that's generating wins for them now.

Teams are also going to step up the pressure on Portland's interior defenders, in particular trying to strand Camby on an island or bait him into foul trouble.

Teams are also going to try and exploit the tendency of Portland's guards to turn over the ball, nullifying the benefits of turnover advantage.

All of this together is going to be a whole new shooting match, one which this 5-1 start does not foreshadow on the surface.

The Blazers remind me of a Dutch professional combat sport fighter by the name of Melvin Manhoef. He hasn't been in the U.S. much that I know of so you may not have heard of him. He kickboxes, does MMA, an all-around guy. He's talented. He's strong and cut. He's fierce. He's opportunistic, with serious one-punch K.O. power. In fact his knockout-to-victory ratio is enormous, among the highest in the world. He's the real deal. Except he lacks a couple of key qualities, including some basic defense. He absolutely kills lesser fighters and unprepared fighters. But when he gets in there against a guy who knows what he's doing in MMA, for instance, that guy will just let him throw his punch, duck most of the force, and then slap an armbar on him and get the submission...a basic submission at that. That's exactly how the Blazers look right now: talented, powerful, intimidating, lots of K.O. potential, but also flawed in a couple of basic ways that will make them vulnerable to good teams no matter how hard and often they throw punches.

The issue, obviously, is that as the season progresses the Blazers will face more good and/or prepared teams. The bigger issue is that in the playoffs they'll face one by default....a team that has nothing to do all day but figure out how to prepare for and exploit the team's flaws for seven games. I still don't see the Blazers coming out of that kind of situation intact. Other teams are going to have more enforceable, reliable ways to win that don't depend on the Blazers messing up as much as the Blazers depend on them messing up and that will probably be the end of the story.

Therefore despite the wins and the hot start, the overall forecast for the team hasn't changed: good enough to make the playoffs, probably losing in the first round, the second if they can claim a high seed in the regular season.

The best chance to change that outcome with the current personnel, short of the entire league developing a permanent blind spot to Portland's style, is for the Blazer guards and small forwards--Felton, Matthews, Crawford, Batum, Wallace--to become so practiced and deadly at the open three that the halfcourt floor gets spread wide on every possession. Theoretically that's possible. If a bunch of these guys start shooting .370 and above from distance the middle opens up for Aldridge's moves and the drives of Felton, Crawford, and Batum. At that point the interior scoring issue lessens and the offense starts looking good no matter what the pace. Then you can concentrate on taking good care of the ball yourself and consider those turnovers and fast break points frosting on the cake instead of the main course upon which you depend for your edge.

Another chance would be Aldridge all of a sudden deciding he loves the low post. He's capable but that's not his preferred game and he may take too much of a beating there to function well for a full season.

This assumes that the roster remains relatively the same and intact. Any injury to Camby or Felton would hamstring this team something fierce. Conversely if the Blazers can procure a low-post scorer, another low defender, and/or a good reserve point guard--let alone some kind of star player in the backcourt or at center who can take over games and put them in your control like Roy did--their chances improve greatly. The trick will be acquiring those players without losing chemistry or so much skill and talent that you lose the benefit generated already.

And that's the Blazers' story so far. The immediate significance of this start is wonderful...couldn't be better. The long-term significance is probably less so. This is an exciting team to watch, certainly fun to root for, and they're playing both hard and the right way given their skill set. There's a way to go before they win any greater designation than that and problems to solve before they can be seriously mentioned with the breathlessness that their early record has generated.

--Dave (