Day off for the team, time to catch up on Mailbag questions!
You seem to get things right about the Blazers. Lots of people have called you too negative. My question is how you do it or why does the negative turn out right? Is this just a Trail Blazers curse?
What's going right at this moment is the Blazers. That 6-2 record should be at the forefront. Nothing should dim that start to the season. Nor is it completely unexpected. I would have guessed 5-3, but close enough. That's a good thing, as would anything near a .500 finish to the season be. Some would be disappointed with that. I wouldn't be. There's nothing overtly negative about the Blazers right now. They have flaws. So far those flaws haven't kept them from wins. Sweet.
Having sliced the "negative" aspect out of your question, it still reveals an important philosophical point to accurate analysis.
In no way are the Blazers "cursed" or more susceptible to negative things than other teams are. You have to understand that teams don't have to prove they can lose, teams have to prove they can win. You, me, and three of our friends could put on NBA uniforms, take the court, and get absolutely killed out there. That's true of 99% of humanity. Losing is the default state. Only winning proves otherwise.
Thinking with the heart, one surmises that one's team is going to win until it's proven that they'll lose. Hope is awesome, necessary even, but hope doesn't win games. You'll end up right more often assuming that a team will lose until it's proven it can win, simply because losing is easy while winning is hard.
Teams like Miami, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City have proven they can win. They don't need credit or hope. They've shown it. Therefore you project good things for them, modified by the changes in their situation. The Blazers have not proven the same thing, therefore you can't project the same level of success. You look at what they have done and then modify it reasonably by the changes in their situation. That's going to be more accurate in the long run. This isn't just true of the Blazers, it's true of every team.
The same holds true for specific achievements or style of play. You assume a team will struggle or be no better than average in a given category until it's proven otherwise, either by demonstration on the court or by acquiring players who have so demonstrated in the past. Three-point shooting was an easy forecast for the Blazers this year. Nearly everybody in the lineup has shown they can hit that shot at an NBA level. Coach Stotts values the triple. If that didn't go right for them they weren't going to win 10 games all season. But paint defense and paint scoring? They hadn't shown that. Some felt Robin Lopez would change both but he hasn't really shown enough to move the needle there. So there you have to take a wait-and-see attitude, assuming that they're going to struggle until they show otherwise.
The Blazers are doing well in the early season but some games have been random. That's true of our opponents too which got me thinking. Do you think the early season randomness favors the Blazers or their opponents more?
The Blazers have been playing with confidence, poise (better than I expected in that department), and a specific style. All three give them advantages over other teams who might yet be pulling it together. You'd expect the Spurs to have their ducks in a row and the Blazers beat them. You'd expect the Rockets to be adjusting and the Blazers lost to them. Obviously there's no airtight rule. But in general I expect the early season to favor the Blazers because other teams won't have come up against them and their fairly unique, practiced style yet. My gut says the second and third trips through the conference could get harder, especially if the Blazers keep relying on the three to save their bacon. Opponents will know what's coming and be better prepared. The Blazers will need to find another wrinkle or two--somebody else stepping up, a more balanced floor attack, better defense--in order to keep an advantage.
Which worries you more, Damian Lillard's low shooting percentage or Mo Williams low shooting percentage?
Neither. Both are playing their game.
Lillard's overall percentage is low but part of that is a function of three-point shooting. He's hitting at a triumphant 44% clip from long range. His 33% rate from inside the arc is abysmal. But 46% of his attempts have been threes. That justifies the numbers for now. I'll be mildly concerned if this becomes a season-long trend for a couple reasons: I'm not sure he can maintain the 44% rate and he'll be more effective as a point guard in the long run if his offense is varied. There's a long way to go in the season, however.
I'm not sure I'll complain about Mo Williams no matter what happens to him this season. If you go out and buy a duck you cannot be upset if it quacks and lays the occasional egg. Nor can you expect it to pull a plow. Everybody knew what the Blazers were getting in Williams: a spark-plug offensive guy who looks for his own shot, gets streaky, dishes, commits some turnovers, and doesn't play great defense. Mo's current field goal percentage is in line with his career numbers, though it wasn't when you wrote this question. But that's what you're going to get with him: up and down. Some nights will be great, game-saving even. Check out how he boosted the struggling offense in the Phoenix game last night. Other nights will be hair-pulling affairs. The only approach to Mo is to love him for what he does, don't mourn too much what he doesn't do, and realize that the former will outweigh the latter in the long run...though likely not so much that you'd consider him a permanent fixture on the team. For this year's Blazers, though? For a bench that doesn't pack much raw scoring power outside of the backcourt? For $2.5 million? Just go with the Mo.
Every year, we like every other team, talks about speeding up the game and getting more easy buckets on the fast break. In theory, we should be a good fast breaking team with Damian, Batum, and Lamarcus. However, this is not this case as we are some of the worst in the league at manufacturing fast break points. Watching the NBA, some of the best high paced teams, have a center/forward who can get the defensive rebound and quickly deliver an outlet pass to start the break, or a secondary fast break. Could this be one of the many reasons as to why Portland has a difficult time creating easy fast break points?
There are plenty of reasons for this, but let's cover three basics:
1. As we've said a few times before, the Blazers are long, big, and skilled but the Blazers are not speed demons. This is especially true on the dribble. Lillard can go a little but nobody else is good handling the ball on the run. Even Lillard is better at short bursts and sneaky cuts than end-to-end speed.
2. How are the Blazers manufacturing rebounds? Robin Lopez has done a great job rebounding the last couple games but most of his attempts are in traffic. I don't know if you've noticed, but many of Lopez's rebounds are of the tip or bobble variety...in question and taking time to secure. The other team is recovering during that time. The Blazers are also spreading around the boards. How many nights have we seen Lopez pinning down his man and guards or forwards grabbing 7-8 rebounds each? In order to keep up on the boards the Blazers are sending most of their guys towards the ball on a missed shot, not setting off down the court.
3. Where are the Blazers forcing misses from? They're trying to get opponents to fire from the perimeter and succeeding in contesting those shots. (Shots closer than that are going in, negating the break.) When the Blazers dive down to grab the rebound off the miss opposing guards are still out on the perimeter, already beyond them and already in the way when that rebound gets snagged.
Combine a not-that-fast roster, rebounds that take time to secure, rebounds that take many people to secure, and defenders between the Blazers and the goal once the rebound is secured and you start to understand why fast breaks aren't that plentiful for Portland. The Blazers aren't built to break.
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