In the latest edition of the Blazer's Edge Podcast (available on site, broadcast nightly on MaxSports Channels, and coming soon to an iTunes outlet near you) Phil Naessens and I discussed some of the things we've learned about the Portland Trail Blazers in the first month of the season. One of those observations could stand some elaboration...part of the delightful promise of this year's roster.
The Blazers have done reasonably well since the franchise turned around with the Brandon Roy-LaMarcus Aldridge draft of 2006. They've been to the playoffs 4 times, to the second round once, put in 5 seasons with a .500 or better record. That's not exactly setting the world on fire, but they've been good enough.
During this stretch a couple of factors kept them from turning good into great. The most obvious was injuries. You don't replace players like Brandon Roy and Greg Oden. Their departures occasioned a serious dip in Portland's talent level, leading to a pair of substandard seasons. But even when the team was healthy, their inability to adapt kept them from maximizing their potential.
In the height of the Brandon Roy Era the Blazers found success when he played well. When opposing teams (or creaky knees) took Roy out of the game, Aldridge was hard-pressed to compensate. Youth and Portland's offensive scheme kept him from stepping into Brandon's shoes. Once past Aldridge the team's talent teased more than produced. Nicolas Batum, Jerryd Bayless, Marcus Camby, Rudy Fernandez, Andre Miller, Travis Outlaw...all of them had good games but none could pick up the mantle when the main guy faltered. They were good as long as they could pursue Plan A. If you forced them into Plan B they'd probably lose. They didn't even have a Plan C worth mentioning.
A month into the 2014-15 season, that trend appears to have changed big time. In the last couple weeks alone we've seen opposing defenses go after Aldridge only to get carved apart by Damian Lillard or Wesley Matthews. We've seen Chris Kaman and Steve Blake turn around bad games. We've seen a last-second game-winner hit by Robin Lopez. All manner of potential losses have turned into victories courtesy of small contributions across the roster.
Folks will claim talent as the primary reason for this budding evolution. The explanation isn't that easy. Portland has benefited from Kaman coming on board, providing support behind the beleaguered Lopez. But even with Kaman the fold, the depth in 2014-15 isn't greater than it was in 2009 or 2010. Prior teams had more experience if not more talent outright.
The difference between this incarnation of the Blazers and recent vintages is not amount of talent but how that talent is used. Terry Stotts' system deserves credit. Portland's play out of timeouts this season has been amazing and that's the tip of the iceberg. The Blazers are 4th in the league in offensive efficiency, 4th in three-point percentage, 6th in effective field goal percentage. Those aren't accidents. This offense is designed to maximize the gifts of the players inside it.
Those players buying into that system (and into each other) provides another plank. A multi-option offense (and they all are) only works when players have the discipline, coordination, and trust to breathe life into it. Put another way, I doubt Carmelo Anthony would be as eager to hit Lopez for the same critical shot that Aldridge gave up so easily against Denver. That's part of the reason the Blazers are winning and the Knicks, not so much.
Continuing with the statistical parade, the Blazers rank 6th in assists per game, assists per field goal made, and assists per possession so far this season. That's a considerable improvement over last year's ranking in all categories. 9 players on this team are averaging 5 or more rebounds per 36 minutes. 7 of Portland's top 9 rotation players have registered a 15+ point game in the first 18 games of the year. Everybody's doing everything necessary in order for the team to succeed.
When you see Wesley Matthews score 28, 26, and 23 in consecutive games, the point isn't that Matthews is a budding superstar waiting to burst out with a 20-point average. The point is precisely that he's not that guy...except when the Trail Blazers need him to, he can play that guy on TV and his teammates will make sure he gets enough touches to do it and pat his back afterwards.
Not only do the Blazers have Plans A, B, and C right now, all those plans are good. They're also flirting with D, E, and F. When an opponent closes one door the Blazers just walk through another.
To most appearances, Portland's plans are relatively equal as well...free of radical drop-offs. You have to take away multiple facets of Portland's game--like Memphis did last week or San Antonio last year--in order to seriously impact their play for 48 minutes, let alone put them away.
Having multiple plans working equally well doesn't qualify a team for elite status by itself. It's possible to have 5 pretty good plans, none of them great. But the Blazers are getting a chance to test out their options and their capacity to win with them early in this season. So far the results have been plenty good.
Even if this characteristic alone doesn't make a team elite, it's certainly one of the markers that a team is progressing in that direction...an especially important marker for a team not sporting LeBron James or Kevin Durant. (And an attribute that even those superstars would love to see in the players around them. Go ahead and ask LeBron right now.)
Whether this turns out to be a big change or a small one depends largely on whether the team can keep it up through the dog days of the season and the subsequent playoff seeding chase. They have to prove they can win decisively even if the three-pointer isn't falling. They have to prove their guards can handle pressure. They're still vulnerable to athletic and/or sweet shooting centers. Their flaws haven't gone away, they're just well-disguised by the parade of "W's". Opponents know this and will test the Blazers as the games become more important...right on up to the ultra-critical, ultra-focused playoff series that the Blazers seem destined to engage in this year.
If Portland can keep up their multi-option success, though, the list of teams that can overcome them gets pretty small. Either way, it's nice to see Coach Stotts' Jack-Ramsay-inspired mantra coming to fruition. So far this season a team playing with talent and teamwork is indeed beating teams playing on talent alone. And that team is doing it in a half-dozen seemingly-improbable, but ultimately significant, ways.
Did you know that you can now phone in your questions to our weekly podcast with Phil Naessens at 234-738-3394? Give it a try and give us more podcast fodder!
Don't forget to help underprivileged youth, children, and chaperons see Portland's March 30th game against the Phoenix Suns by contributing tickets to Blazer's Edge Night. The cost of a ticket is low and the joy it brings into the life of a child who otherwise wouldn't get to see a game is immeasurable. We're looking to send over 1000 kids this year. You can find all the details here. Please help with a ticket or two (or 10!) if you can.