After some time off for other things, let's get to the Mailbag backlog!
Hi Dave and Blazersedge,
I want to know your thoughts on the strength of schedule conspiracy. In the past, it always seemed as if large market teams or championship contenders got a break in their strength of schedule (SOS). For example, the Lakers always seemed like they had the easiest schedule in the beginning of the year and last year the Miami Heat had one of, if not the easiest schedule (although they were in the weak east). Hopefully the NBA will go easy on the Blazers since we seem to get the wrong end of the stick most of the time. On a side note - is there any way we can analyze past NBA teams' SOS and compare it to their winning percentage the season beforehand?
As you can see, the league actually went middle-of-the-road on the Blazers this year. Their back-to-backs are in the middle of the league. They have some tough stretches in December and March but no super-onerous road trips. It's one of the more balanced slates we've seen in a while.
You have to consider several factors when judging schedules.
1. The league can't make everything equal. They're shoehorning over 1200 games into 5.5 months. They have to work around non-NBA arena commitments while doing so. Compromise is inevitable. If it seems like marquee and/or contending teams get a break, they probably do. When national TV wants dozens of a team's games you have to spread them out a certain way. You plot the trajectories of those teams first, work your way down, and fill in at the end. Which would you give priority to, Miami-San Antonio or Sacramento-Milwaukee? One's going on a Thursday night in April, the other gets put wherever it'll fit even if that means an extra back-to-back for the teams involved. Portland isn't a marquee market and wasn't good until last season. Past schedules tended to reflect that.
2. The Blazers are 500 miles away from their closest league neighbor and 2000 miles away from their most distant conference mate. They're the most cornered of the corner teams. They'll always see some scheduling oddities because of that. I'm surprised there aren't more long road trips this season.
3. Trends account for some things. You're probably not going to win every game of a long, 4 games in 5 nights road trip. But scheduling is generally overrated in explaining a team's fortunes, a fallback excuse for the miserable and under-performing. Bad teams get owned by their schedule. Good teams own it. If you really want to contend for a title you have to be prepared to win against any opponent in any building in any situation. Drexler's Blazers and Walton's Blazers did that. It's not impossible. If the schedule is the worst opponent, or even worst bias, the Blazers face this season they should count themselves lucky.
This time last year you were pretty down on our chances. It's early but I assume you've revised the assessment this year?
They have a different track record so you have to rate them higher than the 30-odd win incarnation of a year ago. But they still have plenty to prove. Last year I had them in the lower part of the "mushy middle" in the West. This year they've earned the right to be considered in the upper part. But they haven't gotten themselves out of the mush yet. You still have a pretty clear tier above them in Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and the Clippers. They'll need to catch one or more of those franchises and evade the horde nipping at their heels before they're free and clear.
I think most folks are waiting to see whether the Blazers have taken a significant step forward with this summer's acquisitions or remained steady. Some are waiting to see whether a single, glorious shot made the team look better than they are...whether the gutsy, smart effort against the Rockets or the limp, lost performance against the Spurs reflected Portland's reality more. I'm leaning toward legit status because LaMarcus Aldridge showed something last year and Damian Lillard has that undefinable quality that leads you to believe that he's never going to lose. But I also acknowledge that having to mess with Golden State, Houston, Dallas, Memphis, and even Phoenix (providing Eric Bledsoe stays) will not be pleasant. I wouldn't keel over from shock if you told me any of those teams would pull even with the Blazers. In this conference, pulling even is enough to put 3 seeds in doubt.
I suppose my #1 wish, besides the Blazers doing really well, would be to see the Blazers and Warriors in the 4-5 seeds. That struggle would be magnificent...impossible to turn away from. If the Blazers did finish with a Top 4 seed you'd probably call this season a success. They're capable. We'll just have to see how things shake out.
Obviously we'll be discussing this more over the next couple months, but there's a taste.
We saw Kawhi Leonard explode this last year, especially during the playoffs. His athletic ability, long arms, and great defense really came together in the Spurs system. These are also several of the strengths of the Nicolas Batum. We know that San Antonio was very interested in drafting Nic. My question would be: If Nic HAD been drafted and into the SA system, do you think we would have seen him bust out in similar Leonard-type fashion, our would we likely see a same type of player that he currently is?
Impossible to say, of course. But remember you can't divorce the "Spurs system" from the Spurs roster. It's not like San Antonio has some magic, secret juju sauce that will develop any player to his maximum potential. Kawhi Leonard gets to play with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker in a system that's been established for more than a decade. He might look different playing with LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard in a system that's still a work in progress. Batum would no doubt look different going the other way as well. He would have had one coach his entire career. They'd have asked others things of him than have been asked in Portland.
Batum's numbers are not far off of Leonard's as it is. He scores less per minute but gets more assists. Rebounds are about even. Leonard has the edge in 3PT% and True Shooting % but he's not obliterating Batum. Leonard had a fantastic year, a remarkable playoff run, and his team won a title. But keep in mind that part of the reason his season was defined as "breakout" is because he's the only one who fits that definition on the Spurs. In other words, people needed a fresh story on a team where most of the pieces remained static. What's different about the Spurs this year? Leonard is the obvious choice. Ask that question about Portland's roster and Damian Lillard overshadows Batum mightily. Batum could have equaled Leonard's production exactly and still not gotten the same accolades because on this roster he's a Coleman lantern next to Lillard's sun.
In short, the answer is, "Yes, he might look a lot like Leonard but the distance between the two right now might not be as great as it seems."
I love the grit and desire that Wesley Matthews plays with. His reckless abandon reminds me of Gerald "Crash" Wallace. The only problem with that style is that it's hard your body, and it will eventually catch up with you (see Wallace, D. Wade, etc.) While he is still relatively young, with the way Matthews plays (including practices, days off and summers) do you see it happening to him at some point?
It could. But there are key differences between Matthews and Gerald Wallace and Dwyane Wade. Each of the latter carried his team for a large portion of his career, playing more minutes and keying more possessions than Matthews does. Many of those possessions involved hard-headed, contact-filled driving...not exactly a Matthews specialty. Sure, Wesley's body could break down by attrition but you can't ask him to play differently than he does. If his career spans like length of either Crash or D-Wade, I think you have to call it good.
Keep sending those Mailbag questions to the address below!
--Dave email@example.com / @DaveDeckard