Today we're cracking open the Mailbag for more of your Portland Trail Blazers questions! If you'd like to submit a question, firstname.lastname@example.org is the address!
Damian Lillard needs to take things to the next level if he wants to be truly elite. Does he need to look to James Harden, and learn to barrel into the lane, take contact, snap his head back and force his way to the free throw line? It may not be fun to watch, but it's becoming extremely effective in the modern NBA
Last year Damian Lillard ranked 14th in overall free throw attempts in the NBA with 398. By comparison Russell Westbrook finished 2nd with 654 and Harden led the league with a whopping 824. Harden scored more points on free throws (715) than Nicolas Batum scored the entire season (664) and Batum was Portland's 4th leading scorer overall. Meanwhile Harden, Westbrook, and DeMarcus Cousins (#3 in attempts) all hovered near 10 FTA per 36 minutes while Lillard attempted only 5 free throws per 36. So yeah, there's money to be made at the foul line and Damian could stand to get some chips on that table.
On the other hand, Lillard accumulated those numbers in a halfcourt-heavy offense centered around LaMarcus Aldridge in which the point guard's primary job, besides ball distribution, was hitting threes. Portland's new emphasis on guard penetration, coupled with Lillard's instant star power, should send his free throw rate higher even if he doesn't change a thing.
This is going to be critical for Lillard and the team. Unless opponents are stone cold fools (or Portland's three point percentage ends up higher than expected) Damian's layups are going to get contested hard. Even if he proves to be one of the most magical finishers in the league, Dame will eventually wear down under the kind of pressure he'll find in the lane night after night.
Free throws aren't contested. They translate missed shots into 2 points (or 1.77 at Lillard's 2014-15 free throw percentage). If Damian collects enough of them, opponents will be forced to sit their foul-laden bigs or give less help in the lane, either of which would be to the Blazers' advantage. Lillard's foul shots could make the difference between a pretty bad halfcourt offense and a respectable one.
As to whether Lillard should go to Harden-like levels to draw fouls...yes and no. You can't ask a reality star actress to become Jennifer Lawrence. The chick from Big Brother would look stupid if she tried to play Katniss. They're in different leagues. But I do expect Lillard to develop Brandon-Roy-style vocalizations (grunts, groans, yells of "Hey!" or "Oh!") on contact to aid referee perception. If he worked on a subtle foul-drawing-spasm for occasional use, that's OK too. The door will be wide open for Damian to collect as many whistles as he wants. Neither he nor the Blazers should be picky about how he achieves that. Points are points and the team will need every one of them.
I'm hearing lots of good things about the new bigs. From Cliff Alexander being a beast, Vonleh being gifted, Davis being a good fit, and Plumlee being more athletic than expected, they all seem to have an upside. My question is two fold; which of the new PF/C's has the best chance to contribute the most this year, and which one projects to be the guy with the greatest long term impact?
Dan (in Sherwood)
You're hearing lots of good things because feel-good stories are the stock in trade during pre-season. When that player whose backstory warmed your heart in September ends up averaging 2.2 minutes per game through April, you get perspective on all the great things you hear. When the season starts you won't see much ink spent on the potential of the 11th and 12th men in the rotation. All eyes and microphones will be on Lillard, CJ McCollum, Meyers Leonard, and the big-minute players, and appropriately so.
This is not to say these stories are inaccurate. Alexander is a physical specimen. Noah Vonleh has potential, Ed Davis will scrap, and so on. But the impact of those attributes almost always falls short of the implied pre-season promise.
For immediate contribution, I'm sticking with Mason Plumlee. Not only will he start, he has experience and the Blazers will rely on him when the heat cranks up. I like Ed Davis too but I think Meyers Leonard will get in his way, so Plumlee is the safer bet this year.
For long-term influence--understanding we're talking about recent acquisitions only--I think almost everyone would go with Vonleh. There's no guarantee he'll become great, but if anyone from this new crew is going to, it'll be him. Nobody else has the same upside or body, save maybe Alexander and he's way too much of an unknown to say much about. This isn't a surprising answer, but I don't see many alternatives.
The perfect contribution of immediate contribution and unknown ceiling is Meyers Leonard. He's not new to the team, but obviously you want to keep an eye on him as well.
What do you like best about the new edition Blazers, especially on offense?
"Like" is a subjective term. Saying something will be enjoyable is not the same as saying it'll be good. But that may be the story of the 2015-16 Trail Blazers: wins are nice when they come, but "fun to watch" is the main selling point.
When talking about the "New Edition" Blazers, some have gotten excited about a sterling start to the pre-season. Those folks probably need to cool it now. Lousy teams can look great during exhibition while the World Champs look awful. Today's cry of, "Oh yeah, it feels so good" will turn into tomorrow's lament, "Can you stand the rain?"
This year's Blazers aren't going to find a once in a lifetime groove. But is this the end? No. As they watch the transformation of boys to men, Portland fans will have plenty of chances to say, "I'm still in love with you." If it isn't love, a little bit of love anyway, well...a bit of entertainment is enough to keep Portland fans with you all the way. And you don't have to worry, sometimes the Blazers will get hot 2nite, which will be enough to keep the roll going one more day. And when the wins do come, they'll be a gift...like it's Christmas all over the world tonight.
This should hold true until Neil Olshey executes mid-season trades for the Kings' Italian SG and Houston's defensive-minded PG. Then the new edition Blazers will morph into Bel Bev DeVonleh.
Setting all that aside, I think I've enjoyed the verve and relative innocence of this year's Blazers more than anything. Veteran-laden squads have been efficient and successful the last couple years, but they came off a little like...
This year's team may not be as polished and predictable, but they also don't know any better, so their approach to the game is much more...
...just with better audio. Usually. It may not run by the book, but you can't argue with the enthusiasm.
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