If you’re a long-term reader at Blazer’s Edge, you may have noticed a change in the site this season. Instead of my byline under the extended recaps following Portland Trail Blazers games—a fixture for a decade—you’re starting to see other names creep in. We have an embarrassing wealth of talent on the staff roster now and it’s time to let other people have a shot at the helm when it comes to game night. But never fear! Without the responsibility for writing every long form recap, I’ll be free to answer Mailbag questions and do exactly what I’m doing today: sharing targeted impressions of Blazers performances and what they might indicate. We’ll probably call the series “5 Things We Learned” and run it after every game or two, interspersed between regular Mailbags. I hope you enjoy it.
Here are 5 Things We’ve Learned from the Trail Blazers 2016-17 Season So Far.
1. Damian Lillard Is a Boss Battle
So you thought you had the Blazers beat, eh? You took advantage of the intermittent defense. You got the bigs in deep foul trouble. You even made CJ McCollum miss a shot or two. Ha! You fool! All of that was but preparation...vanquishing low-polygon-count legions on your way to the Level of Doom.
Congratulations! You are now locked in a very small room with a flying, gunning, three-point-spike-wielding Master who goes by the name of “Number O”. I hope you ran up a big score and saved plenty of 1-ups, because your chances of getting out of this one intact are small.
The dirty little secret of Portland’s 2-1 start is that they’ve not played all that well. They accelerated past an injured and slow Utah Jazz squad on opening night, got handled by the Los Angeles Clippers, and barely escaped from Denver when the Nuggets couldn’t do anything right down the stretch. So why does it feel like the Blazers are flying high? 35 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists a night from Damian Lillard, plus the utter certainty that if the game is in reach he’s going to take it. Other teams know this. They just can’t do anything about it right now.
Truth be told, it’s still pretty easy to solve the Trail Blazers. That’s not enough, though. If you don’t account for Lillard, you’re still going to be hitting the reset button on your game plan. That’s what superstars do to their opponents. Damian Lillard is certainly playing like one right now.
2. This Team Isn’t Clicking on All Cylinders (and may not be designed to)
Lillard has played superlatively to open the season. CJ McCollum has produced despite some variance. Everybody else in a Portland uniform has been hit or miss on both ends of the floor. Right now the Blazers resemble a box of choc-o-lates. Quarter to quarter, sometimes possession to possession, you never know what you’re going to get.
The main redeeming quality: the box is bigger than it used to be. If the Blazers aren’t at a San Antonio Spurs level of consistency, at least they can keep throwing players onto the floor with the expectation that somebody will produce.
It’s tempting to dream of the day when it all comes together, when the juggernaut emerges once and for all. That may not happen (outside of one or two perfect nights) as most of the players on this team are streaky. (Read: “Deficient in one or more key areas.”) Head Coach Terry Stotts is less an alchemist looking for the perfect recipe, more a mad inventor constantly replacing gears and levers on a temperamental machine. This will be fantastic to watch, also frustrating at times...especially when the Blazers come up against well-oiled and airtight opposition.
3. Meyers Leonard May Be Excedrin Headache #11
Meyers Leonard spent the entire summer recovering from injury. He returned to the floor sooner than projected, to the amazement of fans. Watching him shoot 14% from the floor with per-36-minute numbers that couldn’t submerge a toothpick is considerably less amazing. Everything about Leonard’s game looks slow: screens, defense, leap, shot release. This isn’t two steps forward and one step back, it’s two steps forward and kick a Grizzly Bear in the crotch.
If Leonard isn’t ready go physically right now, everybody should understand that. If he came into the season 100% and this is the result? Uff da. At that point you start to wonder how much of his considerable promise will ever bear fruit.
4. Evan Turner Needs Time
Let’s confess this right away. Evan Turner was never going to be a seamless fit in Portland. His skills are evident, the opportunity to take advantage of them without breaking the offense less so. Turner has authored some of the prettiest passes of the young season and a couple nice buckets besides. But his isolation moves hold all the charm of a booger on the Mona Lisa. The difference between dazzling and derelict boils down to flow. When Turner is engaged and aware he poses unfair problems for the defense. When he can’t find the play and defaults to his comfort zone nobody can figure out what he’s doing.
We all need to remember that Turner has been with the team for all of three games. His comfort zone will widen. He’s going to fit in better, pick his spots more intentionally, and become a decent piece even if the fit never becomes natural. Nothing’s wrong with him that time won’t solve, save the things that time can’t solve.
5. Mason Plumlee Has Extended His Range, But...
Mason Plumlee’s offense became the talk of October as he extended his offense beyond its previous “dunk or bust” radius. By percentage, Plumlee is now taking more shots beyond two feet than he ever has in his career. Whether this makes him more dangerous is up to debate.
In a small sample size, Plumlee is averaging 34% on attempts between 3-9 feet, roughly equal to his 38% last year. His accuracy between 10-15 feet has doubled, but that’s from an abysmal 17% to a humble 33%. His overall field goal percentage is up considerably (52% last year to 62% this) but his points-per-36 haven’t increased appreciably. Meanwhile his offensive rebounding has fallen into a hole so deep that Indiana Jones can’t retrieve it.
These trends will normalize. I’d be stunned to see Plumlee average less than one offensive board per 36 minutes for the season. But so far the “extended” offense has been more of a nice idea than a real boost.
We’ll let the Blazers play another game or two then come back with a few more things we’ve learned. In the meantime we’ll be answering Mailbag questions, so send them along to email@example.com!