While often, this blog serves as an assembly hall of sorts for Portland hoops fanatics to get together and geek out, bonding over everything from the team's playoff chances to the finer points of Ed Davis' defense against opposing pick-and-rolls, it's important to bear in mind - not everyone lives and breathes Trail Blazers basketball for 365 days a year.
I know it's heresy, but it's true. Some people occasionally take a reprieve from closely following the Blazers. Some are Portland locals who would undeniably name the Blazers when asked for a favorite team, but they're not following the NBA all year; their attentions sometimes turn to soccer, or Ducks/Beavers, or other stuff entirely besides sports. Others are NBA diehards, but they're trying to keep up with the whole league rather than just follow one team; they keep a passive eye on the Blazers while also monitoring the other 29 squads.
In either event, there are thousands upon thousands of Blazers observers out there who are interested but not absolutely maniacal about it. They like the team, but their attention spans can wane for months at a time, especially when the team isn't supergood and threatening to win a championship. Among many members of this tribe, the Blazers probably went overlooked for several months toward the end of 2015 and the start of 2016 - they were just a group that used to be really good, then lost a bunch of dudes, then had to rebuild. Some new dudes arrived; learning their names wasn't an imperative. There was time.
Now, though, there's no excuse for sleeping on the Blazers anymore. They're back. Over the last month, the Blazers have won 11 of their last 13 games (should have been 12, but for a disastrous meltdown last night against Houston), and suddenly they're right in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. They're not a "contender" again, in the sense that they're vying for an NBA championship anytime soon, but they're back in the mix, and they demand your attention. This team is feisty, it's competitive and oh my, is it watchable.
Casual fans everywhere: Welcome back. This column is for you. Whether you're a fringe basketball fan in Portland, or an NBA diehard who had written off the Blazers for the first half of this season, you've recognized now that this team is must-watch TV, and you're scrambling to get caught up on everything you've been missing. I'm here to help with that. What follows is a primer for bandwagon Blazer fans.
Watching the Blazers at your local sports bar - you know, the one that used to show random Big 12 college games, but suddenly realized last week that the NBA was a thing again? Flipping through channels with your family and watching the game for a change? Talking NBA at the office water cooler for the first time in months? You'll need to know what to talk about, what trends to monitor, what future developments to watch for. So here's a list of talking points that will help you transition seamlessly from casual fan to diehard hoophead. Your rundown of Blazer storylines for 2015-16:
Story #1: Damian Lillard has emerged as the closest thing to Steph Curry besides Steph Curry.
Everyone knows that Stephen Curry is the most exciting player in the NBA today. He's the reason the Golden State Warriors have emerged as arguably the greatest basketball team in history - the modern NBA is a pacing and spacing-oriented league, and Curry is a uniquely skilled pacing and spacing player. He's got incredible quickness, handles, court vision - and he's a couple weeks away from breaking his own record for 3-pointers made in a season. (The top 6 seasons ever for made treys belong to Steph, Steph, Ray Allen, Dennis Scott, Steph and Steph.)
But aside from the numbers, what makes Curry uniquely fun to watch is his ability to pounce at a moment's notice and take over a game. The Warriors can go "3, stop, 3, stop, 3" and swing a close game into a blowout within seconds, and Curry's the catalyst behind that. He can strike at any time, so you have no choice but to stay glued to the TV, waiting. We've never seen a player quite like that.
But if I had to name one guy who's a reasonable facsimile? It's Damian Lillard. The Blazers' fourth-year point guard might not have been named an All-Star this season, but he's one of the most lethal offensive weapons in the NBA, and he has a Steph-like knack for unleashing bursts of great vengeance and furious anger on unsuspecting opponents.
That's some Curry stuff right there. In this stretch, from the third quarter of Sunday's win over Utah, Lillard goes on a 12-1 run against the Jazz all by himself, drilling four consecutive 3-pointers to turn a 13-point Blazer deficit into a nailbiter. There are few players in the NBA who can do stuff like this, but Lillard is right up there with the best of them.
It's a 3-point shooting-oriented league in 2016, and the most productive players tend to be the ones who have a hand in outside shots - either making their own or setting up chances for teammates. Lillard does plenty of both:
Curry is king when it comes to making and assisting 3s, but Lillard is right there near the top. And as entertainment value goes, he's second only to Curry. Harden's a great creator, but Lillard is more fast-paced and exciting; Wall's a good athlete and passer, but he doesn't have Dame's jump shot. If you're looking for a dynamic point guard who can run and gun with the best of them in the modern NBA, Dame is second to... well, one.
It's also noticeable that the Blazers are the only team with two guys in the top 10 in 3s created. Which brings us to...
Story #2: CJ McCollum is a legitimate 1A to Lillard's No. 1 option. This is a real thing now.
I know - I scoffed at this too when the season began. Optimistic Blazer fans were talking about McCollum like he was the second coming of Brandon Roy, and I was a little taken aback - you serious? This kid? The 24-year-old who's never held a regular starting job? I figured at best, he'd carve out a nice role standing in the corner and winging open jumpers. I did not expect him to emerge this season as a straight-up star.
The thing about McCollum is he doesn't settle for being just an ordinary shooting guard - running around screens, spotting up on the wings, making a couple of 3s and calling it a night. He doesn't play like a wing guy - in fact, he's turned into basically a second point guard for the Blazers, enabling Lillard to move off the ball and let CJ run the show for long stretches at a time. For example:
The Warriors here have Steph guarding Lillard, the presumptive ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, at the start of this play, but Lillard switches things up with a dribble handoff to McCollum, allowing him to run the offense. Steph and Klay Thompson switch, leaving Steph still on the ball - but CJ is crafty enough to absolutely abuse the reigning MVP on this possession. Watch him use the screen from Mason Plumlee to ditch Curry for just a split second, and then when Curry doubles back to contest an apparent step-back jumper, CJ perfectly times his pump fake to throw Curry off and create a wide-open jumper for himself.
This is excellent stuff, and it's a luxury when you can get skills like this from your two-guard in addition to your starting pointman. The Blazers are a spread pick-and-roll-oriented team, and they use multiple PNR ballhandlers to mess around with matchups and create favorable situations like this one.
Consider this: According to Synergy Sports, there are 57 guys in the NBA this season who have 200-plus attempts as the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll. Here are the top 10 in points per possession:
Again, two Blazers. (And surprisingly, two Raptors, neither of them Kyle Lowry.) Having two guys who can run plays is a real blessing, and it's a huge reason that the Blazers right now are sixth in the NBA in offense. McCollum is not just an afterthought in that. He's a major, major component of the Blazers' attack.
Story #3: Mason Plumlee is a sneaky-good NBA center who fits really well with what the Blazers do.
No charts for this one. No top-10 lists. Plumlee isn't leading the league in anything (well, he's fourth in fouls committed, but besides that).
But here's the thing about Mason Plumlee - he's a perfect fit for the way the Blazers play. He wasn't brought here to be a star. The Blazers sent Steve Blake and a pick swap to Brooklyn last June to pick up an extra capable young big, and Plumlee has proven to be more than just capable. He's a natural next to Lillard and McCollum. Again, Portland's offense is predicated on endless pick-and-rolls, and Plumlee is an athletic young guy who makes an excellent rolling partner with either of the two featured guards. He's not often going to overpower guys in the low post, but with the creators he plays in front of, he doesn't have to. Dame and CJ use their ball-handling skills to create seams in the defense, and Mason does the rest.
That's exactly what I'm talking about. Lillard, because he's such a capable scorer from everywhere on the floor, has a gravitational pull on opposing defenses unlike anyone else in the league. Wherever he goes, he has a habit of sucking in defenders, and that creates openings. When he goes to the rim, centers tend to leave Plumlee and drift over to help - just like Andrew Bogut does here. At that point, all Lillard needs to create a guaranteed bucket is a big man who positions himself well, has good hands and can catch and dunk. Plumlee is that, and it's why he's shooting 63.0 percent on attempts within 3 feet of the rim. Lillard makes those buckets come easy.
For a bandwagon Blazer fan who's just now getting caught up, Plumlee's an easy guy to understand and like. He doesn't do more than his role requires - he's a capable big man who rolls to the basket and finishes scoring chances when called upon. Oh, and the dunks are pretty sweet.
Story #4: From out of nowhere, the Blazers are putting together a really solid group of bench players.
The Blazers' bench began this season as an undefined glob of talent - a horde of six or seven dudes with untapped potential. Some might pan out; some mightn't. It was hard to know what to expect. Most of the group was 24 and younger; few had held down NBA rotation jobs consistently in their careers. Terry Stotts was basically tasked with throwing a whole bunch of guys at the wall and seeing who stuck.
Turns out, a lot of them have. The success wasn't immediate, though. Allen Crabbe is one guy who's been a consistently productive bench scorer for pretty much the whole season; not everyone else has had that kind of yearlong impact. Everyone's found a way to chip in, though.
Consider Maurice Harkless. A month ago, Moe was basically out of the rotation - he had a five-game stretch at the end of January when he played 2, 3, 0, 0 and 2 minutes. Then a brief injury to Noah Vonleh necessitated that he move from the end of the bench to the starting lineup, and amazingly it worked. He started scoring in double figures every night, plus doing crazy stuff like this:
Poor Bojan Bogdanovic. The Nets' small forward does everything he can to guard Moe on this possession, but he's just got no shot. Harkless uses his ridiculous strength and speed to get into the paint and practically rip the rim off. He's got a way of doing this. At a muscular 6-foot-9, with a 7-foot wingspan and the foot speed of a smaller wing guy, he's capable of crushing almost any individual matchup opposing defenses can throw at him. The Blazers never call plays for Harkless, really, but he finds opportunities anyway to slash into the paint and make things happen.
Everyone on the Blazer bench is like this - they were never given the chance to be breakout stars, but they've seized opportunities for themselves by filling in wherever the team can use them. Gerald Henderson has emerged as a really nice reserve wing off the Blazer bench this past month, cutting around screens and creating lots of catch-and-shoot opportunities for efficient buckets. Ed Davis has become a really capable big man on both ends of the floor, chipping in lots of tip-ins and putbacks on the offensive end while starting to defend in space really nicely on the other end. This Blazer bench unit arrived in camp last fall as a ragtag group of unknowns, but they've coalesced nicely into a really solid group.
A few other tidbits:
Still looking for more little nuggets of Blazer talk to drop at the water cooler or the bar? I'll leave you with a few extra quick-hitters:
- Noah Vonleh is improving, slowly but surely. It's still kinda a head-scratcher that he's started 43 games for the Blazers this season, but he's grown over the few months he's been in that role, slowly becoming a more efficient scorer and rebounder. The defense isn't bad, either.
- Everyone laughed when the Blazers threw $30 million at Al-Farouq Aminu this season. "He can't shoot worth a lick," they said. Suddenly Farouq's firing 34.6 percent from 3 in a Blazer uniform, and the rising salary cap is about to make $30 mil look like pocket change. Who's laughing now?
- Allen Crabbe is going to get paid this summer. He's a 23-year-old with a deadly jump shot, and he's about to enter the first summer of free agency with the new TV money flowing. It might cost Portland $8 million just to hold onto him. Could even be $10 million.
- Is Meyers Leonard in the same boat with Crabbe? We all assumed so at the start of this season, but his hot shooting from last year has cooled a little bit, and defensively he's only usable in certain matchups. (He basically didn't play in last week's win over the Warriors, which is telling.) How much cash has he lost this year?
- Terry Stotts for Coach of the Year? For taking a bunch of misfits and turning them from "rebuilding project" to "instant playoff contender," he deserves serious consideration. Though the arguments in favor of Steve Kerr/Luke Walton, Gregg Popovich, Brad Stevens, Frank Vogel and Steve Clifford are all solid as well.
That should be sufficient for a SparkNotes-style recap of the Blazers' season to date. Happy to catch you up! We've got 26 games still to play between now and the end of the season, plus at least one playoff series if the current standings hold - if you haven't started tuning in already, you've got plenty of time to hop aboard the bandwagon. Believe me, it's a fun ride.