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How the Portland Trail Blazers Have Surprised This Season

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The ups and downs of Portland’s season have often shocked...but sometimes not.

NBA: Preseason-Portland Trail Blazers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, covering all your questions about the Portland Trail Blazers. Today’s topics all have one thing in common: the word “surprise”. As Andy Samberg said to Michael Bolton, let’s get to it!

Dear Dave,

You’ve been doing this forever now, does anything ever surprise you anymore?

Phillip G

Forever? Way to make me feel old, there, Phillip.

Plenty of things surprise me every season. Sometimes I get surprised game by game! I’m surprised what amazing players Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are. I’m surprised that McCollum, in particular, isn’t getting more attention. If he were playing in any other era outside of the Clyde Drexler-Terry Porter years he would be heralded as one of the all-time greats in the making. I know Lillard’s reputation overshadows CJ a bit, but seriously...this guy is incredible. I expected him to be good, but not this good this quickly.

I’m surprised the Blazers have fallen so drastically in the rebounding department this year. Since 2013 they’ve ranked in the top third of the league for overall rebounding. Last year they were one of the three or four best offensive rebounding teams in the league. Now they might as well be wallpaper...ranging from nothing special to downright ugly.

The Blazers are scoring 12.6 points per game off of fast breaks this year, up from 11.1 last year. They allowed 11.2 per game last season; now they allow 13.7. That’s surprising for a young, mobile bunch.

I want to say I’m surprised that more people in Portland’s orbit didn’t see a correction coming after last season, but that’s not terribly shocking. People usually want to assume the best. I’m totally surprised that the front office and franchise higher-ups also bought into the hype, or at least found themselves in a situation where they had no other choice.

Dave,

Dame’s might not be an allstar? How? It looks like he’s not even close in the voting and so called experts are saying he won’t make it in the west. You surprised that he isn’t closer? How can a guy like him be that many votes away still after all he’s done?

Jim

At season’s start I would have been surprised but I’m not shocked now. Obviously Portland’s record has something to do with it. Injuries and sharing with CJ might also factor in. But there’s a bigger issue here.

Damian Lillard has everything you’d want in a potential All-Star. He scores, he generates highlights, and his national/commercial recognition is off the charts, at least for a Trail Blazer. The only thing he lacks is the element of fear. Watching Lillard play is incredibly entertaining. That’s one of the recommendations for All-Stardom. But if you look at All-Star starters over the years, even this year, they all have this in common: either you fear them or you fear their team. Peak respect for Lillard came in the months following his series-ending shot against the Houston Rockets in the 2014 NBA Playoffs. For a solid year before and after that shot, it seemed he could do no wrong in crunch time. Everybody knew if Lillard got a half-clean look at the last shot, the game was over. As soon as he caught the ball, everybody in the arena felt their heart drop into their stomach.

Lillard hasn’t been as reliable in game-ending situations lately and the Blazers aren’t winning as many games. He doesn’t provoke the same Doomsday Fear and his team isn’t scaring anyone. In language and visceral feeling, sports has close ties to battle. People will respect the players they’re scared of more than the players who entertain them. Until seeing Lillard strikes fear in the hearts of opponents and their fans, he’s not going to rise to the top of the popular vote.

To a lesser extent the same holds true of the coach vote, though I hasten to add that All-Star reserves won’t be named until next week. Lillard might still make it. If he doesn’t, it’ll be more reflective of the logjam of talent in the West than of Lillard’s personal ability. He certainly qualifies as an All-Star in an average conference and an average year.

Yo Daveskillet,

Are you worried or surprised that Vonleh isn’t getting more run? I thought itd be his year.

BT

Not really. His rebounding remains strong but his offense hasn’t improved and his defense is sporadic. He needs to make progress to justify court time. It’s just not there.

Noah Vonleh reminds me a little of WWE wrestler Shelton Benjamin. His physical ability is off the charts. He provides some exciting, drop-your-jaw-and-beer moments. But somehow he’s never been able to put it all together. We can say, “He’s got talent but it’s just not clicking,” but clicking matters. You don’t win NBA games on promise or in theory. The league has 1000 stories of players good enough to tantalize but not productive enough to stick. Vonleh has to carve out his own place; so far he’s not done it. End of story.

Dave,

I know you weren’t high on [the Blazers] this year but even you have to be a little surprised how far they’ve fallen?

Sammy

I hate to sound like a broken record, but not really. As I type this the Blazers have 18 wins in 44 games. That looks bad (and for a team in their position, is bad) but they haven’t actually fallen that far. If they were exactly on last year’s winning pace they’d have 23.5 wins. 5.5 wins in 44 games is plenty. At this point there’s no sane reason to forecast the Blazers making up that ground then excelling in equal measure to match last year’s win total. But they can certainly turn it around. A 22-16 record to close the season isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. That’d get them to 40 wins, not 44, but it’s close enough to call it a non-disaster, if not a wash.

Someone will chime in that if the Blazers continue their current pace they’d be closer to 33 wins. This is true but it hasn’t happened yet. I’d like to see that low-30’s win total before I pronounce judgment on them. For the record, I would be surprised with that outcome, though I don’t deny it could happen. I would also have been surprised if Portland reached the 53 win total that the front office forecast before the season started, I’m less surprised that they went down than up, but I’m going to be as stunned as anyone by how far if 33 ends up the final number.

Don’t forget to send your Mailbag questions to blazersub@gmail.com. We have plenty more in the hopper that we’ll get to next week!

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—Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard