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How Good Are the Portland Trail Blazers?

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The Blazers have demonstrated tangible improvements at the outset of the season, but their record remains mediocre. How good will they be?

NBA: Preseason-Portland Trail Blazers at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers own a 6-4 record ten games into the 2017-18 NBA season. They’ve registered victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, and New Orleans Pelicans with tough losses to the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers. They’ve evidenced a little bit of razzle-dazzle, a whole lot of rebounding, and a surprisingly stout defense. What does it all add up to, though? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

Are you surprised and encouraged by our start? I’ve liked the play of Dame and the big 3 and Swanigan has looked great to me. I think the defense looks better and even Evan Turner is turning around. I know it’s early but how do you think it’s going so far? Is it what you expected and do you see a good year ahead?

Thanks, Dave.

Nan

Ten games is a little soon to be making firm judgments, but the response so far has been mixed. The Blazers have shown hopeful signs, but they’ve not distinguished themselves from the pack or taken advantage of continuity, talent, or whatever was supposed to give them a clear head start. The Blazers had a chance to make the long slog easier on themselves by crushing the early part of the season. They haven’t managed that yet. Time is running out on their opportunity to do so.

Just after the 2017-18 schedule was released, I suggested that November 18th was a significant barometer for the Blazers this year. That’s the date of a relatively pedestrian game with the Sacramento Kings. It also marks the end of Portland’s gargantuan homestand that began way back on October 24th against the New Orleans Pelicans. For three and a half weeks, the Blazers play 11 games at home and only 2 on the road. The level of competition during that stretch is moderate...a couple of tough opponents but few head-and-shoulders above Portland’s perceived level. This is the chance to make their mark, to set up a run at a special season, or at least to earn a greater margin of error during the crucial spring playoff push.

After defeating the Thunder last night, Portland’s record stands at 6-4. That’s the same record they held after 10 games last season. A half-dozen more games remain in the stand. The Blazers have the opportunity to hit the gas. If they win out against the Grizzlies, Nets, Nuggets, Magic, and Kings (twice), they’d hold a 12-4 record. That’s plenty impressive. Losing twice would put them at 10-6, acceptable but hardly world-shaking. A third loss would dip them close enough to .500 to claim that they’d wasted their potential advantage. This would call into question their ability to negotiate the far-tougher schedule beyond.

The Blazers haven’t proven (or disproven) anything yet. In years past, remaining neutral long enough to stay in the playoff hunt would be considered success. This year, only success is success. Slipping underwater and treading water will ultimately end up as different forms of failure. Opportunity awaits, but they need to bear down over the next six games. We’ll know more about them at the conclusion of that period.

It’s also helpful to understand what the Blazers are trying to do this year as compared to last. With the caveat that any 9-game statistical sample (the most up-to-date rankings at the moment) is going to be skewed, here’s a look at the key areas in which Portland’s statistical production has changed during the first part of this year compared to last. Only categories in which there has been significant movement in both raw production and NBA rank are listed.

As you can see, in some of the areas they were already bad, the Blazers still languish. Their scoring in the paint has dropped. Fast break points barely register. Bereft of easy buckets, their field goal percentage has tanked as well. They’ve made up for it with an amazing 40% shooting clip from the arc, plus an increase in field goal and free throw attempts.

The real revelations have come in rebounding and defense. Portland’s rebounding percentages range from inexorable to unholy. They’re the best rebounding team in the league right now. Points allowed per game and three-point percentage allowed have made near-miraculous turnarounds this year: 25th in the league to 5th in the former category, 27th to 4th in the latter. Much of that is opponent-dependent, but these are still positive signs. If the Blazers could just stop fouling everyone they see, the defense might start to look scary.

The big questions: Will the improvements keep up? If they do, will it be enough, cumulatively, to lift the Blazers out of the .500 doldrums and into a choice playoff seed?

Rebounding is likely to stay strong all season. The Blazers are built for it. It’s also less prone to fluctuations and aberrations than most stats. Portland’s defense probably won’t look as good once opponents get tougher and the grind of the season wears on them. But points in the paint and field goal percentage will normalize at some point. Throw it all together and you probably get a team that—if relatively healthy—looks better than last season but not dramatically so. That’s a total crystal-ball guess based on limited data, though. A million things could change the outlook between now and the All-Star break, let alone the end of the season.

The scary thing for Portland is that the opening-night victory over the Phoenix Suns, a 48-point margin, is still skewing the numbers heavily. They currently own a +6.3 Margin of Victory, on a par with some of the best teams in the league. Take out that single game, however, and the number drops to +1.7. That’s still good, but it’s nothing to write home about given the caliber of opponent.

The Blazers have registered definite improvements in the early part of the season. They’ve also backslid some, and the overall effect hasn’t been dramatic. It’s going well, but not well enough. If this start is a building block, the Blazers have a chance to be good. If this is just who they are, the season is going to end up semi-disappointing.

How about all of you? If Nan asked you how the Trail Blazers are doing so far, what would you say? We love reading your comments. If you’re so inclined, send your own Mailbag questions to blazersub@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @davedeckard!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com