The Portland Trail Blazers are riding a two-game winning streak, with victories over the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers taking them to an 18-16 record, a couple games above .500. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum continue to produce points. Portland’s defense has improved from a season ago. Supporting cast players are starting to prove their worth. Is it enough, though? That’s the topic of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
It’s the new year almost and I’m already forming big opinions about the season even though it might be early yet. I like some of what I see (defense!) and don’t like some other stuff (what the heck is up with losing at home!) Maybe it’s silly but what I’m most disappointed in is the rookies. I thought Biggie [Caleb Swanigan] would be doing Biggier things by now and Zach Collins just seems pfffffthhht. What do you think about the rookies and the season so far? What are your biggest positives and disappointments?
The rookies get a pass from me. High lottery picks and sweet scorers aside, all rookies need time, especially big men. They come from college programs where they’re a main focal point, landing on an NBA team where their entire job is to set up and rebound for other people. They’re used to being the biggest player on the floor most nights; now they’re lined up against behemoths with professional skills. Even when you have a professional-level body like Swanigan does, getting lost is easy. Collins has actually shown a couple of signs of daylight, which is a positive. Be patient with the young guys and see what they bring 3-4 years from now. I think you’ll end up liking at least one of them, if not both.
As for the rest of your question, here are the 5 most striking positives and negatives to the season so far. These are solely my opinion and are in no particular order. Feel free to agree, disagree, or augment in the comments.
5 Positives from Portland’s Season So Far
1. The Defense
This was THE talking point heading into the season and so far the Blazers have delivered...mostly. They still fade in and out and their overall record hasn’t changed much, but they hold a much-ballyhooed 2nd-in-the-NBA Defensive Efficiency ranking, standing 5th in opponent field goal percentage and 6th in opponent three-point percentage.
2. The Road
The Blazers haven’t been shiny at home, but they hold a glowing 10-6 record on the road. This is one of the humps that “young” teams want to get over. The Blazers don’t look quite so young anymore. To the extent they’re ready to play, the venue doesn’t matter.
3. Al-Farouq Aminu’s Three-Point Shooting
All of Blazers Nation is holding their breath on this one, but Aminu is providing the wing shooting outlet the Blazers crave, obliterating former career highs with a 42.7% success rate beyond the arc and a True Shooting Percentage of 54.4. With almost 60% of his attempts coming from distance, it’s a new day for Chief’s offense.
4. Shabazz Napier is a Player
Not much was expected of the sparsely-used Connecticut alum heading into the season. He’d never shot over 40% from the field and never averaged more than 5 points per game. The Blazers barely found 10 minutes per for him last year. All of a sudden he’s scoring 9 per game, over 17 per 36, while averaging 49% from the field and 45% from the arc with a gaudy 60.4 True Shooting Percentage. He’s filling important reserve minutes and coordinating well with teammates on the floor. Napier is basically found money for Portland, and it looks like the bill might be a little more valuable than originally thought.
5. Damian Lillard Keeps On Going
Though his numbers are down from a season ago, Lillard is maintaining his now-three-season-long streak of excellence. He’s averaging 25 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds despite shifting back towards a perimeter/facilitating game. With the relatively disappointing performances of the players around him, defenses have free rein to key in on Lillard nightly. He still produces. That’s something.
Honorable Mention: Respect Ed Davis, y’all.
5 Negatives from Portland’s Season So Far
1. Jusuf Nurkic Goes Bonk
Following his fantastic performance last year, Nurkic was anointed as part of Portland’s Big 3 heading into the season. So far he’s responded with sporadic, often inattentive defense, a 50-point drop in field goal percentage from his Portland numbers last year, a career low in rebounding per minute, and a per-minute scoring rise that’s due to him eating more possessions with his suddenly-inefficient offense. The Blazers are getting the player people were afraid they’d traded for instead of the player they’d hoped would take them to the next level.
2. Moe Harkless Disappears
Harkless was slated as the starting small forward coming into the season by virtue of experience and past performance. He was never great, but he was serviceable as a utility forward, occasionally brilliant. A combination of poor shooting, simmering frustration, and the rest of the team disintegrating around him forced Harkless to a bench sentence from which he’s only just started to recover.
Harkless is like the canary in the coal mine for the Blazers. If the team is playing right, he’s usable. If they’re fractured, he’ll look invisible. The latter has happened far more often than the former this season.
3. No Lane Points and No Fast Breaks Makes Homers Go Crazy
If Blazers fans were rock-solid sure of anything, it’s that Portland’s offense could weather any storm. For two years straight they’d overachieved due to point production. If the defense would just come around, they’d be set. This year the defense has come around somewhat, but the offense has fallen off a cliff. The Blazers are producing 5.6 fewer points per game than they did last year, falling from 14th to 25th in the league in field goal percentage in the process. Among the culprits: they’ve dropped from Bottom-10 to Bottom-5 in points in the paint and rank dead last in fast break points, notching only 5.5 per game. Fewer easy looks means more difficult ones.
Over the years the Blazers have been painted as a scrappy, over-achieving bunch. That was once true. This year it looks as if they thought pre-season promise would be enough to carry them into the upper echelon in the West. Their 8-10 home record can be explained, in part, by quality of opponent. It can also be explained by them playing long stretches like they don’t give a crap...as if they think wins are a given. Their “trotting and standing” versus “running and hustling” ratio has been poor. They’ve given up truly abysmal quarters to multiple opponents, almost to the point of employing a “Rope a Dope” strategy to earn wins when the other team stops paying attention.
When the team fell apart after Brandon Roy’s injuries, I used to be able to re-watch games more efficiently by fast-forwarding between Portland’s defensive rebounds and initial passes. I’d miss nothing in the interim except casual loping down the floor and forward scanning would speed up game time by about 25%. We’re not quite to that point with this year’s team but it’s close. That’s bad.
5. What’s the Record? Oh.
The biggest barometer of Portland’s advancement is simple: they need to play a season in which wins and losses take center stage. Obviously every season qualifies in the homely sense, but there’s a difference between serious, contending teams and everybody else. Teams in the race—franchises that matter—play significant games all through the season. Each night’s outcome could be the difference between home court or a road slog in the playoffs. Teams in the mushy middle have to define their seasons by other criteria: scoring averages, modest winning streaks, fancy stats, who makes the All-Star Game.
We’re not yet to January 1 and we already know the Blazers are in the latter category, not the former. They’d need to go 32-16 the rest of the way just to reach 50 wins...a mark the league’s best would consider modest. Victory and defeat will determine whether Portland makes the playoffs or not, which is significant for them. No amount of reasonably-predictable winning from this point on will re-define who they are: a modestly-successful, playoff-bubble team.
If this year was supposed to change that narrative, it hasn’t so far. They’re going to need a trade or a tidal wave of rear-end kicks in order to progress anywhere besides where they’ve already been. That sets up an incredibly interesting set of decisions between now and February, followed by another set once the season concludes. Those weren’t the choices the Blazers were supposed to be making at this point, though.
Thanks for the question, Avery! Keep them coming to firstname.lastname@example.org or @davedeckard on Twitter!