We’re two games in to the 2018-19 season and the Portland Trail Blazers are 2-0 and NBA Finals-bound. Well, maybe that isn’t quite true, but the team has looked quite good, despite some lingering issues. Here are some things (good and bad) that have stood out to me thus-far.
Remember last fall? The Blazers opened up the season playing fairly stingy defense but the offense wasn’t super efficient, right? Actually, before the offensive stagnation set in, Portland opened the 2017-18 season with a pair of fairly easy, high-scoring wins; the 114-76 stomping of Phoenix, and a 114-96 win over the Pacers.
So far this year, Portland has the third-rated offense in the NBA along with the third best average margin of victory. Right now the small-sample-size alert bells are probably sounding off in your head - and they should be - but there’s no blowout in either of these games to skew the numbers further. Quite simply, the Blazers have looked very nice on offense through the first two games.
This is due to a few different factors. The most glaring change comes in the volume of 3-point attempts. Through their first two games last season, the Blazers averaged 23.5 3-point attempts per night, and a fairly pedestrian 28 per game over the entirety of last season. So far this season, that number jumps to 33.5. Also notable, after averaging nearly two 3-point attempts per game last season, Evan Turner has yet to attempt a triple this year.
Speaking of Turner, he’s looking a lot more comfortable this year, and it’s all due to how he’s being used. The Blazers are finally embracing the paradigm that is Evan Turner; a smart, unselfish player that is simultaneously inefficient and needs the ball in his hands. A lot has already been written about featuring Turner along with a plethora of long distance shooters but so far, so good.
Portland’s new bench acquisitions have been a mixed bag, and probably will be all season long, but at least for now, both Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas are shooting above 50 percent from beyond the arc. These guys have one job, and that’s to fire away. Stauskas of course was a key cog in the opening night win over the Lakers. It’s not reasonable to expect 24 points a night out of Stauskas night in and night out - or even double digits - but he’s already shown to be more of a floor spacing threat than Pat Connaughton ever was.
But you’ve still got to have some size off the bench, and Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard have fine to good. Probably the biggest question mark headed into this season was how the Blazers would replace Ed Davis off the bench. Well, Zach Collins has been a spark plug. Everyone talks about the blocks - deservedly so - but he’s done a solid job rotating in the paint, and isn’t taking poor shots; something that he did on occasion in his rookie season.
Leonard has been less notable on the stat sheet, but has quietly had a nice two games. He’s been setting very solid screens, he had four assists that led to 12 points in game one, and he finally rolled to the rim instead of faded - and was rewarded with an alley-oop lob for his troubles.
All of this has allowed Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to play more minutes together, which has been a positive. If you’re a Blazers opponent, the only thing scarier than having to account for Lillard is having to account for him and CJ. Hopefully the bench continues its synergistic play so that Stotts can continue to avoid staggering their minutes. With a more offensively efficient Jusuf Nurkic in tow, that’s a scary trio.
Despite an offensive efficiency that is light years ahead of where he started last season (remember all those flip shots at the rim?), Jusuf Nurkic still gets exposed in small-ball lineups. What the Lakers did to him in the first half of the opener was practically criminal. As NBA lineups continue to get more “positionless” and fluid, Nurkic will be rendered ineffective at times strictly due to matchups.
Speaking of being ineffective, Al-Farouq Aminu is starting off another year by throwing up a bunch of bricks, including a horrendous 1-10 in the opener. To be fair, he had to exert a lot of energy guarding LeBron James, but that’s not going to get it done at the power forward spot. Neither is sub 40 percent shooting from the floor, where Aminu has been at for the last two seasons. Chief finding his stroke from the outside while improving his dribble drive would do wonders for this team. But he is who he is, for better and worse.
The schedule continues to be difficult for the next few weeks but so far, so good for Portland. What are your takeaways from the young season? Let us know in the comments!