An 8-6 record has left the Portland Trail Blazers in the thick of the NBA’s Western Conference this season. They currently stand fifth, ahead of or equal to everybody except the conference elite. Unfortunately they’re also a tickle and a sneeze away from 12th place. That’s the way the season has gone for most teams so far.
Unsurprisingly, Portland’s first fourteen games have contained plenty of ups and downs. Today I’m going to talk about some of them. In weak imitation of Zach Lowe’s “10 Things I Like (and Don’t Like) About the NBA” column, I’m going to list five of my favorite things about the season so far, then five of my least favorite.
The selections are subjective and personal, which leaves plenty of room for you to argue or add your own. We’ll encourage you to do both after you read these.
My Five Favorite Things About the Trail Blazers Season So Far
Two letters say it all for the Blazers this year: C J.
McCollum has always been a high-scoring offensive maestro. He’s averaged 18.7 points per game for his career, 21.8 after he really started playing in his third season. He’s taken it to another level this year, obliterating his career high, scoring 26.7 points per game. It’s only a month of play, but even so, only franchise legends have approached those numbers.
In addition to pouring in points like nickels in a jukebox, McCollum is scoring more in the flow, and far more efficiently, than he ever has. His 47.3% success rate from the field is the second highest in his career. A three-point percentage of .441 on a 11.0 threes attempted per game is eye-popping. CJ has never shot more and he’s never shot better. His True Shooting Percentage of .620 is more appropriate to a center attempting dunks than a guard attempting threes. The only thing he doesn’t do is draw fouls, but with digits this high, you have to forgive him.
Blazers fans have never seen a better version of CJ McCollum than they witnessed before his foot injury. The near-historical run was an easy choice as a favorite. Hopefully he can continue it after the break.
Damian Lillard’s Jumper
Unlike McCollum, Damian Lillard is not shooting a career high in field goal percentage or three-point percentage this year. He’s near average in both. But his absolute nonchalance in launching from 30 feet is still a sight to behold.
The long bomb has been part of Lillard’s arsenal for a couple of seasons. He and Steph Curry are acknowledged masters of the trade. While it’s not surprising to see Lillard taking those shots, the ease with which he releases and swishes them is unique. Six feet past the arc might as well be a walk in the park, the results more apropos to a casual game of HORSE than an NBA battle.
Every time he releases deep, it’s almost as if Lillard is saying, “I see your shock, and I raise you my shock that you’re shocked.” At that point all fans (or opponents) can do is shake their heads and fold. Dame is playing big-stack poker now, and when he’s out on the perimeter, he’s never bluffing.
Derrick Jones, Jr. Late
Mention Derrick Jones, Jr. in a “favorite things” post and everyone will expect you to talk about his dunks. Fair enough. Dude has to check the moon chart before cutting baseline for the jam; if it’s full, he’s liable to hit his head on it.
High-flying was expected when Jones, Jr. joined the roster. Less anticipated, but perhaps more impressive, has been his late-game play over the past couple weeks. Terry Stotts has made him a consistent part of the fourth-quarter rotation. Jones, Jr. comes out charged. His hands and feet, already fast, become lightning preceding his throw-down thunder. Not only does he disrupt dribbles and passes, he all but leaps through offensive players at the slightest hint of being able to poke away the ball. Hapless former dribblers are treated to the sight of Jones’ soaring sneaker soles as they lay on their backs, wondering what just happened.
The material is still raw, but if Jones, Jr, can combine energy and reflexes with experience and vision, he could become a truly disruptive force.
Enes Kanter Trying Hard
It’s easy to see all the things Enes Kanter isn’t: a defender, a passer, a full substitute for Jusuf Nurkic. It’s hard to ding him for them because he works harder than any of his other frontcourt teammates. He’s like a Saint Bernard on Swiss Alps patrol. Is he really going to save you? Probably not. But it’s fun watching him try and you’re still glad to see him either way.
Kanter may cost Portland effective possessions on the defensive end, but he earns many of them back with his rebounding. He averages a mind-numbing 16.8 boards per 36 minutes, 6.6 of them offensive. He leads the league in offensive rebounding percentage and he’s 6th in defensive rebounding percentage. Andre Drummond lies ahead of him in total rebounding prowess, Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert just behind. That’s lofty company for a presumed reserve.
The Blazers need Kanter because he gives them extra chances after mistakes. The newness of the roster, coupled with injuries, means there will be many. He may not be the right center forever, but he’s pretty good right now.
Finally, Some Fast Break Points!
For years the Blazers have left easy buckets on the table, catering to the halfcourt proclivities of their guards by walking the ball up the floor and setting up nearly every possession. For most of the 2010’s they were bottom-third in the NBA in fast break points. They finally came out of their shell a little last year, managing mediocrity.
This season, the Blazers are as good as anyone on the run. They score 15.4 fast break points per game, 7th in the league. Hanging with the Milwaukee Bucks in that category is pretty special when you used to get mentioned in the same breath as the New York Knicks.
A top-ten finish in points per game isn’t possible without a healthy dose of layups, dunks, and wide-open wing shots. Feasting on all three makes Portland more productive...a necessity given their defensive woes. It also makes them much more fun to watch.
There are my five favorite things so far. What are yours? Share in the comment section and come back in a couple hours to hear about my least favorite things about this season.