Just as we all anticipated and predicted, the Portland Trail Blazers left NBA opening week tied for the No. 1 record in the Western Conference, and opened up 4-0 (they are now 5-1) for the first time since Rasheed Wallace and Scottie Pippen donned the red-and-black threads in 1999.
Perfectly on cue, experts and analysts across the NBA globe have begun to at least associate the Blazers with that word that starts with “c” and rhymes with “companionship” — an accomplishment in itself, given the difficulty of their opening season slate, even if it could be premature — and for that, this week can be deemed successful.
Portland’s first hiccup came during a humbling 119-98 loss to the Miami Heat, as the Blazers reverted to old tendencies and lost Damian Lillard to a minor calf injury in the process. Though, they immediately rebounded with a 125-111 victory over the Houston Rockets, which will be reflected upon in the second edition of this series.
Across that backdrop of the first five games though, we have the first edition of “The 0.9,” (in celebration of this shot), where we will consider nine weekly points and topics that stood out. Here’s what’s worth taking away after the first stanza.
No. 1: The Chauncey Chess Match
Call this a hot take if you may: It can be a bit worrisome if the No. 1 question surrounding your head coach entering the season is, well, can he coach? Like the evaluators, Chauncey Billups was robbed of that opportunity to find out after a 27-win season in which injuries forced the Blazers into losses, questions and Elleby-Dunn-Perry-Louzada-Blevins lineups. The 0-4 preseason wasn’t helpful, either, but, five games into the 2022-23 season, Billups looks more than up to the challenge.
After inheriting some of the remnants of that Stotts-Olshey regime, Billups’ philosophies now have his types of players to fit. This much has been evident in how much trust he has in that zone defense. Last season, the Blazers ran zone possessions at the NBA’s No. 1 rate (749). One would think they’re on pace to blow this number out of the water. Billups has gone with it after timeouts (vs. Lakers), on the game’s first play (vs. Heat), in crucial OT periods (vs. Suns) and with “small ball” (vs. Kings).
The Blazers’ trusty zone gave Los Angeles so many problems it was almost funny.— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) October 25, 2022
A few clips below:
Started hand-tracking it myself, so this isn’t official, but in the second quarter, these were the Lakers’ stats vs. zone.
— 11 possessions
— 1-of-9 FG
— 1 turnover
— 4 points pic.twitter.com/CmnnLkFXUw
Speaking of Grant: it’s got to be an absolute nightmare for opposing guards when Billups puts him at the top.— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) October 23, 2022
Reminds me of how the Cavs use Evan Mobley.
No pass is safe, and he quietly had one of the plays of the game with this steal in OT. pic.twitter.com/2A7E7L0WyQ
Most neat is that Billups has excelled at utilizing that zone to take defenses out of rhythm. There have been instances this year in which the zone defense worked on the prior possession, only for the Blazers to switch to man-to-man on the next, just to keep the opposition guessing.
The 2022-23 Blazers have taken strides on both ends of the floor, and the subtle wrinkles that the second-year head coach has thrown in — such as putting Grant on the opposition’s top-scoring guard, taking Lillard out of the Kings’ full court trap to preserve energy and swift play designs — have been a critical reason why. Speaking of Lillard...
No. 2: Lillard’s off-ball play
Bill Simmons drew the ire of essentially every fan along the Pacific Northwest for his (now recanted) comments surrounding Damian Lillard looking a step slow during the Blazers’ road opener against Sacramento. Though, he wasn’t the only one with questions about how this next iteration of the 32-year-old would look.
For years, it felt as though the next logical move would be to pair his generational pick-and-roll and isolation skillset with more off-ball play. This year, the Blazers’ staff looks intent on doing so.
One thing that I’ve enjoyed a ton of this year is seeing more off-ball Dame Lillard play.— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) October 25, 2022
One of our generation’s best scorers in iso, P&R, etc. But w/ this group, he’s tapped into a different part of his game.
He’s taking 7.7 shots per game w/ 0 dribbles so far, a career-high. pic.twitter.com/oq82VHq9pm
As of Thursday, Lillard is taking 7.4 shot attempts per game in which his touch-time is less than two seconds, largely through intuitive cuts and taking advantage of a defense’s tendencies and natural inclination to relax. A lot of it is simple — on that Double Fist set against Phoenix (the last play in the clip above), he simply recognizes Devin Booker and Cameron Johnson not communicating on their switch before Lillard’s pindown for Simons — but it represents another featured tool in Lillard’s already expansive repertoire.
Look out, Stephen Curry.
No. 3: Favorite play design
Favorite play design of the game:— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) October 23, 2022
Perfect timing in more ways than one. Lillard sets a ram-type screen here for Nurkic to throw off Ayton’s timing for the pick-and-roll; at the same time, Grant sneaks behind the Lee for a (ultimately) game-saving play. pic.twitter.com/vyzZbvHK6M
The Blazers have had a few difficult instances in which that backdoor cut has been available, and — be it an errant pass, or merely looking elsewhere — they’ve missed it. Here, it worked at the absolute perfect time, helping fuel a come-from-behind victory.
No. 4: Nassir Little’s shooting development
By virtue of his limitless energy, fourth-year forward Nassir Little was a safe bet to remain a nightly highlight in some form. Outside of his spotty health history, the burning question in his evaluation came down to one question: How does he continue to elevate as a scorer outside of the paint?
Five games into the new campaign, the newly-paid $28 million man has gotten off to a considerable start. Along with his aggressive rim-runs, he’s found time to hoist up 11 3-point attempts (hitting 36.4 percent of them); he’s shooting 43.8 percent on jump shots as a whole. Here’s how a lot of them have looked:
Things you like to see: Nassir Little is shooting 7-of-14 on jump shots this season, including 4-of-9 from 3-point range.— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) October 27, 2022
Denver elected to go under. It should be interesting to see what the coverage strategy is in a few weeks, but Nas has proven he has moves to counter both. pic.twitter.com/qW7dVqiXpv
Gotta sneak a Nassir Little post in here, too.— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) October 23, 2022
Starting to see some of the offensive skillset showcase, now that he’s recovered.
Scored in nearly every way possible. Love that he’s taking 3-pointers with no hesitation. If he gets these to drop, it’s trouble. pic.twitter.com/xCNICQAS0y
It’s less about the actual makes — though those are pretty important too — but Little looks exceptionally comfortable putting the ball on the deck, rising up for pull-ups and taking advantage of defenses’ tendencies to go under. With sustained accuracy, it may not be long before Little forces them to adjust that strategy.
No. 5: Is Anfernee Simons ready for his close-up?
The Anfernee Simons experience, just five games into the season, has been essentially everything we’ve expected thus far. 21-point scoring barrages in one quarter, sometimes-shaky shot selection, brilliance both on and off-ball, and, as with Denver, the case of opposing offenses targeting him altogether to see if he’s improved on defense.
In short: he looks the part of a 23-year-old trying to navigate through the ups-and-downs as the “Robin” on a team with postseason aspirations for the first time.
Much stood out during Simons’ opening week, with this, perhaps being the most noteworthy in the long-term.
Anfernee Simons’ effort on both ends of the floor was difficult to miss.— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) October 21, 2022
Much has been said about the defense, but he played with a chip on Wednesday. A little bit of everything.
Per https://t.co/mmO00ZfJgd’s matchup data, he allowed just 4-of-14 shooting, + two steals. pic.twitter.com/dk6mwBqT8w
In clutch situations, where the Blazers have been under the most pressure, Simons has looked calmer than a coffee shop on a Friday night. Phoenix sent a trap Lillard’s way with the game hanging in the balance, oblivious to the fact that Simons, likewise, had the gusto needed to close it out himself.
The Blazers have four players among the top-20 in clutch scoring and while you’d rather see the Blazers win more decisively, those late-game reps could prove invaluable. Simons, in particular, proved he could toggle between “Batman” and “Robin” admirably in the Rockets win, with 30 points, five rebounds, seven assists, one block and seven 3-pointers.
No. 6: What have we learned about Shaedon Sharpe?
Throughout the offseason, it wasn’t uncommon to hear analysts across the league wonder aloud: “How exactly did Shaedon Sharpe slide to the No. 7 selection?” In some circles, the talented Canadian was viewed as a top-four prospect with the ability to make the Blazers’ front office look genius if it panned out.
While it’s too early to make any long-term overreactions, he’s certainly looked the part of an immediate plug-and-play rookie. From his debut in Sacramento and on, he’s looked comfortable either punishing with corner 3-pointers (he’s hit 50 percent on 12 triples already) or attacking closeouts with a veteran-like poise. Among a few examples:
Shaedon Sharpe was a bright spot for the Blazers in Wednesday night’s disappointing home loss to Miami. He continues to display his natural gifts as a scorer while inspiring awe with his athleticism. The rookie put up 15 points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes. #RipCity pic.twitter.com/I2LaBzjkmN— Brett Usher (@UsherNBA) October 27, 2022
This little crafty fake into a layup from Shaedon Sharpe sort of speaks for itself.— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) October 27, 2022
Four games into his NBA career.
Would say he’s looking *more* comfortable with time, but he’s looked the part in every regular season game he’s played in to this point. pic.twitter.com/4U275dJ5Yh
Sharpe currently ranks sixth in points per game (8.4) among all rookies despite 13 of them earning more minutes than him (16.4). There has been an experience-related defensive miscue or two, but he’s putting forth an energetic, spirited defensive effort as a whole. Per NBA.com’s defensive tracking data, players are shooting just 8-of-22 (36.4 percent, not great) against him, and 3-of-12 on 3-point attempts.
There’s a foundation to be built on both ends of the floor. Next week, we’ll take a look at some factors that stood out in his 14-point game against Houston, a game in which he became the talk of the NBA town in his first-ever start, filling in for Lillard.
No. 7: The Blazers’ matchup and foul hunting
In three of the Blazers’ four wins, there was an interesting trend that stood out:
In large part due to their ability to hunt out contact and play with intensity — can you say Jerami, Josh and Justise? — the Blazers have been able to get opposing star bigs in foul trouble and use that to their advantage throughout the game. As showcased here:
Noticing a trend in the Blazers’ wins: get the opposing star’s big close to foul trouble, and then hunt him down.— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) October 27, 2022
First Ayton, then AD, now Jokic.
The Blazers kind of took turns going at this matchup w/ the Dame-Nurk two-man game, Simons’ attacks, etc. pic.twitter.com/Il8nU4pisZ
It’s worth noting that in the Blazers-Lakers game, Davis had already accrued six blocks and the Blazers shot just 46.2 percent inside of ten feet, so the Lakers star had his fingerprints all over this game … that is until that fifth foul forced him to play handcuffed. Here’s how the Blazers attacked it:
Sort of wonder how differently this game ends up going if he doesn’t get that fifth foul.— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) October 25, 2022
Credit the Blazers, though … they attacked him play-after-play, knowing he couldn’t contest.
Think it saved the game for them, ultimately. pic.twitter.com/juOaH0flHy
Part of that feels sustainable: 63 percent of Josh Hart’s shots are coming at the rim, and under improved defense, they’ve had more opportunities to run the break. They weren’t able to find this strength in the loss to Miami, but this felt like a noteworthy trend during the opening week.
No. 8: Five statistics that stood out from the opening week:
(All statistics are accurate as of the morning of Friday, Oct. 28)
— The Blazers rank No. 2 in points per possession in isolation and No. 1 after dribble-handoffs.
— This year’s group ranks No. 19 in passes made per game, which isn’t great until you consider how previously-constructed Blazer offenses ranked in this regard.
— The Blazers are one of seven teams with at least 10 screen assists per game
— The Lillard-Hart-Nurkic-Grant lineup owns a +25 net rating. This marks the third-best among any four-man grouping with at least 100+ minutes together in 2022-23.
— No team is making more free throws than the Blazers (24.0), and only one team — the Luka Doncic-led Dallas Mavericks — are attempting more than the Blazers’ 30.6.
No. 9: Other miscellaneous thoughts:
— Big fan of ROOT Sports’ analytics plug-ins during the Blazers’ broadcasting. This included percentage trackers and actual analysis from Cory Jez, the on-air statistical analyst.
— Justise Winslow’s defensive presence. Here’s a personal favorite play:
One last individual play:— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) October 21, 2022
Justise Winslow may not be “the” official starting small forward, but minutes will always be available for this kind of hustle — puts Domantas on lock here.
He said they didn’t practice this “small ball” lineup in his interview, but it worked wonders. pic.twitter.com/EvNTbx0g2S
— Jusuf Nurkic’s post-up usage; he’s only getting 2.8 post-ups per game, and hitting on 28.6 percent of them, but the low percentage doesn’t tell the full story. He had a spectacular second half against Phoenix, and his two-man game with Lillard in the Nuggets game was sensational. The play itself has been an interesting watch. Nurkic putting Jokic on the floor twice in one quarter was one of the most fascinating dynamics of the week.