Before the regular season started, the PRS staff took turns guessing the Blazers’ win total. I predicted Portland would finish the season with 24 wins. Halfway through the season, it’s safe to say that guess was low. They’re already at 20 and somehow, improbably, are just one game under .500 on the year. In some ways, it’s confusing. But in others, it makes perfect sense.
Let’s be clear about one thing: this team is not good. They’re in the thick of the race for the eighth seed in the playoffs right now, but they won’t be there at the end of the season. Nothing about what they’ve been doing is sustainable. The amount of overtime and close regulation games they’ve won was crying out for regression, and the current six-game losing streak is starting to bear that out. Whatever Terry Stotts insists to the contrary, the fact that three of the Blazers’ five starters are averaging at least 38 minutes per game is going to catch up to them, be it in the form of an injury or just general burnout. And when it does, things will get ugly, because they have arguably the worst bench in the NBA. However, even the biggest skeptic about this roster can’t deny that the team is a lot better than anyone thought they’d be going into the season, and the things that have made it so are what makes the future of the franchise so promising.
I’ll admit that I didn’t know a lot about Stotts when he was hired, outside of his less-than-stellar head coaching record with the Hawks and Bucks from several years ago. He seemed like a “safe” hire, without much upside but someone Neil Olshey and Paul Allen could sell to fans as having head coaching experience. He had Rick Carlisle’s endorsement, having spent four years as an assistant with the Mavericks, but the choice felt uninspired.
With his first season in Portland at the halfway mark, however, it’s clear that Stotts was absolutely the right man for the job. I couldn’t be more impressed with what he’s gotten out of this roster, both from a basketball standpoint and as an off-court leader. His movement-heavy offense has done wonders in maximizing Nicolas Batum’s talents. Stotts deserves Coach of the Year consideration for what he’s done with Batum alone. His emphasis on the pick-and-roll has also helped foster great chemistry between Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. And most importantly, he’s swiftly won the respect of everyone on the team. After the disastrous end to Nate McMillan’s tenure last season, the need for a unified locker room was made plain if the franchise was to recover, and the fact that he’s gotten everyone to buy in despite the recent losing streak and other tough stretches earlier in the season speaks volumes.
Beyond Batum, whose recent growth I wrote about extensively last week and our own Danny Nowell has also written beautifully about, the player who has deservedly garnered the most attention from fans and media alike is the rookie Lillard. His Rookie of the Year campaign isn’t as clear-cut as it appeared at the beginning of the season, with Anthony Davis healthy and looking as good as advertised, and Andre Drummond dominating in limited minutes in Detroit. But while Lillard’s performance has inevitably slid since his otherworldly first few games in the league, he’s shown an ability to adapt his game and correct his shortcomings which will serve him well going forward. His month-by-month splits at HoopData have shown him steadily improving as a finisher around the rim and growing more efficient with his midrange shot. His assist rate and turnover rate have also improved month-to-month. Taken as a whole, his shooting percentages are underwhelming, but mySynergySports ranks him 24th in the NBA in scoring efficiency in pick-and-rolls, 12th in isolations, and 14th in spot-ups. His advanced age for a rookie lowers his ceiling, and makes it unlikely that he’ll ever rank with the truly elite point guards, the Chris Pauls and Russell Westbrooks and Kyrie Irvings of the league. But make no mistake: Lillard’s been very, very good, and the organization has every reason to believe it’s in good hands with him running the offense.
I’m offering a mea culpa on Wesley Matthews, whom I killed during the summer and the preseason. So far, his dreadful 2011-12 season is looking more like an outlier than a genuine regression. His numbers aren’t quite up to his excellent first season with the Blazers in 2010-11, but they’re far closer to that benchmark than they are to last year. In particular, his laughably bad 49.5 percent efficiency on shots at the rim from last season is back up to a healthy 58.8, and he’s hitting three-pointers at a 39.5 percent clip. As one of the longer-tenured Blazers (strange as it sounds, given that he’s only in his third season with the club, only Aldridge and Batum outrank him in that regard), he’s also assumed something of a leadership role, preaching consistency and accountability.
As for Aldridge, I’ve long been an advocate of trading him sooner rather than later to maximize return and commit to a full rebuild, but now I’m not so sure. With the Blazers’ core developing faster than anticipated, Aldridge is worth keeping around while Olshey adds ancillary pieces, rather than trading to blow the entire roster up. Plus, he’s been pretty great. He’s been taking more long twos, a function of Stotts’ attempts to adapt this roster to the Dirk Nowitzki-centered offense he and Carlisle ran in Dallas. And while Aldridge is (obviously) not nearly the shooter Nowitzki is, his efficiency from midrange has held relatively consistent with previous seasons even as the volume has increased. He still ranks 22nd in the league as a post scorer, per Synergy. But the biggest jump, by far, has been his defense. Erik Gundersen’s excellent recent piece on Blazers.com broke this down in more detail, but according to Synergy, he’s allowing a mere 0.58 points per possession on post-ups, the ninth-best mark in the league.
So that’s what’s going well for the Blazers. Unfortunately, their four best players cannot play 48 minutes a game (“We’ll see about that,” said Tom Thibodeau), and besides the obvious bench issues, there’s still that whole thing where J.J. Hickson is their starting center. His double-doubles are great official team social-media fodder, but to me he’s the definition of a player who’s great to have on your fantasy team and not so great to have on your actual team.
Hickson has benefitted enormously from the realization that he isn’t a player for whom offensive sets should be drawn up, but he still takes a couple of cringeworthy 20-footers a game. The much-ballyhooed rebounding numbers are mostly empty calories. According to the on-court/off-court tracking site nbawowy.com, the Blazers grab 49.5 percent of all available rebounds when Hickson is on the floor, and 50.1 percent of total boards when he’s on the bench. And that’s before we get to his liability as a defender, the likes of which no metric can do justice. He steps on the basketball court for the sole purpose of racking up double-doubles, and as long as the rebound is there for him, it matters not whether he could have taken away a shot attempt in the first place. When the Blazers were winning earlier in the month, that was something you could generally look the other way on. But now that this team is starting to become who we thought they were, the fact that their starting center can’t guard anybody can’t really be ignored.
The worst part of this is that, having signed a one-year deal equivalent to a qualifying offer, Hickson has the right to veto any trade. There are a few contenders (the Clippers, Heat, and Celtics, namely) who could use rebounding help, but given his free-agent status, it’ll be tough to get more than a second-round pick for him. It’s a mortal lock that a GM is going to see his gaudy per-game numbers this summer and offer him a contract that will be held up as an example of bad-contract excess during the next lockout in 2017. He’s having a better statistical season than Kris Humphries did last season, and Humphries got $12 million per year this summer. Trading Hickson would do wonders to ensure that that GM won’t be Olshey. I’d like to think he’s smarter than that, but since this team isn’t going to make the playoffs, I’d rather see Meyers Leonard get more time with the starters.
The bench just sort of is what it is at this point. You can’t rely on any of them for anything. Ronnie Price is a passable-ish defender but a poor shooter, passer, and ballhandler, all of which are terrific qualities for a primary backup point guard. Nolan Smith is somehow worse. (Coincidentally, how many of the Hickson contract headaches would be solved by having Kenneth Faried locked up on a rookie deal for two more years?) Luke Babbitt is still sort of fun to make Dougie and Chalupa jokes about, but he tries to do things besides shoot threes sometimes, and that’s a problem. Will Barton could be really good once he learns how to play basketball. I’ve written that Victor Claver could be effective as a Thabo Sefolosha-type starter, but his play so far certainly hasn’t demanded he be given that role. Sasha Pavlovic exists and that’s as infuriating as ever. Only the rookies will likely be here next year. I’m over it.
On Saturday, Olshey admitted to the Oregonian’s Jason Quick that he misjudged how close the Lillard/Batum/Aldridge nucleus was to playoff contention, saying that if he had a do-over, he would have spent more money on the bench to try to put them over the top. That may be hard for fans to hear who have their sights set on the playoffs, but it’s an understandable mistake to make. All it means is Olshey wasn’t any higher on the team going into the season than anyone else was, and given NBA teams’ propensity towards overvaluing their own players, it’s better in the long run that he underestimated his roster and preserved flexibility than overestimated it and signed a marginal player to a contract he’d regret later.
The good news is that Olshey doesn’t have to add a star, just bench players who aren’t Ronnie Price and Sasha Pavovic. He recently rejected the idea that he would subscribe to the “big three” model, and out of the Blazers’ core players, Aldridge, Batum, and Matthews are already locked into long-term contracts at decent values. When it comes time to take care of Lillard financially in a few years, Olshey won’t have a James Harden/Serge Ibaka situation on his hands where he has to let one of his core pieces go (provided, of course, he makes smart decisions with the cap space he’ll have in the meantime).
In all likelihood, the second half of the season won’t be as eventful as the first. The feel-good, “WTF just happened” victories over the Spurs, Grizzlies, Knicks, and Heat were fun and exciting, but the current losing streak has brought things back down to a realistic level of expectation. A Hickson trade would be a tacit admission on the part of the organization that ping-pong balls are the priority. Either way, wins and losses don’t matter to the 2012-13 Blazers nearly as much as the development of their most important players. And on that front, there should be plenty to get excited about.