As a sports fan, when you go into a season knowing expectations aren’t very high for your team, it’s kind of a good thing. That way you can sort of relax when you sit down and watch them because the bar is already set really low.
Having said that, this particular incarnation of the Portland Trail Blazers has been pleasantly surprising. I know it’s only six games and they’ve lost three straight to fall to 2-4, but except for a terrible performance against the Clippers, Portland has been competitive.
The fact that they’ve been in every game indicates that the young players are (so far) buying into coach Terry Stotts and his coaching philosophy. But, this is the beginning of a long season so we’ll see how long they can keep this up.
In the mean time, here’s some quick observations so far.
Coach Stotts thinks LaMarcus Aldridge is Dirk Nowitzki:
Every season, it seems like coaches, analysts and fans plead for Aldridge to score more in the paint. When it didn’t happen in the first few years, Aldridge was labeled soft and unwilling to take contact.
But that changed two seasons ago when the unfortunate end of the Brandon Roy era forced Aldridge to be the man. As a result, Aldridge suddenly turned into an entirely different player. He made a concerted effort to get in the paint and bang instead of settling for outside jumpers. This drastic and welcomed change eventually earned him an All-Star selection.
But under new coach Stotts, Aldridge seems to be reverting back to his old ways. With the exception of put-backs and offensive rebounds, Aldridge is doing most of his scoring from the outside. With his high-arcing follow-through, it’s hard for opposing players to block his shots and so far he’s been making those fade-away jumpers, but being closer to the basket increases your chances of putting the ball in the basket.
It’s still early and Stotts is probably still experimenting with Aldridge and Lillard together, but the team needs to establish a low-post scoring option at some point.
Great starting five, not much after that:
This isn’t a big surprise. With the injury to Elliot Williams during training camp, my interest in the Blazers’ bench dropped considerably. There’s not one reliable player coming off the bench, not one. Can any other team in the league say that?
So far there’s been flashes of productivity from Ronnie Price, Sasha Pavlovic, Luke Babbit and rookie Meyers Leonard, but they haven’t all been in the same game. The victory over Houston was big, but the bench only contributed 6 points. In the loss to San Antonio on Saturday, the bench was outscored 63-4 (No that’s not a typo).
Of course there are other ways for players to contribute than scoring, but they can’t continue to rely on the starters playing more than 40 minutes every night. Someone has to step up. Remedy: Bring J.J. Hickson off of the bench and start Myers Leonard. Hickson appears to be a different player when he isn’t on the floor at the same time as Aldridge. Having him play against second-unit competition will not only give the bench a spark, but it will only boost Hickson’s confidence even more for late-game situations when you need him over the young Leonard.
Speaking of the bench. Don’t play Nolan Smith:
It pains me to say this, but Nolan Smith might be the worst player in the NBA. He seems to be incapable of dribbling with his left hand, he turns the ball over constantly and he’s not entirely quick for a guard. When Portland drafted him, I was excited. He was a name who went to Duke and played well his senior season when Kyrie Irving went down. But so far in his young pro career, Smith has proven to be nothing more than a name.
Mike Rice is more senile than ever:
Mike Rice has been with the Blazers’ organization since the early nineties. He worked on the radio side for a number of years before moving over to television with Mike Barrett. The duo have great chemistry and especially during a rebuilding year like this, you gain an appreciation for their entertaining banter.
Having said that, Rice appears to be aging rapidly. He knows his basketball, there’s no denying that, but he also seems to be having a “senior moment” more frequently.
At times this can be endearing. Like when he either mispronounces players’ names or combines them (I will now refer to Myers Leonard and Joel Freeland as Joel Myers as Rice put it the other night) or when he insists a player should have gotten that offensive rebound (even though said player is sitting on the bench).
But when does endearing turn into comical and a little sad. He’s had a great run in Portland, but perhaps it’s time for some fresh blood (Insert me here).
Nicolas Batum’s performance against San Antonio is very encouraging:
That’s the Batum I want to see every night. Not the passive wing player who disappears from time to time, but the nasty, pissed off player who demands the ball, wants to take the last shot and isn’t afraid too (even if he misses it like he did against the Spurs).
If we get “the dark side” of Batum more often than this team will have a chance to win a lot more games and the Frenchman can live up to the contract he just signed.
Damian Lillard is legit:
The Gerald Wallace trade last year appears to have worked out as Portland received Brooklyn’s lottery pick and drafted the young point guard out of Weber State. So far Lillard’s done nothing but put up rookie records in the same category as Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas and Lebron James.
The biggest challenge for Lillard (and you’ve seen it the last three games) is for him to adjust once other team’s have adjusted to him. Against Dallas, Darren Collison attacked Lillard immediately and got him into foul trouble in the first quarter. Against the Clippers and Spurs, Lillard saw a lot more double-teams and as a result, the guard made rookie mistakes like turning the ball over and trying to do everything by himself when the team wasn’t playing well.
But Lillard appears to get it. He’s poised, calm and willing to take the big shot or make the right pass if it’s there. It’s still early, but so far it appears Portland has found the player they needed to replace Brandon Roy.