The Portland Trail Blazers’ season mercifully came to an end Wednesday night as the team tied a franchise record with their 13th consecutive loss. It was a tough final quarter of the season to witness as the majority of the team’s starting five (Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge) inevitably wore down due to too many minutes played and lingering injuries.
But don’t let this last month of despair cloud your view of the entire season. For about half of it, this was an exciting group to watch and as I noted in an earlier column, there was never a dull moment with this team. It looks like their final record will fall in line with what experts predicted at the start of the season, but through the beginning of March, the 2012-13 Trail Blazers defied the odds and the pundits by staying competitive in nearly every game and earning some impressive wins as a result.
So call this an end-of-the-season wrap up. But instead of giving out report cards or individual awards, this will be a surprises, disappointments, strange observations kind of recap.
High Points: Beating the elite
As I said earlier, Portland had a number of impressive wins this season. Home victories over Miami, San Antonio, Indiana, New York, Denver and the Clippers showcased the team’s ability to play with anyone. It was even more miraculous considering they did it with essentially five guys.
The road was not kind to the Blazers this season. They only managed 12 wins out of 41 but hey it’s all about quality rather than quantity. The team overcame Carmelo Anthony’s 45 points and a New Years Day crowd in New York to beat the Knicks thanks to a late-game three from Damian Lillard. Throw in an “out of nowhere” beat down by 30 over the Spurs (their worst home loss in the Tim Duncan era), a nail bitter of a victory over Memphis early in the season and back-to-back quality wins (their last two of the season as it turned out) over Atlanta and Chicago and Portland at times showed how good they could be.
Low Points: Losing to the dismal
For whatever reason, the Blazers constantly struggled against lesser opponents. An early-season blowout at home to the Kings seemed surprising at the time, but then a rash of embarrassing losses followed. A quick look at the standings reveals Portland lost to every last-place division team with the exception of Minnesota.
An even bigger surprise was the number of bad losses at home. Portland has one of the best home-court advantages in the league and yet the team lost to Cleveland, Washington, Sacramento, Phoenix and New Orleans. What do all of these teams have in common? They all won less than 30 games this season. To put that in perspective, Portland just ended the season with 13 straight losses and yet they still managed to win 33 games so you know those were demoralizing losses.
When the team picked up J.J. Hickson off the scrap heap midway through last season, many fans probably had the same reaction I did (“Oh, look at that. That’s a nice pickup.”) With the center position being the most glaring weakness heading into the season, it was a foregone conclusion Hickson would see the majority of the minutes there. But despite being undersized (he’s really a power forward), Hickson finished seventh in the league in double-doubles with 40 and averaged career highs in rebounds (10.4) and field goal percentage (56%).
It remains to be seen whether or not this season was an outlier for Hickson as many in the media have insinuated his strong play was due to his motivation to get a big contract this summer. He won’t be back next year because Portland can’t afford to pay him or continue to play him at the center position, but for one full season, Hickson showed why once upon a time the Cleveland Cavaliers refused to give him up in a trade for Amar’e Stoudemire.
He’s athletic, an excellent rebounder and a surprisingly consistent mid-range jump shooter and his countless hustle plays this season quickly endeared him to the fans. Although I can’t tell you how many times I read the comments section on Blazer websites where fans actually wanted to keep him and get rid of Aldridge. He’s a nice player, but come on people.
The freeing of Nicolas Batum
Before the wrist and shoulder injuries derailed the second half of his season, Batum was a revelation. Gone were the Nate McMillan days where Batum would stand in the corner for open threes and have very little responsibility elsewhere. But under coach Terry Stotts, the flying Frenchman had the ball in his hands constantly and he created off the dribble for himself or for others.
This versatility culminated in two triple-doubles and nearly a third. At nearly 5 assists per game, Batum became the point-forward type player we all envisioned he could be. But at times he was a little too unselfish. As the season went on, his scoring numbers dropped and his shooting percentage ended up being the lowest of his career. Perhaps a lot of that had to do with the wrist injury he sustained in practice and then re-aggravated in a game.
Despite the disappointing end to his season, Batum more than lived up to the big contract he signed last summer. As long as he can stay healthy, Batum has a shot at becoming not only one of the more multi-faceted players in the league, but also an All-Star.
See every Blazer column I’ve written up to this point. There’s nothing left to say about the unanimous Rookie-of-the-Year. It didn’t take long for Portland to find Brandon Roy’s replacement and by next season, this could become Lillard’s team.
Disappointments: The Bench
When the most productive player off the bench for the Blazers was Eric Maynor, a guy Portland traded for midway through the season and thus only played 27 games, you know this was a horrid bench. How bad were the reserves? According to hoopsstats.com, Portland finished dead last in bench scoring with 18.5. The two next worst teams in terms of bench production (Lakers, Pacers), averaged 26 points per game. That’s an eight point drop.
In fact, I had to go back to the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns to find a team who averaged fewer than 18.5 points off the bench. The starting five for Portland accounted for 81 percent of the team’s total points for the season (first in the league by the way). No wonder nearly all of them broke down at some point.
What’s most demoralizing about the bench unit? They only averaged 13.3 minutes per game and yet they were a -17.7 in efficiency when they were on the court. That’s nearly a 20 point hole the starters had to dig out of. Yikes!
Wesley Matthews apparently has an easier time hitting step-back 3-pointers with a guy in his face than wide-open 3-pointers. I can’t explain it.
They said Meyers Leonard was raw when Portland drafted him but wow, is he raw. I mean really, really raw! He looks like a dear caught in the headlights out there. When you think about it, he’s learning the center position opposite to every other player. He’s got the shooting down (I mean what other team has their center shoot a technical free-throw) and he’s a freak athletically, but boy does he not have a clue about where to be on the floor defensively or in rebounding. And when was the last time he blocked a shot? You’re 7’1″ for crying out loud! I’m making the suggestion right now that Portland bring back Joel Pryzbilla (who’s probably retiring after this season) to come back to Portland as an assistant coach for Leonard.
You know those giant, full-body balloons they have at car dealerships that wave in the wind? That’s what Will Barton looks like sometimes when he drives to the basket. He’s all limbs out there flailing about.
Is it me or would LaMarcus Aldridge make the worst wide-receiver ever? He’s the best player on the team by far, but I can’t tell you how many times I witnessed him fumble away catches at the rim. Maybe it was the passer? I don’t remember this happening as much when they had Andre Miller.
Victor Claver! You’re from Europe and you don’t know how to shoot? How is that even possible. How did they let you leave Spain without that ability? Watching this guy shoot free-throws is like witnessing a baby play Jenga, it’s just not going to work out. Please improve this next season Victor, please?
Well, by the end of the season the Blazers finished where we all thought they would (low 30 win range). But there was a lot of promise early. After a comeback win over Miami, Portland was 20-15, their best record at any point in the season. But following that miraculous win on national television, the team went 13-34 the rest of the way.
The good news is Portland has their core (Aldridge, Lillard, Batum, Matthews) for the future. They proved they could beat anyone on any given night. Now if they can just surround them with the right guys (perimeter shooters, post defenders, a bench), the Trail Blazers can become a playoff team quicker than we thought. Perhaps next season even. Who would have thought that were possible after all that happened to this franchise over the past two years: devastating injuries, coaching, player and management changes. I’d say that’s a quick turnaround.