This week marks the halfway point of the season for the Trail Blazers and so far they’ve been a bit of a surprise. A recent winning streak pushed the team’s record to an impressive 20-15 mark and with wins over San Antonio, Memphis, New York and Miami, a team supposedly in a rebuilding year has positioned themselves for a possible playoff birth.
But since a big win over the Heat, the Blazers have dropped six of seven games. In fact, before Wednesday’s blowout win over Indiana, Portland had played a franchise record ten consecutive games decided by six points or less. The team won the first four, but lost the following six. In a way, this stretch of games has served as a microcosm for the kind of season they’ve had. There’s been ups and downs but nearly every game has gone down to the wire.
With the season half over, here are a few observations.
They do things the hard way
Let’s go even further into the team’s close games this season. Of the Blazers’ 21 victories, only three have been legitimate blowouts. Forget wins. In 42 games this season, 26 have been decided by eight points or less. The way the season has been going, Blazer fans should have their blood pressure checked after every game.
The worst bench in the league
All of these close games aren’t doing the starters any favors. Among the league leaders in minutes, three Blazers (Batum, Lillard and Aldridge) are in the top 12. No other team has more than one in the top 20. Coach Terry Stotts has done his best to mix and match starters and bench players, but the ineffectiveness and inconsistency of every bench player has forced all five starters to log too many minutes. Eventually this will catch with them resulting in nagging injuries and inconsistent play from the starters. Somebody has to step up at some point.
The J.J. Hickson dilemma
Blazers’ GM Neil Olshey has said that unless there’s a deal too good to pass up, the organization will not make a move at the trade deadline. In a year that’s supposed to be about retooling and developing, Olshey doesn’t want to sacrifice long-term goals with short-term success.
If there’s one asset on the team that could be a potential trade piece this year it’s Hickson. Playing on a one-year contract, Hickson has been a double-double machine (He’s currently third in the league with 24). But has Hickson’s emergence this season been about being in the right situation or about putting up numbers in order to get a big contract? As good as he’s been, Portland has no intention of starting a power forward at center beyond this season, especially after the team drafted seven-footer Meyers Leonard.
Hickson’s value will never be higher than it is right now and if the team continues to slide, they might want to think about getting something for him before they lose him to free agency this summer.
The emergence of Nicolas Batum
Arguably the team’s first-half MVP, Batum has lived up to the contract he signed last year. Long gone is the Batum who would stand in the corner shooting 3-pointers and disappearing from time to time. Under coach Stotts, Batum has been allowed to be more of a play-maker (He recorded his first triple-double against Washington). He’s single-handily kept Portland in games and his versatility has allowed him to play and defend multiple positions.
If there’s one complaint, it’s that he’s sometimes too selfish. On a night when Portland needs scoring, Batum will look to involve his teammates over taking the shot himself. He’s currently averaging 13 shots-per-game. That number needs to be more like 16.
Damian Lillard is the real deal
Going into the season, the consensus was either Anthony Davis or Damian Lillard would be rookie of the year. With Davis’ continued injury problems and Portland’s success, there’s little doubt who is winning the award now. The Blazers have been searching for a starting point guard for many years now. Both long-term (Sebastian Telfair, Jerryd Bayless, Jarrett Jack) and short-term (Andre Miller and Raymond Felton) players haven’t worked out for a variety of reasons.
But Lillard appears to have the total package. He can shoot (Both spot-up and off the dribble), pass (willingly), dribble (In traffic and without too many turnovers) and most importantly, he’s calm under pressure. He never appears rattled and on more than one occasion this season, the young guard hasn’t been afraid to take the big shot. Portland definitely has their point guard of the future.
The steadiness of LaMarcus Aldridge
There are only two players in the NBA averaging at least 20 points and 8 rebounds. One is Lebron James. The other is LaMarcus Aldridge. If there’s been a constant for the Trail Blazers, it’s been their All Star forward. If the team needs a bucket, they throw it into their quiet workhorse and while he’s been drifting further and further away from the paint, the outside shots have been falling.
If there’s one concern with Aldridge it’s the “tired legs” that have plagued him the last two seasons. The big man has been near the top in minutes played again this season and if the team has any aspirations of making the playoffs this year, they’ll need their best player healthy and rested come April.
At least the Lakers are terrible
If you had told me going into the season that at the end of January, in the midst of losing six of seven, the Blazers would still be four games better than the Lakers, I would have looked at you like you had three heads. The coaching changes, trade rumors and overall dis-function has been an absolute delight to follow this season. The Lakers have been long overdue for a losing-period. I just didn’t think it would happen to a team with four future hall-of-famers.