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Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview – Feb. 2

Monday, February 02, 2015

 

Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts via Wikimedia CC.

Let’s be blunt about this: the last week sucked for the Portland Trail Blazers. This wasn’t your usual amount of suck, either. The kind of suckitude the Blazers put on display at Cleveland, Atlanta, and especially Milwaukee sucked so much, it would put a black hole to shame.

Alright, with that off my chest, time for some analysis.

Those games could be looked at through several different kinds of lenses. The glass-half-full view is that Portland showed tremendous fight to come back in those games, with their four-time All-Star and top ten player, LaMarcus Aldridge, being absolutely massive.

In the month of January, Aldridge averaged 26 points and nine rebounds a game, and shot a totally absurd 97% from the free-throw line (!?!?!?), and almost 50% from the field. All that production came despite Aldridge playing the last four games with a torn ligament in his left thumb, averaging almost 30 points over those four games. Insane. Ridiculous.

The inverse view is that the Blazers were too dependent on Aldridge to carry them. There were many possessions when Aldridge would get force-fed the ball, draw a double team, and the Portland perimeter players, so adept at making teams pay for doubling in the past, would fail utterly to make a play.

With Damian Lillard mired in a shooting slump, Nicolas Batum playing hurt and distracted, and Wesley Matthews blanketed at all times by a defender, there was nowhere for Aldridge to go with the ball once the doubles came, and the offense slowed just enough to allow the Cavs, Hawks, and Bucks to pinch out narrow victories.

The last week was a clear example of just how hard it is to beat good teams in the NBA. Those possessions where Air Sasquatch (Chris Kaman) would brick a jumper, or where Batum would meekly pass the ball off while the likes of Kyrie Irving were hidden on him, or where Lillard would force the issue like he did at times last year, and miss badly at the rim, cost the Blazers three winnable games last week.

Another thing to point out is Portland’s trend to start slowly in games. Last season, a slow start was death to the Blazers; the team was so shallow, the starters had to at least keep things even until the bench players started filtering in. With the injuries Portland’s suffered this year, and the wear and tear on Batum and Air Sasquatch, last year’s bench dynamic is being played out again. Even when the team is at full strength again, that habit must be broken. The Blazers can come back only so many times, and the energy expended to do so is draining. 

Coming up empty like they did last week also takes its toll on morale. Trail Blazers radio analyst Antonio Harvey made a great point during Saturday’s game against the Bucks, remarking on the body language of the players on the bench. Their shoulders were slumped, arms idle or hanging down, expressions disengaged and uninterested. Harvey said that was the look of a team that wasn’t in the game, and while Milwaukee is a depressing enough place for most young African-American males to spend a day in, that couldn’t be the only reason for the long faces. Put simply, the Blazers are both tired of losing, yet are too ragged to do something about it. 

While a lack of first-quarter punch was the common denominator in the losses last week, the Blazers ended up getting put away by different methods at the end of those games. In Cleveland, they let one man beat them (Irving dropped the ol’ double-nickel--55 points--Wednesday night). In Atlanta, the entire Hawks team had a hand in the Blazers’ demise, coming at them in waves San Antonio-style. In Milwaukee, the Blazers were held under 90 points by a stingy Bucks defense, and didn’t do enough on defense themselves against a weak offensive squad.

If Aldridge gutting out his injury isn’t enough to light a fire under this team, or if Lillard’s All-Star snub wasn’t enough to shake the team from their recent doldrums, maybe a good long rest after this coming week is just what they need. Portland GM Neil Olshey also should entertain the possibility of a trade; it’s painfully plain that CJ McCollum and Will Barton are unable to provide the consistent wing play the Blazers need off the bench, and Rip City saw firsthand in Cleveland how a recent trade can rejuvenate a team, or at least put the fear of God into the auxiliary players that they could be next outta town.

Time for picks! Let’s go! (All games on AM 620 radio, all stats per NBA.com)

Tuesday, Feb. 3: versus the Utah Jazz, CSNNW, 7:00 PM

The Skinny: The Jazz are in what I call a late-rebuilding phase: they have a few guys who are keepers, like Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert. (The Favors-Gobert front line should be played more, hang the poor spacing. Good luck scoring against those guys in the paint.) They have a few guys they still need to get a good look at, like Dante Exum.

There are also two guys that should be sent packing ASAP: Trey Burke and Enes Kanter.

Burke, the point guard drafted in 2013, is still very young. However, youth at some point will be served in the NBA, if only in fits and starts; talent will out once in awhile. Compared to other highly-drafted points, Burke hasn’t measured up, and it’s among the reasons the Jazz are 17-30 this year when some crazy people (not me!) said Utah could be a sleeper team this year.

Ignore his poor assist total, which hovers under five a game; Hayward runs the offense from the wing well enough. The reason Burke should be discarded or demoted is his shooting. His awful, disgusting shooting. The kind of shooting that makes rotting fish, rotten eggs, and the nastiest horse manure combined smell like a rose in full bloom. 

Effective field goal percentage counts threes as 1.5 of a regular field goal; it’s basically the best way to tell which perimeter players are the best overall shooters. While Burke’s three-point percentage is merely a blah 32%, his eFG% is just 43%. Forty-three percent. That’s the kind of percentage that makes babies cry in pain and puppies whimper in fear.

I didn’t bother to conjure up the listings, but I’m willing to bet Burke is dead-last or close to it among starting point guards in effective FG%, and unless you’re Rajon Rondo or Russell Westbrook, you must be able to shoot the ball well to be a viable starting NBA point guard in today‘s league. 

As for Enes Kanter, I’ve nothing against him as a player. The resistance to him is financial; with Favors, Hayward, and shooting guard Alec Burks getting extensions, and Gobert being the impassable rim protector a 7-2 guy with Pterodactyl arms should be, it makes no sense for the Jazz to pay $11-12 million-plus per year for a big man who hasn’t found a fit within the team structure yet. 

I’m not all that sure what Kanter could bring long-term to this franchise. His shooting and per-game stats are solid for a starting center (50% from the field, 14 PPG, 7.5 RPG), yet he plays only 29 minutes per game, partly because Gobert is a much better defensive player.

Kanter is a brute, in all senses of the word. He’s a powerful post defender, but in this pick-and-roll league, you need to be able to move quickly, help deter the pick-and-roll, and defend the rim. Kanter sucks at all three.

He could find a Robin Lopez-like home in the NBA someday; Lopez is as huge and slow as Kanter, yet is considered the backbone of a top-five NBA defense. That home isn’t in Utah, and if the Jazz end up sacrificing their cap space for him, it could stunt the growth of their promising franchise.

Key Matchup: Wesley Matthews vs. Dante Exum. The teenage Australian isn’t putting up the numbers you’d expect from the fifth overall pick of a draft (five PPG, with shooting nearly as bad as Trey Burke’s), but it’s the potential of a raw athlete, just begging to be molded, that is the core of Exum’s appeal.

The differences between Exum, a basketball prince due to his promise, and Matthews, who was an undrafted free agent that played for the Jazz his rookie season, are more apparent than the obvious age difference and the stages of their careers. Exum is being given every opportunity to succeed because of what he is, while Matthews has had to scratch, claw, and shank his whole career. 

With Alec Burks injured for the season, Exum has been thrown into the fire earlier than Quin Snyder probably wanted. Guys like Matthews, who’ve established themselves in the NBA the hard way, are just waiting to take this supposed phenom to school.

Prediction: Despite the Trail Blazers’ struggles, they’ll be playing at home against an inferior team without an established star player. Blazers get a much-needed win against a scrappy young Jazz team.

Thursday, Feb. 5: versus the Phoenix Suns, TNT, 7:45 PM

The Skinny: These teams played a couple weeks ago in Phoenix, the first of two games Aldridge missed while the severity of his thumb injury was being determined. The Suns squeezed out a close win after turning back a Blazer comeback attempt. (Sound familiar?)

At 28-21, Phoenix is holding the eighth spot in the Western Conference with a solid grip. New Orleans is ninth, but because Monty Williams doesn’t realize he has a galaxy-destroying terror on his roster (Anthony Davis), the Pelicans likely won’t overtake the Suns. 

The tenth-place team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, has two of the best players on the planet in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Problem is, the Thunder are under .500, and with three-fifths of the season behind them, OKC is swiftly running out of time. Don’t listen to the “there’s plenty of season left” nonsense spewing out of the mouths of everybody in that organization. 

Even though the schedule will give them a few breaks, if the Thunder can’t even beat the pathetic New York Knicks, what gives them the idea that they can just “flip the switch,” leave the Suns in their rearview mirror, and magically show up in the postseason?

I don’t mean to belittle what Phoenix has done, but if Oklahoma City were healthy to start the year, the Suns would likely be out of the postseason picture again. To their credit, they’ve taken advantage of Williams’ stupidity and the Thunder’s poor health, and are in a position to make the playoffs and serve as the first ritual sacrifice to the Golden State Warriors.

Key Matchup: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. the Phoenix Suns. Might as well list the whole team here; no one man can stop LaMarcus Aldridge. If he drops 30 a game in February, I might have to give him the Chuck Norris treatment.

As it is, the likes of Markieff Morris, Alex Len, and Miles Plumlee are woefully under-equipped to halt the wounded giant rampaging throughout the NBA landscape. Phoenix didn’t have to deal with this monster the last time these teams played, but Suns coach Jeff Hornacek will likely demand double-teams to deny Aldridge the ball.

It’ll be up to Aldridge to make the right pass out of those double-teams, and to take advantage of every single-coverage opportunity he gets. As long as the Portland perimeter players continue to struggle, there won’t be many.

Prediction: I’ll pick Portland to win under the assumption that Aldridge will make the difference between a win and a loss. National TV coverage in Portland also tends to inspire the Blazers.

Saturday, Feb. 7: @ the Dallas Mavericks, CSNNW, 5:30 PM

The Skinny: The 2014-15 season for the Dallas Mavericks will be defined, for better or worse, by the trade for point guard Rajon Rondo. They gave up valuable backup big man Brendan Wright, who combined with Tyson Chandler to form the most potent pick-and-roll “roll” weapon in the league. 

Wright shot just south of 70% as the roll man before getting traded for Rondo, and while the Mavs are still second in the NBA in offensive rating, they’re below the record-setting pace they had before Rondo arrived. The depth issues behind Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki could be an issue come playoff time, but the Mavs brass (read: oddball owner Mark Cuban) rightly concluded they couldn’t seriously contend in the murderous West without a very good point guard.

Dallas was a team that had no chance to rise above the crowded second tier in the NBA due to a bad defense, and because of Nowitzki’s advancing age, Cuban was forced into a Hobson’s choice between keeping things the way they were and taking a gamble. Rondo might not end up moving the needle enough, and if he bolts in free agency to another team, Dallas will have nothing to show for giving up Wright. 

That’s the risk the Mavericks chose to take, however. If it doesn’t work out, they can at least say they extended the contending years of one of the 20 best basketball players to ever live in Nowitzki.

Key Matchup: Damian Lillard vs. Rajon Rondo. The reason Dallas traded for Rondo was for matchups like this, against the Western Conference’s bevy of top-shelf point guards. Despite getting snubbed for the All-Star team this season, Lillard qualifies as top-shelf.

Rondo’s defense is slightly overrated. Given the difficulty of modern point guard defense, however, even a lesser version of Rondo is better than four-fifths of the NBA’s point men. Whether that’ll make a difference in late April and May is to be determined. If Rondo can neutralize a slumping Lillard, however, it’ll give Cuban a bit more vindication for making the move in the first place.

Prediction: Until they prove me wrong, I have no confidence in Portland on the road against good teams. Blazers lose.

Sunday, Feb. 8: @ the Houston Rockets, CSNNW, 4:00 PM

The Skinny: After the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies, there are four teams within a game and a half of each other. This game will feature two of those teams, with Dallas and the Los Angeles Clippers also in the group. This second tier of teams have flaws as great as their strengths.

For Dallas, it’s their average defense and the fact that Nowitzki moves like a mummy on defense. The Clippers are a top-heavy team that recently gave up credible assets for a marginal NBA player who happens to be the progeny of the coach/GM. Portland is too dependent on Aldridge to drag them, one-handed, out of every hole they dig themselves into during the first quarter.

Houston? They are a team defined, for better and worse, by MVP candidate James Harden. Without Dwight Howard for significant parts of the season, it’s been up to Harden and the Rockets’ army of three-point shooters to carry the team.

Looking at the shooting stats of the NBA franchises, the Rockets attempt the most threes by a wide margin; the Blazers attempt the second-most threes, yet hoist up six fewer threes per game. Houston’s accuracy, however, is only at 13th, slightly above league-average.

And as for the other tenets of efficiency? Houston only converts 71.9% of its free throws, third-worst in the NBA, though to be honest, that percentage is deflated (see what I did there, Seahawk fans?) by the presence of Howard on the roster. The Rockets are also at the bottom ten in restricted area FG%. 

For all the talk about Harden’s amazing season (27/6/7, shooting 38% from three and 88% from the free-throw stripe), the Rockets and Blazers find themselves in similar positions: top-five defenses with slumping offenses (Portland is 11th in offensive rating, Houston 14th) overly dependent on their respective superstars to carry their teams through tough games and injuries to important players.

Key Matchup: Wesley Matthews vs. James Harden. Can I go anywhere else but here? This matchup was dominated by Matthews in last year’s first-round playoff series, with Harden forced into poor performances that cost his team victories.

Whatever progress Harden’s made this year should be apparent in the games between these teams this season. If Harden has truly evolved into the Aldridge-type unstoppable force the stats say he is, he should prove it here--no matter how tough Matthews plays him.

Wes will need to hit his open shots and take Harden into the post. Making the Beard work on defense will always be the key to beating the Rockets, despite all the noise about Harden improving his historically craptastic defense this season.

Prediction: Like in the Dallas game, I don’t trust the Blazers on the road against good teams right now. Portland loses.

Last week I managed to escape total disaster. Although the Blazers didn’t win a game I picked them to win, they did lose the Atlanta ga--wait, you’re not interested in how I did last week!? How dare you! 

At least I did what my editor asked, and deflated the word count in this week’s article…

(shots fired)

Trail Blazers’ Record: 32-16

Jared’s Picks Record: 31-17

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.

 

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