Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview & Predictions – 12/1
Tuesday, December 01, 2015
The Trail Blazers have played 17 games so far this young season, and while that isn’t the largest sample size in the world, it’s enough time to make a reasonable evaluation on a team’s progress so far.
One could make general assumptions if they’ve watched any amount of Blazers basketball this season. Their youth, energy, and lack of experience are always on full display. No matter the point of the season, those constants will be there, and will keep Portland from enjoying any sustained team success…this season.
Here at OSN, we don’t make general assumptions. Or at least, I don’t. I did some research at NBA.com on the Blazers’ season as a team so far, and here’s what I came up with:
The Blazers are unsurprisingly good on offense, and surprisingly average on defense. The offense, which is ninth in the league according to Offensive Rating, is the part of the game everyone thought Portland would be good at, especially after the move to start CJ McCollum was made. Coach Terry Stotts is a proven offensive tactician, and McCollum and Damian Lillard were put on this Earth to score buckets.
It’s defensively where the surprises are. True, Lillard is still a non-entity on that end, and Mason Plumlee often has to do too much. Plum has good athleticism and moves his feet well, but if the backcourt guys can’t keep their man in front of them for more than a second, or if the perimeter defense springs more than one leak, it usually results in an opponent’s score. Meyers Leonard is still a negative on defense, but at least he knows where he needs to be and has some size, which is more than you can say for the young Noah Vonleh at this point in his career.
Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis have been a big help, as was expected, but the real revelation has been McCollum. His defensive rating for the season is 100, second-best on the team among players that log at least 14 minutes a game. CJ has really turned up the pressure on the defensive end the last five games in particular; his rating in those games is a stifling 92.
McCollum has entered Try-Hard Mode on defense, and is still providing the explosive offense that got him to the NBA level. Playing the Los Angeles Lakers twice in that five-game span does help, but he’s busting his butt out there on both ends of the floor. That’s all you can really ask.
For a team some basketball folks thought would be the worst defensive team in the league, achieving a rank of 17th in the NBA in Defensive Rating is no small feat, even in a 17-game sample size. Here’s hoping the Blazers can keep it up; they still haven’t faced the Warriors, Cavaliers, or Hawks this season.
The Blazers’ best lineup so far this season has been Aminu, Moe Harkless, Plumlee, Lillard, and McCollum. I’m counting five-man lineups that have been on the court together for at least 30 minutes this season, and the 32 minutes that these five men have been on the court together have been electric.
Aminu, Harkless, Plumlee, Lillard, and McCollum have a Net Rating of 26.2 during their time on the court. Offensively, their rating is 106.5, while their Drtg is an incredible 80.3. Small Ball!
It’s a tiny sample size, true, but this is a year for experimentation and discovery. If a coach is ever going to have complete license to tinker this season, it’s going to be Stotts. I say trot this lineup out there more often as the season goes along, especially if Leonard has more shoulder problems.
The top two lineups in terms of minutes played, if you’re curious, has been the Opening Night lineup of Lillard-McCollum-Aminu-Leonard-Plumlee, and the starting lineup after Meyers got hurt (the other four guys with Vonleh). In 133 minutes, the Opening Night lineup has posted a 1.7 Net Rating and a 4-5 record in games where that lineup has been utilized.
The other lineup, having logged 88 minutes this season, has done far better rating-wise; their Net is a sterling 11.5. The Blazers are 5-5 when that lineup has seen any time in a game, with an overall Plus/Minus of 19. Both lineups shoot similar percentages from the field overall and from three-point land, and neither Vonleh nor Leonard have a positive impact defensively.
One more note about the lineups: Allen Crabbe, no matter who he’s played with this season, has been advanced stats cancer. Every five-man lineup he’s on has a negative Net Rating; I’ll spare you the numbers, since I just had to bleach my eyes after reading that data.
If Crabbe doesn’t improve, Stotts should bench him and go with someone else, or give more minutes at the 2 to Harkless.
The Blazers lead the league in Field Goal Percentage from 10-14 feet. All hail the ball handling skills of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. They get into that soft spot most defenses have between the paint and three-point line, and they either shoot a floater or dump it off to a big man. Penetration is the key to unraveling an NBA defense, and Portland’s starting backcourt is very good at breaking a defense down.
Lillard, in particular, has displayed an improved passing eye that makes him a nightly double-double threat, and almost got him a triple-double against the Lakers.
After I expanded the search to include the entire midrange area, I found that the Blazers are second in the NBA in midrange FG%…behind the offensive demigods known as the Golden State Warriors.
On a more discouraging note, the Blazers stink scoring in the restricted area (the semi-circle beneath the hoop). Ranking 25th in RA FG% is never a good thing; in fact, now I think on it, the reason the Blazers are so good from the midrange might be because they’re continually getting walled off from the paint, and they’re taking what the defense gives them.
Other than Ed Davis putbacks after offensive rebounds and the occasional fast break dunk from Plumlee, Portland doesn’t have a reliable source of scoring in the paint. As the team gets more comfortable with each other, and as their skills mature, you should see some sharper passing and cutting, which will open up the paint some.
Numbers are awesome! And there’s more to come: we get to break down the players individually on Friday! I feel just…giddy.
Time for picks! Let’s go!
(All stats courtesy of NBA.com and basketball-reference.com. All games can be heard on AM 620 Rip City Radio.)
The Skinny: Wesley Matthews is back! The former longtime Portland shooting guard, who didn’t get an offer from the Blazers once it was clear LaMarcus Aldridge was leaving town, signed with Dallas this offseason for his personal max of four years and $70+ million…despite Matthews rupturing his Achilles tendon in the beginning of March, ironically while playing against the Mavericks.
I was sad to see Wes go, but I admired the maverick thinking (Puns! Oh wait…you don’t like puns? OK, I’ll see myself out) it took for Dallas to sign a guy that suffered a devastating basketball injury. That Wes came back in just eight months is also remarkable; I thought he’d be unable to play until January.
Matthews is having trouble getting his game back to pre-injury levels, though. Averaging 11 points a game while shooting just 31% from three, it’s clear the adjustments he’s had to make physically and mentally (learning the Mavs’ systems) are making him uncomfortable. He’s a survivor, so he’ll get there eventually.
Unlike Aldridge, who got some boos throughout the game, I expect Wes to get cheered almost exclusively. He is beloved here, and I hope that after his playing days are done, he comes back to the team in some capacity. He made his name here, got his big break here, and he’s savvy enough to appreciate the risks the Blazers took when they pried him away from Utah six years ago.
Player To Watch: CJ McCollum. Mostly to see how Wes does against the guy who replaced him in Portland. I bet these two have gone against each other in practice a thousand times, and this little cat-and-mouse game should be a fun sub-plot to watch.
Prediction: Back-to-backs in the NBA stink, but the Blazers have two things going for them: they’ll play the second game at home, and they’re young. Never underestimate the comfort sleeping in your own bed can bring, as well as being an early 20-something in November during an NBA season.
I’ll pick the Blazers to win.
The Skinny: The Pacers have started out 11-5, second in the Eastern Conference so far. Their resurgence isn’t yet complete, nor is it likely sustainable; they just don’t have the supporting talent around their superstar. But their superstar is one of my favorite players in the NBA, Paul George.
George suffered a broken leg in the 2014 offseason while playing in a scrimmage with Team USA. It wasn’t a typical broken leg injury, either. I saw it happen on TV, and it reminded me of Kevin Ware’s gruesome injury in the NCAA Tournament. George’s leg didn’t break, it crumpled. Like a college frat boy smashing a beer can.
He came back for the final six games of the 2014-15 season, assisting in an Indiana push to make the playoffs that failed. He looked out of sorts, a cold player going up against guys that were not only in game shape, but highly motivated to either make the playoffs or improve their seeding.
I’m pleased to say, however, that Paul George is not only back full-time, he’s gotten better:
16 G, 35.9 MPG, 27.2 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 4.4 APG, 45% FG%, 45% 3PT% (on seven attempts per game!!!), 10.1 Net Rating, 26.1 PER
Also, George is playing 55% of his minutes at power forward. At an undersized 6-9, 220 pounds. After shattering his leg into a bunch of shards fifteen months ago. What a tough, impossibly skilled S.O.B.
I’m not sure how far George can carry the Pacers this year, as there is a very real chance of him wearing out playing against bigger men. He also hasn’t played a full NBA schedule in a couple years. It sure is going to be fun watching him carry the Pacers, though.
Player To Watch: Al-Farouq Aminu. On defense, Aminu will have the unenviable task to stopping Paul George from controlling the game. Goodness knows Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard will have no chance in hell against PG-13.
Prediction: The Blazer fan in me wants Portland to take a game from an overachieving Pacers squad. The Paul George fan boy in me wants George to go for 50 and burn the Moda Center’s nets into atoms.
Paul George fan boy won out. Blazers lose.
The Skinny: These teams played in Minnesota on the second of November, in the first home game for the Wolves since their head coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders lost his life to leukemia. The Blazers won, with young phenom Andrew Wiggins going 5-for-17 from the field.
Wiggins has since upped his game, especially in the clutch. Clutch time is defined as being the last five minutes of a game, with the score differential at five points or less. According to CBSSports.com, Wiggins is the most prolific clutch scorer in the league through the first month.
Averaging 22 points a game with 43/30/74 shooting splits, Wiggins is growing into his role of primary perimeter scorer very nicely. His next step is to develop a three-point shot, but with the way he can get into the paint and finish, he can wait on that for awhile.
He also can’t legally drink until February. These young kids, man…between Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota’s set up very well for the future. The present isn’t all that bad either; the Wolves are currently 8-9. They would be in the playoffs if the season ended today!
Player To Watch: Mason Plumlee. A good battle of young big men this is. Plum and Towns won’t be the primary sources of offense, but their impact will be most felt on the boards. Whomever can control the rebounding battle will have a big part to play in his team’s chances to win.
Prediction: I’m going to go out on a fairly sturdy limb and say Minnesota wins. I picked them to win last time and got burned, but the Wolves are playing very well as of late.
Congratulations to the Portland Timbers Football Club for winning the MLS Western Conference Championship! Glad to know at least one team is bringing championship glory to Portland this year.
Trail Blazers’ Record: 7-10
Jared’s Picks Record: 8-9
Bro Counter: 28 to go!
Related Slideshow: 12 of the Greatest Sports Movies of All Time
Hank Stern ranks his top twelve favorite sports films.
#8 The Longest Yard
Not the remake with Adam Sandler and Chris Rock. But the hilarious original with Burt Reynolds and Eddie Albert as a wonderfully villainous warden who pits the guards against the inmates in a grudge football game that includes former Green Bay linebacker Ray Nitschke and other ex-football players like Sonny Sixkiller and Joe Kapp, both stalwart Pac-8 quarterbacks long, long ago.
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