Sean Highkin: Midseason Report - The Chaos Engine, Derailed
Before the regular season started, the PRS staff took turns guessing the Blazersí win
. I predicted Portland would finish the season with 24 wins. Halfway through the
season, itís safe to say that guess was low. Theyíre already at 20 and somehow,
improbably, are just one game under .500 on the year. In some ways, itís confusing.
But in others, it makes perfect sense.
Letís be clear about one thing: this team is not good. Theyíre in the thick of the race
for the eighth seed in the playoffs right now, but they wonít be there at the end of
the season. Nothing about what theyíve been doing is sustainable. The amount of
overtime and close regulation games theyíve won was crying out for regression, and
the current six-game losing streak is starting to bear that out. Whatever Terry Stotts
insists to the contrary
, the fact that three of the Blazersí five starters are averaging
at least 38 minutes per game is going to catch up to them, be it in the form of an
injury or just general burnout. And when it does, things will get ugly, because they
have arguably the worst bench in the NBA. However, even the biggest skeptic about
this roster canít deny that the team is a lot better than anyone thought theyíd be
going into the season, and the things that have made it so are what makes the
future of the franchise so promising.
Iíll admit that I didnít know a lot about Stotts when he was hired, outside of his less
-than-stellar head coaching record with the Hawks and Bucks from several years
ago. He seemed like a ďsafeĒ hire, without much upside but someone Neil Olshey
and Paul Allen could sell to fans as having head coaching experience. He had Rick
Carlisleís endorsement, having spent four years as an assistant with the Mavericks,
but the choice felt uninspired.
With his first season in Portland at the halfway mark, however, itís clear that Stotts
was absolutely the right man for the job. I couldnít be more impressed with what
heís gotten out of this roster, both from a basketball standpoint and as an off-court
leader. His movement-heavy offense has done wonders in maximizing Nicolas
Batumís talents. Stotts deserves Coach of the Year consideration for what heís done
with Batum alone. His emphasis on the pick-and-roll has also helped foster great
chemistry between Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. And most importantly,
heís swiftly won the respect of everyone on the team. After the disastrous end to
Nate McMillanís tenure last season, the need for a unified locker room was made
plain if the franchise was to recover, and the fact that heís gotten everyone to buy
in despite the recent losing streak and other tough stretches earlier in the season
Beyond Batum, whose recent growth I wrote about extensively
last week and our
own Danny Nowell has also written beautifully about
, the player who has
deservedly garnered the most attention from fans and media alike is the rookie
Lillard. His Rookie of the Year campaign isnít as clear-cut as it appeared at the
beginning of the season, with Anthony Davis healthy and looking as good as
advertised, and Andre Drummond dominating in limited minutes in Detroit. But
while Lillardís performance has inevitably slid since his otherworldly first few
games in the league, heís shown an ability to adapt his game and correct his
shortcomings which will serve him well going forward. His month-by-month splits
at HoopData have shown him steadily improving as a finisher around the rim and
growing more efficient with his midrange shot. His assist rate and turnover rate
have also improved month-to-month. Taken as a whole, his shooting percentages
are underwhelming, but mySynergySports ranks him 24th in the NBA in scoring
efficiency in pick-and-rolls, 12th in isolations, and 14th in spot-ups. His advanced
age for a rookie lowers his ceiling, and makes it unlikely that heíll ever rank with
the truly elite point guards, the Chris Pauls and Russell Westbrooks and Kyrie
Irvings of the league. But make no mistake: Lillardís been very, very good, and
the organization has every reason to believe itís in good hands with him running
Iím offering a mea culpa on Wesley Matthews, whom I killed during the summer
and the preseason. So far, his dreadful 2011-12 season is looking more like an
outlier than a genuine regression. His numbers arenít quite up to his excellent first
season with the Blazers in 2010-11, but theyíre far closer to that benchmark than
they are to last year. In particular, his laughably bad 49.5 percent efficiency on
shots at the rim from last season is back up to a healthy 58.8, and heís hitting
three-pointers at a 39.5 percent clip. As one of the longer-tenured Blazers
(strange as it sounds, given that heís only in his third season with the club, only
Aldridge and Batum outrank him in that regard), heís also assumed something
of a leadership role, preaching consistency and accountability.
As for Aldridge, Iíve long been an advocate of trading him sooner rather than
later to maximize return and commit to a full rebuild, but now Iím not so sure.
With the Blazersí core developing faster than anticipated, Aldridge is worth
keeping around while Olshey adds ancillary pieces, rather than trading to blow
the entire roster up. Plus, heís been pretty great. Heís been taking more long
twos, a function of Stottsí attempts to adapt this roster to the Dirk Nowitzki-
centered offense he and Carlisle ran in Dallas. And while Aldridge is (obviously)
not nearly the shooter Nowitzki is, his efficiency from midrange has held
relatively consistent with previous seasons even as the volume has increased.
He still ranks 22nd in the league as a post scorer, per Synergy. But the biggest
jump, by far, has been his defense. Erik Gundersenís excellent recent piece
Blazers.com broke this down in more detail, but according to Synergy, heís
allowing a mere 0.58 points per possession on post-ups, the ninth-best mark
in the league.
So thatís whatís going well for the Blazers. Unfortunately, their four best players
cannot play 48 minutes a game (ďWeíll see about that,Ē said Tom Thibodeau),
and besides the obvious bench issues, thereís still that whole thing where J.J.
Hickson is their starting center. His double-doubles are great official team social
-media fodder, but to me heís the definition of a player whoís great to have on
your fantasy team and not so great to have on your actual team.
Hickson has benefitted enormously from the realization that he isnít a player for
whom offensive sets should be drawn up, but he still takes a couple of
cringeworthy 20-footers a game. The much-ballyhooed rebounding numbers are
mostly empty calories. According to the on-court/off-court tracking site
, the Blazers grab 49.5 percent of all available rebounds when
Hickson is on the floor, and 50.1 percent of total boards when heís on the bench.
And thatís before we get to his liability as a defender, the likes of which no
metric can do justice. He steps on the basketball court for the sole purpose of
racking up double-doubles, and as long as the rebound is there for him, it
matters not whether he could have taken away a shot attempt in the first place.
When the Blazers were winning earlier in the month, that was something you
could generally look the other way on. But now that this team is starting to
become who we thought they were, the fact that their starting center canít
guard anybody canít really be ignored.
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