A lot has been said about the start of the Portland Trail Blazers’ season and their early season defensive struggles. While it is true that the team is 29th in the league in opponents’ points per game with 113.5 per game, they sit at 10-10 through the first 20 games. If the season were to end today, the Blazers would squeak into the Playoffs as the 8th seed in the West.
While this is not the start to the season that fans expected, it isn’t all that surprising either. Let’s break down why the Blazers are sitting at .500 at the quarter mark of the season.
- Al-Farouq Aminu injury. This has been a killer for the Blazers. Coming into the season, the Blazers planned on starting Aminu as the everyday power forward. Aminu is an excellent defender and can stretch out the opposing teams’ defense to make more driving lanes for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
On defense, Aminu is so valuable to this team. The only players on the team last season with a better defensive rating were Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee. This season, Aminu’s defensive rating had been the best on the team before his injury. When Aminu is on the court, especially at the power forward position, he offers an incredibly rare versatility. In pick-and-roll sets he is big enough to body up the big name, yet athletic enough to stay in front of the point guard.
Last season Aminu played and started all 82 games. This season he has only played 8. The Blazers were 5-3 with Aminu on the floor. All signs point towards an imminent return. But Aminu can’t get back on the court soon enough for the Blazers.
- The continued development of Evan Turner. While it was somewhat controversial when Neil Olshey gave Evan Turner a 4-year, $70 million contract in the off-season, it was largely accepted as another smart move by the general manager. Through the early part of the season it seems like there has been no hotter topic surrounding this team than Evan Turner.
Through 20 games Turner has averaged 9.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game. He hasn’t had averages that low since his terrible stint in Indiana in 2013-2014. With reason, Blazer fans have wondered why this team gave him so much money!
There is light at the end of the tunnel. We have to realize that this team is largely the same as it was last year. Turner is the new guy that needs to learn a new offense, find his way around a new city, and find his niche on the team. Slowly, but surely, it has been getting better.
Over the last 6 games, Turner has been averaging 13.7 points on 52.4% shooting. His role is becoming more defined on the offensive and defensive ends and he is finding a way to contribute.
Earlier in the season the Boston Celtics were having similar struggles to the Blazers. Their point guard Isaiah Thomas was quoted, “The wing position in this league, if you’re missing that, then it’s going to be tough for you, especially (because) we don’t have Evan Turner. We’re missing Evan, who was a big part of what we’ve done.”
He was a vital part of the Celtics’ success last season. With time, he will become a vital cog in the Blazers rotation as well.
- Expectations. Remember last year when this team was supposed to be a rebuilding team? Those thoughts were blown out of the water when this team made it to the Playoffs, beat the Clippers in the first round, and really competed against the Warriors. Let us not forget how many things broke the Blazers’ way to get to that point.
First of all, the Blazers won 44 games season in the regular season. That is 3 games better than .500. They are sitting at .500 right now. Is it all that inconceivable to see the Blazers go on a 3-game winning streak and be 3 games over .500?
Second, the Blazers had career years from Lillard, McCollum, Aminu, Plumlee, and so on. Their entire team clicked and played way above expectations. So much so, that McCollum was named the Most Improved Player in the NBA. That isn’t an award that should be taken lightly.
Third, key injuries to other teams in the league helped bolster the Blazers success in the post-season. Without the injury to Marc Gasol late in the year, the Blazers probably don’t get the 5th seed. Without the injuries to Blake Griffin and Chris Paul in the first round, the Blazers have a much tougher matchup against the Clippers. Without the overall health of the Blazers they have a much tougher road to the playoffs.
I am not trying to take anything from the success of this team. I am just trying to point out that the ball bounced the Blazers’ way last season and that just hasn’t been the case… yet.
The great thing about the NBA season is that it is a marathon, not a sprint. Each team plays 82 games, each team has tough stretches, each team goes on losing streaks.
The one thing that has been a definitive part of this Blazer team is their resilience. Lillard is the leader of this team and he embraces the underdog role, he has since high school. The chip on Lillard’s shoulder is one of the things that led to him being drafted 6th in the 2012 NBA Draft.
Earlier this week, Lillard talked about the mentality that this team needed to bring to the defensive side of the floor that they needed to be a meaner team.
“That might be the change that needs to be made … is us just not being the nice team (where) everybody likes each other. That’s a great story, but maybe we’ve got to play a much more mean game.” He continued by saying, “You look at teams like the Bulls, they go out there and they play a mean game. They rough up the game and sometimes that’s necessary to give yourself a chance in a game.”
This team is in good hands. Lillard and McCollum make up one of the most dynamic back courts in the entire league. Aminu is coming back from injury and will bolster the defensive mindset of the entire team. Coach Terry Stotts continues to show that he is one of the true offensive masterminds in the league, leading the Blazers to scoring 110.8 points per game, the third most in the league.
Look for the Blazers to figure things out and build momentum leading through the month of December. With a bit of a tough schedule ahead of them, the win-loss record may not reflect it immediately, but this team will get back to being one of the most exciting teams in the league by the new year.