We have arrived at the midseason point in the NBA, at least in terms of games played. The All-Star break is usually considered to be the “midseason” point of the campaign, though I never got why someone would refer to a half-season as a 65-70 percent chunk. Strange.
Anyway, the Portland Trail Blazers are 25-17 on the year, good for sixth in a highly competitive and even Western Conference, and the bulk of the difficult games are behind them. Now, it’s all about combating boredom and exhaustion as the All-Star break looms—something Damian Lillard has done very well in years past.
It’s been a good year so far for the Blazers, with the emergence of the bench providing some needed depth, Jusuf Nurkic going bonkers (and emerging as a top-10 center in the NBA) and Lillard being his usual self. Portland hasn’t separated itself since the early part of the year when it led the West, but staying above the bulk of the herd is enough of a feat.
We’ll take a look at each player’s individual performance so far this season, but first, some team notes:
-The Blazers are third in the NBA in two crucial categories: rebounding and free-throw percentage. As has been usual with Terry Stotts’ Blazers, Portland has eschewed fast-break chances for crashing the boards as a team. True, they miss out on some easy buckets on the other end, but the flip side of that choice is a team that hardly allows second-chance points and scraps for every available board.
Of the top 10 Blazers in minutes played—the entire rotation, basically—eight of them average at least four rebounds a game; a ninth, CJ McCollum, is at 3.7. The Blazers may prefer a slowpoke style (17th in pace, 99 possessions per game), but it’s always been effective for them. Even if they’ve always had a young roster.
As for the free-throw shooting: Any team that employs Lillard and McCollum, two premier charity-stripe shooters, is going to be a good free-throw shooting team just on averages. However, they have a lot of company this season, with Nurkic shooting a career-high 74 percent, AL-Farouq Aminu at a sharp 83 percent and Meyers Leonard at 85 percent. The only regular having a subpar freebie season is Evan Turner at a mere 66 percent. The team, overall, is a tidy 81 percent. Good stuff.
(A new thing this season: Stotts waving and flapping his arms around, extolling the notoriously calculating Lillard to move the ball faster up the court. I get a little uneasy watching those antics, frankly; Stotts is a very big dude. If he gets fired, it won’t be because the Blazers suck; it’ll be because he knocked out a millionaire sitting courtside by accident, and said millionaire sues the Blazers.)
-Despite their .595 winning percentage, the Blazers’ team stats are mostly average. Here’s a partial list of categories Portland ranks 15th to 19th in the NBA in: points per game, field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, defensive rating, pace, net rating, turnover percentage, and three-pointers attempted.
While their offensive rating is 11th, and is a much better method of quantifying offensive effectiveness than team PPG, many things still need to be improved upon. In particular, I’d like to see their defense pick up, and they need to take—and make—more threes. Jake Layman and Maurice Harkless need to polish their spot-up games. Aminu needs to be even more assertive when he has an open look. McCollum needs to get out of his funk from three. And poor Leonard.
Every time Leonard is open from three at home, he has 10,000 people yelling at him to shoot it, and another 10,000 people screaming “NO!!!” Poor guy. I’m in the “shoot it” camp, by the way. An open three is the best shot Meyers can take that isn’t a dunk, even if it takes him 10 years to launch that puppy.
Alrighty, now for individual notes:
Damian Lillard: Can’t say enough about this guy, honestly. Averaging a steady 26.2 points per game (10th in the NBA) and six assists (18th), with a 23.4 Player Efficiency Rating, Dame has been the superstar he’s paid to be, the sun around which every other player on the Blazers revolves.
His shooting has been excellent for such a high-volume player, too. His three-point percentage is the highest it’s been since his second year in the NBA, and if the season ended today, Lillard would have the best field-goal percentage he’s ever shot. Lillard is also going to eclipse 12,000 career points very soon, and he has an outside chance to pass his old teammate LaMarcus Aldridge for second on the Blazers’ all-time list this season; he’s a mere 645 points behind LMA with 41 games to go this year.
Though nothing’s a given where Lillard and the All-Star Game are concerned (the year where he made the All-NBA Second Team despite NOT being an All-Star is still confusing), I think he does get in this season. After that, the only question will be if LeBron James will pick him first for his team in the All-Star Draft.
CJ McCollum: There are some good things going for McCollum. The midrange shooting I highlighted on Monday is one of them. His Net Rating is at 4.1, and his Offensive Rating is easily the highest of his career. He’s not actively dragging the Blazers down…unless he’s shooting a three.
His percentage beyond the arc is a mere 33 percent—seven percentage points below his career average and 4.5 lower than his rookie year, which is a career-low 37.5 percent. His passing has never been a big part of his game, but a guard who uses as many possessions as he does (25 percent Usage Rate) shouldn’t be averaging a paltry 2.6 assists per game and have an assist rate of 12 percent. The Blazers have always been near the bottom in assists in the NBA, and CJ is a reason why.
His stats are down nearly across the board, some slightly, others more significantly. He seems to be taking a longer time to adjust to not having “his time” this season than most of us thought. Portland is winning, so it isn’t a giant concern, especially on the nights when the bench plays well.
Still: The Blazers need McCollum to be an outside threat if they want to redeem themselves in the postseason. If he spends the entire year shooting 33 percent, Rip City will be DOA in the West playoffs.
Jusuf Nurkic: It’s Nurk Fever all over again. His stats from the first half of this season bear an eerie and awesome resemblance to those 20 games where he basically went apes–t on the NBA, freed from being Nikola Jokic’s understudy.
One of the reasons why McCollum’s little slump hasn’t affected Portland much has been Nurk stepping up his play. His current marks in over two dozen categories would shatter his previous career-highs, notably points, rebounds, and free-throw percentage. Add the sometimes-spectacular game to his otherwise steady 15-12 play, and you get a guy who’s a borderline All-Star.
Al-Farouq Aminu: While the Chief’s contributions on defense and rebounding are an essential glue for this team, and his three-point shooting has solidified to a consistent 35 percent, the most important thing for Aminu this year has been his health. After missing 34 games the last two seasons, he’s played in every contest so far in 2018-19, at a career-high 30.2 minutes per game.
He’s also been more accurate than he’s ever been from two-point range, a product of scrounging for loose balls and offensive rebounds. Chief is going to earn a raise this summer—hopefully from the Blazers.
Evan Turner: The Villain’s offensive production has been limited, as usual. He has stopped taking threes altogether (a good thing, since he’s never shot the outside jumper well), his slight bump in field-goal percentage has been negated by a steep drop in his free-throw shooting, and his scoring has reached a new nadir. Last season was his lowest PPG output since his rookie year, and his current 7.8 average is even lower.
I was prepared to crap on him despite his move to a near-exclusive bench role, but Turner has picked things up on defense this season. His role in turning James Harden, the most unstoppable offensive guard since early-90s Michael Jordan, into an inefficient chucker grabbed some headlines, but he’s been quietly solid on D all season.
Turner’s one of three Blazers who has a Defensive Box Plus-Minus above 1 in more than 600 minutes of action; the other two are Nurkic and Zach Collins, both big men. Players shoot three percentage points worse from the perimeter when he defends them than the league average, signs that he’s moving his feet and keeping guys in front of him.
His stats may be putrid compared to that contract, but Turner moves the ball, initiates the offense, and works his ass off on defense. He’s playing his role, though that free-throw percentage (he’s a career 78 percent freebie shooter, and has never been lower than 82 percent before in Portland) is a disappointment.
Zach Collins: He’s fallen off from his stellar opening to the season, with his scoring, rebounding, and shooting from all three levels all sharply dropping in December. His numbers overall are up from his rookie year, for what it’s worth.
Portland isn’t trotting out the Gonzaga product for his scoring, though. His defense has been more encouraging; he’s protecting the rim fairly well when compared to the league average, and he’s cut his foul rate in half. The reduced fouling is very encouraging, since a big knock on Collins has been his habit of hacking guys like a lumberjack hacking a tree.
Hopefully, that habit is on its way to being kicked.
Maurice Harkless: Still nursing that sore knee, which has caused him significant trouble this season. When he has played, he’s been his usual mixed bag. His blocks are up, his points are down, he rebounds well, and he’s fouling almost as much as Peak Collins.
One thing that’s always flip-flopped for Moe is his shooting. A year after knocking down a stellar 41 percent from three (and three after shooting 28 percent), Harkless is having a bad shooting year again. Whether it’s his stroke, his confidence, or his health, he just can’t find any consistency.
The big thing right now for him is to get his body right. The Blazers need him more in April than they do in January.
Jake Layman: Has played very well in relief of (and sometimes alongside) Harkless this season. When he fell out of the rotation after Harkless returned, I thought Stotts was making a mistake; the kid had earned his spot, and I thought it was lazy coaching to just nail Layman and his glorious hair to the pine instead of finding him some time.
It seems like that won’t happen again, as Layman has stayed ready and is using his athleticism, energy and activity in mostly useful ways. If he can get that three-point shooting from 35 percent to around 38-39 percent, he has a future in the NBA…somewhere.
Meyers Leonard: Bah Gawd King, we’re getting a Good Meyers Leonard year!
Leonard’s shooting is steady at 41 percent from three and 49 percent overall, as time and space has been created for him to crank up the lever action on his shot, then for him to let the ball fly. He’s rebounding more and fouling less than he has in years; hell, he’s even blocked a shot this season!!! (He has five blocks, after recording a fat 0 in 2017-18.)
It’s nice to see Good Meyers make an appearance. Still doesn’t make up for that horrid contract, but like with Turner, you just have to grin and bear it. At least Meyers Leonard’s Expiring Contract is going to be more appealing if he keeps continuing his decent play.
Nik Stauskas: Is now completely out of the rotation after a good start to the season. Alas, the Canadian known as Sauce Castillo plays no defense, none at all; Pat Connaughton looked like Paul George last year in comparison to the Sauce.
Stauskas has improved his driving and dribbling, to his credit. His problem is that when people dribble at HIM, he provides all the resistance of a traffic cone.
Seth Curry: At 48.5 percent, Seth is the NBA’s leader in three-point shooting…while shooting less than three long balls per game. His ability to provide a little secondary playmaking (Turner runs the bench units from the point) and his stupendous shooting have enabled him to stay on the court, and he hasn’t been as obvious a defensive sieve as Stauskas.
Now, if he just shot more threes….
Wade Baldwin IV: Assigned to the Texas Legends of the G-League last Friday, Baldwin seems to have some rough edges to his game that need to be ironed out. His contract for this year is fully guaranteed, no small thing for guys like Baldwin who are on the fringes. He’s officially become a millionaire playing basketball.
The Blazers are always churning the bottom few spots on their roster, forced to look for diamonds in the rough because of their bloated salary cap. Baldwin’s goal should be to use his G-League time to develop into one of those diamonds.
Caleb Swanigan: Another guy shuttling back and forth between Texas and Portland, Biggie is also working on his game in the minors.
I really hope the Blazers’ next owners invests in a G-League team; Portland is one of the few franchises that has declined to do so, and having a 30-for-30 setup between the NBA and the G-League would be ideal, for everyone involved.
Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr.: Rookies just sitting around, not doing much besides being rookies. I guess Lillard and McCollum need baggage carriers and emergency donut fetchers than the Blazers need them to work on their games.
At least they’ve started dressing in uniform!