10 games in, the Portland Trail Blazers’ season has already featured close games, gritty trench work, spectacular moves with the dribble and the drive, dead-eye shooting, some surprising moments of defense, and heroics aplenty.
So far this year, the Blazers have scrapped and fought in every game after destroying the Suns and Pacers to start things off. After the two most dominant season-opening games I can recall (the Phoenix obliteration was the largest margin of victory in a season opener in NBA history), a slew of close games ensued. After dropping two heartbreakers, Portland got those wins back to begin their six-game homestand, which continues tonight against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Today in the Rip City Check-Up, we will look at the Blazers and the league around them, and take stock after the first 10 games. 10 games is a small sample size—even a half season can be thought of as a small sample size—but it’s a nice round number, and there’s some interesting trends I want to highlight today.
The Western Conference Logjam
You wouldn’t expect much separation in such a loaded conference only 10 games in, but this is quite ridiculous:
12 teams bunched up in a mess together so far. Now, some of this will normalize; the Lakers are too young and defenseless to be up here, and the two teams at the top will pull further away as more of these squads play each other. The West will be a jumble for the whole season, though, and I expect most of these teams to be within spitting distance of each other unless an injury happens, or a team gets on an ungodly hot streak.
Three squads of interest to point out are Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and our own Blazers. I heard about the defensive stats the Thunder had before the game, and how their offense comes and goes. That game, we saw what happened when their defense gets outschemed. Portland coach Terry Stotts found a chink in OKC’s armor, and Damian Lillard did a fantastic job of getting Thunder center Steven Adams in the pick-and-roll and keeping him moving.
Adams is a great defender, and Paul George and Andre Roberson are among the five best perimeter defenders alive, but the Blazers racked up a double-digit lead because Lillard was able to draw Adams out of the paint, and the Thunder don’t play anyone else with his presence, intelligence, work ethic, and/or size with him on the frontcourt. Jusuf Nurkic feasted at the rim, Lillard made some incredible moves on his drives to the hoop (in another life, he could have been a gold-medal gymnast), and when the Thunder packed the paint, CJ McCollum caught a pass, looked at Adam Silver’s signature on the ball, admired the individual bumps on the leather, polished it for a while, looked around to see nobody around him, then drained an open three-pointer.
(Can I note really quick that CJ is shooting 55% [!!!] from three-point range, on nearly six attempts per game? Stupid. Insane. Incomprehensible.)
Meanwhile, the Thunder relied on individual play too much, as is to be expected when you look at the guys they have. Russell Westbrook is trying to find the balance between distributing and taking over the game, but he took over too late in the Portland game, and failed on the last possessions anyway (a reigning NBA MVP missed three straight free throws in a close game against a division and conference rival. WOW). Paul George is learning how to play off someone better than he is, which takes time, but he’ll eventually figure it out. George had experience playing off-ball in Indiana, and it’s like hopping on a bicycle again, even if said bike is brand-new and full of bells and whistles.
The concerning part of their equation is Carmelo Anthony. He dominated the first quarter, yet his team was still down at the end of it because of a side effect of Adams getting drawn out of the paint. Anthony is too short, old, and disinclined to bang with the likes of Nurkic, Ed Davis, and Noah Vonleh for rebounds, and even Caleb Swanigan gave him a few hook shots on the block to remind him how crappy of a defender Melo is. When Melo is your last line of defense, instead of Steven Adams, you’re going to hemorrhage points, and that’s what OKC did.
If the Thunder take too long figuring things out, they could find themselves with a deep hole to climb out of, if the Wolves and Blazers continue playing well.
San Antonio needs their superstar, Kawhi Leonard, back from injury before they can be thought of as the Spurs of old, rather than a bunch of old Spurs. Tony Parker is injured as well, and at 35, you can’t expect him to contribute at a high rate once he does get back. Danny Green is a role player trying to stretch his game, and failing. LaMarcus Aldridge is trying to diversify his game and carry the Spurs at the same time, but it’s too much to ask of him at this point. Manu Ginobili is a basketball Methuselah. The rest of the roster is tailored around Leonard, and is not at its optimal state without him. (Thanks, Captain Obvious.)
When the West was this hotly contested in the past, San Antonio would alternate between destroying everybody because they’re the Spurs, and saying “screw it, let’s just try to make the playoffs.” This might be a “screw it, let’s just make the playoffs” kind of season for the Spurs.
And the Blazers? Their schedule was set up for them to go 8-2 or even 9-1 if they got lucky. Weaker teams, as well as teams in the pack like they are, clogged the first 10 games of their 2017-18 slate, which will continue to be stocked with winnable games through November. What troubles me a bit is that while 6-4 is a solid start, the Blazers need to make some serious hay while the sun’s shining. 6-4 doesn’t translate to “serious hay” by any stretch of the imagination. Getting most of the easy games in November means you get most of the difficult ones in March, during the time when playoff jockeying happens.
The Blazers have early games against the Grizzlies (twice), Nuggets, and a heaping pile of Eastern Conference teams to snack on, as well as two straight games against the Sacramento Kings, AKA the worst team in the NBA so far. The worst parts of their schedule might be playing the Milwaukee Bucks again on the 30th (their first game was awesome), the Washington Wizards on the road, and the Brooklyn Nets on Black Friday. At 9:00 AM Pacific Time. Right after Thanksgiving. I hope the Blazers don’t overindulge in turkey, stuffing, and biscuits.
A record of 16-6 at the end of November is a reachable goal. Anything below 14-8 should set off alarm bells.
The Frontcourt Rises
The Blazers are famed for their backcourt of Lillard and McCollum. They’re the guys that make the team go. It’s been pleasing to see that the frontcourt infrastructure of the franchise has held up their end, and more.
Nurkic is the unquestioned star of the big guys. He’s found his comfort zone in the last two games, posting 28 points against the Lakers and 25 and eight rebounds versus the Thunder. He also had a double-double against Utah. His rolls to the hoop have been with purpose, his outside shot has been falling, and his passing has been…well, it’s been haphazard, but the successes have been spectacular. If he can cut his turnovers (he’s averaging 3.2 turnovers per game this season), he’ll be even more unstoppable.
Ed Davis has been the garbage man, like he was two years ago before his shoulder problems and the birth of his twin sons. With his shoulder issues behind him, he’s back to being the rebound vacuum and protector of the rim we all know and love. The 6-10 Davis is 240 pounds of pure muscle, and he uses every ounce of it always, especially when rebounding on the offensive end. Ed is averaging 3.5 offensive boards per games, out of a total of 8.3 rebounds per game. 42% of his rebounds have come on the offensive end, which is an insane ratio.
AL-Farouq Aminu is currently out with an ankle injury, but before he got hurt, he and Mo Harkless were an effective defensive pairing of the forwards, as well as athletic cutters and screeners capable of catching a laser from Nurk or a bounce pass from Lillard and stuffing it home for two points. Aminu is even making his threes! He’s shooting 43% from behind the arc through eight games! He’s got a snowball’s chance in hell of maintaining this pace, especially coming off injury, but still!
Harkless is not nearly as effective shooting, posting a 30% mark from three. He’s getting the majority of his 7.6 points per game catching slick passes off cuts and picking up the trash after broken plays. Mo seems to understand his role on this team, which is to bust his butt on D, screen like crazy, and get to the rim the instant the defense takes its eyes off him. Given his lack of a shooting stroke and the attention the Blazers’ Big Three draw, Harkless will find many cutting lanes, and a couple of rim-shaking dunks.
“Biggie” Swanigan has done good work as well when he can find time. At 11.7 minutes per game, the rookie is 10th on the Blazers, and once both Aminu and Vonleh (who was out with a shoulder injury at the beginning of the season, and who has had good moments) are healthy, poor Biggie might get a steady diet of DNP-CDs. Which would be a damn shame, because while he’s not as athletic as Vonleh or Davis, he’s by far the most skilled out of the three, even at the tender age of 20.
His lack of athleticism has already been exploited this season, truthfully. Swanigan’s effort and ability will one day balance that out, and you start to see signs of his potential utility already. Posting up Melo here, taking Brook Lopez to the perimeter and shooting over him there, and just straight up bullying guys with Davis on the glass when they play together. Swanigan can be a Slo-Mo version of a matchup nightmare one day.
Playing him with Nurkic might be a bad idea, but in years to come, a bench unit of Swanigan and whomever the Blazers choose to keep out of either Vonleh or Davis (both are on expiring contracts), or even Zach Collins once the other rookie figures out how to defend like a human being and not like a grizzly bear, could pay dividends.
Overall, there’s been much to like and much to be proud of regarding the Portland frontcourt this season so far. The forwards and big guys will be the determining factor between Portland making the playoffs and staying home, and so far, so good.
The Double-Edged Sword Named Connaughton
So, Pat Connaughton. He’s been quite the surprise this season, especially shooting from range. His 42% mark from downtown, on four attempts per game, is outstanding. He often plays with McCollum when the latter is anchoring bench units at the start of the second and fourth quarters, and Connaughton’s range is giving CJ more space, which helps explain CJ’s bonkers shooting. Pat’s ballhandling has improved, he’s always been able to jump out of the gym, and the new gravity he provides helps Stotts get away with keeping Lillard on the bench a little longer, and helps McCollum and Evan Turner play their games.
The downside of Connaughton? That defense. That horrid, horrid, Meyers Leonard-esque defense, man.
Every time I think about Pat missing a rotation, or getting bullied by a bigger wing on the block, or simply getting back on defense after transition, finding a spot, and seeing NO ONE NEAR HIM (which surrenders an easy shot 10 times out of 10 in the NBA. RAAAAAGE!!!!!), I want to turn my chair to the right, find my trash can, and vomit in it. As many points as he gives the Blazers, he gives nearly the same amount right back. While his Net Rating is a 2.3 through 10 games, in November so far, his Net Rating has been an abysmal, putrid -24.7. It’s only three games, but that’s still not a typo.
His wins and losses splits in rating are even more demonstrative. In wins, Pat has a 13.3 rating. In losses? -23.7. When teams have gone after Connaughton on defense, and when Coach Stotts is slow to give him the hook, the Blazers have been rolled.
Connaughton might be a shorter version of Houston’s Ryan Anderson: great on offense, unplayable on defense. It’ll be worth watching to see if he improves his defensive play, and if Stotts decides to play him spot minutes or even removes him entirely from the rotation if he continues to be that bad when Portland doesn’t have the ball.
As it stands, the Blazers are committing 21.2 minutes per game to this high wire act. If Connaughton falls too often, he could fall out of the rotation, and out of an NBA career. At least he still has that fastball.