With the 21st game of the season taking place tonight (check my weekly preview for details on viewing and matchups #ShamelessPlug), Rip City has officially hit the quarter mark of the 2018-19 NBA season.
The Portland Trail Blazers have scratched out a 12-8 record despite having a strength of schedule ranked second in the Association, with solid if unspectacular stats. The offense has been very good (ninth in the league in Offensive Rating), the defense has been serviceable (15th in Defensive Rating), they’ve taken adequate care of the ball (15th in turnovers), and they’ve rebounded like hell (fifth in total rebounding). The Blazers are also the best free-throw shooting team in the NBA, at a sparkling 83 percent.
The team itself is doing pretty well, the current three-game losing streak notwithstanding. But how is each individual player performing so far?
Let’s do the most arbitrary, cliché thing I can think of: dig through their stats, and give them grades!
Lillard’s traditional stats don’t exude efficiency. His field-goal percentage is always going to hover around 43-44 percent due to his size and the huge number of attempts (four out of 10 shots from the field) he takes from three-point range. He takes so many shots, and is such a focal point of the Blazers’ attack, that percentages don’t matter as much for him; Dame’s gonna get his when he wants to. He’s reached that peak of his game.
All his stats are down a bit so far this season—as well as his minutes. Terry Stotts is pacing Lillard a bit more. Maybe Lillard will be a bit more rested, or his teammates will continue to gain confidence that they can compete without him and CJ McCollum out on the floor. Signs have been positive so far.
At 52 three-point makes, Dame’s on pace for a fifth season of 200 threes made. He is taking fewer threes by shot percentage this year compared to last season when he fully broke out as Apex Lillard, but his pick-and-roll game with Jusuf Nurkic has been so deadly he hasn’t had to. His rebounding has increased as well, despite the reduced playing time.
Overall, Lillard is doing his job as the first option for this team. He’s at the absolute height of his abilities and is on his way to another All-Star selection and All-NBA team.
On the surface, CJ is doing what he does as well: shoot accurately from three, put some dudes in a blender, and not much else. Basically, he’s there to score. Which makes his October performance pretty poor by his standards.
McCollum did hit double digits in each game, but he shot just 41 percent through the seven October contests. The first game of this month, against New Orleans, he basically did nothing in a Portland win. Everybody has their clunkers, but true star players find other ways to contribute when the rims don’t cooperate. For McCollum, that’s not an option—he’s too small and too disinclined to scrounge for rebounds and loose balls.
The bench’s improvement bought time for McCollum to iron out some kinks, and a good thing too; in years past, the Blazers would have been sunk if either one of their dynamic duo struggled for even a few games. Makes one wonder if CJ has always started this slowly…and if Portland’s early struggles in prior seasons are his fault.
He does get bonus points for clinching the game versus the Knicks with 31 points and for hanging 40 on Milwaukee in the teams’ first matchup, but McCollum has taken a long time to get used to not having those 12 minutes a game where he can just dominate the ball without Lillard on the court. Here’s hoping this run of solid play in November continues for him, and that it leads to some wins.
Where McCollum has struggled a bit (again, by CJ standards; dude sets a high bar), Nurkic has thrived. His shooting has improved (he’s 2-for-19 from three, but the fact that he’s shooting a couple is nice to see), his turnovers and fouls are down slightly, his defense is helping the Blazers maintain a league-average rating, and his rolls to the rim have been with purpose. Lillard’s pocket passing (an area where Dame has gotten much better) has hit the big bear in stride with consistency, and Nurk is finishing with consistency. He’s shooting 61 percent within three feet of the basket.
One thing he needs to be commended on is his free-throw shooting. In the past, getting to 65 percent has been a chore for the Bosnian; despite his decent-looking form from midrange, poor Nurk never could figure it out at the line—until this season. Even after cooling off some from his scorching start, his current percentage would obliterate his previous career-high.
He still has those games where he disappears, and he still has a maddening tendency to softly float up a layup instead of using his mammoth girth to knock guys out of the way of a dunk, but through the first 20 games, Nurkic has performed admirably.
The glue guy of the starting five for the Blazers, Aminu is never going to have glamorous numbers—though I do admit, his by-far career-high free-throw shooting is looking mighty fine. (Incredible numbers from the charity stripe is going to be a theme today.)
He gets a demerit for his shooting from the field; even by his awful standards, sub-40 percent is dreadful, even if he’s taking 58 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. I realize Stotts’ offense needs Chief to stand on the three-point line, but it’d be nice to see him dart to the rim and throw down some of those hammer dunks. I like that Chief. I don’t like the Chief that fires those Marcus Camby-esque moonshots from downtown and prays that it doesn’t take a fan’s noggin off, even if he needs to take those shots.
Aminu’s rebounding has steadily improved as he’s gotten used to playing the 4. His current average is a career-high as well, and he’s only going to get better as the NBA gets smaller. His defense has been as solid as can be, considering he’s always guarding the best guy on the opposing squad. That the Blazers have done as well as they have on defense, despite starting two relative runts in the backcourt, is as much a testament to Chief as it is to Nurk.
Many teams can use a guy like Aminu; the dude makes winning plays, and he’s as steady as one of those monolithic rocks on the coast. The Blazers will have to pony up to keep him beyond this season, and unlike Ed Davis, Portland needs him.
Layman is an interesting case. On the one hand, a young former second-round pick starting for a Western Conference playoff team, and not crapping the bed, is worth an instant A. On the other hand, Layman’s averages are among the worst out of all the starting players in the NBA, and would be worth an F.
I compare Layman’s situation now to Nicolas Batum’s rookie year with the Blazers, back in 2009. Batum started games, but ended up playing only 18 minutes per game; Travis Outlaw played the bulk of the minutes at the 3. The unusual arrangement was made so that Outlaw didn’t suck up too many possessions that Portland wanted the likes of Brandon Roy and a young LaMarcus Aldridge to use. Batum was also a more capable and willing defender and passer than Outlaw, even at the tender age of 20.
Now, Maurice Harkless was the scheduled starter at the beginning of this year, but injuries and a slow road back have phased him out of the rotation some. I do believe Stotts will let Harkless have the bulk of the minutes at the 3 when he gets right, but in an arrangement similar to the Batum-Outlaw platoon a decade ago. Layman has earned it.
Jake approximates enough of what Harkless does well while adding a surprisingly accurate three-point shot to the mix; Mo has been almost as random as Aminu during his Blazers tenure from the promised land. Layman might not be re-signed after this season, but he’s shown he can be a rotation NBA player. And who knows: Maybe the Blazers can bring him back for cheap.
If Aminu leaves, Neil Olshey might not have many options for the wing or the 4.
Grade: C for cop-out.
The great Sauce Castillo arrived with a bang in Rip City, scorching the hated Lakers on Opening Night and starting the transformation from random NBA meme to actual NBA player. Alas, that metamorphosis has stalled some.
After scoring 24 points versus L.A. and hanging 15 in a loss to the Wizards in the third game of the season, Stauskas hasn’t scored more than 10 points in a game. Despite his three-point shooting, he’s only hit double-digits five times—and not since November 1st. His defense has been a train wreck, no better than Pat “Which way did he go, George? Uh-huh-huh-hu!” Connaughton was when he was here. His driving has improved, but for every instance that he gets to the rim, there are three where he dribbles the ball off his foot or runs into the trees and fires a desperate pass that’s 50-50 to reach a teammate.
Stotts has gradually lost patience with poor Sauce as the season has gone on. After averaging 22 minutes a game in October, Stauskas is playing a mere 14 per in November. He played under 10 minutes against the Warriors on Friday, and he didn’t even break seven in the heartbreaker to the Clippers on Sunday.
Harkless hasn’t been taking Layman’s minutes as he’s been getting healthy—he’s been siphoning Stauskas’ time. With the so-called “shooter” shooting just 31 percent from three this month, it’s hard to argue with Stotts’ logic.
Dealing with some knee soreness recently, Curry has had a pretty nondescript year. He’s taking half of his 4.5 shots per game from the three-point line, and given that massive percentage of makes, he should be shooting more. If he got his 2.2 three-point attempts per game up to around five, while maintaining that 40 percent efficiency, he’d be a huge help to the Blazers’ chances. You can never have enough good shooting, particularly off the bench.
Whether it’s knee issues or his general lack of quickness (not to mention his slight build), his drives to the paint have been epic failures. He needs to spot up, let Evan Turner run the offense, and shoot whenever he gets an atom’s worth of space.
Unlike Stauskas, whose play has hurt the Blazers at times, Curry has just been…there. Being more involved in the offense—and shooting whenever he has the ball at the three-point line—would help Portland squeeze all the value it can out of the bad Curry brother.
When the improved Blazer bench is mentioned anywhere, this kid’s name is at the top of the reasons why they’ve been so good in 2018-19. Collins has not only replaced Ed Davis in the rotation, he’s outperformed Davis in several metrics.
An increase in playing time isn’t enough to explain Collins’ drastic improvement, either—he’s only averaged four more minutes than last season. Collins is finishing runs to the rim, he’s been an above-average shooter from three (and a good one from the 5), his defense has been enthusiastic and legitimately deterring (sometimes overenthusiastic), and he’s starting to understand what he can and can’t do at the NBA level.
Right now, it’s a process of improving on what he does well. There will be time to iron out the kinks in his game—including a tendency for dumb fouls that still persists, albeit at a reduced rate—later on in his career.
Eventually, he might turn Nurkic and his cheapo contract into trade bait. For now, Collins is riding high as a key cog in a revived Rip City bench mob.
(And no, that three-point percentage is NOT a typo.)
Turner has taken lots of crap during his stay in Portland. He’s paid like a third star, yet he produces like a bench player. Many words have been written (and screamed, and gritted out, and flung at him) about what he isn’t. Stotts’ usage of him before this season hasn’t helped in that regard.
With McCollum banished from those bench-heavy units, Turner now has the freedom to play on the ball and use his smarts and skills to facilitate for others. He’s taking fewer threes per game than in the past, which has led to Turner recording the highest field-goal percentage of his career. The Villain is using a brutal post game to pin down any smaller man on him, using all of that 6’7” to shoot over defenders.
His raw numbers aren’t very impressive given that he’s averaging the fourth-most minutes on the Blazers, but E.T. is having his best season as a Blazer so far. It’s very hard to divorce his uses on the court from the exorbitant salary he’s paid, but maybe it’s time to focus on what Turner IS, instead of what he’s NOT.
Besides, we’re 62 games (and maybe a postseason) away from Evan Turner transforming into Evan Turner’s Expiring Contract. And what a sweet, sweet day that will be.
Unless my eyes deceive me, we might be getting Decent Meyers this season, instead of Unplayable Meyers.
Leonard has had moments this season: a double-double and a +16 in a win versus Minnesota; 15 points, a trio of three-pointers, and a couple steals in a win against New York; grabbing a career-high 16 rebounds in relief of Jusuf Nurkic on Sunday. When called upon to come in (whether one or both of the Nurkic/Collins duo is hurt or in foul trouble), Leonard has done reasonably well. He’s even had the acres of space to unload one of those slow-motion threes this season; 53 percent is incredible for someone who looks like they shoot a basketball while in a shark cage.
Pairing the 7-footer with either regular 5 would still be a disaster; Leonard lacks the spatial awareness to defend on the perimeter as a modern 4 needs to do, and he offers as much resistance at the rim as a pillow would offer to a rampaging rhinoceros. Leonard is making eight figures this season to be an emergency center, almost as much a waste of money as Turner.
Still, if Nurkic’s shoulder issues linger, or Collins gets dinged, I would be alright with Leonard hopping back into the rotation full-time…after a hearty swallow and a tall glass of Knappogue Irish whiskey.
I feel it’s not very fair to grade Harkless for his first 20 games given his injury issues. Missing 60 percent of your team’s total games is usually a good excuse for playing like a trash can when you are out there.
Hopefully he can round into shape soon. I want to see what he can do as part of the more minutes-heavy lineup; like I mentioned before, Harkless and Jake Layman can platoon like Batum and Outlaw a decade ago, to keep a comfort level among the Blazers’ rotations.
Grade: Incomplete (too much time missed)
Caleb Swanigan: Contributed to the Blazers’ wins in Indiana (a double-double) and Houston (11 rebounds). Haven’t seen much of him since. Hopefully he gets some work done on the practice court—and hopefully the Blazers’ next owners purchase a damn G-League team.
Wade Baldwin, Gary Trent Jr., Anfernee Simons: Garbage time crew. Simons’ suit game is already top-tier.