As the 2018-19 NBA season was about to begin, the Portland Trail Blazers talked so much about shooting more three-pointers, playing with a faster pace, and other nonsense that I started to hear it in my sleep.
Besides poisoning my dreams with their waffle, such talk from the Blazers tends to be pointless. Teams that are not the Golden State Warriors aspire to play like them, with pace and shooting and vision, at the expense of trying to find the things that the roster they have CAN do well. It’s like a New Year’s resolution, only in October instead of January. Teams and coaches making pledges to play faster, play with better math (taking threes instead of twos, blah blah blah), and play more small-ball; that kind of talk goes on all the time at the start of a season, when the lights are bright, and hopes have not yet been crushed under 82 games of drudgery.
It’s still the early part of the season. I don’t think it’s going to be sustainable, especially for the teams that historically play slower. But…teams are playing faster, shooting more threes, and facilitating an offensive explosion that we haven’t seen since the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics were hanging 130 on each other—and everyone else—in the 1980s.
Whenever I take a look at the box scores these days, the numbers in the game score section seem outlandish, cartoony, the kind of stuff you see on NBA 2K. Dropping 140 on an NBA team in a regulation game should be impossible to do, but it seems like the impossible has become the weekly so far this season.
Happily, Portland has not been left behind in this Renaissance of scoring. While every team in the league is averaging over 100 points a game (!!!), Rip City has been ripping the nets with basketballs and dunks to the tune of a cool 122 points per game. That mark is good for second in the NBA behind the New Orleans Pelicans, and the accuracy of their shooters—even after the game Saturday night in Miami—is evident in their percentages. Portland is in the top 11 in field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, and free-throw percentage this season.
The Blazers’ pace and three-point attempts have both gone up. Portland is 15th in pace so far this season after ranking 19th a season ago, but the change has been more dramatic than that; last season their pace was 97.2, while this season their pace is at 103. Six more possessions per game is a good thing, no matter how you slice it.
The Blazers were 19th in three-point attempts as well in 2016-17. They rank 11th in attempts this year and are averaging 5.5 more attempts per game. Their offensive rating has improved to third in the NBA, behind the Pelicans and Warriors. The defense has regressed—19th so far at defensive rating (what is it with the Blazers and the number 19? The next kid they draft should be given 19 to wear; he’ll be the next Brandon Roy, guaranteed)—but everyone’s been bad at defense so far this year. Whatever.
This pace probably won’t continue; Portland plays a deliberate flex/flow offense similar to Utah’s and Dallas’, and it’s a system that isn’t known for fast-break shenanigans. That offense, and coach Terry Stotts’ preference for offensive rebounding, is mostly why the Blazers have the fewest fastbreak points of the last three seasons despite fielding one of the league’s youngest rosters during that time span. The outside shooting should continue, hopefully—it’s a good sign when Jusuf Nurkic is taking that three-point shot. He can make them, too!
Even if the faster pace ends up being a mirage, it’s still good to see Rip City back at the top of the heap offensively. Damian Lillard leading the entire NBA in scoring as of Sunday would tend to help, too.
(All games can be heard on AM 620 Rip City Radio.)
Monday, Oct. 29: @ the Indiana Pacers, 4:00, NBCSNW
The Skinny: After spending 600 words discussing pace and how the NBA has largely embraced a faster style so far, allow me to introduce you to the counterweight to the pace fad, and an old friend: Nate McMillan.
I’m sure you remember McMillian. In his playing days, he was a starter for some good Seattle SuperSonics teams, including the one that made the NBA Finals in 1996. He became so synonymous with the franchise that he was nicknamed “Mr. Sonic” and he eventually started his coaching career there as well. After getting let go by his beloved Sonics despite a second-round playoff appearance and his best record in his last season, Mac became the coach of the Blazers. And caused Rip Citizens everywhere to convulse with irony.
Someday, I’ll write more about his history with the Blazers, and do it proper justice. For the current purposes of this article, it should be said that Nate loved a deliberate style of play wherever he coached, a pure grinder both as a player and a coach, and he’s passed that attitude onto the Pacers.
There are only five teams in the NBA with a pace below 100, and Indiana is not only among them, but is also dead freaking last in the league—typical McMillian stuff. To be fair, it hasn’t hurt them to be so slow. Indy was a surprising team last season and has started out 4-2 in 2018-19.
There is a power vacuum in the East right now, and though the Toronto Raptors are looking very legit (small sample size caveats always apply), the Pacers could surprise folks again come postseason time. They nearly became the first Eastern team to defeat LeBron James in the playoffs last season since the 2010 Celtics, and if they can push King James to the very brink, they should like their chances against anyone out East.
Matchup to Watch: Victor Oladipo vs. CJ McCollum. Oladipo is the latest in a line of star perimeter players for McMillian to build that slowpoke offense around. After getting dumped by the Orlando Magic, and spending one season swirling in the all-consuming tornado that is Russell Westbrook, Dipo found his place in Indiana, where he also went to college.
McCollum has developed a nasty habit of starting games off with huge shooting slumps; the game with the Heat was characterized both by Dwayne Wade turning back the clock and by CJ getting early foul trouble, and laying more bricks than a crew of stonemasons. A fast start is going to be critical versus Oladipo. If CJ struggles early yet again, Portland might be out of it early.
Prediction: Lillard can’t save the Blazers, as porous defense from Nik Stauskas and McCollum allow Oladipo to hang 45 in a Pacers win.
Tuesday, Oct. 30: @ the Houston Rockets, 5:00, NBCSNW
The Skinny: I remember writing that the Rockets would be fine despite losing glue guys like Trevor Ariza and adding Carmelo Anthony. After all, James Harden is the reigning MVP, Chris Paul is still the Point God, and Clint Capela is a perfect complement for the two ball-dominant guards.
So far, Houston has not been fine, not in the least bit. Harden hurt his hamstring and is ruled out for this game; he had hammy issues last season, too. The defense has cratered back down to earth after a stellar showing last year. And as for Melo…he’s officially washed.
Look, I hate writing negative stuff about Anthony. He’s a great citizen and an outstanding man, a person I’d be proud to have my own son look up to if I ever inflict some poor woman with my child in the future. But as far as his play on the basketball court goes, I keep thinking about what Larry Bird told the Celtics in the mid-1990s about Dominique Wilkins: “There’s nothing worse than a superstar past his prime. ‘Nique will want to be the man, and he can’t be that player anymore.”
Melo is his generation’s Wilkins, because of his prodigious scoring ability, and now because of his refusal to acknowledge that his time as a primary option of any kind is gone forever. Even though he’s coming off the bench for the Rockets—something he refused to do for the Oklahoma City Thunder last season—he can’t even capably anchor a reserve unit.
Harden will be re-evaluated after this game, with the expectation that he’ll be cleared to play. The Rockets need him ASAP; the margin for error is so thin in the West, a couple games in the butt-end of October could determine whether the Rockets get a 2 seed or a 6 seed.
Matchup to Watch: Chris Paul vs. Damian Lillard. Paul has always had the upper hand in his matchups with Lillard, a pest of a player whose competitiveness, intelligence, and vision are rivaled by very few nowadays. Lillard has grown as a player since the days when he’d get ruthlessly destroyed by CP3, while Paul has gotten older, and had injuries pile up.
Enjoy these guys while you can. We’re only going to get so many Apex Lillard vs. Point God games, especially with Paul getting frailer by the year.
Prediction: Houston’s a freaking mess without Harden. Portland picks up a cheap win that might prove important a few months from now.
Thursday, Nov. 1: vs. the New Orleans Pelicans, 7:45 PM, TNT
The Skinny: Oh, no. OH, NO. It’s…it’s…HIM.
HIM is none other than Anthony Davis, who has now begun to fulfill his limitless potential on the basketball court. Finally embracing the 5 role, which he has resisted for so long—to the detriment of the Pelicans and to himself—Davis is working with good shooters all around him on offense and competent defenders at worst on defense. His play so far resembles the one-man demolition crew he was when the Pels played the Blazers last postseason.
Some of Davis’ numbers are unsustainably preposterous, even for him; I doubt he’s going to shoot 57 percent from three over the course of a full season, nor is a combined 6.3 steals/blocks per game (stocks, as Bill Simmons called that combination) going to hold up over an 82-game grind. A line of 27-13-5 with 51 percent shooting from the field is very doable, though. Especially since those are his per-game averages right now.
I’ve always imagined Peak Davis to be this ball-handling, outside-shooting, freakishly athletic giant of a man who could do anything he wanted on the basketball court, and he’s almost there. The only things left for him to do as an individual is to average 30 points per game, win Defensive Player of the Year, and win MVP. He will do all three, maybe this season.
Davis called himself the best player in the NBA before the season, and in all honesty, he’s not far off. With New Orleans starting 4-0, this might be the year where he begins to make a real impact in the playoffs.
Matchup to Watch: Anthony Davis vs. everyone. And I would still take AD nine times out of 10.
Prediction: Davis reminds the Blazers that he snatched their souls last April. Blazers lose.
Saturday, Nov. 3: vs. the Los Angeles Lakers, 7:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: Didn’t we just see these guys?
The Lakers haven’t improved much since Sauce Castillo went all siracha on them Opening Night. Sporting a 2-4 record and a Net Rating that’s basically neutral (0.1), LeBron James and his band of misfits have been as average as they come, and still a train wreck on defense.
To be fair, there is no real cause for concern; LeBron has always started slowly the first season with a new team, this Lakers roster is built to be torn down, and I still can’t imagine a LeBron team missing the playoffs. He took the Cleveland Cavaliers all the way to the Finals, and look how abjectly awful they are this year! L.A. will be fine.
That hasn’t stopped every media outlet and basketball pundit from sharing their thoughts every hour of every day on this team, unfortunately. In a few hours’ time, I expect Brian Windhorst to Tweet that JaVale McGee farted to the left instead of the right, just to make sure rookie Mo Wagner caught a whiff.
Matchup to Watch: Brandon Ingram vs. Mo Harkless. Ingram should be back in time from his suspension for this game. From what I’ve heard of Ingram, he’s a pretty smiley kid, very mellow and positive. Him taking swings at people was extremely odd, and might be a harbinger of things to come in the future—will the constant circus and frenzy of being on LeBron’s Lakers get to Ingram? Has the pressure already gotten to him?
Harkless is a good matchup for Ingram, at least physically. As long as I don’t see Lillard, McCollum, or (God forbid) Sauce guarding Ingram, I’ll be a happy camper.
Prediction: Blazers win.
Sunday, Nov. 4: vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves, 6:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: Yup, five games in seven nights for Portland. Oh joy.
The Wolves are having a very strange season, which might be an understatement given how their year started. It seems like Jimmy Butler is prioritizing his own stats and status as alpha wolf at the expense of Minny’s future. Karl-Anthony Towns looks like a prisoner, locked in place by Butler’s domineering presence and Tom Thibodeau’s overreliance on Butler. Andrew Wiggins is still soft, disinclined to stop taking contested 22-foot jumpers, and prone to sulking by himself.
This team’s chemistry is a mess, and the fact that this toxicity is stifling one of the most gifted offensive big men in the league in Towns is a crime against basketball, with your perpetrators being Butler, Thibodeau, and Wolves owner Glen Taylor. Thibs can’t help himself—he hates young players too much. Taylor mismanaged this situation from the start, and has done a horrible job hiring people to help him build competent teams around the star talent Minnesota has drafted in its history (Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love come to mind).
Butler’s cannibalism of the Wolves might be the most egregious offense of them all. The most popular theory about why Butler wanted out of Minnesota, requesting a trade before the season started, is that he hated playing alongside Towns and Wiggins. My belief is that Butler is angry about money; he saw Wiggins get a HUGE contract he hasn’t come close to living up to, and he saw Towns get a max extension as well.
Even though Butler is the oldest of the three by a few years, and has Tom Thibodeau miles on a body that has been ravaged by injury, he still expected to get paid like Towns or Wiggins. The Wolves said no, made an offer Butler refused, and that’s how the whole thing snowballed. Next, Butler asked the Wolves to trade Wiggins in a salary dump. Minnesota said no, and that it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to want to pay Wiggins $30 million+ per season to shoot 38 percent from the field for four years.
What Butler sees as stonewalling from a team that CLEARLY needs him is the Wolves making smart business decisions. I would take Towns over Butler, and you could convince me that Wiggins may be a long-term solution to him as well. Wiggins may show about as much spark as a dead toaster, but at least he isn’t a hypercompetitive maniac.
Houston might have offered four first-round picks to the Wolves for Jimmy Butler. If they did…wait, I’ve already made too many jokes about the Wolves’ management team. Let’s just move on.
Matchup to Watch: Jimmy Butler vs. the Blazers’ small forward. If I were Terry Stotts, I’d feel comfortable hiding McCollum on Wiggins and letting the Jake Layman/Harkless/Evan Turner/Sauce pupu platter take turns on Butler. We all know Towns isn’t going to ever get the ball, anyway.
Prediction: Blazers normally would be favored, but Butler’s rage plus the five games in a week exhaustion makes this a Ye Olde Schedule Loss.
Trail Blazers Last Week: 1-2
Trail Blazers Overall: 3-2
Jared’s Picks Last Week: 2-1
Jared’s Picks Overall: 3-2