Friday, December 6, 2013

Rip City's Finest: Breaking Down the Blazers

Raise your hand if you had the Blazers making the playoffs. Ok, a few of you. Now raise your hands if you had Portland as number one at any point this season, let alone starting it off 16-3. Anyone? Put your hands down, Bill Walton and Rasheed Wallace. The questions are certainly there, so let's not waste any time delving into them.

Where the hell did the Blazers come from?

The short answer? Oregon- Portland to be exact. The long answer- well that takes a little more explaining.

Before this season started, a number of people had the Blazers out of the playoff picture altogether. If anything, they were fringe contenders sitting somewhere around 8-10 (and that's being generous.) I myself had them ranked 8th, right in front of the Denver Nuggets- another surprise team so far. Questions during the summer from people who needed storylines were centered around veteran big man LaMarcus Alridge wanting to be traded. The rumors proved thin at best, as he likely hadn't pushed very hard for it. Now that he happens to be on the #1 team in the ultra-competitive West?  Not a chance.

One question I had about Aldridge was "Where does he go this year?" Not in terms of actual location, but in regards to his potential. The answer is simple....up. The former Longhorn is posting his best career stats, with averages of 23.5 points and 9.7 rebounds a game. He has also upped in steals and has the lowest per game foul average of his career (1.8). We always knew the big guy was a star, but underrated indeed. With his refined post game, ability to drain free throws and long range jumpers along with his athleticism and shot blocking abilities- how could you not think of him as one? Aldridge is still only 28 in his eighth year, which only means good things for a big guy who rarely if ever gets hurt or misses games. He is the model of consistency.

The other piece to the puzzle of success for Portland would be second year point guard Damian Lillard. The Weber State alumni has increased his assists from last year (5.7 to 6.3) and his field goal percentage is higher. While his 37% behind the arc is down from last year's 40%, it's still solid considering his game revolves around including his teammates while also creating his own shots. He's only a point off last year's 20.3, but as a secondary star to Aldridge, that's all the Blazers need from Lilliard.

OK, well what else besides Aldridge and Lilliard make the Blazer so good?

Robin Lopez. Ok, you can stop rolling your eyes now. To me, I'd take his 8.7 ppg and 8.4 rpg over Brook's 19.3 and 5.8 any day.

Wait, what?

Robin doesn't need to be a scorer. He just needs to be effective and efficient and know his role. As a seven footer, he is still quite awkward and non-traditional. He hasn't made the progress you see with players such as Hibbert and Alrdidge- but he plays hard and has an impact on his team. While Brook has flashes of being a threat down low, he can never put together a full season or even string together a few quality games. For instance, on December 3rd against Denver, Lopez only had two rebounds. TWO. Yes, the Nets are awful, but Dwight Howard enters the game with two rebounds, or so it seems. Brook also has yet to post a game with double digit rebounds, recording 9 twice.

Nicholas Batum can also go off any given night. The lanky Frenchman has an incredible wingspan for defense, and can shoot the three. He is a terror all over the floor with 13.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 5.0 assists. He helps spread the floor for Aldridge and Lilliard. Rarely does the lane ever get clogged (unless they play Leonard and Lopez together).

But if you want a true three point threat, look no further than the team's third best scoring option, Wesley Matthews. His sole purpose on the floor is to score, although 4.4 assists is not too shabby.

Portland also had a really solid 2013 NBA Draft, picking up Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum. While they aren't polished yet, it only adds to their overall depth and bodes extremely well for their future. Their second year big man Miles Leonard is still awkward, but does provide size in case Lopez or Aldridge get into foul trouble. The most underrated addition of the offseason happened when Houston traded Portland PF Thomas Robinson for literally nothing. The #5 pick of the 2012 Draft is at his third stop in the NBA, which is unusual at this point. But I believe it is because he is a victim of circumstances. The Kings had no business drafting him when they already had numerous big men at the time, and inexplicably moved him to Clutch City during the season. As much as Houston would have loved to keep him, they knew it was not financially possible with the addition of Dwight Howard.

Are they that good, or are the Blazers a fluke? 

I can confidently say today- they are not a fluke. Fluke teams might beat one, maybe two elite teams in one season. By my count, they have beaten three in nineteen games (OKC, San Antonio and the Pacers.) They also beat two very good teams (Warriors and Nuggets). Portland doesn't just scrape by, either. They beat those five teams by  an average of  9.6 ppg.

The most interesting part of their season is that their three losses are from two teams: The Houston Rockets and wait for it.....keep waiting....the Phoenix Suns- TWICE. The first two losses were against those two teams in the first four games, preventing the Blazers from starting 15-0.The Rockets at that point had yet to play a solid game together and still have issues with chemistry and health, so that loss for Portland was especially interesting.  The second loss to Phoenix prevented them from being undefeated, but was not even close, losing 120-106. So without losses to two VERY inconsistent teams, Portland would be 19-0.

What's their biggest weakness? 

Right now, I'd say their youth. Aside from Aldridge, the team is very young and lacks and real playoff experience. While playing hot is impressive in the early part of a season where no one pegged them to be anywhere close to the playoffs, playing well in May and June is exponentially better. 

Where will the Blazers finish at the end of the year?

This question will be the hardest to answer. You could literally have them anywhere from 1-8 based off how young the season is, and how wild the West can be. The fact that they have been so resilient in the face of pressure and quality opposition, along with their young, talented core make them a true threat this season. Combine that with their consistency, and I would have them finish 3rd in the West, bumping the Clippers and Rockets down a notch.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron

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