This year’s Portland team seems to share many of the characteristics of the Golden State Warriors. Some may look at the records and think: 26-9 is better than 24-13. An important caveat: When the Warriors have had Iguodala and Curry in the lineup, they are 16-3. Either way, both teams will likely remain near the top of the West throughout this season, and both are a joy to watch.
The teams have definite similarities. They both have point guards who came out of small colleges, who were known as devastating shooters (Damian Lillard from Weber State and Steph Curry from Davidson). Both Lillard and Curry have flourished in the modern pick-and-roll-focused game. Both have lightning-quick releases and complete confidence in their ability. Both are the rare players who might be classified as selfless scorers. In addition, the Blazers and Dubs each have offensive-minded power forwards who have the ability to take over a game (LaMarcus Aldridge and David Lee). They also have defensive-stoppers on the wing who can do whatever is needed (Nicolas Batum and Andre Iguodala). Shooting guards who can get on such a roll and whose range creates problems for defensive schemes (Wesley Mathews and Klay Thompson), and starting centers who can defend the rim and rebound (Robin Lopez and Andrew Bogut). The pieces seem to fit incredibly well for both teams. One major difference has been Golden State’s defense (which is 4th in defensive efficiency as of Jan. 7). The interior defense of Bogut, the lock-down perimeter defense of Iguodala, and the ever versatile Draymond Green provide a stingy core that the Blazers lack. On the flipside, the Blazers offense is a well-oiled machine.
Q. Let’s start with Lillard. When you watch him, what do you see? What are you most impressed with? Most concerned by?
A. Damian Lillard is why I watch sports. He wants to win so bad. It’s probably unfair to both of them, but I think in the minds of most Blazers’ fans, it’s hard not to link Lillard to Brandon Roy. Roy may have only played a handful of seasons, but during that time he carried the franchise. You asked me about Lillard so I won’t go into depth about why Roy will probably always be my all-time favorite Blazer, but I just want to make it clear that when Lillard came along, most of us were still mourning the loss of Roy. (And of course, had Roy stayed healthy, Portland wouldn’t have been in a position to draft Lillard, blah blah blah.)
His game is different than Roy’s (he’s a better outside shooter, not as good a finisher) but Lillard resembles Roy in the most important way: he has made this his team. This doesn’t mean Lillard will always take the last shot, or that he’s their best player. (Aldridge is clearly the number one option.) What it does mean is that the team has taken on Lillard’s personality. Rather than erase or diminish our memories of Roy, what Lillard has done is comparable to, say, Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. Colts fans will always love Peyton Manning, but how can they not feel insanely fortunate to see their team be passed on to such a capable leader?
Concerns? Well, he’s a liability on defense.
A nasty, defensive-minded big man is one historically-necessary ingredient that helps a team win in the playoffs. This leads to a league-wide trope that these Blazers win in a way that won’t translate well to the playoffs. Without taking away from the great first 30 games, it’s an interesting question to consider how the new three-pointer heavy NBA will translate into the playoffs. With a Western Conference dominated by offensive-minded teams (Houston, Golden State, the Clippers and Portland) only Oklahoma City and San Antonio have shown sustained defensive dominance. Robin Lopez has provided a critical boost in defending the rim. Omer Asik, who the Rockets appear very willing to trade–though Morey would probably prefer to the Eastern Conference–would give the Blazers another key ingredient.
Q. How much fun is it to watch Robin Lopez do the dirty work? What should non-Blazers fans look for when watching him, other than the awesome hair?
A. His shoes! It looks like he’s wearing running shoes. Also, I noticed at the game last night that before taking foul shots, he faces the sideline with his hands on his knees, looking for all the world like he’s about to throw up. Another reason to root for him! RoLo has been an incredible addition. I’ve been super impressed with his offensive rebounding, he moves well, and he’s a capable scorer. I’m not convinced he’s a great or even above average defender, but it’s not for lack of effort. As I’ve mentioned to you, as a casual spectator who stopped playing competitive basketball in 8th grade, I’m never really sure what I’m looking for on defense, but one thing I’ve noticed is that LaMarcus Aldridge has been way more aggressive in blocking shots this year, and so I will just blindly attribute Aldridge’s defensive improvement to having a more reliable big man behind him protecting the rim.
LaMarcus Aldridge is thriving this season, putting up career-best numbers and shooting the mid-range jumper more efficiently than any advanced-stats-loving writer can deal with. I’ve heard he’s being allowed to play how he wants to play, which wasn’t always the case last year. One criticism he and Blake Griffin both get, is that they don’t play “nasty” enough. Looking at his game log, I’m hugely impressed with his consistency. In 26 of his 33 games this year, he’s shot 40% from the field or better. He averages 20.6 attempts per game, shooting 47% (due largely to the number of mid-range attempts) and turns the ball over so rarely (1.6 times per game), that he provides a low-risk stabilizing offensive force, a rare thing in the NBA. While the current trend is to focus on individual points per possession in evaluating players, Aldridge’s ability to play safe means that he rarely puts the Blazers defense at a disadvantage with his offensive style. On the flipside, you have teams like Houston and Golden State that score highly efficiently (three-pointers and drives to the rim/free-throws), but turn the ball over at such a high rate that their defense suffers.
Q. Spread the LaMarcus la-love. What do you see from his demeanor on the court? Is he playing with a bit more of an edge? Is he happier?
A. Winning will make anyone happier, right? I suspect the media played up Aldridge’s dissatisfaction in the past, but think about how difficult it must have been to be the lone survivor of the “Big Three,” to go from a potential contender to losers of 13 straight games at the end of last season. And on top of that, the trade rumors during the offseason … anyhow, it’s always been fun to watch him, and I hope he retires a Blazer. Aldridge is a lot like Dirk Nowitzki: a big guy with an unblockable outside shot who gets criticized for not playing in the paint. Dirk won a title, so there’s hope.
So far, the big moment this season for Aldridge was the game in Golden State, where Matthews got tossed after fighting with Andrew Bogut. The Blazers came back from like 17 down. Aldridge was fighting for rebounds, taking it to the basket, playing with such hunger. It was probably the best game of his career, and it makes you realize just how high his ceiling is.
Also, seeing as how I have a platform at the moment, I’d like to propose a new nickname for Aldridge: “El Venado,” which means “The Deer” in Spanish. I briefly played in a salsa band while living in Nicaragua, and our trombone player was nicknamed El Venado for being skittish, high strung, and deer-like. Aldridge resembles a different sort of deer. He runs the court well for a big guy, with these long loping deer-like strides. EL VENADO.
Teamwork. This Blazers team, like the Warriors, appears selfless. We can talk about individuals, but the fact that the ball moves so fluidly impresses me the most. Sharing the ball. Knowing your role and trusting each other. If everyone involved assumes each pass they make is a pass each of their teammates would make, then there is no hesitation. It seems appropriate that Wesley Mathews and Nicolas Batum are having career years in this environment. This is the aspect of their success that seems most sustainable. It’s not one player taking fifteen three-pointers per game. Lillard attempts 7.3, Mathews 6.2, Batum 5.6, Mo Williams 3.3, and Dorrell Wright 3.1. The distribution itself is impressive. One potential concern NBA scribes have is the sustainability of that three-point success as the season wears on, legs get tired, and injuries hit.
Q. Any particular moments that stand out to you as examples of the selflessness? The trust they have in each other? What do you love watching about Mathews? Batum?
A. Batum and Mathews fit perfectly on this team. Batum has begun hovering around the triple-double on a regular basis. Often he gets more assists and rebounds than he does points. Frankly I’d like to see him look for his shot a little more. He’s been called a “poor man’s Scottie Pippen,” which seems pretty accurate. I’d throw in a little Robert Horry, in terms of being a clutch three-point shooter, and some Bruce Bowen as well, in terms of meanness on the defensive end. As the Blazers’ best individual defender, Batum gets matched up not just against LeBron and Durant, but also Chris Paul. How can you not love him? Plus, if you look at photos of his rookie season, when he was a teenage starter, and compare them to now, it’s like his face has blossomed into this kind of cold-blooded scowl. We need that kind of face. Plus he wears number 88, like he’s playing wide receiver.
Matthews? He consistently exceeds my expectations. His shooting has been incredible this season, plus he’s able to post up smaller shooting guards. Plus he no longer makes the “three-point goggles,” which were really childish and embarrassing. I put 78% of the blame on Rudy Fernandez for the three-point goggles, but Matthews definitely had a hand in them. Of all the current Blazers, my money’s on Matthews to stick around in Portland after he stops playing basketball. He seems cut from the Jerome Kersey mode – appreciative of this particular community, generous with his time.
Q. What are your favorite developments over the course of this memorable 26-8 start? Small moments that might have revealed anything?
A. A few weeks back, the Blazers were in Minnesota, playing their fourth road game in five nights, and came out totally flat. Fell behind 32 points in the first half. Instead of throwing in the towel at halftime, they came out firing and looked for all the world like they were going to pull off an incredible comeback. A lot of it was Lillard just willing them to win. They ended up losing, but my friend Mike talks about this game as the one where he really started to believe in them. And I think he’s on to something. This team doesn’t get blown out. They’re too proud.
Q. What are your biggest fears or concerns about the remaining 45-plus games of the regular season and the playoffs? Did you know Portland has been the healthiest team in the league so far this year?
A. Actually, this pride is something I worry about a little. Consider the Spurs, how Gregg Popovich has learned how to give all his players plenty of rest throughout the regular season so they’re fresh for the postseason. That’s not happening here. Even though the Blazers have been remarkably healthy, almost every game has been a battle in which the starters play 35-38 high-pressure minutes. You have to wonder how much they’ll have left in April. But their first round pick, CJ McCollum, is making his debut this week after breaking his foot in the preseason. He couldn’t be joining the team at a better moment – he’ll give the backcourt some rest, provide instant offense, and will immediately become one of my favorite players. He’s a writer!
I think most fans would be delighted to see this team advance to the second round, and consider that a hugely successful season. But the Western Conference is frighteningly deep. So much depends on the match-up. Among the likely opponents, Phoenix has been toughest on the Blazers so far this year, but the Rockets would be really, really hard to beat in a series. I guess I’m hoping they play the Clippers, a team with questionable chemistry. Or the Warriors. A series against Golden State would be incredible television. Two of the league’s most exciting offenses, two of the best fan bases, and already there’s bad blood after the dust-up earlier this season.
Popovich is indeed testing the limits of how few minutes a coach can play his starters this year, and still call them “starters.” It makes sense for multiple reasons: they have a deep bench; three of his best offensive players are aging and fragile; and they have nothing at all to prove to their fans or their opponents. The Blazers, on the other hand, have only two reserves who might be termed, “reliable,” and will likely depend on home court if they are to advance.
Phoenix plays a very unusual style of ball, spreading the floor as much as any team, but without any sense of half-court offense and with haphazard defense. I doubt they’ll sustain this level of success, and would still be surprised to see them make the playoffs. Funny that you mention the Clippers have “questionable chemistry.” The only question that pops up for me is “How many cheap shots will opponents throw at Blake Griffin every night?” I agree that a Blazers-Warriors first round match-up would be highly entertaining.
Also, this seems like as good a place as any to propose that ten teams from the West should qualify for the playoffs this year. Otherwise, some of those Eastern Conference match-ups are going to be stupid. There would be a lottery where the two extra teams from the West would be inserted in the East playoffs. Right now Minnesota would be the 5th seed in the East, and yet they’re not even going to make the playoffs in the West. Imagine Kevin Love getting 40 rebounds in a second round match-up with Miami. Who wouldn’t want to watch that?
I like the idea of a playoff format eliminating the two conferences and involving the top 16 records in the league, with 1-16, 2-15, etc, though some have mentioned the travel would be an issue if they kept the 2-2-1-1-1 format. Either way, talking about this year is moot. The format is what it is this year, and the NBA might discuss future changes, but not for this spring.
Q. Finally, how about some riffing on the mastermind behind this stupendous start to the Blazers season, Mr. Terry Stotts. I know next to nothing, except they seem to love playing for him. Have any Stotts thoughts?
A. Stotts looks like a high school teacher. It starts with the ten dollar haircuts and the dry sense of humor. He’s always a little rumpled in his drab suits. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he drives a 1993 Ford Focus with Diet Coke cans littering the backseat. Naturally, this gives me great confidence in him. Also, he was an assistant in Dallas when they won the title, and was apparently the architect of their jump-shooting (yet efficient) offense. This team resembles the 2011 Mavericks in a number of ways, except Paul Allen is like a grown-up version of Mark Cuban and we’re blessed with the best uniforms in the NBA.
Let’s make Stotts a history teacher. I’ve since discovered he was an assistant to George Karl in Milwaukee when they had their run at the Eastern Conference in 2000. Maybe he learned his free-flowing offensive style from the scoring master, George Karl.
The series of back-and-forth emails between old friends ended in agreement: A Portland Trail Blazers vs. Golden State Warriors playoff series this April would be awesome.
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Read my favorite of Michael’s essays, “It Should Be Mathematical,” about running, family and Olympic dreams, here:
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