Portland was one of the season’s earliest surprises by knocking off the Lakers in the first game of the season, back when Portland was expected to do little and Los Angeles was projected to be a beast. Those polarizing projections led to a reality that’s much closer to the middle of the NBA — and for Portland that’s a good thing. Still, the Trail Blazers are within just three games of the eighth and final playoff spot. To make a run, they’ll need to fix, hold steady and eliminate certain categories from their pre-All-Star tendencies. What are they? We thought you’d never ask.
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NEEDS TO FIX: DEFENDING THE PAINT
When the only true center on your roster is a 20-year old rookie, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that your team struggles defending the paint. This season, the Trail Blazers’ lack of frontcourt depth has been a glaring weakness on defense. They currently allow 18.3 makes at the rim per game, tying them with Milwaukee for the second-worst total in the league. Blazers opponents are also shooting a staggering 46.8 percent from three to nine feet – the highest percentage in the league by a whopping four percentage points.
Blazers’ star LaMarcus Aldridge has publicly stated that he covets a legitimate center to play alongside and that can patrol the paint. Aldridge told Candace Buckner of The Columbian, “I just want that luxury of playing with a dominant center (so) that we can play together. I never had that, so I think that would be good for me and good for that person.” Is current rookie (and legit 7-footer) Meyers Leonard capable of being that defensive force? It’s far too early to tell as Leonard has only blocked 24 shots in 607 minutes this season. For sake of comparison, Clippers point guard Eric Bledsoe has blocked 48 shots this year.
Short of a trade before Thursday’s looming deadline, the Blazers have two options: Aldridge needs to become the dominant rim protector he covets, or head coach Terry Stotts needs to throw Leonard in the deep end and hope extra minutes result in added production. While J.J. Hickson has been an absolute beast this season masquerading as a center, he is clearly not the future of that position in Portland. And because the O’Brien Trophy is certainly not headed to Rip City this June, the Blazers need to see what they have in young Leonard.
HOLD STEADY: THE IMPRESSIVE DEVELOPMENT OF DAMIAN LILLARD
When a roster has as many rookies (five) as proven NBA basketball players (five, if we’re being generous), expectations are understandably reasonable. The Blazers have played inspired and competitive basketball this season and are currently three games out of a playoff spot were the playoffs to begin today. While a winning record would certainly be nice for the “reloaded” franchise (don’t say “rebuilt” around GM Neil Olshey), the season has already been an overwhelming success due to the incredible development of rookie sensation Damian Lillard.
Listing the categories in which Lillard is blowing away other rookies would be understating his success this season. It is better to consider Lillard’s year in relation to the great point guards, regardless of experience. Among all NBA point guards, Lillard is eighth in scoring, third in three-pointers made, first in minutes, and eighth in free-throw percentage. He’s been clutch (see game-winners in December against the Hornets and Knicks), composed and outright outstanding in his debut campaign.
The Blazers need to continue putting Lillard is pressure-packed situations. They need to continue giving him opportunities to get better. Stotts has done a great job of allowing Lillard to work through shooting slumps and defensive lapses. No rookie means more to his franchise right now than Lillard does to the Blazers, and the Blazers need to continue treating him like the badass he frankly is.