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.
ELIMINATE: THE LOSING STREAKS
The Blazers are currently in the midst of a five game losing streak â€“ their fourth streak of at least four consecutive losses this season. That is more four-plus game losing streaks than Houston, Utah, Golden State, Denver, Memphis, the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio combined. Between 2009 and 2011, when the Blazers made the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, they only endured a losing streak of at least four games one time.
The Blazers have already overachieved this season, but they need to stop dropping several games in a row if they hope to be in contention for the eighth seed in April. Are the Blazers losing in clumps because of a lack of experience? They are tied with Detroit for most rookies on a roster; although Lillard hardly counts as a rookie at this point and they should have enough talent in Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum to overcome back-to-back-to-back losses to the Cavs, Bucks and Wizards. Is it because of injuries? Not likely, as their starters have only missed 11 games combined. How about a lack of depth? Ding ding ding! The Blazers’ atrocious bench play has resulted in Stotts leaning heavily on his starters every night. In fact, three of the top ten players in total minutes this season are Blazers (no other team has three players in the top 25). These Blazers are exhausted and it’s showing.
When things aren’t going well for the starters, the Blazers don’t have a lot of places to turn to for production. And when Stotts does go to the bench for a spark, he is seemingly picking a player at random as it’s been impossible to tell which bench guys will get run on any given night. Rookies Victor Claver or Will Barton may get time one night and wind up on the inactive list the next game. Competing for 82 nights a season is incredibly difficult. Competing for 82 nights a season without a consistent bench is impossible. Stotts needs to find a rotation that works and stick to it.
What do you think?
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