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1. After a tumultuous offseason where the Blazers lost five of their main rotation players, including superstar LaMarcus Aldridge, many NBA observers assumed the team was setting itself up for a rebuilding season. So far, the Blazers seem to have defied those predictions and look to be right back in the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt with a 4-2 record. What have been the keys so far to the good start?
First and foremost, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have been shooting the lights out. But I'll talk about them more in the other questions. Beyond the starting backcourt, Portland has gotten better than expected performances from several of the players acquired in the offseason. Al-Farouq Aminu has emerged as a legitimate starting small forward, currently leading the team in rebounding and third in scoring. Moe Harkless is averaging 9.0 points and 5.0 rebounds off the bench after looking like a total disappointment in Orlando last season. His athleticism has also been a revelation. Mason Plumlee is a more skilled player than I expected. He has been an effective low-post option against lesser defenders, can bring the ball upcourt in transition (!), and has been mobile on defense. Ed Davis has grabbed 10+ rebounds in multiple games off the bench.
At the team level, the Blazers have looked far more offensively coherent than anyone would have expected given the offseason overhaul. Terry Stotts and his staff deserve a ton of credit for identifying the skills of every player on the team and then integrating those skills into the Blazers' offense. Harkless and Aminu, for example, are both shooting 40 percent-plus on 3-pointers after shooting poorly last season. That improvement can be traced back to Portland's flow offense getting Aminu and Harkless open looks that they weren't seeing in Dallas and Orlando, respectively.
2. With two seasons in a row of averaging over 20 points per game, Damian Lillard clearly established himself as an elite NBA scorer. This season he's upped his averages so far into the absolute stratosphere with 27 points on an almost 60 percent true shooting. To a Blazers observer, has this looked like a hot streak or has he expanded his range/game to be even more of a deadly offensive weapon?
Lillard's shooting was a concern for Blazers fans at the end of last season. He finished only 34 percent from 3 after shooting 39 percent in November and December. The change this season hasn't necessarily been that Damian has expanded his range or changed his shot selection; his accuracy has just returned to the level that we saw early last season. Some fans have speculated that a lingering hand injury could have caused his shooting woes, but the exact reason remains unclear. Regardless, while it seems unlikely that he'll be able to maintain his current 60 percent true shooting, his career track record, excluding January-April last season, suggests that he should be able to approach 40 percent 3-point shooting for the season.
The biggest improvement Lillard has shown over the last couple seasons has been his ability to score around the rim. During his rookie season, he relied almost exclusively on jump shots, but he has improved significantly at finishing in traffic. Lillard, however, only averages 4.0 free throws per game this season, a number that is in line with his career averages. Ideally, he would be getting to the line more so that he can remain effective on nights when his jumper isn't falling.
3. C.J. McCollum has been lighting teams up from all over the court, including 46 percent on 3s. What are Blazers fans expectations for him as he continues developing in his third season in the league?
Coming into the season, Blazers fans were hoping that he could become a Vinnie Johnson-esque "Microwave" off the bench. He had played well in several games down the stretch of the regular season and looked very good against Memphis, but there were lingering questions about his size, defense, and consistency. Many fans were wondering if he was cut out to be a starting guard on a playoff team.
So far this season he has exceeded the sixth-man expectations and looks like a legitimate 30+ mpg player. Excitingly, McCollum has regularly been able to create his own shot. He's been scoring out of the pick and roll, in isolation against the clock, and within the flow of the offense. For a Blazers team with only one other player capable of "calling his own number," McCollum's diverse offensive effectiveness has been absolutely essential to the team's early success.
Going forward, the successes against Memphis and early season hot shooting have definitely raised hopes for McCollum. Fans are no longer wondering if he will eventually be a draft-day bust but are now wondering if he could become a fringe All-Star candidate.
Injuries are a concern for McCollum. He has missed significant time in both of his first two seasons and will need to prove that he's capable of playing 70+ games a season if he wants to be considered a foundational player in Portland.
4. The Blazers restocked their frontcourt, bringing in players who bring size and plus rebounding for their position, with Al Faroq-Aminu, Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee. How has this impacted the Blazers overall game plan?
Aminu's versatility has probably had the most positive impact on the Blazers' game plan thus far. Davis and Plumlee have very similar styles; they both score nearly all their points around the rim and have limited offensive range. Because of their inability to play far from the basket, spacing concerns make it difficult to play them at the same time. Unfortunately, the Blazers do not have much power forward/center depth after Davis, Plumlee, and Meyers Leonard. Chris Kaman has rarely seen the court and Noah Vonleh is still unproven. That can put the Blazers in a difficult position when Leonard leaves the court, and matchup or spacing concerns prohibit a Davis/Plumlee pairing. Fortunately, Aminu has alleviated that problem by playing effectively at both forward spots. His new found offensive effectiveness helps with spacing, and his size allows him to rebound and match-up with power forwards.
That being said, Plumlee and Davis have still been essential to the Blazers' early success. Davis' rebounding off the bench has given Portland a huge boost when the reserves enter the game and Plumlee has meshed well with Leonard as the other starting big man. Portland has had trouble controlling penetration from opposing guards at times and Plumlee and Davis have done their best to make up for that inadequacy.
5. In the Blazers two losses, both to the Phoenix Suns, judging solely from the stat sheet the Suns guards seemed to have had good games offensively. Is the Lillard/McCollum combo a cause of concern for the Blazers defensively? And/or because it seems as if a large amount of the offense rests on those two players shoulders, is the best way to beat the Blazers to make those two players work and expend energy on the defensive end?
The game tape tells the same story as the stat sheet, in this case. The Phoenix guards torched the Blazers' perimeter defense and were a big part of the Suns' wins against the Blazers. And Lillard and McCollum were a large part of that problem.
It's also worth noting that Portland has not faced another team with a backcourt duo as effective as Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight yet this season. If other teams with high-quality starting guards continue to exploit Lillard and McCollum it may force Stotts to make some very difficult decisions. Before the season began the problem could have been easily fixed by starting Lillard and Gerald Henderson, once Henderson returns from a hip injury. McCollum, who has improved significantly as a playmaker, could have then spelled either as the first guard off the bench. However, now that McCollum has emerged as a 20+ ppg scorer (at least through six games), will Stotts be able to justify starting Henderson ahead of him? Will the defensive gains be worth losing McCollum's offense?
Those questions probably aren't answerable until Henderson returns and we can see how well he fits into Portland's system, and until the Blazers play more teams with capable of exploiting the Lillard/McCollum pairing. If the defense Is as glaringly bad on a regular basis as it was in Phoenix, then a change may become unavoidable.
Big thanks again to Eric! And seriously check out http://www.blazersedge.com/ because it's an awesome basketball blog.