What Do We Know So Far?
Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts was a guest on Courtside on Tuesday night, and had an interesting answer when I asked him if he was satisfied with going 2-2 in the first four games of the season. While a coach is never going to admit being satisfied after a loss, no matter where it comes, Stotts at the very least indicated that this Portland team is better than he thought it was going to be.
"Two weeks ago, in looking at the schedule, if you had told me that we'd be 2-2 after four games, I probably would have been pretty a happy," Stotts told. "But now, after getting a better idea of what we are, I'm not sure I'm happy with that record."
Okay, so that's not exactly high-octane stuff when it comes to a quote from an NBA coach. But, I get the feeling that's pretty representative of how a lot of Trail Blazer fans feel at this point. Maybe I'm wrong. It's clear there is potential here, even with a lot of the challenges we knew this team was going to face. But, record aside, has this team done anything in these first four to change your expectations going forward?
I do like that Stotts is very frank in assessing his team. So many coaches are wary of admitting that they may have set the bar too low. I'm not saying Stotts' reaction to the first four games decidedly indicates that he did that, but it seems clear that he likes what he has seen so far, and is even perhaps a little surprised and more optimistic than he thought he'd be.
Some things have happened that obviously haven't been surprising. We knew going into the regular season that the Blazers would be a team overly dependent on five players. That's just the way it's going to be. Depth is going to be an issue. We said before the season, on more than one occasion, that this would likely be a good home team, but would probably struggle on the road.
But, let's get back to the initial question. Considering the strength and difficulty of the first four games, 2-2 is certainly acceptable, if not a little surprising. I don't think anyone would argue with that. So then, what has gone better than expected, and have the potential pot holes changed?
Much was expected of Damian Lillard, and he's probably been a little better than advertised. It hasn't surprised him, of course, but on this last road trip I was a mildly surprised by the amount of questions I got about him from my peers in the NBA. After answering a few of them from a fellow broadcaster the other night, I remember turning to Mike Rice and saying, "wow, was he really
It's been similar on a national level. From having his name mispronounced (and really, it's not that tough), to having no idea where he went to school, to not being able to identify him on the floor, it's been slightly amusing to see. But, it's only been four games, and if he continues to play the way he's playing, that will take care of itself.
After spending a lot of time with the Blazer coaches on the last trip, I think it's okay for me to say Lillard is much better than even they thought he was going to be. The lights haven't been too bright for Damian, obviously, but Stotts has remarked on several occasions that what sets Lillard apart from some of the other young players he has coached is Lillard's perspective and attitude. He's a coach's dream. He's humble, steady, confident, and amazingly ego-free.
After soundly outplaying Jeremy Lin in Houston on Saturday, and dominating the overtime period by scoring eight points for the Blazers, Lillard barely cracked a smile. A while later on the plane, Stotts told me Lillard requested an immediate video session on that game because he wanted to work on so many of the things he didn't do well.
This wasn't meant to be a love-fest blog for Lillard, but so many of these things are new to us as well, and they're worthy of passing along as we all get to know this kid.
Damian hasn't been the only pleasant surprise four games into the season. To many, the signing of J.J. Hickson to a one-year deal last summer was an afterthought. We'd seen him play well for Portland late last season, but we honestly didn't know what to make of that considering the circumstances.
Early this season, Hickson is right there with Lillard as far as someone who has exceeded expectations. It's still so amazing to me that last season Sacramento basically decided it had no use for him and tossed him aside. He came here with the tag of a guy who was a great athlete and a solid scorer, but that's about it. This season, he's been asked to play out of position, and bang it out in the paint. He's the fifth option offensively, among the starters, and it hasn't seemed to bother him at all.
Four games into the season and Hickson is averaging 11 points and 11 rebounds per contest. He's shown scrap, hustle, and the desire to stick his nose into a bear trap and go after the ball. The only thing I worry about is his ability to take a pounding for 40 minutes a night, because the more he's on the floor the better the chances of a Portland win.
Okay, so this is a love fest for Lillard and
Hickson. And, yes, LaMarcus has been very good in these first four. But, he's an all-star and has those expectations now. Wesley Matthews has been the vocal leader this team asked him to be, and is in the best shape of his career. It's a good thing. Like Hickson, it's going to be hard to have Matthews off the floor much this season.
Since I'm only really talking about the starters in this piece, that leaves us with Nic Batum. He was brilliant on opening night against the Lakers, and then shot 1 for 11 at Oklahoma City. But, it was the next night, in Houston, we saw an example of a more mature Batum. He had a bad first half, offensively anyway, but then used his defense to not only turn the game around, but to get his offense going. As good as Lillard and Aldridge were in Houston, Portland doesn't win that game without Batum's defense in the second half. This team needs more of that, and hopefully will get it.
It's way too early to know exactly what we have here, and everyone knows that. There's not going to be much margin for error on a nightly basis. With all five starters playing well, they're going to win. If four of the five play well, they're going to be in every game. But, as we saw in Oklahoma, if a couple of the starters are off, it's going to be tough. That's just the reality we face.
As mediocre as 2-2 sounds at this point, it's more than acceptable. It's acceptable to us anyway.
As Stotts indicated to me, as he continues to learn his new team, perhaps his expectations are on the rise.
Do you feel the same way?