mikebarrett

Nov 07

What Do We Know So Far?

By mikebarrett
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 this unknown?"

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?

10 Comments

  1. Mike, first off, could you please, PLEASE get the Blazers to fix the technology glitch that makes courtside inaccessible in the video vault? I really want to watch your shows and can't catch it live, so I rely on the replay.

    Secondly, I agree with your assessments. There is something special--at least a little special--about this team, and this is a very good sign going into year one of a two-year rebuild.

    Here are the assets:

    Team talent: it's a very, very athletic team, with a balance of penetrators and outside shooters. There is also (just) enough back-to-the-basket to give additional space to the outside shooters, thanks to JJ and LA.

    Team virtue: effort and hustle. If they can keep this up it will win them 4 extra games throughout the season. That's on the coach: keep them hungry.

    Team development: The bench is weak...now. But we need to be able to see what we have in all (5) of our rookies before the season is over. Evaluating them with game minutes is the only way to assess whether they will be long-term contributors given the trajectory of the team. Remember: we still have two more Euros (with talent!) to bring over this summer or next, so we need to know what we have on the roster as of the end of this season. Particularly: can Barton replace Ronnie Price or Sasha at seasons end? Can Claver be a rotation guy behind Batum? Can Freeland at the 4 & 5 spots? (Not worried about Meyers in the least. He's coming along just fine.)

    They'll need minutes before this can be assessed. We aren't going to win a championship this season, but we can lay the foundation for one if Stotts and Olshey can evaluate carefully and thoroughly.

    by Makaden on 11/7/2012 10:36 AM
  2. I really enjoyed reading this blog Mr. Barrett. In a media world full of snark and skepticism, it's always refreshing to come here and see your blatant enthusiasm on display. It literally leaps off the page and I love it! You, like so many of us, are a real homer for this team :)

    My expectations are exactly the same: somewhere between 37/38-41 wins, either just making the playoffs of just missing them. However, my hopes for them, especially their road performances, may have ratcheted up a notch or two. No matter what, the starters have been an absolute delight to watch play, at least about 80% of the time. The bench is at times cringe-worthy, at times simply okay, and is always a source of concern. I do see progress in Meyers every single game and THAT is a relief.

    I have to be honest: I'm not all that surprised. I expected Wesley to compete, have added components to his game, and to be a leader simply because HE TOLD US THAT ALL SUMMER LONG! lol. I expected Lamarcus to be Lamarcus, and actually DID anticipate JJ bringing this level of energy (though it is still really fun to watch). I've have a great feeling about Damian ever since I first heard about his draft workout and he is meeting my expectations completely. He is exciting, to be sure. My only disappointment has been Nic's consistency, but it's still early, and really, I didn't expect that from him either. His renewed effort defensively against Houston WAS a surprise and I will be hoping every time he steps on the court he remembers how he turned his game around.

    Looking forward to Thursday, Chris Paul and the Clippers. TNT games are usually a lot of fun and the Blazers should be ecstatic to return to the RG. Love that this season is going to be so much fun to watch :)

    Btw, in case you weren't aware, this is EowynAmarie, albeit under my real name now!

    by SisillaRiann on 11/7/2012 10:39 AM
  3. Hey Mike;
    First, I have to put my tail between my legs and ask for forgiveness, I had just wrote in your last Blog giving you heck about leaving your home-cooking and get in front of your keyboard to give me some of your great input. I should have checked the rest of my e-mail before I sent it, as you have already answered my request☺☻ my bad.
    Second, I can't recall which blog of the last few years, but you mentioned in several blogs that your expectations kept changing as the year went on. We started out as not going to make the play-offs to being expected to be in the upper echelon. Is that the way it is going to be this year? We didn't expect more then 20-30 wins, and now we are thinking 500++++.

    I have to keep reminding myself that I didn't expect wins, I just wanted the players to stay in the game and be competitive. They surely have done that. Even in the fourth qter Blow-out by Dallas, we stayed in it to the fourth qtr Blitz, and now we have that to learn by in the early folds of the season.

    You have said many times that once an opposing team learns what will work, every body else will start using it. That makes it sad that Lillard is no longer under the radar. Lillard may not always win the battles with other PG's but he will keep learning. A big test tomorrow night against CP3, until injuries is my pick for the best NBA PG.

    I like the way the whole team is playing and I will just say that I hope they continue to improve, not to expect it.

    by Hg on 11/7/2012 10:50 AM
  4. MB! I haven't been here in awhile. If anyone recalls I was super passionate about the Blazers but struggling finding a job. Well, finding one makes me I guess a bit less passionate about the Blazers, where I can't find time to write about them like I use to, but I still don't miss a game. So I apologize for not bringing my pessimism here and making you all facepalm haha. But in reality, it's good to have the season back. Sorry I missed your previous blogs. After a game, I'm often at work (I work graveyard), and when I get home the only thing I think about is bedtime.

    But as for the question... I agree with Stotts. If you'd have told me we'd be 2-2 after a 3 game road trip and battling the Lakers, I'd been happy. But, after seeing what this team can do, and especially after that Dallas matchup, I don't know if I exactly am. Believe me, I'm thrilled we beat the Lakers (didn't think we did, but Dhawes made a great point that Dwight Howard is only considered top 5 because he dominates his position thats hard to find players for. But hey, we beat them convincingly. We then went on to battle OKC for a full 44 minutes. We then BEAT Houston in OVERTIME, which has always been a struggle for Portland.

    It was a great 2-1 start, but then we got to Dallas and it left a bad taste in my mouth. I thought it was our easiest opponent so far in the season, but we made them look like a championship team. I don't know why Batum was on Marion when he should have been on Mayo and Wesley on Collison. Marion isn't the offensive threat those two have been. Stotts, coming from Dallas, should have known this.

    One thing I'm majorily concerned about is that Lillard is a rookie, thus pretty unscouted as far as NBA basketball goes. I don't think his performances have been a fluke, but as he gets better, he gets more known. He'll have games like the one in Dallas where he struggles, and it'll be frustrating, but he'll grown. The scariest part (for other teams), is that he's only a rookie and is looking like a veteran.

    The other thing that concerns me is that this team is a jumpshooting team. If we (as LA would say) hit the ocean with a rock, we aren't going to win many games. It seems our only chance at winning is to make our shots. We all know this league. There are teams that win championships by having low scoring, bad shooting percentage games. Portland at this stage cannot win those games. They need to play good defense, and the Dallas game was far from it.

    This team's got potential. They've shown great effort. That's all I care about. I don't expect the playoffs. I don't have much expectations except effort. Didn't see much on the defensive end, and that bothered me against Dallas. But I saw it against the Lakers and especially against Houston, and that was better than anything we saw last season.

    by Herr on 11/7/2012 10:56 AM
  5. @SisillaRiann: Wow, as I was reading your post, I kept thinking You was as intelligent as EowynAmarie. After reading your post, after already writing mine, made my post seem so simple, as you more or less said what I wanted to say except better.
    I do really enjoy your writings, as long as I am not on the bad side of your pen LOL. remembering our Rocky Start.

    by Hg on 11/7/2012 11:04 AM
  6. Yes I feel the same way and I am not willing to throw out the bench just yet.

    by mzelena on 11/7/2012 4:19 PM
  7. Hi Mike,
    Stotts's "expectations are on the rise ". Do I feel the same ? Of course. How could anyone not expect better results from this team after seeing just how good D Lill is. He was a 6 pick and we knew he was good but his game is ridiculous. We filled a team need and came up golden.
    Playoffs? Doubtful. Next year. Yes.
    Mr. Barrett use your insider influence and keep this team healthy.
    Nothing to lose. Everything to prove. GO BLAZERS !!

    by Divotking on 11/7/2012 6:28 PM
  8. One could make the case also that the Blazers amazingly decided they had no use for JJ Hickson and tossed him aside, only to change their mind and sign him to a borderline insulting (for an NBA rotation-quality big) 1 year, $4M deal.

    I love JJ's hustle, and Stotts playing him instead of throwing Myers Leonard straight into the fire has struck me as a great coaching move. JJ is an undersized low post player, his effective range is 10 feet in, but if he hustles, boxes out, and plays within his limitations, he's a highly capable guy that would be an asset for almost every team in the NBA. I hope he gets some security with his next contract.

    by Carrite on 11/7/2012 10:26 PM
  9. A couple of games in it occurred to me that I had been a little surprised by everyone saying that the Blazers would be sub-500 and miss the play-offs again, when I kept thinking we might be better. I realized that I was thinking of 2009-2010. We had all sorts of disappointments and line-up changes that season, but we surprised everyone and made the play-offs. What made that possible? We essentially had LaMarcus, Nic and Wesley, plus Camby and Andre Miller. In other words, we had three of the same key players as this year, plus a point guard who was in shape and knew what he was doing, and a center with a mixed assortment of skills. What do we have this year? A very good rookie point guard, whose style probably meshes better with our guys than Andre's weird talents did, and one guy playing out of position at center but who works very hard to make a key contribution we've been missing, and a back-up who is a classic center but needs experience before he can harness that talent. We've also got a mix of skills on the bench, including Freeland, who could surely fill the old Dante Cunninghamd role once he gets comfortable, a pure shooter (Luke) and a guy who might be both a shooter and a decent glue guy if he ever gets a chance(Claver). I'm not thinking much about the veterans on the bench, because my hope is that their role will steadily shrink. So, as I see it, the chance to achieve as highly as the team did in 2009-2010 rests on a) our three key guys who were there then step it up a little bit. They're all of an age that makes that possible. b) Lilliard turns out to be the real thing. c) The new coach keeps the guys playing hard and playing good team ball, and he has a little more sophistication in how to use his players than Nate did. d) We find a workable solution at center between Hickson and Leonard and maybe Freeland and e) The coach sorts out the bench and figures out how to use the ability that's there. The thing is that our core has talent that really works when it's linked up with a team concept. We had no team concept last year and it all fell apart, but the key talent that won the season before is still here, should be a little better, and will be linked up by a quality point guard. If the rest of the players find and fill their roles we should have a chance. I worried about the tough early schedule undermining the guys' confidence, but so far that hasn't happened. So I'm hopeful. It's still a mixed bag with many problems to sort out, but I love to watch young guys figure out what they can and should do, so the process will be fun even if it all doesn't pan out the way I'd wish. By the way, if we're letting people know that our tags have switched, I guess I should mention that I went by Islander the last couple of seasons, and somehow got switched to my own name when trying to log in after a gap. I wonder, was it as obvious as it was with The Blogger Formerly Known as EowynAmarie that mine was a somewhat familiar voice?

    by David Maclaine on 11/8/2012 12:54 AM
  10. Hey David Maclaine: regardless of what your former handle was Your comments are right on Que. If this was facebook you would get a big thumbs up, I like from me. I definitely remember the Islander, I once changed my handle to BBK , after a week DTV, asked what happened to Hg so I changed my handle back.

    The season you were talking about is the same season I was referring to when Mike said his expectations changes as the season goes on, this one does sound the same.

    My big thing is not so much critical of Raymond's abilities, but the devastating destruction he brought to the franchise, from being fat and out of shape to a rotten attitude. The thing on Dre was he wasn't able to make consistent long range shots to keep the defense honest and his loner type attitude was questionable and neither Raymond or Dre was a coaches fav. With Lillard that we haven't even seen the best upside yet has both of them beat with attitude, in shape, and with at least as good a skill as Raymond and Dre had. Just think if he developed a post up game equal to Dre's what we will have in the future.

    Both Batum and Wesley is better by their work ethics, by a coach that utilizes their talents to benefit their game, by the play of the PG although they both did pretty good with Dre in the season you were referring to but better by far so far this year.

    LMA is getting better each year and is playing his game better with help from his teammates

    Camby is hard to judge, when he wasn't sniffling about his aching aged body, he played great BB, but took as many games off as he put in. So JJ as a replacement and the back up of eventual starter in Leonard is => Camby.

    In the end your comments is exactly what I have been thinking all summer, Of course until EWill got hurt, I was thinking we were better then we were last year by just dropping Felton and Jamal and getting DLill and EWill, which may still be in the future. So I am still just excited about the team staying focused, and competitive with no stop gaps in the starting five and going from there.

    by Hg on 11/8/2012 2:15 AM
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