What We've Learned Through Six
There have been some clear-cut positives, and some very obvious areas of concern for the Trail Blazers through their first six games of the regular season.
We knew the schedule was stacked against them early, as the Blazers have now faced five of the top seven teams in the west. But, given what we've seen so far, there's no one around the team who's satisfied with the 2-4 record. That's a positive. But, it's only a positive if it's used as a motivational tool and not a factor that leads to internal finger pointing and second guessing.
The one term we've used to describe Portland's rookies so far this season, can be used to describe the entire team- they look like they belong out there, and are getting more comfortable. And, that they know who and what they are. That sounds like a pretty fundamental starting point, and it is, but using perspective, that's really all we wanted in this first handful of games this season.
I mentioned this the other day, but sometimes you're struggling in certain areas and don't have a good idea why. That, very clearly, is not the case with this team. The things we thought would be a concern, are a concern. If it were only that easy to fix it.
One thing that's a bit comforting is that we're still dealing with a relatively small sample size here. Two wins in the the first six games was about where most people had Portland. It does no good to hide behind low expectations, but there are some positives that are just as obvious as the negatives.
LaMarcus Aldridge, who had 29 points against San Antonio on Saturday, is clearly not going anywhere in this team's plans. Wesley Matthews, while not up to his own standards shooting the ball, has been the defensive leader of this team. J.J. Hickson has double-digit rebounds in every game but one so far, and is coming off a 13-rebound, 14-point effort against the Spurs.
Nic Batum deserves his own paragraph, especially following Saturday's game. With the exception of the game at Oklahoma City, Batum has been very solid. He was a huge reason Portland won at Houston, and should have been the reason Portland beat San Antonio. He had 33 points, asked for the ball and the situation repeatedly, and could end up leading the Blazers in scoring this season when it's all said and done.
Damian Lillard is looking like the front runner for the ROY award, leading all rookies so far in scoring, assists, and minutes. He's scored 20 points or more in four of the first six games. It's safe to say no one, except perhaps Damian, expected that. And, the other lottery pick, Meyers Leonard, looks like he's getting more and more comfortable on the floor, has used his athleticism around the rim, and is learning his way around the defense, the opponents, officials, and the offense, where he's relegated to screen setter and rebounder.
Then, as you know, we get to this gap. It's a gap that has shown itself plainly against some of the elite teams in the west that we've seen so far. It's forced Terry Stotts to place a bigger-than-expected burden on five guys, and to have to tailor his substitution pattern accordingly.
There were the staggering numbers that followed the loss to San Antonio on Saturday. You know it well by now. The Blazer bench was outscored 63-4 in this game. If you flip it, it's just as eye-popping. Portland's starters outscored San Antonio's starters 105-49, and lost.
This situation will be better on most nights. Well, let's hope so anyway. The thing we do know is the bench is not likely to change at any point in the near future. I do think at some point Leonard will be put starting lineup and Hickson will begin coming off the bench, which will help the balance of scoring. It'll also help give the coaching staff some flexibility. But, it's not like that'll be a game changer.
What will be a game changer will be changes the Blazers will be able to realistically make on defense. That's the bigger issue. Portland is currently allowing 50.7% field goal shooting to its opponents. That's 30th in the NBA. The Spurs shot 57 percent on Saturday. Yes, guys like Gary Neal were throwing the ball backwards at the rim and it was going in, but this hasn't been an issue in just one or two games.
The Blazers know they should be able to shoot 47 percent, 46 percent from three-point land, out rebound their opponent, turn the ball only 15 times, score 109 points, at home, and win. On Saturday, all that happened, except for the win. I'm not sure I've ever seen an offensive display like that, from a Portland team, and ended up talking about a loss.
Again, it's only been six games. What happens in the next six will give us a much better idea of what to expect moving forward.