Considering how old the Camby/Thomas duo is (about 1000000 years old), so far this season, they have shown that they can be solid bigs in this league. Camby still shows that he is a force on the boards (9.3 boards, I'm glad he's on my fantasy team) and on defense (1 steal, 2 blocks) when he is not injured. That said, Camby has suffered from an ankle injury and with this lockout-shortened season and his history of injuries, his health is a concern. What is not a concern is his offensive game. He does not need to score, as I will mention later with LaMarcus and such, and he dishes out more than enough assists for a big man (2.4 per game). Kurt Thomas is showing Juwan-Howard esque leadership along with veteran savvy and, being the oldest player in the league, has proven to be a surprisingly good backup behind Camby. However, if Camby goes down again, Kurt might need to step up and play big minutes in a big role. Now that we have Camby and Thomas out of the way, we can talk about Chris Johnson. Now, with how old both Camby and Thomas are, their health is definitely a concern. Logging big minutes night after night will take a toll on their bodies and there is really no one behind them besides fan-favorite of last year’s playoffs, Chris Johnson. He has put weight on since last year (which was a concern considering how incredibly skinny he is for a seven footer) and he is still a lanky shot blocker who electrifies on defense. That said, he is not a reliable defensive player besides shot blocking and the occasional steal. His offense is incredibly lacking, and as much as I love his energy, he just won’t be able to fill the role of center for any more than 5-10 minutes a game when we need energy. I don’t even want to talk about Mr. Oden, as much as I want him to be back.
Grade: C+ - we’re solid, but old
Forwards: LaMarcus Aldridge – Gerald “Crash” Wallace - Nicolas Batum - Craig “Rhino” Smith - Luke “Chalupa” Babbit
The forward position for the Blazers is an interesting situation. Starting you have Gerald Wallace, and LaMarcus Aldridge, and off the bench you have Nic Batum and the Rhino. Let me cut to the chase, LaMarcus is an all-star, and our franchise player. This year, he has shown a developed offensive game as with 3 less minutes per game, he is averaging an extra point (22.8 per game up from 21.8) and an extra assist (2.7 per game up from 0.9) and one more rebound per game as the year before (8.7 rebounds from 7.9 rebounds). LaMarcus can play offense, he can defend and he is pretty complete as a forward can get. He can shoot the mid range shot, he has a post game, he can rebound, and play defense with the best of them. Aldridge is also an above average athlete, not on the level of a Blake Griffin, but he has strength and length on his side. Gerald Wallace, however, has shown to be up and down, having a metaphorically bipolar season. At home, he is a scrappy superman, averaging 18.9 ppg and 6 rbs along with 2 steals per game. He shoots 63.5% at home with 35.7% from three along with stellar defensive performances (e.g. versus Kevin Durant). However, he has proved to be completely different away from the Rose Garden. Away, he averages 8.1 ppg with 33.7% fg shooting and 13.6% from downtown. His 6/7th man counterpart, Nic Batum, has been a little more consistent. Batum has averaged 11.7 ppg 4 rebounds and 1 assist off the bench and, despite not reaching terms with the Blazers for a contract extension, has been putting a lot of effort into playing ball. At home he gets less minutes as crash goes into beast mode, but on the road he has shown to be above decent (getting 5 more minutes than at home per game). Batum shoots 49% fg away from the Rose Garden and 44.4% from downtown away from the Rose Garden. As of now, he knocks down the three ball most consistently for the Blazers and has really, along with Aldridge, been the bright spot on the road for the Blazers. That said, Batum suffers from not getting the ball as much as most Blazer fans would want and he is still overall inconsistent, showing flashes of his potential from time to time and being a nonfactor other times. Compared to the starting Wallace, he averages .187 win shares per 48 minutes as opposed to Gerald’s .15 (Win shares are a calculation of how many wins a certain player contributes to a team. The league average per 48 minutes is .1 WS, meaning that the average player contributes to one tenth of a win over 48 minutes of playing time). Shooting percentage wise, Batum has both a higher shooting percentage as well as three point percentage. Both players are top notch defenders and can defend multiple positions.
Now let’s get to the Rhino. The big bruising Craig Smith has surprised a lot of fans (including me) with his energy and strength when he plays. Even though he is “undersized” at 6-7 he makes up for his height in the weight department (265 lbs.). The Rhino has shown to be very consistent whenever he is on the court, grabbing a couple steals and shooting just over 50% per game both away and at home. His numbers don’t stand out by any means, but he provides size, depth, and energy for the Blazers all things the Blazers desperately need. If you want to compare his win shares with other Blazers, he averages .182 per 48 minutes, compared to Nic Batum’s .187 this season and LaMarcus Aldridge’s .166 last season, he is doing pretty fine in that category. Now on to the next one and by the next one I mean Mr. Chalupa, Luke Babbit. The reason he is called “Chalupa” by me is because he gave the fans free Chalupas with one of his two three point shots this season. Already, his shooting percentage is way higher than last years (33.3% from 27.3%) and with the three ball, he’s shown what he was drafted for, shooting (2 of 4 on the season). All kidding aside, Luke has shown like the work he did over the lockout summer actually benefitted his game a little and he is showing improvement. Despite that, and how much I love Chalupas, I doubt that Luke will ever break the rotation for the Blazers and will stay a bench to role player for however long his career is. Overall, the forwards are spotty in terms of consistency but have shown the most promise for the Blazers.
Grade: B+ - we could be very good in this department, if we were consistent.
Guards: Raymond Felton – Wesley “We$” Matthews – Jamal Crawford – Nolan Smith – Elliot Williams – Armon Johnson
The guard play for the Blazers has been… disappointing. On paper, the Blazers have scrappy Wes Matthews, a guard that runs a quick, fast paced offense in Raymond Felton, a star sixth man in Jamal Crawford, a “high basketball IQ” rookie in Nolan Smith, an athletic freak in Elliot Williams, and a young defensive guard in Armon Johnson. However, the guards have played far from their expected level. Raymond Felton, who is still adjusting to the team, has lower assist rate per game (6.8 from 8.3) in less minutes, he’s scoring 5 points less, has a 19.3% turnover rate per 100 possessions, and he has a measly .06 win shares per 48 minutes, well below the league average of .1. Along with that, his shooting percentages have plummeted from 42.5% to just 37.4% from the field. His three point percentage dropped from 45.9% when he was at Denver to 19.8% this year with Portland. Raymond Felton obviously hasn’t been shooting well, he has been committing a lot more turnover, meaning his decision making hasn’t been the best. It hasn’t been all bad, however. In the beginning of the year, when the Blazers got off to their hot start, part of it was because of the fast paced offense that came with Felton. I can’t lie, when I watched the first three games for Felton as a Blazer, I loved the fast paced offense he ran, and his game as a whole, distributing the ball along with his court vision.
Wes Matthews is really having a tough year. Last year, Blazers fans fell in love with his defense, and his scrappy hard-working game; however, this year, We$ is struggling. He hasn’t been able to get comfortable with a shot, again he has little dribbling ability, and he has looked overall much less explosive than he was last year. His offensive game consists of standing around looking for a three, or driving straight to the hoop. He doesn’t really know how to navigate a fast break unless he’s all by himself and he just plain can’t create. His defensive game is bogged down because of how much less explosive he is, but he plays smart defense. His defense is to a point where he is starting to show some savvy when he’s defending the perimeter. By the numbers, he is scoring 3 less points a game, and about 5% less for both fg% and 3 point %. Despite my remarks before, his turnover total per game has gone down, but he is still committing one per every 1.8 assists, high for a starting guard.
Jamal Crawford is the hardest to evaluate. He is a volume shooter, who, like most volume shooters, makes “bad” un-Nate Macmillan like decisions, making my brothers and I joke sometimes and call him the “anti-Nate.” The reason he is hard for me to evaluate, though, is that he has terrible decision making. He often passes up an open shot by his teammates in order to take a contested jumper or runner or layup by himself. The problem with that being “bad” is that he makes it. He consistently makes those shots, and he starts runs for the Blazers, digging them out of deficits. He’s shooting 38% from the field and 94.1% from the free throw line making his true shooting percentage at about 49.2%. His win shares per 48 minutes are less than the league average at .93; however, if you watch the games, he shoots the Blazers in and out of games. When he’s hot, he repeatedly brings it to the other team, however when he’s cold, he bangs his head into a wall over and over trying to get through. Even though his assist total has gone up, that is only because Nate plays him as the backup point guard. He, however, is not a point guard, even though he can create. He has a lot harder time creating for teammates than creating for his own shot.
Now the rookies haven’t gotten much time except for garbage time in blowouts, so this section will be semi-quick. Nolan Smith is not the backup point guard the Blazers expected when they drafted him. He does not really play like a pass first point guard, but more like a score first shooting guard. He is making rookie mistakes as his assist total is barely over his turnover total and his field goal percentage is just flat out bad. Being young I expect him to improve a little, but he might just be a bottom of the bench player for the rest of his career. Elliot Williams, however, has shown some promise. His athletic abilities make for crowd wowing dunks and highlight reel plays and he is just overall exciting to watch. That said, he is just a rookie and has taken a few bad shots and made a few turnovers but until he gets more playing time, his exciting plays overrule those mistakes. Armon Johnson has only seen 5 minutes this year compared to his role player role last year of over 10 minutes per game for the first few games. In the D League, he was playing well scoring like a decent shooter (which we all know he isn’t) and using higher level defensive abilities to his advantage. He has such a high work ethic, that if he keeps performing well in garbage time or the D League, another team will give him a chance if the Blazers don’t.
Grade: C- - Guards are playing less than par, displaying bad decision making along with career shooting slumps. Rookies are playing bottom of the bench levels.
Coaching: Nate McMillan has sped up pace so far but that is mostly credited to their addition of Raymond Felton. Has so far been Nate, calling for smart basketball that includes the whole team and cringing at every bad shot. Defense has been set up well and offensive plays are rarely called to be iso plays. He also manages to give minutes like a genius.
Grade: B+ - same Nate as always except for faster pace.
Overall Grade: B
Now how do I put this all together? The Blazers are an up and down team and are simply put, a decent playoff team. Yes, their guard play is mediocre at best as of now, but I expect that to improve over time. Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford are new to this team. They’re in a new system, with new players around them. I expect one of them to start to get near the levels they were at in the years before. Also the faster pace lets the Blazers tire out opponents by playing a lot of fast break ball. This year when they have most of their losses, they either: play slower paced ball against other clubs, or they commit too many turnovers and don’t convert on easy scoring opportunities. Their hot start was partly because of Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford, the fast pace mixed with the start of the year energized the blazer to a 7-2 start which, when away games got to them as well as the schedule, started to drop off. Despite that, the Blazers are still sixth in the west and are 10-1 at home, counted by many around the league as a borderline upper echelon team.
When the lockout shortened schedule got to them, so many minutes with so little rest time got to them. Marcus Camby went down with an injury, so did Nic Batum and Gerald Wallace. With the schedule so compact you can expect more of that but hope for the opposite. Now let’s look more in depth at the losses. There are horrific ones like the ones at Pheonix and Detroit and the Magic. In these losses the Blazers were just flat out outplayed. Even in the win against Cleveland, you could tell the Blazers were gassed. But, once they get home, all this energy seems to come back. Individually, most of the team is playing much better at home than away, and it has to do with the Rose Garden atmosphere. Being like a playoff atmosphere every night, you can tell its effect on players. In the Cleveland game, they started and couldn’t put away the Cavaliers, but in the second half, they were re-energized and turned the close game into a near blowout. So for the Blazers it comes down to energy, whether you have it or you don’t. If we look beyond all the inconsistent play, the terrible guard play, and the awful decision making, it all has to do with how much energy the Blazers do or don’t have. For example, some of Raymond Felton’s turnovers come when he throws a nice pass that even his teammates weren’t expecting. This all has to do with fatigue and the energy for the Blazers to run.
Despite crash's inability to perform on the road, We$ inability to create or even shoot, Raymond Feltons turnovers and bad shots, Jamal Crawford’s bad decision making, the Blazers are still a good team. They’re long, they have a number of lock down defenders and they have a stud in LaMarcus Aldridge. From my perspective, as a fan, I realize the Blazers may not be the best team around. I told you about the basketball end of things, but on a personal level, the Blazers mean a lot more, at least to me. As life stories go, mine is still short and mostly unwritten being 15 years old. All my life, I've been the little brother to three guys, who, in most of their peers eyes were smart, athletic, and successful. Really, to me I feel the Blazers are like a little brother team and the underdog. I remember how angry I felt this summer to find out that most people on the internet were ranking the Blazers as a lower echelon team in the west. Through 20 games I've seen scrap, and hard work ethic bring what was a "lower echelon" team to the top of the Western Conference. In my eyes, the Blazers are like me, and if I work that hard and metaphorically "scrap" in life I can be successful too. Despite their shortcomings on the road and their recent struggles, I know the Blazers are destined to do something good this season, however far they make it. I know they've inspired me and many other fans as well, and through they're never quit or surrender personalities, I expect them to bring a lot of good to the community for years to come. Looking at the team and at even they're home games you can tell the impact they have on people with either the world class athleticism, or their world class work ethic, personalities, and professionalism. The fans create the best atmosphere in an arena in the NBA, even when its an unexciting game. Every game when the Blazers are clawing back towards victory, fans still have a hope and desire for the win. Because of the fans, and their love for the team, the Blazers can and do reach historical comebacks and victories. You see, as cliche as this sounds, basketball in Portland isn't just entertainment or fun, it's a way of life. Portland having just the Blazers for so many years has shown that even with just major league sports team, you can be considered a sports city, and the Blazers are Portland's champions, my champions. I know that for a long time the Blazers will continue to be part of my life and part of the Portlandian culture. I have high hopes for the Blazers and as the season progresses, and I.believe.in.Rip.City.