Contest Entry: Assessing the Blazers through 20 games
Has this man been Portland's MVP so far? Read on to find out!
*So it took me a minute to figure out how to set up this whole blog business, but I finally got it down. I know this entry is a bit after the horn, but, given that I'm brand new to the network, hopefully it is still considered. Here goes...*
The Portland Trail Blazers are playing like championship contenders! At least that’s what you thought after the first three games of the season, right? As it turns out, a season of ups and downs, inconsistent play, and a schedule more in line with the MLB than the NBA has the Blazers mashed together with 10 other teams in the battle for Western Conference supremacy. At this point, two consecutive wins or losses could mean the difference between second place or eleventh place in the Conference (the Blazers currently sit in sixth, at 12-8).
There have been times when the team has looked unbeatable (almost always in the friendly confines of the Rose Garden, where the Blazers have posted a 9-1 record and fans have witnessed thorough beat downs of the likes of Philadelphia, Memphis, and the ever hated LA Fakers), and others where they seem helplessly mediocre (almost always on the road, where the team has staggered to a 3-7 start; Really, Detroit? Really, Phoenix?).
All of this has led to varying states of euphoria and frustration for Blazers fans, at least it has for me, and a sense of wonder as to whether this team will be able to put together any sort of significant run, or is simply destined to dominate games by 15 at home and gag away fourth quarter leads on the road. But before we start gnashing our teeth too much over inconsistent guard play, poor perimeter shooting, and a lack of road energy, let’s take a look back at how we got here and admire the Blazers’ accomplishments in spite of some long odds.
Show of hands: who thought Portland had a chance at being a contending team this year after B Roy retired? I see a few of you out there, fair enough. But the reality is you don’t just replace a 3-time All-star and face of the franchise overnight. The loss of Brandon has been glaring at times this season, just choose from any of five fourth quarter meltdowns so far, but nonetheless other guys have been there to step up. LaMarcus Aldridge is playing like (dare we say it?) an unquestionable All-star and Gerald Wallace has activated “beast-mode” on numerous occasions (seemingly every night the team has played at home). Both those guys could stand to produce a little more in the fourth quarter, but all-in-all have played outstanding so far this year.
Much has been made of the Blazers’ consistent inconsistency throughout the early season. Both Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford are shooting well below their career averages, Wesley Matthews has scored 20 points or more only twice this season after accomplishing the feat 26 times last year, and Nic Batum has shown flashes of potential dominance mixed with customary passivity. As a team, there have been plenty of turnovers, miscommunications, and a seemingly tepid commitment at times to playing up-tempo. Some would say that such traits are endemic of the entire NBA right now, but that is no excuse. The Blazers have a wealth of talent, and, given the fact that no other Western Conference team has really established dominance yet in this young season, there is no reason why they should not be near the top of the standings.
But let’s not forget another obstacle the Blazers had to face as they began this shortened 66-game season; beyond an abbreviated training camp, limited practice time, and the 4-5 games a week that every team has had to deal with. Coming into opening night, 10 players on the roster had played only 38 games or less in a Blazer uniform (11 if you include Gregory Wayne Oden, who hasn't played in two years), six had played 0. This lack of on-court chemistry has clearly shown itself through the first 20 games (has Ray Felton even thrown a single alley-oop to LaMarcus yet?). Fortunately, this problem has an easy fix: play more games! And the Blazers will do just that. There is obviously more to being successful than just getting a group of guys to play a bunch of games together, you need pieces that fit. But as the season continues, a greater continuity among all the players on the team should mean that the pieces will begin to fall into place.
With 46 games left in the regular season, the Blazers still have plenty of room to grow and I expect that’s just what they’ll do. The more this team plays with each other, the more they will establish a rhythm and the better they will become. And the best news of all? At 12-8 the Blazers would be on pace to win 49 games in a regular 82 game season, certainly a respectable number. With that said, here’s looking at 39 victories and a first-round date with the Lakers!
P.S. If I may just interject my favorite thing about the season so far: EVERY time Kurt Thomas shoots that 15-foot jumper, you KNOW it’s going in (I’d say Shawn Marks replacement is working out just fine).