Blazers head coach Terry Stotts made an interesting statement during his post game remarks following Portland’s sound(ish) beating of the Utah Jazz Monday night. When asked if he and his team were ready for the regular season, which begins in a little more than a week at home on Halloween night against the Los Angeles Lakers, he said in no uncertain terms that no, this team was not ready. He did say, however, that by next week, his team would be ready.
How do you go from not ready to ready in the course of 10 days? That’s a good question. One way is by cutting the roster down to its regular season numbers. That will happen next week, or so Stotts maintains. Another thing you do is decide on starters. That seems basically set. And possibly, a third thing that Stotts and his staff are going to do between this game and the first one that actually counts, is figure out who works best in what position and when: the rotation.
That question of rotation was probably made more difficult by Monday’s game, and here’s why. J.J. Hickson is playing out of position at center. Stotts did single out Hickson’s performance Monday as his best of the preseason, and yes he did play pretty well against Utah’s front line. However, we’ve previously established that winning and losing is the least important aspect of preseason, so Hickson’s stats, impressive as they may be, are null and void. What we need to focus on in this situation is what the play of J.J. Hickson means for the regular season.
So, I’ll say it again: Hickson is out of position at the five. LaMarcus Aldridge sat out Monday so he could get some rest. That left Hickson as the focal point in the paint for Portland’s offense. Because of that, he had a great night. Previously, with LA in the lineup, Hickson hasn’t been quite as effective. J.J. and LaMarcus work well together, they’re naturally opposite type players, LA stays mostly on the perimeter and J.J. stays under the basket, but neither is actually a center. When J.J. tries to play the center position, things get a little more complicated.
My solution to the problem is simple. Start Meyers Leonard. He’s going to be the everyday starter at some point, why not make it now. He’s going to struggle against the best big guys in the league, but if he matches up with them early in games he’ll at least get a chance to face up to them without any fouls. I know I’ve said that it might help Leonard’s development if he got his sea legs against second stringers. I still think that is true, and I still think that is the best case scenario. But that best case scenario isn’t when Portland has three or four power forwards and only one viable center.
There’s another element to the starting Meyers Leonard scenario that I like too. By moving Hickson to the bench and bringing him in for Meyers as the sixth man, there will be less time with J.J. and LaMarcus on the floor (which I’ve already said isn’t the best situation for either player) and there will be fewer minutes when the second unit is on the floor without a scorer.
As it stands, when Portland goes to their bench, they are looking at four rookies in Leonard, Joel Freeland, Will Barton and Victor Claver, and perennial back-up or a back-ups back-up in Ronnie Price, and then end of the bench guys like Luke Babbitt, Nolan Smith, Jared Jefferies, and Sasha Pavlovic. Among that group, there really isn’t a reliable option. Throw Hickson in the mix, and the question of who is going to score is at least addressed. Beyond that, if the burden of carrying the second unit isn’t on untested guys, maybe they loosen up a little bit and turn into contributors.
The major downside to starting Meyers Leonard right now is that he would not be able to stay on the floor. His foul trouble is an issue, but it’s an issue he’s going to have to play through. Certainly if you roll him out against Dwight Howard Opening Night he’s going to get taken to the cleaners. I think it might be good for him to get beat up a little bit. I do know, too much whooping at an early stage in his career might have serious consequences.
Beyond the issue of who should start at center, a question I really don’t think Portland had coming into Monday night, I do feel like the Blazers made some tangible progress in their three home preseason games. Damian Lillard was impressive his first night out, and he was more impressive Monday. His scoring ability is what is going to set him apart from other rookie point guards Portland has had. Monday was another example of how fearless he is when it comes to getting his own looks. Coach Stotts did mention that Lillard was a little loose with the ball at the end of the game, his six turnovers were evidence of that, but Damian does seem like the kind of player with the ability to directly address something like loose ball handling and too many turnovers. My guess is that Thursday night Lillard turns the ball over once or maybe twice.
I know it’s still very early with Lillard, but one thing that can really help him make the jump from good to great is realizing when match-ups favor him and exploiting them. For a long stretch in Monday’s game, Lillard was being guarded by Jamaal Tinsley. Tinsley’s been around the league forever. He knows all the tricks at the point guard spot. But, Lillard is better and more athletic than Tinsley could ever hope to be. I’m not sure if it was a nerves situation or a situation where he wasn’t going to press Tinsley with two fouls, but for whatever reason, Lillard was hesitant to take advantage of Tinsley, letting him play some pretty effective ball denial. When Lillard can identify those kind of match-ups, match-ups against older and slower players who really don’t have a chance at stopping him, and take full advantage of those match-ups, he’ll be able to take control and dominate games.
Along with positive development from Lillard, I would say that Joel Freeland is the other player who stands out for having made marked improvements over the course of only a couple games. Joel looked a little tentative on both ends of the floor his first few times out. Monday, though, was different. He was looking for his shot, and he was knocking it down. Like Leonard, Freeland fouled out, so there’s that, but otherwise he went a long way to show he deserves to get some meaningful minutes.
Post game, Freeland made some interesting comments. They were mostly about adjusting to playing the NBA game. In Europe he’s a big star, the centerpiece of an offensive scheme. Here he’s a bench guy. He said that overseas he gets closed out on, but he’s noticing that in this league he has more time with the ball. He took advantage of it Monday by getting up 11 field goal attempts. As he builds his confidence and as his shot starts falling, there’s a chance those two or three seconds with the ball in his hands will go back to being the one second or parts of a second decision making windows he experienced internationally. That’s a good thing. If Joel can stretch the floor with his shooting, he can be a major factor coming off of Portland’s bench.
Another thing Freeland needs to bring to the Blazers, both the bench and the team in general, is some toughness. Utah throws out a foursome of big front line guys. Comparatively, Portland has very little. I don’t condone senseless acts of violence, but Joel Freeland is very clearly the type of guy that wants to be physically dominant in the paint. Right now he’s still working to figure out the NBA. He said post game that he’s thinking way too much, and that he needs to get to a place where he’s not thinking about making his defensive moves, he’s just making them. I hope that for Portland’s sake, when Freeland gets into his groove he develops into the team’s much needed enforcer.
So that’s basically all. Monday was a fun game to watch in parts, not at the end, and I think it gave everybody a sense of what this team looks like when it’s without its best player. They managed, and at times they managed well. That’s a net positive in my mind.
The Blazers travel to Utah to close out their preseason against these same Jazz.
Here are just a couple of things:
- Coby Karl had another nice outing. He came in early when Damian Lillard went out with his second foul, and once again he provided a spark that drove the team. Again the Blazers were trailing when he entered the game, and again with Karl on the floor Portland took a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. What that all means for his future with the Blazers is hard to say. Post game, Karl was reluctant to answer questions about what he though his future held as far as his contract was concerned. I can understand his hesitancy. He’s playing for his livelihood and for his dream of being a NBA player, and in reality it doesn’t really matter how well or how poorly he plays. The choice of who makes the roster will likely come down to financial issues. Karl’s done all he can do. He’s played very well two nights out. He can be happy knowing that he gave it his best shot. Will knowing that comfort him if and when he gets cut by this team? Somehow I doubt it.
- Nicolas Batum finally had a good night shooting. He needs to have a lot more.
- The Blazers fielded an all-white lineup for a stretch in the fourth quarter. It elicited a lot of chatter on Twitter. It also led to this tweet, which leads me to believe that not everybody on the Internet has a sense of humor:
@shighkinnba What does color of skin have to do with anything?I despise such racist thinking!
— Marlene (@marlene116) October 23, 2012
- Chris Sheridan was nice enough to ask me to write a Blazer preview for his site Sheridan Hoops. I know I’ve linked it and tweeted it already, but here it is again.