Following Portland’s expected but still somewhat unexpected victory over the league-worst Los Angeles Lakers to open the season Wednesday, I counseled that we as Blazer fans take it slow. Yes it was a great win, and yes Damian Lillard had a game that rivaled the debuts of two players whose pictures are in the dictionary under the entry “Point Guard.”
Admitting that those things were both true and great, I advised Portland fans to remember that this Blazer squad is full of holes, and that counting on J.J. Hickson and Sasha Pavlovic for consistent positive contributions is a good way to have your expectations dashed. Keeping that in mind, I said let’s all try as hard as we can to speak rationally about this team going forward, that way we won’t have to temper our reactions should the season take a turn toward the Draft Lottery.
Well, following Saturday’s win at Houston (Portland’s first road victory of the year against arguably the hottest team in the league) it’s going to be that much more difficult to keep or hyperbolic statements of excitement and glee from spinning totally out of control.
Here’s why: Wednesday, the Blazers road the home crowd who hate the Lakers more than anything on earth, took advantage of a discombobulated team who played most of the second half without their starting future hall-of-fame point guard, and to a man played at the very least right at the apex of their individual talent level. In short, everything was going right for Portland just as everything was falling apart for Los Angeles. Wednesday was the Blazers’ game to win and they won it.
Saturday was a different story. Of the three games played in 2012-13, Saturday’s at the Toyota Center very easily could have been Portland’s worst. For stretches in both the first and second halves the Blazers were woefully chucking deep and mid-range jumpers with little to no effect, the offense was stagnant as the Rockets were intent to pack the paint, and Lillard was playing like a rookie for the first time by taking ill-advised shots and turning the ball over left and right.
James Harden, Jeremy Lin, and the rest of the Rocket team that will likely be this season’s version of Oklahoma City circa 09-10 (a young team that will be fun to watch but will probably have a ceiling of a first round bounce) did the Blazers a favor by missing a ton of shots, but even so, they managed to keep Portland at arms length most of the night. So much so that the Blazers could have very easily hung it up early and taken a valuable loss. The value of the loss being that if you don’t engage from the tip, if you miss a lot of shots, and if you turn the ball over, you lose.
Instead of settling for a loss, though, Portland found a way to make the plays down the stretch (threes from Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum and then timely defense and rebounding) that got the game into overtime, and then played very easily their best basketball of the night in the overtime period to get the win. Wednesday was gift wrapped for the Blazers; Saturday Portland stole a victory from a decent team on their home floor in their home opener.
Three games in, and we’ve come to a bit of a cross-roads. This next stretch for the franchise (meaning this season and at least the season to follow) will be about two things, competing well enough to convince LaMarcus Aldridge to re-sign in Portland when he’s contract is up, and if that’s no possible identifying when to trade LA so the Blazers get their highest value in return and don’t get hosed should he walk away from nothing as an Unrestricted Free Agent. Winning now is all fine and good, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of losing LaMarcus. And that’s why we’ve come to an interesting intersection early in the season.
Saturday night, Damian Lillard proved that he’s the kind of rookie who can and will make costly mistakes. However, he also proved that he’s the kind of professional basketball player who can play crappy for 48 minutes but not let that crappy play destroy his confidence for when he needs it late in a tight game.
We knew Damian was going to be good, but we probably didn’t think he was going to this good, or at least that he’d be this far along in his development. If it doesn’t take Lillard a whole season, or even a whole week, to reach the point where he makes Portland between five and 10 wins better maybe the rebuilding time-frame could be pushed up a season. That might mean making a trade that limits the Blazers’ ability to build through the draft. And that’s the tough decision.
A core of Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, J.J. Hickson, Wesley Matthews, and Nicolas Batum when playing well and consistently should be able to win 25 or 30 games at the most. Add a big-time bench player or a starting center that can move Hickson to the bench, and Portland could up into the Playoff picture.
The downside of that scenario, of course, would be spending some of the Blazers’ valuable cap space or picks to grab a guy for the short-term who doesn’t re-sign or doesn’t help Portland improve, and instead of jumping from 30 wins and in the lottery to 40+ plus and into the Playoffs, the Blazers will be taking a step back, pushing back the rebuilding schedule, and putting the future of LaMarcus Aldridge as a Blazer in serious jeopardy.
My guess is Portland will do one thing: wait. And we should do it too. Lillard has proven to be very good. LaMarcus is playing like a man on a mission. Wesley and Nicolas have both improved (all though they both need to find some consistency). And J.J. Hickson has so far exhibited the desire to earn himself another NBA contract. If Portland continues to win with it’s combination of spare bench part and a cohesive core they probably won’t make a move. If they start losing, they probably also won’t make a move. To get to the perfect sweet spot where a trade makes sense, the Blazers will have to beat a couple elite teams and have to really prove they’re ready to skip a few rebuilding steps and make a push for the Playoffs. Saturday was a big night for the Blazers. Let’s see if they can build on it.
The Blazers are back in action Monday in Dallas to finish this most recent road swing. Last season LaMarcus Aldridge had a big night in the Big D, hitting the first buzzer-beater of his professional career. In my November preview, I picked Portland to lose to the Mavs (after beating the Rockets I might add). Pulling out a win in Dallas, and ending their first road-trip 2-1, will be another HUGE victory.
Just a few things:
- Will Barton got his first minutes as a pro, and he did not disappoint. Fifteen and a half minutes, five points, four rebounds, an assist, a block, and a steal. Barton got some minutes because Sasha Pavlovic sat out with an injury. Sasha’s minutes were split up between Barton, Luke Babbitt, and Victor Claver. Of the three, Barton played the best. Babbitt couldn’t follow up his eight-point performance at Oklahoma City, and Claver didn’t do much. Hopefully this means we’ll see a little more of Will, he could be a real factor coming off the bench.
- James Harden is the hottest thing going in the NBA at this moment. Harden’s been around the league for a long time, as you well know, and he’s been one of the best young players since he came into the league. You wouldn’t think it if the first basketball game you every watched was on Saturday night. The Blazer broadcasters were talking about Harden as if he just became a big deal in the NBA. That’s going to get old fast, considering he’ll probably be an All-Star and threaten to win the scoring title.
- Damian Lillard’s line of 20 points, nine assists, and six rebounds is a sign that at some point, probably very soon, Lillard will have a triple-double. I think they should give him the Rookie of the Year award right now. See what I mean about not being able to control my hyperbole?