Here I’ve scribbled down a few of my observations from the first few games of the season. Overall, this looks like a really fun team, and I still have no idea where it’ll end up. It might shore up its weaknesses or its strengths might betray it. In other words, it’s an NBA team after three games.
1. Saturday night against the Spurs I noticed, as always, the way Gregg Popovich kept his substitutions on point and consistent. When his team was down but not out, he never panicked and shoved the starters back in, but kept riding Belinelli, Jeff Ayres, and Patty Mills. It’s not like this is news. Pop’s never been overly concerned with single regular season games, especially since the big three started to need consistent rest. But it really demonstrates just another reason the Spurs are the best franchise in basketball: hardly anyone on the team, from the players to the execs, is afraid for his job.
Pop’s not on edge about every last win, so he can rest his starters as he sees fit. RC Buford isn’t worried he’ll be fired, so he can take George Hill, an above-average backup point guard, and trade him for the fifteenth pick in the draft, who goes on to do stuff like this.
And yes, it’s been like that mostly because everyone involved is incredibly good at their jobs. But I think it goes the other way as well. The innovation, the experimentation, and the getting-rid-of-everyone-who-doesn’t-fit-the-mold probably don’t happen without guaranteed stability. I have no doubt that as long as the parties are generally competent and enthusiastic about their jobs, everyone benefits from some security.
I have to think this would work for the Blazers. There’s a general consensus that Terry Stotts is a decent coach, and we know he’s smart and willing to innovate. The same goes for Neil Olshey as a general manager. Barring some sort of team-wide collapse that was obviously their fault, I don’t see why keeping them around for an extended period wouldn’t be beneficial. I don’t suppose it’s too radical to suggest that a team be more like the Spurs, but it’s worth noting.
2. Most people have forgotten the hip surgery that sidelined LaMarcus Aldridge for the last 11 games of 2011-12, but it continues to have an impact on this team. Last year Aldridge’s midrange shots went up and his post touches went down, as did his shots at the rim and, most importantly, his shooting percentage. We could chalk it up to a random down year or adjustment to Stott’s offensive system, but I think last year’s relative inefficiency has its origins in that injury. Well, now it seems he’s back, and just in time to lead a Blazers team that’s actually pretty good.
In light of his dominance in the preseason and the first few games of the regular season, I can’t help but think that he was willing to phone in last year to preserve the long-term outlook. The hip problems aren’t new; he had another surgery in 2005. And considering that LMA’s best offensive skill is literally banging his hip into another giant man over and over, it makes perfect sense that he would have taken it easy in 2013. He knew that a) the team would be pretty bad regardless of whether he shot 48% or 51%, b) he had another two years on his contract and didn’t have to worry about deflating his value, and c) a lackluster LaMarcus Aldridge is still a damn good player.
I hate to speculate about players’ motivations from afar, but it’s not too much of a leap to think he’d be okay with a lost year. He’s not outwardly a Kobe-type guy who wants or demands to play injured. And he played with Brandon Roy. He’s seen firsthand the sort of damage that can be caused when a player pushes too hard after an injury.
3. Revamped pick & roll coverage was supposed to be the focal point of the new Portland defense. The slower but longer Robin Lopez was going to hang back near the rim instead of flashing out aggressively to harass the ball-handler. In theory, this prevents point guards from blowing by the screener’s defender and causing havoc in the lane. The center can camp out in the paint and affect the shot closer to the basket, where his lateral quickness doesn’t matter as much as his 7-foot-ness.
The results so far have been pretty mediocre. Stotts and Lopez need to find a bit of a balance. He’s far too slow to contain a point guard on the perimeter all LARRY SANDERS!-like. But if he hangs out as close to the basket as he has been, he gives the point guard just as much of an advantage. Some of the more athletic point guards in the league to today will eat him alive if he doesn’t deter them early. It was clear against the Suns that if he let, say, Eric Bledsoe get to within five feet of the hoop unmolested, it didn’t matter how much more comfortable Lopez was down low, he wasn’t going to stop him. The trick is to stay back far enough to prevent a blow-by, but up far enough that the ball-handler can’t build up a full head of steam. It’ll take some experimenting, and it’s an important development to watch moving forward.
4. Does anyone have any idea why the Blazers play the Spurs so well? LaMarcus always seems to play well in Texas, and we’ve lucked into a couple of their scheduled losses, but I really don’t know. The Blazers have had so much turnover since the success started that it probably can’t have anything to do with playing style. It actually messes up my NBA watching–on a subconscious level, I’m always surprised when the Spurs beat anyone.