December 19, 2008
Though the explosion went down long after most of America's bedtime, Brandon Roy's 52 points and an entertaining Trail Blazer win over the Suns on Thursday night will likely vault Portland back into the "can they?" group of also-rans trying to do damage to the Lakers' chances.
I'm not so sure that this team is there yet, though it easily has enough potential and more than enough room to grow into the role of Conference champs, even this year.
The biggest change has to come on an end that most observers aren't expecting. In fact, if you get the announcing crew for the visiting team on any League Pass telecast of the Trail Blazers, they're likely to classify Portland as a darn good defensive team.
That makes sense, right? A hard-nosed former player who was known for his sterling defense runs the show as coach. Guys like Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla can't be anything but helpful defenders in the lane, and guards like Brandon Roy and Steve Blake are known for being "blue-collar workers," which usually lends itself to a defensive tone. Throw in a rookie forward who only starts because of his defense, and you would seem to have all the makings for a top defensive outfit.
Well, they do have all the makings for it. That much is correct. But the defense, thus far, has been horrible-to-well below average. This might be news to those who are looking at the 95.4 points per game Portland gives (10th in the NBA), but the team's slow pace 86.4 possessions per game (slowest in the NBA) obscures everything.
It doesn't mean that the first glances and obvious attributes have to be wrong, though. Nicolas Batum is a very good defender, but he fouls quite a bit, and the points Portland allows when he's on the floor (about 110 per 100 possessions, pretty lousy) are as bad as Travis Outlaw's mark. And Brandon Roy's, for that matter.
There aren't many obvious answers, though, beyond just getting these guys just to play better defense. The Blazers are slightly better at playing D with Rudy Fernandez on the floor, but one of the team's worst attributes is causing turnovers, and Rudy's propensity for grabbing steals isn't that hot. Steve Blake's defense is pretty awful, but what are the Blazers going to do, throw a converted shooting guard rookie point man out there instead?
Well, yeah. Jerryd Bayless has been pretty OK (slight praise, bad English) defensively this year, but he's been a horror show on the other end, and Blake is having a career-year offensively. Blake's a big reason Portland is ranked 2nd in offensive efficiency, and the Blazers need to take advantage of his prime. So Bayless would help the defense, just not the overall shot at winning.
It's a worrying situation. As fun as Thursday's win was, the Blazers gave up 132.2 points per 100 possessions in the win. That's as bad as any team in the NBA this year, save for last Suns, who gave up a few more. For comparison's sake, the Washington Wizards are last in the NBA in giving up about 113 points per 100 possessions, and the Blazers are 23rd while giving up 109.2.
So the answer, for now, is just to chip away at that "23," and hope to sustain the offense. It can happen. Portland spent the first month of the season languishing in the low 20s defensively, so the squad has improved already.
This is a terrific team, led by a 24 year old in Brandon Roy who is already giving you a 25 PER. That's good stuff. Someone like Mitch Richmond or Reggie Miller never came close to that their careers, despite all the "he's so underrated" nonsense about Richmond, and the fact that Reg was on national TV about a trillion times in his career. Roy is playing spectacular basketball, though his stats don't bowl you over due to Portland's super-slow pace.
Get giddy about the Blazers, but understand that this team still has a lot of work to do. And then get giddy again knowing that this team has the players and talent to work on what needs to be done.