By: Alex Knapp
A Blazers State of the Union
Round 5 - February 3, 2017
There has been a lot going on in the NBA the last month or so...
George Karl's over here being racist and insensitive to single parent households, and saying Damian Lillard's rap/shoe game is distracting him from being a true leader (more on that later).
Derrick Rose no-call/no-show'ing to games (that gets you fired at my company).
Westbrook continuing to notch triple doubles.
Isiah Thomas and James Harden trading 50pt games.
Golden State doing that thing where they win all their games, and even when they lose ONE - they treat it as armageddon and use it to galvanize the team back on track.
The Spurs doing that thing where they hang in the shadows all season secretly only being 2.5 games behind the best team in the league, and inevitably also set a franchise records in wins (shhh, don't tell anyone).
All-Star starters, reserves, injury replacements, quadratic equations...wait what?
BUT WE'RE NOT HERE TO TALK ABOUT THE NBA AT LARGE, we're here to talk about one team in particular...THE PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS!!!!
We're halfway through the season and the Portland Trail Blazers recently dropped out of 8th place in the west (this is a very tightly contested / fluid situation that can change nightly).
Is it time to panic? Is it time to trade half the guys on the team that I hate? Is Stotts really a good coach? Did Olshey fuck this whole thing up for us? Does me saying these things make you hate me? Does that make you a homer? (YES!).
Lets start by breaking these things down into a couple different parts.
1st) Is it time to panic? How badly are we really playing? What does the rest of the season look like?
-Currently (at the time of this being written) we are 22-28, 9th place in the west, .5 games out of the 8th seed, with 4 out of the 6 teams below us in the west within 3 games of us. A week from now we could be anywhere from the 8th seed to the 14th seed in the West. Getting up into the 6th/7th seed at this point (currently OKC at 28-21) looks less and less possible with each passing week. Not only would OKC or Memphis (29-21) have to have a cataclysmic collapse, but we would ALSO have to outplay the other 6 teams we are so closely grouped with. Sorry fellow Blazer fans, it's not going happen. The best we can hope for is to vie for the 8th seed all season and clinch it near the end.
According to John Hollinger's Advanced Team Stats, the Blazers are 11th in Offensive Rating (106.6), 25th(108.5) in Defensive Rating, and 24th(48.7) in Rebounding Rate. Despite what some delusional Blazer fans may tell you (Robert Franco), their recent improvements on the defensive end (and decreased production on the offensive end) isn't moving the needle in the overall aggregate of improving our defensive numbers. And while those defensive numbers were a tad better in January - they will, like all things - regress back to the mean for the remainder of the season. It's been our problem since constructing this roster - we can't defend opposing scoring guards on the perimeter, which puts our bigs in bad situation after bad situation, and causes our entire back line of defenders to either give up layups or open 3's over an over again. We also don't have a 1 on 1 defender for a larger interior presence (go look up Boogie and Marc Gasol's scoring numbers this season against us, then come back). And in 90% of our wins, it's not by holding opposing players that kill us to under their averages, but simply by outshooting them from the perimeter, or deciding to play aggressive offensive basketball (everything to the rim) that night - which is a rare sight.
For example, the win against the Lakers on Jan 25th (105-98) saw us get the bulk of our points from inside the arch and shooting a very good % from close in, while floundering from the 3 point line. We spread the scoring load around the team, not usually how our offense wins games, and not something fans should get used to. We got out rebounded, and also gave up 53 points to Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson...THEY'RE BACKUP GUARDS!!! If you give up 50 points to a team's 3rd and 4th guards who come off the bench, you will lose more games than you win. Keep in mind the Lakers are the 2nd worst team in the Western conference (17-34); a good playoff teams wipes the floor with them.
Halfway through the season I think we are who we are. We win most games when Dame and CJ go off together. We have a chance to win games when a 3rd offensive players has a great game. We win games on the off night that we are uber aggressive getting to the rim and free throw line - a pretty rare occurrence. And we lose most other kinds of games - which ends up being about 50/50 win/lose at the end of things. Which is exactly where we probably will land, .500 or a handful of games below, which might be good enough for the 8th seed...but also might not.
2) Is it Terry Stott's fault?
On January 21st the Blazers won an OT nail-bitter against the Boston Celtics. A game that only went to overtime because of a horrible decision by Terry Stotts.
"With Boston trailing by one in the closing seconds of regulation, Lillard went to the line and hit two free throws, making it 113-110 with 10.8 seconds left. But Terry Rozier's 3-pointer from the right wing tied it with 8.4 seconds left. " - ESPN.com game review.
What that game review didn't tell you, was what happened during the timeout between the two plays mentioned above. With Boston's pending sideline inbounds play - and knowing Brad Stevens is an Out of Timeout (OTO) master, Terry tried to outsmart the room by subbing in "defensive stalwart" Shabazz Napier - Napier who hadn't played 1 minute that game and has a whopping -1.7 Defensive +/- this season (aka: he is a very average/below average defender).
Stotts puts Napier on Isaiah Thomas (WHAT?), but a screen is set immediately, and Lillard switches to cover IT (I'm sure "switch everything" was the game-plan). Napier then gets caught out of position because he stupidly decided to go under the screen instead of trail it - so in his feeble attempt to cover his new man (Terry Rozier), Marcus Smart lives up to his namesake and delivers a simple pass to a wide open Rozier on the 3pt line (we were up 3 - "anything but a 3" should have been the game-plan), and Rozier knocks the wide open shot down to send it to overtime.
Napier played 0 minutes the previous game against the 76ers, and again played 0 minutes the next game against the Lakers.
This is a perfect example of Terry Stotts' shortcomings as a coach. His complete lack of consistent rotations, not establishing roles and habits for secondary / bench players, AND THEN his insistence to use them in incredibly pivotal moments or stretches of the game with no prior warning or reps in those moments. This is why Noah Vonley, Jake Laymen, and even Napier will never become anything of note with our current roster construction and Stotts' current use of players 7-12. They simply won't get the consistent opportunities, and when they do - they won't be sufficiently prepared for them.
As "overreacting to a minuscule idea" I may be, this has a serious impact and trickle down effect in games where we need our bench players to seriously step up to win. They often don't, and Terry Stotts is the reason.
3) Is it Neil Olshey's fault?
I could write this section a million ways.
I could do a blind "ABC" player comparison of guys who signed middle to massive offseason contracts, show you their stats and salaries, ask you who you think is who, only to reveal that none of those players are Blazers, but all the guys the Blazers missed out on.
THEN do a 2nd reveal to show that even when you compare the most underwhelming performance of other teams off-season signings, our players still blow those guys away with their poor performance compared to their astronomical contracts.
THEN in very plain English tell you "Neil fucked up."
Don't make me have to show you Gerald Henderson VS Allen Crabbe OR Evan Turner Stats, you don't want to see that.
THEN adjust those stats to show a "per-million dollar" metric. You definitely don't want to see that!
Don't make me list every player I wanted us to sign instead of Evan Turner, who went for less money and is now performing better. Don't make me do it. Even Luol Deng is basically nose to nose with Evan Turner statistically. And Deng is longer, can defend more positions, and is known as a top 5 locker room guy in the league - and people are still shitting all over his contract!
Even if you want to make the argument that our offseason moves made sense on paper or "in a vacuum," or that this was the best we could do because we struck out on dudes Neil wanted (Chandler Parsons and Dwight Howard?). Olshey still comes out as totally fucking us, because nothing in the NBA happens "in a vacuum" or "on paper", all of these decisions have real data driven consequences and everything is done in comparison to what the other 29 teams did in similar situations. Evan Turner's contract is a bad contract PRECISELY BECAUSE Eric Gordon signed for 53 million instead of 70 million, and is playing at an all-star-reserve discussion level.
Oh, and shut the fuck about Allen Crabbe's contract being somehow worth it. The dude had 3 good games in the beginning of January, followed by a stretch of 7, 5, 5, 4, and 6 point games. Crabbe has one 30 point game and all of a sudden he's the fucking 6th man of the year - proves Olshey is a genius, y'all should get slapped. He'll end the season with the same stats he had last year (mediocre), and yet be the 31st highest paid player in a league of 400+ players. There is no argument in the world for that.
4) Everything else...
Don't bank on Festus Ezili playing for us this season - and being the interior rim protector we all want and the Blazers desperately need. Get that out of your head. In fact, prepare yourself for the real possibility he may never play a game for the Blazers EVER. Yes we got him for very cheap (obviously for a reason), and while it was a "lottery ticket" signing, it's still yet another small ding against Olshey. You go around signing dudes who can't physically play, you're going to find yourself at the bottom of the league with a top 5 payroll...oh wait...
Myers Leonard is my least favorite player in the NBA, mainly because of how blatantly obvious it is that he will never reach his potential. When he shoots wide open 3's and slams down the lane to dunk every other time he touches the ball (and doesn't try to do anything else on the offensive end) he's fine (the previously mentioned Boston game as reference). The problem is, this only happens 1 out of every 5 games. The rest of the time he is the most infuriating doofus I've ever seen. 4 years in, and 10 million dollars a year you'd expect a little bit more. You're only a "prospect / project" for so long until you turn into a fucking worthless piece of shit player. Can we all agree we are hitting that point with Myers?
Mason Plumee isn't the answer at starting C, though I would adore him coming off the bench. His "playmaking" prowess comes more out of an offensive scheme deficiency/necessity than out of "this is how to best use him," and still doesn't cover up for his lack of rim protection. He's going to command big money this offseason as a RFA. A smart GM wouldn't resign him to a massive deal (with money we don't have), but that's never stopped Olshey before...
Aminu's recent injury issues and the way he was used in last years playoffs (stand in the corner and shoot 3's), have no doubt led him to be infuriatingly less aggressive towards the rim this season. He's averaging a horrendous 26% from 3pt on 3.3 attempts per game. He's averaging a career low in FG% per game, and a career high in assists per game. He's passing more, dunking less, and shooting horribly from 3. This is not good. By the way, Aminu is touted as Neil Olshey's best free agent signing. He's probably still outproducing his minuscule contract, but not really helping us win anymore.
5) What now?
So yes, maybe it's time to panic, depending on if you thought the Blazers were going to the western conference finals this year, or even a top 6 seed.
And yes, we are playing the worst basketball in the Stotts/Lillard era, with little signs of reversing the trends.
Yes, the rest of the season looks bleak, but there is fun and excitement in a playoff chase. The battle for the 8th seed is at least watchable and galvanizing.
Sure, these issues could definitely be traced back to Terry Stotts' lack of rotational consistency, poor offensive diversity, and failing defensive scheme to make up for our positional shortcomings.
And absolutely, Neil Olshey doesn't only hit home-runs, this last offseason he consistently struck out and pop-fly'd his way through. Moe Harkless may be the only real good thing he's done in the last 12 months - if he ends up being the guy we trade it will be a travesty and I will officially be OUT on Olshey forever.
But for now (and also forever) this is my team. I have no choice but to keep watching, holding onto a glimmer of hope that "this game" is going to be the one where they turn it around, where things start to click, and set off a record-turning winning streak. I have to keep hoping that Olshey and the front office make a couple smart trades, maybe turning Evan Turner, Myers Leonard, Noah Vonley and a 1st round pick into something that helps us win, takes the pressure off of Dame and CJ, and makes it harder for teams to score at the rim. But unlike some of my fellow Rose-city-colored glasses wearing Blazer fans, I'm not banking on it.