Grading the Blazers Happiness

One-quarter of the NBA season is behind us. Teams are pretty much what they are, minus trading deadline moves. After overspending just to overspend, and it sucking the Blazers happiness dry last season, they entered this year with realistic hopes of getting a top four seed, mainly because they added Jusuf Nurkic, an able big man who is versatile in pick and roll and at the rim. Supported by wings Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, it was the Pacific Northwest’s version of a big three. Except.  All of this was on paper. Was it really going to work? And how was Nurkic going to play with expectations and an entire season that magnifies his strengths and elevates his weaknesses. The honeymoon was destined to be over.

The good news for the Blazers is the Western Conference is deeper but not better. There is a lot of (mediocre) parity as evidenced by the 10th seed and below .500 Lakers who are currently three-and-a-half games behind the Blazers for the 4th seed.  The Blazers themselves are just three games behind the Warriors for the second seed. The West is going to get really crazy after the All-Star break. But so far, this is what we know, the blood, sweat and tears of Blazers basketball. Hint: if you like defense and squint your eyes on offense, you’ll love this Blazers squad.

Weaknesses:

  • C Grade. Offensive Rating (18th). Turnovers, 1st Quarter Scoring(19th). Pace,  Second Chance Points, Scoring (20th).
  • D Grade.  Bench Scoring, Points In the Paint (23rd). Field Goal Percentage (24th). 2nd Quarter Scoring (25th). 3-Point Attempts (28th).  Steals (29th).
  • F Grade.  2-Point Percentage (28th). Assists, Fast Break Points (30th).

Strengths:

  • A Grade. Blocks, Defensive Rating(3rd). 3-Point Percentage, Total Rebounding, Opponent Points, Field Goal Percentage Defense, 3-Point Defense (4th). Free Throw Percentage (5th).
  • B Grade. Offensive Rebounding (6th). Free Throw Attempts (10th).

Real Plus-Minus MVP(s)

  • Damian Lillard (7th All Players, 3rd Point Guards)
  • Shabazz Napier (17th Point Guards)
  • C.J. McCollum (5th Shooting Guards)
  • Al-Faroq Aminu (10th Power Forwards)

Bang for the Paul Allen Buck

  • Jusuf Nurkic ($195,000 per point).

Not Bang for the Buck

  • Evan Turner ($2.08 mil per point)

The most important- meaning critical- area the Blazers need to address to move them out of this pack of thieves and on solid ground to contender status is ball movement, assists, letting go of  the rock. The Blazers, with their talented backcourt, are going to make the playoffs in the absence of injuries. They are so far beyond the playoff in or out question mark. What they have yet to conquer is longevity in the second season. How do you get out of playoff kindergarten and into middle school and high school? You move the ball. You pass up an easy shot for an easier one. The Blazers haven’t gotten the memo.

I Share, We Share Assist Per Game League Rank
2017-18 18.2 Last
2016-17 20.9 26th
2015-16 21.3 20th

It’s easy to blame Dame and the crew for not moving the ball but they are extensions of the offensive philosophy. It begins and ends with Terry Stotts who is a defensive coach that has the Blazers giving max effort when they don’t have the ball. But the Blazers do a lot of ball stopping and Dame do your thing while we watch and the ball doesn’t move from side to side.  The Warriors pass the ball on average 312 times per game. The Spurs pass the ball 311 times per game.  Not all high passing teams will make the playoffs; they lack the finishers. But that is not the Blazers problems. They have finishers who don’t get easy baskets because the ball sticks. The Blazers pass the ball 280 times.

Last year’s  trade for Jusuf  Nurkic was a big deal and he has instant chemistry with Lillard.  His alpha personality, plus his game, are the reason the Blazers made the playoffs last year. But he’s been disappointing. He seemed poised for a 20 point per game year. The question about Nurkic is what would happen when all the pressure was on him. The Blazers have been dynamic with just the two guards. But Lillard and McCollum have their contracts signed, sealed and delivered, and have been consistent performers. Nurkic, in a contract year, the so called “missing” Blazers piece, had to take his game to a higher level. He hasn’t.

He has career lows in shooting despite taking the most shots of his career.  His offensive rebounding numbers are way down. His total rebounds are not anything close to last year’s 10.4 Portland mark. But he’s still balling on defense. His offense is the problem and the fact that he has a usage rate of 29%, nearly the same as Damian Lillard. But he is doing less with less. His struggles are where he had strength previous years, his midrange. Get that back again and he’ll seemingly fix his offensive troubles. On offense, Jurkic is keeping the three Blazers stars from being a Big Three. They are more the Big Two and A Half.

Jusuf Nurkic Points FG% Offensive Rebounds Offensive Rating
2017-18 15.2 45.8% 1.9 92
2016-17 10.2 50.7% 2.4 101
2015-16 8.24 41.7% 2.0 92

As for the rest.

Evan Turner was a bust signing last season, not because he’s not a quality role player but because he was overpaid. Turner is the classic “jack of all trades, master of none”. He doesn’t do one thing particularly well but you can trust him to play hard, make shots and be physical in the paint. He is just as woeful as last year, 38% shooting, 21% from three.  I don’t think 8 points was what Neil Olshey was banking on with Turner’s brain freeze of a salary.

Currently tied for 4th (Minnesota) in the conference is good. But the Blazers with Lillard in his prime are looking to push through that Warriors ceiling. But. You build a team to compete against the best in the conference. The Blazers and Neil Olshey forgot that part. There is no one who can match Draymond Green and definitely the Blazers  struggle at the small forward position.

The Blazers identity this far into the season is defense. It keeps the ship rolling and that is a huge improvement from last year in which their defense was frustrating. Their defense lost games for them last year, their defense wins games for them this year.

Yes, they will make the playoffs. We knew that before the 20 games were in the books. The Blazers just have too much talent. But the question has to do with May. How many games will they play?

 

photo  via llananba