Rip City Exhales But There Are Issues

The night after blowing a 4th quarter lead to the Clippers, which came after blowing a lead at Indiana, the Blazers remembered something about themselves and trounced an undermanned Thunder team with Russell Westbrook as chief villain numero uno. It was a solid performance for a weary team that had been out on the road and had some pretty disappointing finishes. There was a little drama with Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook that wasn’t anything but on court frustration by Westbrook and Lillard as an innocent victim.

Regardless of the stop the bleeding win, this is not the same Blazers team that won 44 games a year ago. This is not the team that was 4th in offensive rebounding, 8th in defensive rebounding, 5th in total rebounding and it carried them to the second round of the playoffs. Their defense was average last year, not rock bottom get out of my way we all stink at contesting shots and making teams go to second or third moves in order to score. Last season, the Blazers were 16th in field goal percentage defense but a cautionary tale no one paid much attention to was the Blazers were near last in 3-point percentage defense and the worst point guard in the league on the defensive spectrum was Damian Lillard.

This is what Rip City likes to talk about. This time last year the Blazers had two less wins and they made the playoffs and got to the second round. But they got to the second round because Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were injured. It wasn’t a fair fight. Furthermore, last year felt different. LaMarcus Aldridge was gone and the Blazers were that little engine that could, proving everyone wrong. This season just feels depressing. Like the Blazers can score all these points and they can’t stop anybody when that team is at full strength.

How did we get here?

It looked like a Blazers win in Indiana as Lillard and McCollum did their part. But the Pacers came back to win. It looked like a Blazers win Monday night in Los Angeles. But the Clippers came back to win. That is the most overused word right now for any team the Blazers play, comeback.

Blazers Issues: They are the third worst defense. They have the worst Defensive Rating in the league, worse than the Lakers and 76ers. They are unable to keep possessions alive, only 19th in offensive rebounding, a drop of 15 from last year. Not surprisingly, their total rebounding numbers are dismal, 24th. They are not creating offense via defense by steals. Their ball movement is good for a lottery team but not playoff basketball ready. Teams score against them at will. They are 26th in 3-point defense.

The Blazers have the worst frontcourt in the NBA. Their frontcourt scores the fewest points and have the third fewest rebounds. The Blazers earth is rotating on a very titled axis. It is the guards or its no one. (The backcourt is the best in the league, 61.2 points).

Damian Lillard: The straw that stirs the drink, Lillard is everything. He is the blood, sweat and tears of the Blazers and just like the Lakers did the right thing letting Shaq go in favor of Kobe, the Blazers made the right decision by passing Lillard the torch. His 8.7 field goal makes per game are a career high as is his 45.6%. He is not at the 3-point level of 2013-14 when he was a near 40% from three scorer but 36.4% is good enough. He is rebounding more and 27.3 points is a career high. HIs PER of 25.0 is elite but his defensive rating has him at the bottom of the league among point guards and he is posting the worst individual defensive rating of his career. The great thing about Lillard’s game is he is a point guard that has the ball in his hands but doesn’t dominate the ball. He dominates scoring with the only weakness 3-10 feet (35.6%) which has been a career dead spot. Lillard is a slightly better scorer at home but as a point guard his game travels everywhere. Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranks Lillard 75th out of 85 point guards. Grade: B+

C.J. McCollum: The Lehigh shooting guard took off where he ended last season, scoring at will. Like Lillard, he is making more shots this year, 8.3, than he ever has. Also like Lillard, he posts a high field goal percentage, 48.0%, which, for McCollum is a big number considering the distance of his shots. More impressive, he is a 47.1% three point shooter. He has a higher accuracy from three than Klay Thompson and Steph Curry. He has upped his rebounding too but his assists are down. He and Lillard post the same defensive rating which is a bad sign and one of the reasons they are below .500. In a guard league, the Blazers backcourt is one dimensional. McCollum has a career high PER and there is no area on the floor he is not posting at least 40% shooting. McCollum boasts almost identical numbers on the road and at home. He is consistent and efficient on offense. Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranks McCollum 87th out of 96 shooting guards. Grade: B+

Allen Crabbe: The Berkeley star got paid a huge contract in the off-season but with mixed results. He is making fewer shots than last season at a lower percentage. But his 41.4% from three is nothing to sneeze at. His rebounds are okay at 3.0 a game. He could be more active and bring in a couple more on the offensive end where he is a no-show. His individual defensive rating is worse than Lillard’s and to be fair he has a tough job having to defend iso players who are athletic and can shoot over him or put the ball on the floor and drive by him without much rim protection to help out. Interesting enough, and a switch of the norm, Crabbe’s worst defense is at home, not on the road. And on the road he pulls down more rebounds. Crabbe, himself is easy to defend. Make him take mid-range shots which he is horrible at. Cover him on the perimeter. Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranks him 88 out of 96 shooting guards. Grade: C+

Mason Plumlee: His minutes have increased and he still is a 50%+ scorer but the bad news is he is a 50%+ free throw shooter. He’s a nice rebounder for the Blazers but his offensive rebounds have dropped this year which has hurt Portland. Plumlee has added to his game and now he is a great ball mover, one of the best in the league at his position, averaging 4.3 assists per game. He’s not a real rim protector, getting a block a game. His defense has fallen way off from his first three seasons and he is posting his worst individual rating. Plumlee is playing in the wrong era. He is one dimensional and in a modern game where big men are asked to have offensive versatility, it is not Plumlee’s game which also hurts the Blazers. He is shooting 35% once he gets away from the rim. Plumlee is better at home, cheered by the Rip City fans, and scores more, and on the road he is a better defender but average shooter. Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranks him 61st out of 69 NBA centers. Grade: C+

The Bench: They are 21st in the league in points, 16th in rebounding, 22nd in assists, 18th in field goal percentage, 11th in 3-point makes. The problem is that once Lillard goes out the game everything goes downhill. Grade: C-

The Blazers are going to make the playoffs. All the teams behind them are either desperate and awful (Kings), rebuilding (Lakers, Nuggets, Suns), old as Mount Rushmore (Mavs), clueless (Pelicans) or downright disappointing (Timberwolves). But in the NBA it doesn’t pay to be in the playoffs and mediocre, an 8 seed ruined by the Warriors. You are successful if you are a contender and have a shot at the conference finals. With the Blazers defense, that is a faraway dream. Back on the road again and meeting the Warriors on Saturday, the Blazers defense will have a critical test.

photo via llananba