Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview & Predictions – 11/17
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
After the week the Blazers just had, going oh-for-four, a few things became clear:
Damian Lillard is trying to win the game by himself, and failing miserably. The last four games saw Lillard shoot a putrid 37% from the field. Without the spacing provided by Meyers Leonard the last two games in particular, he’s struggled to even get a decent shot off from three-point range; Dame’s one for his last 14 from three.
Speaking of Leonard, if there was an injury that could cripple the Blazers other than Lillard, it was poor Meyers. His stats so far aren’t very impressive, sure (8.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 26% 3PT FG%), but it’s his presence that matters. He represented the one true shooting threat not just among the big men, but among anybody in the frontcourt. With Moe Harkless disappearing lately and Noah Vonleh not consistent enough with his jumper yet, losing Meyers to a dislocated shoulder is going to put a wrench in a Blazer offense that must be good at all times; that defense sure won’t be.
CJ McCollum is regressing to the mean. After the hot-shooting start that had everybody from TNT analyst Chris Webber to CBSSports.com columnist Zach Harper commenting on his offensive skills, CJ displayed the other edge to that double-edged sword microwaves like him are. Other than a 26-point effort against Memphis (including 7-14 from the field and 10-10 from the free-throw line), McCollum’s been almost as inefficient as Lillard, shooting under 40% the last week. Averaging less than a point per shot from the field in four games is not ideal, Bob. Especially when you don’t do anything else of significance on an NBA court.
Mason Plumlee and Vonleh started yesterday in Charlotte, and while Plumlee was a beast on the boards (13 rebounds in Charlotte), both he and Vonleh so far this season register negative on-court/off-court ratings. The Blazers are three points better with Plumlee off the floor than on. As for Vonleh, the number balloons to 10.7 points better with him on the pine instead of in the game. This season is about letting the young guys take their lumps, and in the cases of Plumlee and Vonleh, it shows.
This season was never about wins and losses for Portland, but about potential and progress. The Blazers showed some fight against a good team in San Antonio, and against fellow bad teams Denver and Memphis, but against the improved Hornets (with Nic Batum having the revenge game to end all revenge games), they caved early. Let’s hope these young guys not only keep fighting, but fight harder against teams demonstrably better than they are.
Time for picks! Let’s go!
(Stats courtesy of NBA.com and basketball-reference.com. All games can be heard on AM 620 Rip City Radio)
The Skinny: One of the Western Conference finalists last season, the Rockets have had a weird start to the season.
With Dwight Howard off and on the court, Terrance Jones limited by an eye injury, and James Harden continuing to do the heavy lifting, Houston’s started off with a 4-6 record. The record doesn’t reflect just how much they’ve been up-and-down, either.
The Rockets have beaten Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers, but lost twice to the rebuilding Denver Nuggets, and became the first team to lose to the Brooklyn Nets, considered to be the worst squad in the NBA so far this season.
(The Nets have no first-round draft pick too, trading that to Boston a few years ago. Brooklyn could finish with the worst record in the league, and forfeit a guaranteed top-four pick to a divisional rival. Thank the good Lord Portland isn’t run like that.)
Houston has had two three-game losing streaks sandwiching a four-game winning streak. Looking for any kind of correlation or link to this kind of play, I found one thing of note. In their four wins so far, Houston’s scored more than 100 points. In each of their six losses, they’ve failed to reach the century mark.
The Rockets will reach 100 points many times this year; they won’t continue to shoot 28% from three-point range as a team, not with their shooters and overall philosophy. The real question is whether their defense, which improved a great deal last year, regressed back to average. They played well on D with Howard hurt for much of 2014-15, but that might be an outlier; a team being better on defense while not having its best defender on the court would make one think that.
Player To Watch: CJ McCollum. Al-Farouq Aminu likely will get the unenviable task of checking Harden on defense, but as usual, it’s all about the offensive end with CJ. For the Blazers to have a chance to win, McCollum must make Harden work on defense, and have a good night shooting the ball.
Harden’s gotten better on defense, but making the Rockets’ superstar work wherever he is on the defensive end is on every scouting report in the NBA, and until Ty Lawson gets his act together and takes pressure off Harden, it will continue to be an effective strategy.
Prediction: The Rockets have been extremely unpredictable so far, as detailed above. If a team can gag away a game to the pitiful Nets, they’re capable of losing anytime, anywhere.
The 100-point barrier is another valid thing, though. The Blazers haven’t shown much spine on defense so far this year, and expecting them to find it in Houston seems like a stretch. I’ll say Houston wins.
The Skinny: After all the drama surrounding DeAndre Jordan in the offseason, and after the shuffling head coach/president of basketball operations Doc Rivers did to the bench in that same offseason, I think it’s fair to wonder whether after 10 games if these Clippers are the same kind of team that’s been succeeding in the regular season and failing in the playoffs since Chris Paul was acquired.
The offense still excels despite the lack of spacing and three-point shooting, J.J. Redick aside. Paul’s shooting has been poor so far, Griffin’s busted his butt just to shoot reasonably well from midrange, and the small forward spot is the same hodgepodge of head cases, old farts, and waiver wire refugees it’s been since Rivers’ arrival.
The elite passing skills of both Paul and Griffin make things work, but as Houston showed last year, and teams before demonstrated, top defenses can constrict those actions when they see them for more than one or two games in a few weeks. The Clippers brought aboard Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson, Paul Pierce, and Wesley Johnson in an effort to both find a capable 3-man and find someone that can create offense, and play off of any Paul-Griffin action, or take advantage of the gravitational pull an elite shooter like Redick has on a defense.
The problems with each man are that Smith is more suited to backing up Griffin, Pierce is on his last legs, Johnson is a draft bust close to washing out of the league, and Stephenson is…unique. Stephenson has a dribble-drive game, but he tends to go one-on-one like he’s on a New York playground instead of in an NBA game, with too much dribbling and horrible shots that are as likely to take someone’s head off as they are to go through the hoop.
Lance also shot below the proverbial Mendoza Line from three last year (17%), and after a good start to the year from three, he fell back to Earth. He’ll likely be a below-average shooter his whole career, and that isn’t what Los Angeles needs.
Despite Rivers’ best efforts, this Clippers squad has the feel of a top-heavy team that doesn’t have the versatility, depth, or mental toughness to fulfill the championship expectations placed on them by the LA media, national pundits seduced by Griffin’s gaudy numbers and Paul’s competitiveness, and the Clippers themselves.
Player To Watch: Keep an eye on both Plumlee and whomever starts at power forward for Portland. Griffin and Jordan are averaging a combined 36 points and 23 rebounds per game, and the Griffin-to-Jordan short lob to the hoop is one of the deadliest plays in basketball.
Keeping these guys off the boards, and Griffin from putting up 40 points, is going to be one whale of a challenge for the youngsters. An early test to see if anyone’s improved even slightly on defense 13 games into the year.
Prediction: The Clippers have been almost as patchy as the Rockets, but at least they’ve mostly beaten the bad teams they’ve played. Expect them to slice and dice the Blazers.
The Skinny: In consecutive games, the Blazers go from playing one of the better teams in the league to one of the very worst--if there’s a team in the West that is definitively worse than Portland right now, it’s the Los Angeles Lakers. Hey, you gotta take what comfort you can when you’re back in the outhouse.
The way this team is run is confusing, to say the least. There’s been reports that coach Byron Scott, desperate to keep his job, has been benching his young players in fourth quarters, depriving valuable lottery picks Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell of precious crunch-time minutes in a misguided attempt to win games.
The Lakers are both terrible and terribly coached. The team owes its first-round draft pick to the Philadelphia 76ers unless it’s in the top three, and given that the Lakers’ roster is still bereft of quality NBA players, it would behoove them to both give the youngsters ample time to play and learn from their mistakes, and to lose enough games to retain their pick, and add to their future.
Instead, the franchise is held hostage by Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour (which I’ll go into the next time these teams meet), the outsize expectations of a spoiled fan base, and Byron Scott’s short leash on the young guys. Scott in particular is a legitimate hindrance, both in philosophy and how he doles out playing time, and the sooner the Lakers fire him and sever more ties to the past, the better off their future will be.
Player To Watch: Damian Lillard. The last time Lillard faced a rookie point guard, Emmanuel Mudiay of Denver swallowed up his layup attempts and the Blazers lost the game. Mudiay had his first big NBA game against Dame, and D’Angelo Russell is a similarly sized and gifted kid.
It’s fair to say Lillard got outplayed by Mudiay overall, and whenever a team’s best player is outplayed by a rookie at his position, it’s going to be a very bad night. If the Blazers want to pick up a win and stop the slide they’re on, Lillard can’t let Russell have success, on either end of the court.
Prediction: The Blazers are young and bad, but the Lakers are young, bad, and poorly led. Portland wins.
Last week, Portland went 0-4 and I went 2-2, thanks to predicting two losses correctly. I’ve a feeling my record will look better as the Blazers continue struggling against good teams, and this week looks like a tough one.
Trail Blazers’ Record: 4-7
Jared’s Picks Record: 3-8
Related Slideshow: 12 of the Greatest Sports Movies of All Time
Hank Stern ranks his top twelve favorite sports films.
#8 The Longest Yard
Not the remake with Adam Sandler and Chris Rock. But the hilarious original with Burt Reynolds and Eddie Albert as a wonderfully villainous warden who pits the guards against the inmates in a grudge football game that includes former Green Bay linebacker Ray Nitschke and other ex-football players like Sonny Sixkiller and Joe Kapp, both stalwart Pac-8 quarterbacks long, long ago.
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