New Year’s Resolutions
Despite losing 13 straight games to close out 2012-13, Portland has emerged as a contender. Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge are leading the way as MVP candidates, and Terry Stotts is a front-runner for Head Coach of the Year.
With 2013 officially behind us, Portland has one goal on its mind: sustain success. If it can do this, it will be competing deep into the playoffs, but the question is: What must the Trail Blazers do to accomplish this goal?
Stay Hot From Three
The Blazers have something this season that they’ve lacked in years past: an identity.
Through the first couple of months, Portland has become known as a deadly three-point shooting team. The team is constantly hovering around first in the NBA in attempts, completions and percentage, and it is winning games with the mantra, “Live by the three…”
Portland has done a good job of avoiding the latter half of that motto (die by the three). Even when it has an off night, it has a go-to option in the mid-range in LaMarcus Aldridge who can put the team on his shoulders.
Unfortunately, we have seen the team die on occasion, like when it shot 13.6 percent against the Philadelphia 76ers and lost by two at home.
Staying hot from three is easier said than done, and that’s the reason critics don’t consider the Blazers contenders. Staying hot will prove the doubters wrong, and it will take away any fire power that detractors could have late in the season.
When analyzing the holes in the Trail Blazers’ defense, most fans will point to the paint. It’s been a major weak spot all year, but what’s important to note is that the deficiency is not an accident.
A New Years resolution for the Blazers: a little defense. But hey, I have so much faith that this team will keep improving. #RipCity
— Aldridge for MVP (@AldridgeMVP) January 1, 2014
By design, Stotts’ crew is allowing looks down low. Portland is avoiding double teams like the plague, which creates a situation where it can focus on stopping the three-point line.
In theory, this is a sound plan considering the makeup of the Trail Blazers. They have two upper-echelon perimeter defenders in Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, and while Robin Lopez is down on the block, he’s the last level of defense on a team without other shot blockers.
Here’s the problem with this scheme: The Blazers aren’t forcing turnovers. You would expect a group that relies so heavily on perimeter defense to force more turnovers, but as we enter 2014, they’re dead last in opponent giveaways.
Portland isn’t going to be known as a defensive squad at any point this season, but it would be doing itself a huge favor if it improved in this category. Winning games with threes is fine, but when shots aren’t falling, defense will be the difference between close wins and close losses.
The Trail Blazers’ bench is much improved from the 2012-13 season, but the truth is that this is more an indictment on how bad it was last year and less of an accomplishment at this juncture.
lately Blazers bench has me wondering things like “how bad was Sasha Pavlovic really?”
— ✨PDX Roundball✨ (@pdxroundball) January 3, 2014
Portland’s historically bad showing a season ago has set the bar low, which is why fans are so impressed with guys like Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Joel Freeland. Don’t get me wrong; those three have done a fantastic job of doing what they’re asked to do — they just can’t be the only ones to step up this year, or else the Blazers will be in trouble.
The Blazers’ starters are still playing hefty minutes, which is why the team crashed and burned late last year. The team’s second unit is still near the bottom of the league in points per game, and it still has plenty of room to improve.
Look for the return of CJ McCollum to impact the reserves positively. His scoring will be a nice addition to the backcourt, and his ability to stuff a stat sheet will help Portland all across the board.
Even further, his minutes off the bench will aid in preserving Damian Lillard in the long run, which will only improve Rip City’s chances in the playoffs.
But while CJ McCollum will help bolster an already-solid backcourt, what this team needs is production up front. Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard are being shuffled in and out of the rotation, and it’s tough to project which one steps up and earns a place late in the year.
One of those two needs to assert himself now if he wants to play in the postseason, and the Blazers will be a better team when that finally happens.
Win Winnable Games
This one is huge.
As much as we want to talk about the Blazers’ success against elite teams — it’s beaten every team in the top nine except for the Miami Heat — winning the winnable games is something every playoff team does.
Portland has the attention of the national media, and while many consider it to be a contender, some aren’t buying in just yet. Losses to the Minnesota Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ers and even the surprisingly good Phoenix Suns stand out the most, and those are the one you’ll look back on and regret when seeding becomes a focus at the end of the year.
Give the Blazers credit for what they’ve done thus far, but don’t assume they’re content. We’ve heard Wesley Matthews talk about being “pissed off” after certain losses, and the team needs to turn that passion into production regardless of whom it’s playing.
This team is in good shape to earn home court in the postseason, but surprising losses will have a bigger impact than surprising wins. Sustaining success isn’t going to be easy, but if it comes to fruition, the Blazers will be looked at as a top-tier team entering the 2014 playoffs.