TrueHoop: Damian Lillard

The Trail Blazers are here to stay

May, 6, 2014
May 6
By Daniel Nowell
Special to
Damian LillardSteve Dykes/Getty ImagesDamian Lillard's series-clinching buzzer-beater announced the Trail Blazers' arrival on the big stage.
The Portland Trail Blazers are once again a marquee team. There are qualifiers to be made and some nuance to add, but let’s treat Portland’s series win over the Houston Rockets -- and the Damian Lillard buzzer-beater on which it occurred -- as what it was: a step from the league’s periphery to its center, from a potential team of tomorrow to a team of today.

That’s sort of a sticky claim, I realize, so let me elaborate. In many ways, the Blazers have already had a legitimizing season. They came in with playoff expectations, won 54 games and established themselves pretty soundly as one of the more enjoyable viewing appointments in the league. But they were nonetheless more spice than entrée, a refreshing diversion from the title pursuits and metropolitan melodrama that keeps the focus of an NBA season elsewhere.

That has changed because of what the Blazers proved in the first round. When next season tips off, fans nationwide will make note of Blazers games. Matchups with teams chasing titles will become portentous measuring sticks. Visits from superstars will become showdowns. Over the course of this season, the Blazers were a team to tune in for; over the past two weeks, they proved themselves a team to invest in.

Legitimacy in the age of constant analysis is a fickle concept. Mostly, fans are smart enough now to understand that close losses aren’t really an indication of quality. If the Blazers had dropped the Rockets series -- after the Jeremy Lin-to-Troy Daniels prayer and the Chandler Parsons miracle putback preceding Lillard’s dagger -- most would understand that a good team caught some tough breaks. There would probably have been relatively quiet doubts about their toughness, and a few somewhat louder doubts about late-game execution, but the Blazers were already playing with house money.

All of which is an accomplishment, but not what you strive for. Broadly speaking, the NBA season is a drama starring LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and maybe four other teams whose play seems to organize the long months. There are other players who can enliven a few scenes, but the gap between character actors and star teams is a big one. And what the stars have in common, I contend, is their ability to contradict the sum of what we know about them, which is now a good deal more than it used to be.

We return to the Blazers. They peaked early, played intermittently acceptable defense and were anchored by a big man who shot more midrange jumpers than any other player in the league. We knew them. Until, that is, LaMarcus Aldridge went for more than 80 points in the first two games and Lillard buried what may be the most important shot in Blazers’ history.

More about that shot, because it deserves it: What will endure for me is not just that Lillard got off such a clean look, or that he buried it, but the way he clapped for the ball as he ran free around a double screen, already realizing what was coming. After the game, Nic Batum admitted that the first option for the play was Aldridge, but Lillard was clapping so confidently that Batum knew he had to get him the ball. For me, it’s the clap that elevates the shot to a place where it elevates the whole team.

Essentially, I am arguing that the NBA’s ruling class -- dysfunctional or competitive -- is the class of teams that have proven an ability to exceed fans’ imaginations, and in doing so hold their attentions. They elevate what could not happen to that which happens. Nobody, in their first NBA postseason, gets a wide open 28-footer with less than a second left to clinch a series on their home court. It’s simply too neat. Until Damian Lillard does.

With a series, and with a shot that changed the series, the Blazers join the small class of teams fans will entrust a season story to, because they have now proven an ability to go farther than reason could take them. We watch to see whether LeBron will become the indomitable force he did when he scored 29 of the Cavs’ final 30 points, to see whether the Knicks can best their own standard for dysfunction. To see whether Portland’s young point guard can possibly continue to be one of the league’s most dangerous options in the clutch.

If they were playing with house money before, the Trail Blazers are perhaps doubly so now. Though they’ve matched up well with San Antonio this season, they’re getting long odds on a series upset. If they lose, they will be remembered for their wildly entertaining series and that incredible shot, and they are positioned to improve for the foreseeable future. Of course they have more to play for, and of course they aren't just happy to be here. But after a series in which they took fans to a higher state than we could have predicted, they've proven they belong here, where everybody is watching.

Blazers, Rockets take similar paths to Rd. 1

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
By Daniel Nowell
Special to

The Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets tip off Sunday in a first-round matchup that will seem, in many ways, like warp-speed shadow boxing.

This series is perhaps the most stylistically even of any in the opening round -- both teams are in the league’s top five in 3-point attempts, and both are in the top 10 in pace. Both are defined by inside-out, All-Star combinations, and both are led by staid coaches who believe in letting it fly when the opportunity presents itself. Both teams are in the middle third of the league in defensive rating, so fans of high-scoring marksmanship competitions will likely find this matchup irresistible.

For all the broad-stroke similarities between the two teams, however, the truly compelling aspects will be found in the details. For instance, Portland’s offensive style is committed to flow and ball movement; the ball tends to move radially around LaMarcus Aldridge post-ups in Portland, swinging around until it produces a seam to attack inward.

Houston, conversely, relies very much on James Harden’s ability to produce from the outside in, beating the game into submission with drive after drive to the rim and the free throw lane. In fact, with the league increasingly favoring shots at the rim and behind the arc as cornerstones of healthy offense, Portland and Houston represent two contrasting approaches to realizing the ideal.

On the one hand, Portland has an almost principled commitment to an open, aesthetically pleasing style of basketball, and coach Terry Stotts takes pride in a fan-friendly product. Houston, on the other hand, combines random bursts of transition frenzy with a stubborn, almost cynical dedication to producing free throws with Harden drives and Dwight Howard post-ups.

If you wanted to read that ideological divide into the teams’ organizational characters, you’d find plenty to support it. In Houston’s corner is GM Daryl Morey, high-volume trader king of the league, and his counterpart is former actor and workout guy Neil Olshey.

Olshey inherited much of Portland’s core, and what he didn’t inherit he has built with holistic finesse. Aldridge was the lone All-Star when Olshey took over the team -- adding a scoring point guard in Damian Lillard and a yeoman rim protector in Robin Lopez.

Morey inherited … well, who can remember? The Morey model views players as assets, and an accumulation of assets must always be gathering interest. After a few years of stockpiling, he liquidated and found himself holding the gems -- Harden and Howard.

When these teams played this season, it played out more or less how a bookie might call it. Houston held a 3-1 advantage in games and a combined margin of plus-26 points. Where the Blazers have All-Stars, the Rockets have superstars, and Houston has proven slightly more tenacious on defense than Portland.

Among rotation players, Portland has just two real defensive specialists, and, while Lopez and Wesley Matthews are smart, rugged, and dutiful, their Houston counterparts, Howard and Patrick Beverley, are simply more disruptive.

Crucially, Lillard is shooting just 25 percent against Beverley, and his ability to improve upon that mark might well decide the series. The Blazers rely on two pressure valves: Aldridge’s abilities from midrange on the left block and Lillard’s ability to cash in from any range when left unattended.

When Beverley is on the floor, Lillard is hardly ever unattended, and, what’s more, the Houston provocateur has done what few defenders have in seeming to get under Lillard’s skin enough to draw comment. After a particularly physical exchange earlier this season, Lillard somewhat famously told reporters "I’m just not going to let somebody be in my chest doing all that extra stuff." From Portland’s measured young All-Star, that rates as near-vitriol.

On the other side of the ball, the Blazers have had difficulty slowing Harden but might be more concerned with Howard bludgeoning their thin front line. Beyond Lopez, the Blazers lack a real post deterrent, and foul trouble will bring Joel Freeland, recently recovered from a sprained MCL, more in focus than Portland would like. Though the Blazers have consistently proven unable to contain Harden, they’ll need to be just as careful, over two weeks of attrition, not to allow Howard to control the series.

There are other players. Portland’s Nicolas Batum has oscillated between being the West’s most versatile offensive player and a nearly unfelt one; Houston’s Chandler Parsons provides a similar flexibility to the Houston lineups. It appears that everywhere you look this series, a strength is met with a nearly equal one.

Certainly, it appears the Rockets have a wider margin of error, but this series seems destined to provide viewers with the best that postseason basketball has to offer: adjustments, readjustments and two teams who figure to play larger roles over the next few springs.

The Trail Blazers go public

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7
By Bethlehem Shoals
Special to
BlazersSam Forencich/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Blazers aren't just a Portland thing anymore. LaMarcus Aldridge & Co. are ready for the limelight.
Over the past few years, Portlanders have seen their city turned into an exportable commodity. Between "Portlandia," foodie buzz, the vogue for livable cities, and the tourists who flock around the Ace Hotel, the city stands for something other than itself; it’s communal property, easily beloved and useful for those who may just be passing by or imagining it from afar. It’s reached the point that Atlanta rappers Young Thug and Bloody Jay named their latest mixtape “Black Portland,” in part as a nod to the city’s reputation as some sort of Shangri-La for creatives.

At this point, Portland’s national -- and international -- profile no longer comes as a surprise. What made “Black Portland” unusual was that it used the Trail Blazers' logo, conflating the reputation of the city with its up-and-coming NBA power team. It’s a connection so obvious, you have to wonder why it’s not getting made more often. Especially when the team, behind dark-horse MVP candidate LaMarcus Aldridge and All-Star Damian Lillard, has found itself near the top of the West all season. These Blazers may not be a national phenomenon yet, but they’re well on their way.

Outside of Portland, the history of the Trail Blazers goes something like this: Bill Walton, the 1977 NBA title, the 1984 draft, Jordan’s shrug at Cliff Robinson, the 2000 West finals, Jail Blazers jokes, the Greg Oden pick, a notable Brandon Roy performance (your pick) and fin. Not bad for a far-flung sports team in a small city. But by and large, they Blazers have registered on the national radar only when they’re within striking distance of a title or reduced to a total laughingstock. Successful as Portland’s teams have been over the years, visibility and notoriety have rarely been their strong suit. That’s why it’s exciting to see them starting to really deserve, and get, that kind of attention.
[+] EnlargeNicolas Batum, Damian Lillard
AP Photo/Tony DejakDamian Lillard has blossomed into an All-Star in his second season.

For the Blazers and their fans, then, a return to national prominence might involve some growing pains. I’ve been in Portland for a little over a year now, in the Northwest for six years total. What’s striking about the Blazers and their fan base -- and here, I’m contrasting them with the sports culture of the East Coast -- is how darn easy to please they are. The “only game in town” argument never really goes away, but remember, Blazers fandom extends far outside of the usual demographics. In the same way that “hipster” is the rule not the exception here, gawking at nontraditional sports fans loses its novelty really fast in Portland. Blazers fandom reminds me of college ball frenzy or a city in the thick of the postseason. It’s all hands on deck, all of the time. And that special bond almost always errs on the side of supporting, encouraging and revering the team. You know, all those things that fans in theory do for their team. It’s a little bit quaint, until you remember how absurd its sports-talk-driven obverse is.

There’s been only one time that Portland has turned its back on the Blazers. That was, of course, during the Jail Blazers era, when Zach Randolph, Ruben Patterson and Qyntel Woods brought shame on a team already struggling to find its competitive footing. That period was also so abysmal that it ended nearly two decades of consecutive sellouts -- impressive in any sport, nearly miraculous in a league where regular-season attendance is something like an inside joke. Then came Roy and Aldridge, a sense of renewal, and an enthusiasm that seemed to celebrate a return to normalcy as much as a real chance at a title.

All of this sets up a tidy little ecosystem: As long as the Blazers stay credible, the fans can be proud of them and the pressures are minimal. But in a season like this, there’s a reason to take the national perspective, that all-encompassing, wide-angle view of the league, to ask how the Blazers stack against powerhouses like Miami or OKC.

This season, the Blazers are one of those teams. Aldridge isn’t just a star big man, he’s a guy showing up on MVP ballots. Lillard isn’t just the future of the franchise, he’s looking like a big part of the NBA’s future. The Trail Blazers have gone national without really preparing for it. Portland is no longer a team that lives in the nightly results, it’s the main event on a regular basis. Friday’s national game will be their second of the week . For a fan base used to having Portland as their team, I imagine this is somewhat disorienting. It must be hard to avoid making the shift from keeping expectations reasonable to expecting too much.

There’s another side to the Blazers this season that might be even trickier for hometown fans to appreciate. They may not be the most exotic or enthralling team in the league, but they’re certainly one of the prettiest. Strip away all concerns about winning and losing and focus only on the aesthetic of basketball: the Blazers’ ball movement, the jump-shooting that splits the difference between fearless and mechanistic, Aldridge’s sweeping movements, Lillard’s nightly derring-do, and Batum’s sleek resourcefulness. Spend enough nights watching and Portland will become one of your favorites really fast. The Blazers are irresistible if you happen to flip past one of their games.

They also are just dangerous enough, and inconsistent enough, that they’re never fully in or fully out of any game. They play with a confidence that, in less agile hands, could be mistaken for recklessness. Their defense kicks in at just the right time, usually in the second half; whether their shooting is on or off, the Blazers run their system, fully convinced that sooner or later it will bury their opponents under a flurry of jumpers and quick moves around the basket.

The Blazers are, for lack of a better word, one of the NBA’s great foils this season. Anyone versus the Blazers is going to be an entertaining matchup, something maybe only the Warriors can claim with any consistency. They somehow bring out the best in other teams, pushing the game without things erupting into run-and-gun absurdism. Portland isn't a team you want to play because there’s a high probability you will lose. However, playing them practically guarantees something entertaining.

So far, February has been a mixed bag for the Blazers. Aldridge wasn’t voted into the All-Star Game as a starter, meaning the team isn't quite visible enough to start winning popularity contests. But Aldridge and Lillard were both selected as reserves, a thumbs-up from West coaches that confirms the two can indeed play a little. Lillard has announced plans to participate in all five of All-Star Weekend's major events, a publicity masterstroke that he can more than back up. The team opened the month with a loss to the Wizards, the kind of bout with a mediocre Eastern Conference squad that the Blazers are supposed to win. They took care of the Knicks on Wednesday, hopefully righting the ship. Between the Pacers on Friday and a visit from the Thunder on Tuesday, the Blazers have a chance to head into the break with a real show of force. Or, if things go badly, a new round of questions about their legitimacy.

When asked about “Black Portland,” Lillard told Danny Chau that the title “shows that people are seeing what we’re doing, and people respect it. … The fact that they’re inspired by that, as artists, based on what’s in basketball -- that lets us know we’re doing something right.”

The Blazers aren't just catching on with NBA observers -- they've also started to take on some cultural cachet. And they know it. Last week, I saw a sign in front of a bar that said “Blazers … Get Greedy!” I first took it as a message to fans, urging them to expect more than they ever had before. But it’s also for a team that, in addition to the usual goals of making the playoffs and going all the way, wants to leave a strong impression. That’s certainly happening. And it’s why, sooner or later, this team will belong to everyone into basketball.

Has the Blazers' bubble burst?

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
By Daniel Nowell
Special to
Portrait Trail BlazersAP Photo/Don RyanThe Blazers have far exceeded expectations. So why is their season colored by what they're not?
The Portland Trail Blazers just played their 41st game, but already there's a sense that the season has passed them by. Their 11-game win streak, their national coming-out party, happened nearly two months ago, and the NBA news cycle, as is its wont, has shifted its focus elsewhere. The Blazers have kicked around the top of the West standings and, after their close loss to Oklahoma City on Tuesday, stand just one and a half games out of first place in the conference. It seems that most viewers are content to consider Portland a fixed entity -- a good team, sure, but not fitting of that slippery honorific “contender” -- while the Blazers keep chugging along on pace to hit nearly 60 wins.

So it seems an odd task to readjust expectations for a team whose own success has already made a mockery of preseason expectations. The smart money had the Blazers competing for a low playoff seed alongside the Timberwolves and Pelicans, and they’ve now reached a point where .500 ball all but guarantees them a playoff spot in the packed West. So what gives? How is it that a team on pace, conservatively, to beat out predictions by more than 10 wins seems to have faded into the background?

Part of it, of course, is the Blazers’ disposition. Upstart teams are usually marked by young players coming into themselves as players, and by extension, personalities. But the Blazers are anchored by veterans and young players who aspire to veteran dispositions. Without a doubt, they are a happier gang than in seasons past, but they’re more contented sigh than barbaric yawp, and while they continue to shoot the lights out, they’re not big on stoking the fire of public interest. The Blazers are fine with the in-game spotlight, but less friendly to the off-court flashbulb.

Perhaps more pressing is the material issue of their defense. With wins come scrutiny, and Portland’s defense doesn’t hold up under much. While the Blazers have been, at their peak, an above-average unit, they’ve spent the better part of the season below average and are trending worse. They currently rank 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, a figure that no amount of squinting can make palatable. The question is: As one of the league’s healthiest teams, why have the Blazers slipped from their defensive peak? Do we read that as a team that possesses the gear necessary to defend respectably, or as a team building the habit of relying on its offense?

Either position could be credibly supported. While the Blazers rebuilt their bench into a net positive this summer, they are relying on heavy contributions from Mo Williams, Joel Freeland, and Dorrell Wright -- decent or very good players all, but none of them lockdown defenders. With the heavy minutes the starters play and the defensive limitations of the bench personnel, this may be a strict effort-preservation mission. They are 8-4 against the Spurs, Pacers, Heat, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder and Warriors. That’s a small sample size, but it may suggest that the Blazers are as capable as dialing up for premier opponents as any other contender.
[+] EnlargeBlazers sign
Cameron Browne/NBA/Getty ImagesUnder Terry Stotts, Portland has risen to the NBA's top offense ... and fallen to its fifth-worst defense.

On the other hand, 26th is 26th, and the truly elite teams don’t rely on caveats to bolster their credentials. To some extent, every team but a few must -- the Warriors have their #fullsquad, the Heat are coasting or “conserving” -- but by and large, top teams look like top teams on both ends of the court. A little more than 70 percent of the time, the Blazers have spackled over their porous defense with their shooting, but that’s probably not the profile of a champion.

Still, though, is being a subpar defensive team reason enough for the tepid embrace the Blazers seem to be getting? Put it this way: Title-ready or not, they skipped an organizational step entirely this season, going from a team that needed to figure out how to win to a team that needs to fine-tune its formula to make winning habitual.

So the Blazers have moved from one set of questions -- do they belong in the NBA’s upper class? -- to another. They took half a season to do the work that can take a franchise years, shedding lottery expectations and settling into life as a winning team. They have half a season now to focus on details, to make the incremental improvements that separate the Thunders, Spurs and Heats of the league from the asterisk class. If they can succeed, they just might recapture the attention of a league that seems to have moved on.

Killer Lineup: Portland's offensive machine

December, 26, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Portland Trail BlazersLineup: Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez
Minutes Played: 556
Offensive Rating: 115.5 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 101.8 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively

Order and improvisation are two great competing principles in an NBA offense. On one end of the continuum, we have strict offenses in which every half-court possession comes with a road map; on the opposite end live the improv troops who believe that pace wins possessions.

Teams have won at either extreme of the spectrum, but a clear majority of successful offenses in the past 10 to 15 years reside somewhere in the middle. For these hybrids, clear-cut principles govern strategy and specific actions are called for, but, once a possession is set into motion, it’s guided by the instinct of players, not preordained sets.

The Portland Trail Blazers’ top-ranked offense has achieved that balance beautifully, specifically the starting unit, which is five points better per 100 possessions than the team’s league-leading mark. Portland’s half-court game is fundamentally read-and-react.

Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge embody the midpoint between script and ad-libbing. Both are temperamentally half-court players. Lillard is more powerful than explosive, and much of his game is predicated upon working off the jumper. He gets a fair number of those shots off drag screens or pull-ups on the secondary break, but Lillard is happiest working in the pick-and-roll and coming off flare screens.

Aldridge is mobile, but doesn't run the open court like Blake Griffin or Anthony Davis. Aldridge is an exceptional left block-right elbow player who likes a half court with an orderly flow. By no means does he need the game to screech to a halt, and he can bury a quick-hitter off an advance pass. But he’s a man who works in a corner office, so spare him the cute open floor plan with the foosball tables.

A player such as Aldridge doesn't want to be predictable, but there’s something to be said for the four other guys knowing precisely where, when and how their power forward likes the ball. Until someone can stop Aldridge when he dribbles middle into his right-handed hook, or spins baseline for a turnaround, repetition has its virtue.
[+] EnlargeLaMarcus Aldridge
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsLaMarcus Aldridge has looked better than ever thanks to a little movement on the offensive end.

This season, Lillard is finding more shot attempts off second actions. When the Trail Blazers acquired Eric Maynor in February, they got a chance to see what Lillard could look like off the ball in a half-court offense. Maynor didn't perform well individually, but the Blazers decimated defenses when he and Lillard coinhabited the backcourt, often with Lillard as the effective shooting guard.

Aldridge is getting a greater rate of his touches -- and a better quality of touch -- this season down on the left block. And the Blazers aren't content to feed Aldridge five feet off the lane in a stationary half court. Instead, they’ll put the defense into motion and run some misdirection before they deliver him the ball.

For example, while Nicolas Batum sweeps up from the weakside corner to collect a handoff from Robin Lopez, Aldridge will use a cross-screen from Wes Matthews to stake out his territory deep on the left block. In three seconds, the Blazers have completely flipped the court as Batum and Aldridge have morphed from weakside observers to strongside actors. Defenses much prefer to guard an offense that stands still to one that transforms like Portland’s.

Sounds like a pretty formal half-court offense, right? Kinda, sorta. The actions are tight and familiar, thanks to Batum’s vision, Matthews’ improved reliability as a passer, Lopez’s selflessness and the willingness of the two scorers to trust that the ball will find them. But the vast majority of what the Blazers get is the product of smart reads.

Every team aspires to play read-oriented basketball, but to rely on playmaking instinct, a team has to have personnel who can make plays. Batum can orchestrate an offense as well as any forward in the league not named James, and he’s also the place Portland goes when it wants to run an advanced action, or get into its corner split with Lillard and Aldridge. And if Lillard and Aldridge are covered late in the shot clock, Batum can almost always create some kind of opportunity.

All of these pieces fit, and here’s one of the Blazers’ favorite actions that demonstrates how: It begins with the ball in Batum’s hands on the wing. He feeds Lopez at the opposite elbow, then dives to the rim, rubbing his man off Aldridge at the near elbow. Lopez isn't a pure playmaking big man, but he’s a capable passer who can hit a moving target if he knows the option is going to materialize. If the play to Batum isn't there, Lillard promptly curls up past a stagger screen from Aldridge to pick up the handoff from Lopez. Lillard can stop on a dime and shoot, drive if he sees daylight, or hit Aldridge on a dive.

And watch out for Matthews in the corner on this and other actions. He’s third in the league on successful corner 3s this season and is hitting them at a 47.6 percent clip. Matthews has also become a wily, backdoor threat from that spot. With the Trail Blazers moving side to side so fluidly, help decisions become infinitely more difficult because, if you’re a defender, it’s hard to know if you’re leaving the weakside corner when the weak side keeps shifting.

Matthews can’t dominate every defender, but he has gotten pretty adept at sniffing out where he might have an edge. He loves to post smaller defenders, and, against a defender who’s a pick magnet, Matthews will move to an open spot on the weak side. That’s the nice thing about Matthews -- he’s always been aware that caginess would have to be a strong attribute because there probably wasn't enough raw talent most nights.

The Blazers’ starters have all kinds of counters in the half court -- wide pin-downs on the weak side, flare screens all over the board, dribble handoffs to Batum if the ball gets stuck at the top of the floor. This is not a stubborn, strongside offense unless Aldridge is eating his matchup alive, and, when that’s the case, who cares about a little stagnation over a four-minute stretch?

The starters in Portland have constructed an offense against which it’s impossible to load up. It’s a testament to careful roster construction and to a mindfulness that, to be maximized, diverse skill sets need to complement one another on the basketball court.

How it works defensively

When Lopez was acquired this summer from New Orleans, the Trail Blazers were out to address a couple of very targeted needs. For one, Aldridge's on-court quality of life was suffering playing next to a power forward disguised as a center in J.J. Hickson. With some rare exceptions (see: Bosh, Chris) a grade-A power forward isn't generally expected to casually slide over to the 5 spot, and the management wanted to make a demonstration it appreciated that.

But beyond the roster dynamics, the starting unit was pretty dreadful last season defensively, giving up 105.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark that will lose an NBA team a lot of basketball games. With an undersized center and a rookie point guard, the starting lineup began each game at a disadvantage.

Because Hickson’s best attribute is his speed, not his size, the Blazers were a “show team” that jumped out high on pick-and-roll actions. They had started the season determined to take away the 3-pointer and had performed reasonably well in that regard but had unfurled the red carpet in the lane for opponents.

Showing high made already challenging rotations even more difficult, as Aldridge and Hickson frequently found themselves behind the play, racing from the perimeter to the paint in search of their assignment. Matthews can run over a pick, but he’s not particularly quick or long. Meanwhile, Lillard was navigating the learning curve between checking Big Sky point guards and All-NBA talents.

Swapping Lopez for Hickson has allowed the Blazers’ starters to move from performing triage on every defensive possession to developing more honest defensive schemes. They've been able to follow the league’s prevailing trend toward dropping their big men into the paint against most pick-and-rolls. They’re not as radically conservative as a San Antonio, but Lopez and Aldridge rarely venture too far out.
[+] EnlargeRobin Lopez
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillPortland is more structured on D with Robin Lopez on the back line.

With the big guys committed to an attacking ball handler, Lillard and Matthews look to fight over every high pick, even against non-shooters such as Ricky Rubio. Lillard’s improvement on the defensive end is measurable. He clearly has a better grasp of how to distribute his attention between the oncoming pick and the ball. This might be the toughest task for first- and second-year NBA guards. Even if they have strength, length and speed (Lillard has a good amount of all three), they’re rarely certain when and to what extent to reach for each tool.

Batum is the best overall defender in the unit, and there are contingencies available when he’s on the strong side of the play. The Trail Blazers will switch most 1-3 and 2-3 pick-and-rolls with Batum picking up the ball handler off the action. When it comes to issuing defensive assignments on the perimeter in critical situations, Terry Stotts will often turn to Batum against a powerhouse point guard. Truth be told, Batum is a decent, but occasionally unfocused, defender off the ball, so having him on a ball-dominant point or wing is usually the best use of his strength.

The Trail Blazers ask a lot of Lopez in the interior, with mixed results. They place him on an island against even the most prolific offensive centers. There’s virtually no help coming low because, after watching a season of constant scrambling, Stotts and the staff decided structural integrity was the best course to pursue defensively -- take away the 3-point shot and deter point guards from the paint. No double-teams and no weakside fire alarms. If that means Lopez gets worked down on the block a couple of nights a week, so be it.

The cool thing about Lopez from the Blazers’ perspective is that he’s a trouper. Many bigs bristle at being forced to go at it alone, but Lopez bought in from the outset. The effect has been compounded because the perimeter defenders know they can be singularly focused on their man. This also allows Aldridge to exercise his best judgment; if he feels he has to show against a slick-shooting big man, he knows nobody will be hung out to dry if the ball moves inside because Lopez is there, rather than a 6-foot-9 forward.

This is far from an elite NBA defense -- 44.8 percent of their opponents’ shots originate in the basket area, and, although that’s considerably better than the brutal 48 percent mark for the starters in 2012-13, it’s certainly not airtight. There are nights when guards destroy this unit off the bounce, and teams with two backcourt playmakers give it particular trouble. There’s a fair amount of rearview mirror defense with contests from behind. Because the Blazers don’t place a priority on the gaps this season, this unit doesn't force turnovers. Batum has traditionally held his own as an isolation defender, but there isn't anyone else in the unit who excels in that capacity.

Yet, this five-man grouping is four points better than its predecessor per 100 possessions at a respectable 101.8. That’s far better than the team’s overall number and would be good for ninth overall in the league. The aforementioned opponents’ rim numbers speak to that general improvement. All the while, they've locked down the arc, giving up fewer 3-point attempts than last season and at a stingy 31 percent success rate. Whereas last season’s starting lineup allowed the opposing offense to recover 28.5 percent of its misses, that has dropped to less than a quarter this season.

Where you come down on the Trail Blazers’ chances to contend corresponds directly with how confident you are that a four-point improvement can become six.

LaMarcus Aldridge's big leap forward

December, 12, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

On a hot streak and Blazer-focused

November, 27, 2013
By Daniel Nowell
Special to
Trail BlazersKyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsPortland has an NBA-high 13 wins, and, more importantly, has figured out a game plan to win more.
It’s been three weeks since the Trail Blazers lost a game. That’s not much time, but it’s enough to obscure the many questions that Portland seemed to carry into the early season. New players, middling attendance, a defense that seemed like a work in progress -- even as the Blazers squeezed out wins against a few overmatched bottom-feeders, their unknown variables seemed about equal to their known quantities. This was a season, it seemed, when the Blazers would test the timber of their core before deciding whether they had a collection of assets or a functioning and coherent team.

General manager Neil Olshey said as much before opening night to “Upon conclusion of the 2014 season, we will know whether or not we have reached the fork in the road,” Olshey said. This season was to be an evaluative foray, a fact-finding mission, an effort to determine whether the Blazers were in transition or had staked themselves to a present tense. Three weeks has been enough time to answer that question. These Blazers are no starter kit for tomorrow’s franchise: They are a competitor unto themselves.

The shape of that competitor is a testament to the flexibility that seems to infuse the organization from Olshey down. The Blazers have a roster full of jump-shooters; they are second in the league in field goal attempts beyond 15 feet. Their frontcourt features willing but somewhat slow-footed defenders; coach Terry Stotts restructured pick-and-roll defense to allow the bigs to drop into the paint against penetration. They are bombing away without reserve, sticking to their principles on defense and showcasing the potency of a team that refuses to get hung up on potential limitations.

[+] EnlargeBlazers-Warriors
AP Photo/Ben MargotThe Trail Blazers have successfully stood their ground against top-tier teams like the Warriors.
In fact, let me cut to the chase here and say that what is most striking about the Blazers’ current success is the way it reflects the team’s embrace of its own character. The differences between this team and the team that last season won 33 games are differences of degree, not kind. Those Blazers also bombed away in a free-flowing offense. Those Blazers, too, were marked by a kind of quiet, self-possessed locker room character. The veterans added this past offseason -- Robin Lopez, Dorell Wright, Earl Watson, Mo Williams -- were brought in less to reimagine the team than to fill in the gaps and serve as an extension of how Nic Batum, Wes Matthews, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge were already playing. With that kind of support, the core of the team is able to embrace its own style, play without anxiety and carry itself without defensiveness.

I’ve spent a lot of time this season trying to draw admissions of epiphany from various Blazers, to get some quote describing a collective realization that this team is taking a step forward for the franchise. That’s a bit of a sucker’s bet in any locker room, and doubly so among this group. The players offer brief acknowledgements of the team’s maturity, of the infusion of veteran habits into a locker room dominated by youth and inexperience. These acknowledgements hover somewhere between standard lip service and conference-room-poster copy. Implicit in the Blazers’ unwillingness to explain themselves is a plea to let their play talk for them, but still they occasionally slip up and reveal themselves in front of a microphone.

On Saturday, the Blazers traveled to Golden State and salvaged a win out of what was shaping up to be a listless performance. Trailing by 14, Portland was ignited when an altercation between Andrew Bogut and Joel Freeland turned into a full-team scrum, resulting in the ejection of Matthews, several fines and the suspension of Williams. The Blazers stormed back after the shoving match behind a 15-point, nine-rebound fourth quarter from Aldridge. After the game, the power forward offered the following: “This team has a different feeling” than previous teams. “I wouldn’t say easier, but we just blend better.”

I hold it as a rule that any time a person prefaces a statement with “I wouldn’t say,” he would indeed say. And “easier” is a telling word for a player who has spent so much of his time in Portland under scrutiny. Last season, Aldridge fended off constant inquiries about whether he takes too many jump shots. Over the summer, rumors about his desire to stay with the Blazers swirled until Olshey put them to bed with no small amount of exasperation. Being scrutinized in a small, demanding market has not always been easy for Aldridge, and he wouldn’t say that it’s easier this season, except that it plainly is.

And so he’s free to play his game, doing his damage from midrange and mixing in bullish post-ups. He’s leading the league in attempts from 15-19 feet while making a mockery of any doubts about his toughness with 35 rebounds in his past two games. With license to blend strength and finesse in whatever proportion he sees fit, Aldridge played himself into Western Conference Player of the Week honors this past week. And when you dig into the statistics, it appears that each of Portland’s key contributors has been similarly liberated.

Batum has been allowed to fully indulge his preference to make plays for teammates, and he’s averaging more assists (five) than any forward not named Kevin Durant or LeBron James. Matthews likes to get his shots within the flow of a game rather than from stricter play calls -- he’s seventh on the team in usage rate, but second among guards leaguewide in effective field goal percentage. Lillard trails only Stephen Curry in attempts from 3. At every position, there is statistical evidence that the Blazers have been empowered to play to their strengths. If they want their play to speak for them, the message is clear: They know who they are, and they won’t be pressured out of playing their game.

The only question is whether that comfort bred success or vice versa -- after all, it’s easy to be vindicated in your habits when the result is 11 straight wins. But that tautology works both ways, and the Blazers now know that sticking to their game as individuals can translate into sustained team success, which is powerful knowledge, indeed. There will be regression, and injuries and other obstacles that will test the Blazers in ways they haven’t yet been tested, but three weeks of winning has confirmed that being themselves is a winning recipe. That’s a valuable lesson to learn this early and one that will matter a great deal more than hot shooting come playoffs.

Finding an identity under the flannel

November, 14, 2013
By Daniel Nowell
Special to
Damian LillardAP PhotosPortland or Portlandia? The Trail Blazers are looking to forge an identity amidst the city's new image.
The Rose Garden is no longer. This summer, Portland’s arena -- one of the few left without a corporate sponsorship -- was folded into the flock. The Portland Trail Blazers now play in the Moda Center. Elsewhere, the Blazers’ business team, just in its second year under president and CEO Chris McGowan, made subtler changes that seem to follow a pattern.

On the concourse at the Moda Center, Blazers fans can now choose from one of several locally owned food options -- Sizzle Pie pizza, Fire on the Mountain wings and Killer Burger have all been installed to lend the arena a more native flavor. The pregame safety video shown on the JumboTron now features the stars of “Portlandia,” Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, in costume and character, riffing on arena etiquette and protocol.

It’s clear that the Blazers’ brain trust is moving toward capturing the essence of Portland at a moment when that essence is more easily commodified than ever. The town has developed a certain set of associations in the popular imagination: the left coast Brooklyn; the moustache wax capital of the union; a place where an honest-to-God professional cuddler can pay her rent; “where young people go to retire;” haven of food carts and flannel. As the conception of Portland approaches self-parody, it also approaches profitability, and it would seem that the Blazers would like in on the take.
[+] EnlargeModa Center
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesThe Rose Garden is no more. Welcome, Moda Center.

But if the present Blazers organization is going to forge a real bond with their Portland, the heavy lifting is going to be done on the court. What that might look like is still an open question.

Like McGowan, Blazers coach Terry Stotts and general manager Neil Olshey are entering the second year of their tenure; unlike McGowan, who has pursued splashy moves geared toward the bottom line, Olshey and Stotts have ushered in a reign of pragmatism. This offseason, as some fans called (somewhat unrealistically) for the addition of a high-priced center like Tiago Splitter or Nikola Pekovic, Olshey decided instead to flesh out the rotation, signing Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Robin Lopez to transform the league’s shallowest team into one with respectable depth. Hardly high-wattage moves, but moves that have allowed Portland to get off to a 6-2 start.

Likewise, Stotts has brought an even-keel and tempered approach to a franchise whose past decade has been most linked with injury, organizational tumult, flashes of brilliance and heartbreak. While the Blazers play a free-flowing, shot-happy style, Stotts is unwavering in a sort of laid-back caginess, while locker-room leaders Wesley Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge favor a relatively tight-lipped professionalism. Whether wary of placing too many expectations on the team or weary of the scrutiny a small market can bring, Portland’s leadership tends to keep things close to the vest. When you add it all up, what you find is a team in the second year of a new era with relatively few defining characteristics.

Even with their cultivated reserve, last season’s Blazers managed to build a sort of insurgents’ image. Their season began on Halloween, with an upset of the Los Angeles Lakers that foretold the signs of catastrophe in Tinseltown. Damian Lillard exploded onto the scene with 23 points and 11 assists. Throughout the season, the Blazers managed to work their way back into white-knuckle fourth quarters, and carried a winning record into 2012-13’s second half, an event most optimists wouldn’t have predicted. They carried their cool into wild comebacks like seasoned heist men, quick triggers from behind the arc paired with deadpan affect.

But insurgencies must eventually become establishments, and so come to need an ideology. Expectations are relatively high for this team, which should contend for a playoff berth in a loaded Western Conference, and the element of surprise won’t sustain them.

All of which raises the issue: The Blazers announced a sellout on opening night, but if that’s the case then hundreds of fans decided to stay home and leave their complimentary T-shirts draped over empty seats. No game since has been announced as a sellout. Right now the Blazers rank ninth in the league for average home attendance, and a paltry 19th in percentage of home capacity filled. This is not in keeping with Portland fans’ idea of themselves, or with their reputation.

Across town, the Timbers, Portland’s MLS team, are battling through their first postseason. They played away at Seattle during the Blazers’ home opener, and a common joke in the arena was that the empty seats belonged to soccer fans. A local alt weekly recently made waves with a half-serious question: Which Portland franchise now owns the soul of the city?

Nobody needs to choose one team to root for, and nobody need panic over having the NBA’s ninth-best attendance; superlatives aside, Blazers fans provide a crowd most of the league would trade for. But it still seems that the Blazers’ hold on Portland’s psyche is slipping. If anecdotal and unscientific claims sway you, try this: When I went to Spirit of 77 -- a bar close to the Moda Center named for the Blazers’ lone championship season -- to watch the season opener, the Red Sox were on the projector screen until into the third quarter.

This is no indictment of the Blazers’ roster, or of the front office’s approach; from the wreckage of cartilage that defined the last era of Blazers, a competitive and stable team has arisen. But they now find themselves at the point in the organizational cycle when they can build their identity or have one assigned to them.
[+] EnlargeKeep Portland Weird
George Rose/Getty ImagesAs the city works on staying hip, the Trail Blazers are looking to find an on-court product that finally fits.

The players and staff, of course, aren’t worrying. Asked whether the team seeks to play to a particular identity or style, Stotts was himself. As a rule, the head coach avoids any statement that might place excess pressure on his players, and he spoke about the need to let team identity evolve organically. Rather than push a certain brand of play, he prefers to respond to the team as it takes shape.

Nic Batum and Robin Lopez gave somewhat more standard variations on the theme: We want to stress defense, we want to work hard, we want to let the offense come to us. Lillard, whose calm often seems to rest atop a reservoir of attitude, was the only player who offered something like a statement of stylistic purpose: “We don’t want to be fun to play against ... we want them to be mad that we’re being physical, we want them to be mad that we made a shot we weren’t supposed to make.”

In a way, these answers are fitting. While Aldridge is perhaps Portland’s steadiest and most valuable contributor, he is a low-key presence, a veteran and a professional but not the supplier of marquee-ready quotes. If, as Blazers fans suspect, this is truly Lillard’s team, perhaps his quiet intensity will come to define the team. Perhaps Stotts’ more patient voice comes to form the team’s backbone. The Blazers have poured an enviable foundation, a core of talent both on the bench and on the court that seems set up for long-term success. But in a city whose attention is increasingly divided, and in an arena that seems a touch cynical in its efforts to capitalize on Portland signifiers, the Blazers will spend this season trying to prove they can forge an identity more lasting and authentic than any simple caricature.

Setting expectations for the Trail Blazers

October, 18, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Portland Trail Blazers
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images
After a grieving period over injuries to Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, the storm has settled in Portland.

Less than four years ago, the Portland Trail Blazers were thought to have as bright a future as any team in the league. Chad Ford and John Hollinger ranked them first overall in the 2009 NBA Future Power Rankings, commenting:

On paper, no other team possesses as bright a future as the Portland Trail Blazers. It all starts with the players. Nobody, not even Oklahoma City, can match the stable of young talent the Blazers have built. Brandon Roy is already a superstar, and joining him are potential stars like LaMarcus Aldridge (24), Greg Oden (21, even if he looks more like 51), Nicolas Batum (20) and Martell Webster (22).

The Trail Blazers were about to settle into a period of peace, prosperity and stability, but we all know what happened next.

Aldridge and Batum emerged from the rubble as the sole survivors among core players, coaching staff and management. The result has been an interesting exercise in rebuilding at a moment nobody ever dreamed the Blazers would have to rebuild. Catastrophes are devastating, but the only thing to do is start again, even if the final product isn’t ultimately as nice as what was destroyed.

"We can't live in the shadow of what might have been,” Portland general manager Neil Olshey says, “We'll never know."

Soon after signing on as general manager in the summer of 2012, Olshey drafted Damian Lillard and matched an offer sheet on Batum. Along with Aldridge, the Blazers now have a coveted point-wing-big core. That’s most of what they had last season, but without a bench, they played .500 ball for the meat of the season. They have a sturdy foundation if Lillard becomes the top-10 point guard he appears to be, and if Batum (only 24) achieves his potential as the full package of playmaker-shooter-defender.

We’re starting to get a glimpse of what the building is going to look like. Lost amid Olshey's candid, Oh-Dear-God media-day address on the persistence of the Aldridge nonstory was a pithy description of the organizational blueprint:

We’ve supported [Aldridge] with veterans. We've continued to do what we need to do in terms of bringing young talent in here. We've kept our long-term flexibility. We have the ability to aggregate our assets and put those into play if it gets to that point -- where we can put another star around him and [Lillard] and some of the other guys.

This is the design going forward in Portland: Develop the Aldridge-Lillard-Batum trio while accumulating assets and maintaining flexibility that can ultimately yield one more key piece.

“Upon conclusion of the 2014 season, we will know whether or not we have reached the fork in the road,” Olshey says. “Either we are on the right course with our current roster by having drafted well, signed good contracts, acquired Bird [rights] players, and this group will stay together and we’ll make a strong move forward. Or we’re going to aggressively look to aggregate some of our assets to consolidate them into one player to join those players we believe represent the core of the franchise.”

Either (a) the Trail Blazers crack the code, or (b) the roster beyond the core remains a little iffy, which means resources will be pooled and big game will be hunted. With that strategy in mind, how important is it that Portland wins in 2013-14? Last season, expectations were modest and priorities were more specific -- the primary one to develop Lillard's skills and confidence. The fact that the Blazers were able to accomplish that task is a far greater takeaway than the 33-49 record. The team played .500 ball until Feb. 10 and there was a general optimism in the Rose Garden.

This season, defining expectations for the Blazers is more complicated than merely improving on 33 wins. Odds are they will, but determining what level of success constitutes a good season is difficult. The roster is better than it was last season now that the team has acquired Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson to add depth where there was none, though seventh in the West is ambitious, even with the upgrades. Still, Olshey’s position is that W's are an imperative.

“All of our offseason moves were made with the intention of competing immediately while not jeopardizing our long-term flexibility,” Olshey says. “We are still focused and committed to developing our young talent, but it will not be at the expense of winning.”

There are important intangible factors at work, as well. Aldridge has stated he’s content in Portland, but it’s fair to believe the team’s success will be an important factor in his overall happiness moving forward -- and winning breeds satisfaction. And besides Salt Lake City, there isn’t a market more vested in the fortunes of its NBA team than Portland, so trajectory matters. The nice thing about 33-49 is the modest baseline it offers, and though a 41-41 record wouldn’t win the Blazers anything -- maybe not even a postseason berth -- plus-eight wins isn’t chopped liver. It’s the savory roasted game hen at Pok Pok.

The recipe on the floor should result in a better product. The Blazers ranked 26th in defensive efficiency last season, which means there’s virtually nowhere to go but up. There was only so much that a defense with a 6-foot-9 center could do, but this season Portland will feature Lopez in place of J.J. Hickson. With Lopez, Aldridge and Batum, there’s now some serious length on the floor, and a lot more for coach Terry Stotts and his staff to work with.

“We’re going to change our principles,” Stotts says. “We’ll have a style of play defensively that our team lends itself to -- changing our pick-and-roll schemes, not getting out and extending our bigs very much. The principle being we need to do a better job of protecting the rim and forcing midrange jump shots. We were in the bottom of the league in attempts at the rim and in attempts being converted at the rim.”

On the other end, the Blazers’ starters posted a healthy 104.1 points per 100 possessions, considerably better than the league average. Stotts runs a diverse, user-friendly offense that combines much of the philosophy he helped develop in Dallas with Lillard’s inclination to play in the half court, Billups style. Portland features more jump shooters than iso scorers, so Stotts encourages early jumpers, but Lillard and Aldridge are powerful tools in the half court, and you can do a lot worse than running two-man action for those guys several dozen times a game. The trick for the Blazers is splitting the difference, creating flow while exerting Lillard’s control over the game.

“Damian’s a scoring point guard who’s used to having the ball in his hands,” Stotts says. “The challenge for our team is being able to get the ball ahead quicker. I don’t want to play a 100-possession game but I do want to get the a ball ahead. That makes the flow in the half court easier.”

Lillard is still young, and we don’t yet know who he’s going to be. His potential is every bit as elastic as Aldridge’s is settled. We know precisely who Aldridge is, but projecting Lillard’s growth is tough, which, in turn, makes setting the bar for the Blazers challenging.

Whether clearing it means logging more than 33 wins, or finishing .500, or qualifying for the playoffs, this incarnation of the Blazers is now officially on the clock.

What's on the line Wednesday night

April, 17, 2013
By Gregg Found, ESPN Stats & Info

Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
The Lakers have a chance to move as high as the 7 seed, or miss the playoffs completely.

Wednesday is the final day of the NBA regular season, and there’s no shortage of reasons to tune in. There are still playoff spots to be clinched, seeds to be determined and individual honors to be claimed.

Wild West Playoff Picture
Here’s how much we know for sure in the Western Conference entering Wednesday. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the 1 seed, and the San Antonio Spurs are No. 2. That’s it.

The Denver Nuggets have the inside track for the 3 seed. They’ll lock it down with a home win over the Phoenix Suns, or if the Los Angeles Clippers lose what could be the Kings’ final game in Sacramento. If Denver loses and the Clippers win, the Clippers take the third slot.

The worst the Nuggets or Clippers could do is the 4 seed and a First Round matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, but who hosts the first game of that series is still to be decided.

If Memphis, currently with the same record as the Clippers, ends with a better record, it will have home-court advantage of the series, despite being seeded lower.

From six on down, it gets even more convoluted. If the Houston Rockets beat the Los Angeles Lakers (10:30 ET, ESPN) and the Golden State Warriors lose to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Rockets knock the Warriors out of the 6 seed.

The Warriors can’t fall any lower than seventh, but Houston could potentially fall as low as eighth. If the Lakers beat the Rockets, the Lakers take the 7 seed, knocking Houston to eighth.

If the Lakers lose to the Rockets, it opens the window for the Utah Jazz to get the final playoff spot with a win over the Grizzlies (8 ET, ESPN).

East is Much Simpler
If the Western Conference scenarios were too confusing, you might like the Eastern Conference much better.

Six of the eight playoff seeds are already locked in. The Chicago Bulls hold the 5 seed, and will hold onto it with either a home win over the Washington Wizards, or an Atlanta Hawks road loss to the New York Knicks.

Of course, with the 5 seed comes a potential Conference Semifinals matchup with the Miami Heat.

Individual Honors on the Line
The biggest head-to-head battle Wednesday night seemed to be Kevin Durant chasing Carmelo Anthony for the scoring title, but news that Durant will not play means that Anthony becomes the second Knicks player to win a scoring title, joining Bernard King.

Stephen Curry
But there is still history to be made. Golden State’s Stephen Curry enters Wednesday one 3-pointer behind Ray Allen’s NBA record of 269 in a single season, set in 2005-06.

Curry is averaging 3.5 3-pointers this season, meaning the odds are in his favor to break the record.

With Durant not playing, it also means Trail Blazers rookie Damian Lillard will likely lead the NBA in total minutes. He’d be just the third rookie in NBA history to lead the league in minutes played. The other two are Wilt Chamberlain (in 1959-60) and Elvin Hayes (1968-69).

TrueHoop TV: Neil Olshey

March, 5, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
We know most teams these days have analysts in house poring over data, but how do those stat heads work with team's execs? Portland Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey discusses that, whether The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has become a mandatory event for NBA decision-makers and what happens when the "gut" disagrees with the data:

In part two, Olshey discusses the limitations of advanced stats, whether it's possible to quantify a player's makeup and how much presence a general manager should have around his players.

Historic run continues for LeBron James

February, 12, 2013
By ESPN Stats & Information

Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesLeBron James made nine of 10 shots inside the paint on Tuesday against the Trail Blazers.

For the sixth time in as many games, LeBron James scored at least 30 points and shot better than 60 percent from the field as the Heat beat the Portland Trail Blazers for their 1,000th win in franchise history.

James went 11 of 15 from the floor (73.3 percent) and scored 30 points. The Elias Sports Bureau notes that James is the first player in NBA history to score 30 points and shoot better than 60 percent from field in six straight games. Before this season, the only players who accomplished that in five straight games were Moses Malone and Adrian Dantley.

In his last six games, James is 66 of 92 from the floor (71.7 percent). On shots taken in the paint in the last six games, James is 46 of 54 -- including 9 of 10 on Tuesday.

James also finished with six rebounds and nine assists, the 16th time this season he's had at least 30 points, five rebounds and five assists in a game.

However, James wasn't even Miami's leading scorer. Chris Bosh was 13 of 16 from the field (including 7 of 9 outside the paint) and finished with 32 points.

Dwyane Wade scored 24 points, and according to Elias, the Heat are 16-2 in games that Bosh, James and Wade all score more than 20 points.

LeBron vs Jordan Comparisons
With Michael Jordan turning 50 years old on Sunday, there have been a lot of comparisons of late between "King James" and "Air Jordan."

The comparisons are understandable since they are the only players to win an NBA title, NBA MVP and an Olympic gold medal in the same year (Jordan in 1992 and James in 2012) and both had won three MVP awards in their first 10 seasons (2012-13 is James' 10th season).

Even Jordan's best six-game stretch of his career compares favorably to what James has done in his last six games (see chart).

The biggest discrepancy in their résumés is NBA titles: Jordan won six and James has only one.

James has shot better than 70 percent from the field in three of his last six games. Elias notes that Jordan shot better than 70 percent in three straight games early in the 1990-91 season. Jordan went a combined 39 of 52 from the floor (75 percent) in games against the Bullets, Pacers and Cavaliers.

As for the Blazers, the loss snapped their four-game road win streak against the Heat. They were the only team with an active road win streak of more than one game against Miami.

Damian Lillard scored a game-high 33 points, his second 30-point game of the season. Lillard is the only rookie with two 30-point games this season.

Lillard is valuable asset for Blazers

December, 1, 2012
By Kenton Wong
ESPN Stats & Information
Russ Isabella/US PresswireDamian Lillard is one of the early favorites for Rookie of the Year.
Damian Lillard came out of a school not known for basketball greatness in Weber State. Prior to Lillard, no player out of Weber had ever averaged over 6.5 PPG or 1.7 APG in their NBA career. Lillard, through 16 games, is averaging 18.4 PPG and 5.9 APG for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Although Lillard will almost assuredly be the best player ever to come out of Weber State, he should be setting his career goals to the heights of other great point guards to come out of his hometown: Oakland, California.

Oakland's finest

Lillard starred at Oakland High School a couple of decades after two Bay Area legends patrolled high-school courts: Jason Kidd at Saint Joseph of Notre Dame HS in Alameda and Gary Payton at Skyline HS in Oakland. Lillard actually started high school at Kidd’s alma mater before transferring.

So far in his career, Lillard has proven to be a better scorer than either Payton or Kidd were as rookies – averaging nearly 10 more points per game 16 games into his career.

Pure shooter

A big reason for Lillard’s success has been his outside shot. He’s shooting 51 percent from 15-24 feet and 37 percent from outside of 25 feet – both above the league average this season.

Last season for Weber State, Lillard did a lot of his damage on 3-pointers, making nearly three per game while shooting 41 percent from that range. The adjustment to the NBA 3-point line hasn’t hurt his production from deep much. He’s making two-and-a-half 3-pointers per game and connecting on 40 percent of them.

Good value

The Trail Blazers average 102 points per 100 possessions with Lillard on the court as opposed to 97 per 100 possessions without him.

Lillard has already established himself as one of the most valuable point guards in the league this season. In terms of the ‘Value Added’ metric, Lillard is one of the top 10 most valuable point guards in the league this season.

Value Added is the estimated number of points a player adds to a team’s season total above what a 'replacement player' (for instance, the 12th man on the roster) would produce.

If Lillard continues this pace as an impressive scoring point guard, he’ll quickly join the conversation as one of the top young floor generals in the league. Mike Conley is the only point guard averaging at least 15 points and five assists per game with a higher 3-point percentage this season than Lillard.

It’s been a while since Portland has had a point guard like Lillard. The last time a Trail Blazer averaged 15 points and five assists while shooting 40 percent from 3-point land? Terry Porter in 1992-93.

ESPN Stats & Information

Friday Bullets

November, 16, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
  • LeBron James rang up 12 assists in Denver on Thursday night, and was deadly on the kickout to spot-up shooters. The biggest dime of the night came in the closing minute with the game in the balance. James could've played one-on-three against the Nuggets' collapsing defense. Instead, he dished the ball off to Norris Cole who was wide open and drained the shot. What did critics have to say about James' passing up the big shot? Not a thing. What a difference a ring makes.
  • So let's get this straight: The Clippers are without Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are playing career-low minutes -- and Griffin's overall numbers are down. Lamar Odom has a Player Efficiency Rating that starts with zero. Their backup point guard, nicknamed Mini-LeBron and posting a PER of 22.6, is playing fewer minutes than Willie Green. All the while, the Clippers are killing the competition.
  • At the New York Times, Beckley Mason writes that the Boston Celtics provide an interesting template for the Brooklyn Nets.
  • Tom Ziller of SB Nation on the Knicks: "I don't get the sense this is a massive house of cards, unlike other teams that blaze off to incredible starts. Among the rotation players, only Smith and Kidd are playing way over their heads, and that's all related to the above-mentioned shooting. Felton has been surprisingly good compared with last season, but it's in line with what he did in his previous half-season in New York. It's not a Mike James bargain with the devil type of start he's having. Ronnie Brewer has always been solid. Rasheed Wallace is ... Rasheed Wallace. Tyson Chandler is elite. Carmelo Anthony is very good. Mike Woodson is criminally underrated as a coach."
  • Is that a Raymond Felton sighting, shredding the Spurs on the pick-and-roll?
  • A bad bench can undo a lot of hard work by your starters.
  • Just because you hit a huge game-winning shot to beat the Lakers earlier in the week doesn't mean you're exempt from household chores.
  • Damian Lillard is looking for a Portland-based barber. Lucky for him, grooming is optional in Multnomah County.
  • At 0-7, the Wizards have a ton of question marks. Could Shaun Livingston be one of the answers?
  • One idea being floated in Milwaukee: Scarf down a double-cheeseburger to help pay for a new arena. (Hat tip: Bucksketball)
  • As HoopChalk's Jared Dubin points out, a sniper doesn't always have to catch-and-shoot the ball coming off a pin-down. Passing is almost always an option -- and a smart one.
  • Liberty Ballers' Michael Levin reports that the 76ers are close to becoming the latest NBA team to own their own D-League franchise. I love the idea of the NBA replicating an MLB-style minor league structure, with each big-league team having its own exclusive affiliation with a "AAA" club. Already, the stigma of being "sent down" to the D-League is dissipating. Many of NBA organizations that have one-to-one partnerships with D-League franchises are using them as laboratories to teach their less refined young prospects the system run by the big club (see Houston Rockets). Development has long been sorely lacking at the NBA level. Some of that is the fault of NBA teams, but much of the shortfall is circumstance. It's hard to devote a ton of resources to developing the skills of your second-round pick when you're preparing for a back-to-back with the Thunder and the Spurs. But give a prospect some high-grade instruction down on the farm, and you're likely to see more tangible progress in his game.
  • More vegan propaganda from John Salley. I've been dabbling myself. If there were more joints like this in my city, it would be easier.

Tuesday Bullets

October, 30, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
  • Tim Frank of the NBA: "Tonight's NBA games will be played. We are still assessing the situation with regards to the rest of the week."
  • Andray Blatche got an assist from some first responders.
  • What's going to replace James Harden's beard as the icon of Thunder fanhood? The Lost Ogle offers up 11 nominations.
  • Matt Yglesias, Slate's business and economics blogger, on the Harden deal: "[M]y real critique is that the Thunder don't seem to be considering the optionality involved in resigning Harden. Having the guy under contract for a multiyear deal doesn't just carry with it the right to employ Harden's basketball services; it carries the right to trade the right to employ him at any time. So if it did come to pass that the Thunder were a championship-caliber team and nonetheless running some kind of intolerable operating loss, they could always trade him then (or, better, they could trade Westbrook). The existence of the luxury tax can lead to a kind of overthinking and irrational sequencing about these things. When considering whether or not to sign a player for $X million, the question to focus on is whether he produces more than $X million worth of basketball services. If he does, then he's a valuable trade asset at any time. And the luxury tax should be understood as being assessed on the entire team payroll rather than having the entire hit arbitrarily assigned to whomever happens to be the last player you signed."
  • Once everyone in the starting lineup is healthy and and the meet-and-greet is over, the Lakers are going to be a bear to defend. Brett Koremenos of Grantland breaks down five devastating sets from five title contenders, including the Lakers' "slot pick-and-roll into high-low" scheme.
  • Something we often forget about rookies playing their first regular season game in the NBA: Many of them are taking the floor against their idols. That has to be a bit of a jolt, as Portland's Damian Lillard tells it toward the end of his most recent installment of "License of Lillard."
  • Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus unveils his final SCHOENE predictions for the season. Denver and Atlanta look strong. Oklahoma City and Indiana fall a few rungs. And who projects to have the No. 2 offense in the NBA? Your Minnesota Timberwolves.
  • The best in Nikola Pekovic propoganda this side of Podgorica.
  • Says here that Eddy Curry will probably start opposite Dwight Howard in the Mavericks' opener in Los Angeles, as Chris Kaman nurses a right calf injury.
  • One NBA scout has some unkind words for the Golden State Warriors. From his perch, Richard Jefferson causes headaches, David Lee was known to some Knicks teammates as FEMA because he was never there when you needed him and Mark Jackson doesn't have a feel from the game.
  • There aren't any industry studies, but I'd guess there are very few 15 year olds in North America whose Moms chaperoned them to the tattoo parlor -- Wizards rookie Bradley Beal is a notable exception. From Michael Lee in the Washington Post: "Besta Beal joined her son at the tattoo parlor when he got his first ink at age 15, and he needed her permission, because otherwise, 'she would’ve killed me,' Bradley said with a laugh. Beal provided all of the artwork on his arms ... "
  • Media outlets across the nation are publishing endorsements for the presidential election. The ClipperBlog editorial board weighs in and endorses ... Eric Bledsoe for Clippers starting shooting guard: "Across the league, NBA head coaches are facing tough choices as they go to fill out their lineup cards for opening night. Candidates have campaigned for spots since the start of training camp, hoping to show they have what it takes to get the job done. Some races were over before they began -- the incumbent's hold on the seat just too strong. But there are those, like the fight for the Clippers' second starting backcourt spot, that keep coaches up at night. Now it's time to make the call ... After thorough review of the candidates, we believe that the player best equipped to fulfill the necessary responsibilities of starting alongside Chris Paul is 22-year old Eric Bledsoe."
  • Can Rajon Rondo make the leap to first-team all-NBA?
  • Don't you just hate it when you realize that a player you can't stand is, in fact, a big-time contributor? Aaron McGuire of Gothic Ginobili on Jason Terry: "At some point, people who dislike Jason Terry -- myself included -- need to step back and simply start appreciating his production. And let's get this straight now -- I am no fan of Terry's. I think he's bombastic, self-obsessed, and preening. He needs to realize, at some point, that he is not an airplane ... But you know what? He probably was underrated in #NBARank, and in a general sense, Terry is of inconceivably low repute to a vast majority of the NBA's fans. And it makes no sense to me. Last season, Terry was the 5th best shooting guard in the NBA. Really. There were the obvious betters -- Kobe, Wade, Harden, Manu -- and you could make a reasonable case that Joe Johnson was better. Beyond those five? Nobody."
  • Our friends at Ball in Europe, without an NBA franchise on the Continent, are considering which NBA team to adopt as their own. You can cast your vote here.
  • Trey Kerby of The Basketball Jones celebrates the release of Stephen Jackson's "Lonely at the Top," featuring Kevin Durant.
  • Did you hear about the time Matt Bonner dragged Jackson to a Coldplay concert?
  • Marreese Speights would like to remind you that there are 13 other teams in the Western Conference besides Oklahoma City and the Lakers.
  • Serge Ibaka tells us how Brooklyn is like Brazzaville.