Year-End Grades for Every Key Portland Trail Blazers Player
The narrative surrounding the Portland Trail Blazers has switched from “Are they for real?” to “How good are they really?” in the blink of an eye.
It's clear that this Blazers team—which is sporting the best offense in the league by a wide margin—is very, very good and has the chance to make some serious noise this season, even if it's also got a pretty terrible defense (24th in the league) to go along with that offense. We won't know exactly how good it is for a few more months, but this is a dangerous team.
With all that being said, let's take a look at how each key Blazer has played as we move into a new year of basketball. Grades are assessed based on both how players have lived up to preseason expectations and their actual on-court production. Let's get to it.
*All stats accurate as of 12/31/2013 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless specifically stated otherwise.
Mo Williams has been pretty off and on for the Blazers. He has the occasional big game (like a superb 18-point, eight-assist performance against the Boston Celtics in mid-November), but he's been inefficient as a whole, he can't really get to the rim anymore and he turns the ball over a ton.
Still, it's unfair to judge Williams too harshly. With C.J. McCollum out, Williams is the Blazers' only true ball-handler outside of Damian Lillard (though Nicolas Batum can run some offense in a pinch), and as such, Portland is forced to play him for far more minutes than would be ideal.
That should correct itself when McCollum returns, and for what it's worth, Williams has provided some decent outside shooting (35 percent) and playmaking in his absence. Probably not quite what the Blazers were hoping for, but not all that bad either.
Dorell Wright is averaging just 14 minutes a game, but that's more an indicator of how good Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews are than any reflection of Wright's game. He's been a reliable piece this season.
Wright's role is pretty simple. Shoot the ball and play defense.
His defense has been pretty “meh” (a common theme for the Blazers), but he's shot the ball well enough that he probably deserves a few more minutes than he's getting. The bulk of Wright's offense comes from catch-and-shoot jumpers, and he's hitting 44 percent on spot-up threes, per Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required).
Portland also involves Wright in some fun pick-and-roll stuff. For example, it has a nifty little play they run with Wright any time defenses aggressively hedge or blitz on pick-and-rolls. Wright will fake as if he's setting a screen and immediately flare out to the corner for a three, where he's almost always open.
The Blazers offense is predicated on ball movement and outside shooting, and having a guy like Wright on the bench means that they have at least two (and usually three) deep threats on the floor at all times. Rarely can teams sit guys like Batum and Matthews and not experience a big drop-off in shooting, but Wright makes that possible.
Joel Freeland has taken to doing the dirty work for the Blazers—setting screens, rebounding, etc.—and it's led (so far, anyways) to a solid season from the big man.
Freeland hasn't exactly been overwhelming from a statistical standpoint, but he's been decent at the 4, and he's a part of some strong small-ball lineups, per 82games.com. Freeland rarely tries to create his own offense (in this case, that's a plus), and his ability to hit from mid-range opens up a lot of driving lanes for the Portland wings.
Freeland also is a strong offensive rebounder and has a knack for finding outside shooters after getting a board—17 of his 26 assists have led to three-pointers this season, per The Columbian's Erik Gundersen.
Freeland's only so-so defensively, but he always works hard on that end and can hang with most bigs. Not too bad for a backup.
Thomas Robinson hasn't been terrible, but he hasn't exactly been good either.
Robinson is as ferocious on the boards as advertised, and he's been decent in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports Technology. But other than that, there's not a whole lot to love here. Robinson isn't a particularly good defender, he can't really create his own offense and he's a poor finisher around the rim, per NBA.com.
Robinson is an athletic freak and has a clear marketable skill in his rebounding. But it's hard not to be a little disappointed in his progress to this point.
Speaking of disappointing—Meyers Leonard, ladies and gentlemen! The Blazers picked Leonard in the hopes that they could mold him into a rim-protecting, rebounding menace, and that...um...hasn't exactly worked out yet.
Leonard has gotten only spot minutes this season (though they've picked up as of late), namely because he's an awful defender. To be fair, Leonard is a decent rebounder (though the vast majority of his rebounds are uncontested, per NBA.com's Sports VU), and he's shown a promising ability to hit outside jumpers this season, albeit on very few attempts.
But the Blazers are allowing nearly 117 points per 100 possessions when Leonard is on the court, per 82games.com. That's a a jaw-dropping number that, taken over the course of an entire season, would equate to the worst defense in NBA history by a significant margin.
Obviously it would be unfair to blame that solely on Leonard, but it's safe to say he hasn't made great strides on the defensive end.
NBA, meet 2013 Damian Lillard, who's loudly made a case to be included in the “best point guards in the league” conversation.
Lillard's averaging 21 points and six assists per game on 58 percent true shooting, including 44 percent from deep—particularly impressive since he's launching over seven threes a game.
He hasn't been perfect—he's shooting a terrible 41 percent at the rim, per NBA.com—but he's reaching Stephen Curry territory in the sense that he forces teams to align their defenses in uncomfortable ways.
Lillard's shooting over a quarter of his threes out of the pick-and-roll, and he's hitting 41 percent on those shots, per Synergy Sports Technology.
Typical NBA defenses simply aren't equipped to handle guys who can do that with any type of regularity. When Lillard's at his best, he's the rare player who can force less aggressive defenses (like the Indiana Pacers, who routinely drop bigs back behind the foul line on pick-and-rolls) to completely change what they do on that end.
Lillard's also been unbelievable in the clutch, a big reason that the Blazers sit near the top of the NBA standings. The Blazers are 8-3 in games decided by five points or less. That's generally a sign of luck more than anything (as is “clutch” play in general), but even so, there's no disputing that Lillard is the main reason Portland has had such success in close games.
In crunch time (under five minutes left, up or down five), Lillard is hitting 64 percent from the field and 67 percent from deep. Narrow it down further, and Lillard gets even more ridiculous. In the last 10 seconds of games within three points, Lillard's hitting 80 percent from the field, per NBA.com (and he's thrown in a few game-winners for good measure). That's nuts.
This is what Wesley Matthews' shot chart looks like (per NBA.com). So...yeah. He's been alright this season.
Matthews is hitting 43 percent from deep and has been right there with Nicolas Batum in terms of perimeter defense. Matthews isn't the quickest guard, but he's big and tough enough to hang with most wings. His and Batum's ability to switch on most players gives the Blazers the ability to hide Damian Lillard on defense—a big reason that Portland's poor defense isn't even worse.
Matthews biggest contribution is obviously on the other end though, and as seen in his shot chart, he's been sublime offensively. Matthews has never had much of an off-the-bounce game, but he's been an assassin from deep this season, particularly from the corners, where he's hitting an even 50 percent, per NBA.com.
Matthews also gives the Blazers a bit of offensive versatility in the way of a surprisingly effective post game. He's hitting nearly 50 percent on post-ups, per Synergy Sports Technology, and when he's matched up against a smaller guard, the Blazers love to run plays designed to place LaMarcus Aldridge near the high post, giving Matthews position around the low block. Good stuff.
Honestly, there's really not all that much to say about Nicolas Batum, who's playing his typical brand of versatile basketball.
Batum has fit beautifully into Terry Stotts' offensive system. He's scoring more efficiently than he has in years, and he's posting over five assists per game despite the fact that Damian Lillard's emergence means that he has the ball in his hands less than usual.
Batum's mostly been used as a spot-up shooter, but his ability to act as a solid secondary ball-handler has been crucial in light of C.J. McCollum's absence. Defensively, he's been even more important, constantly checking the league's top scorers and even acting as a small-ball 4 at times.
The Blazers are so-so on the defensive end when Batum is on the floor and by far the worst in the league when he's not, per 82games.com. Obviously that's not all because of Batum, and most of the Portland starters are posting strong on/off splits. But to say that Batum's been “important” defensively for the Blazers would be an understatement.
The funny thing about LaMarcus Aldridge, who's generating some serious MVP buzz, is that he really hasn't been much better this season than in any other year. Aldridge is scoring more (23.6 points per game), but that's just because he's averaging a career high in shots—in fact, his 51 percent true shooting is a career low.
To be fair, he's been much better on the glass this season than ever before, but in general, this is the same guy we've been seeing for the past three or four years. The point being Aldridge hasn't made some kind of crazy leap this season. He's always been awesome. It just took a 25-7 start for people to notice.
Aldridge has probably settled for a few too many jumpers this year—he's on pace to attempt far more shots from between 10 feet and the three-point line than any other player in the league, per NBA.com.
But while it'd be nice to see him attack the basket a bit more, it's not a huge concern. Aldridge shoots good percentages on jumpers, and his pick-and-pop reliability is crucial when defenses really start bearing down on Damian Lillard.
Aldridge has been fantastic this season, and if he puts up a few more games like this, the (admittedly undeserved) MVP buzz could become legitimate.
Robin Lopez hasn't been incredible this season by any means, but he's virtually the only source of rim protection on the Portland roster, and that makes him pretty valuable to say the least.
The Blazers are only mildly better with Lopez on the floor, per 82games.com, but he's been a legitimate defensive force around the basket.
Opponents are shooting just 44 percent at the rim when Lopez is on the floor, a lower percentage than players like Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan allow, and just a few percentage points away from Defensive Player of the Year favorite Roy Hibbert (41.2 percent, per NBA.com's Sports VU).
That's not to say Lopez is at those guys' level as a defender just that he's an effective rim-protector, and his ability to do just that could end up playing a big role when it comes to Portland's playoff chances.
Lopez has also been a nice surprise on the other end. He's in no way a featured part of the Blazers' offense, but he's made the most of his pick-and-roll opportunities, per Synergy Sports Technology, and Portland won't hesitate to post him up if he's drawn a mismatch.