Portland Trail Blazers' First Half Player Power Rankings
As we eclipse the halfway point of the season, the Portland Trail Blazers have emerged as one of the NBA's best teams. First came the surprise, then came the questions about if they could maintain their hot start.
Now, Portland still has one of the top records in the league. The Trail Blazers have been the beneficiaries of a Coach of the Year candidate, a lack of injuries, one of the easiest schedules in the Western Conference and an offense that is scoring at a league-best rate.
Let's take a look at the players responsible for Portland's surprise season.
LaMarcus Aldridge has shot 456 mid-range jumpers this season, per NBA.com. He likes to shoot what is considered the least efficient shot in basketball. However, he is shooting it at an above-league-average rate that helps the Trail Blazers' spacing and pick-and-roll movement.
Aldridge has entered the MVP conversation, and though he won't win, because of LeBron James, it is noteworthy to be mentioned for the award. It isn't just his offense, though. Aldridge is grabbing about 11 rebounds per game and his defensive rating is the best among all starters on the team.
Coach Terry Stotts has engineered pick-and-rolls between Aldridge and Damian Lillard that have led the NBA's top offense. Aldridge sets strong picks and when he catches the ball on the roll, can jack up a mid-range shot or drive to the basket with the dribble. The best power forward in the league is now 1A and 1B between Aldridge and Kevin Love.
In a Western Conference loaded with great guard play, Damian Lillard probably won't make the All-Star team. That's a shame, because he has been playing at an All-Star level this season, averaging around 21 points and six assists per game. He is an assassin from the three-point line, especially in clutch situations.
His defense has improved too, from a net rating of 107.2 his rookie season to 104.7. Part of that is to do with his individual improvement (though there is still much work to do), and the other part is Stotts taking a conservative approach to his defense, asking his guards to fight over screens and provide backside pressure to the ball-handler—a system that utilizes Lillard's speed and quickness rather than his on-ball skills.
It's a shame he won't make the All-Star Game. Really. Hopefully the NBA includes him in the three-point contest.
So, Wesley Matthews' shot chart is pretty fun.
The Trail Blazers can run a play to get Matthews an open look from pretty much anywhere on the court, and they do. His ability to shoot the three-ball is second only to Lillard on the team, but he is a better finisher at the rim. He's the third-highest scorer in Portland.
Matthews and Klay Thompson are the top emerging shooting guards in the West (if you can consider a 27-year-old an emerging player), except Matthews has a way better first name and also knows what it is like to never find your name as a novelty license plate or coffee mug.
It is hard to judge players' defense in Portland, especially with the numbers. Watching Matthews, though, I trust him and Nicolas Batum the most as on-ball defenders.
For those of you that play fantasy basketball, you already know what Nicolas Batum is worth (went for $32 in my auction draft).
Batum has cemented his spot in the lineup with efficient numbers across the board, more than 13 points, six rebounds and five assists per game while also shooting .453/.365/.826. He gets fantasy owners points in most categories every night and helps the Trail Blazers in all facets of the game.
What doesn't show up on his efficient stat line is his off-ball movement. Stotts has plenty of plays that have Batum running through and setting picks, coming off screens and spotting up for jumpers.
Like I said, I trust him and Matthews the most as on-ball defenders. Having two decent wing defenders helps cancel out the otherwise below-average defense of Lillard and Aldridge, thereby inflating the value of both Matthews and Batum.
However, Batum, now in year five, has yet to make a significant leap. He has the ability to be an All-Star (or close to it), but his scoring numbers have remained largely stagnant for years. Consequently, he's been passed by Matthews as the team's third option.
We knew what he could do for the Trail Blazers on defense, but Robin Lopez has been surprisingly effective in the team's offense. As shown in the video, Lopez has been a factor in Stotts' pick-and-roll schemes and hasn't clogged the paint for Aldridge despite his relatively slow legs.
On the boards, Lopez is hauling in more than 50 percent of contested rebounds as well 56 percent of rebounds in general, per NBA's SportsVU data. Those aren't All-Pro numbers, but certainly an improvement from J.J. Hickson (who is grabbing just 36 percent of contested rebounds this season).
Is he the perfect fit for Portland? I wouldn't go that far while answering my own question, but the incremental improvement that general manager Neil Olshey accomplished with Lopez over Hickson has attributed to the Trail Blazers' surprise season.
Let's take Lillard out and plug Mo Williams in to the starting lineup and compare.
With Lillard: 114.8 points per 100 possessions, 104.0 points allowed per 100 possessions, net rating of 10.8 and a pace of 95.98 possessions per 48 minutes.
With Williams: 108.5 points per 100 possessions, 93.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, net rating of 15.3 and a pace of 98.74 possessions per 48 minutes.
These numbers can be a bit misleading, considering that the Lillard lineup has played for a total of 682 minutes and the Williams lineup for just 99 minutes, but it does illustrate the point that the Trail Blazers can handle things sans Lillard.
One of the most important positions in basketball is the backup point guard. When the starter sits, a team needs to be able to continue to run its offense smoothly. Williams allows for that. That's his job, and he is doing just fine. Could he do without a mid-range jack here and there? Sure. But I can live with it.
The Trail Blazers' starting center isn't known for his offense, and that is also true of Joel Freeland.
Freeland is a non-factor on offense, but when he spells Lopez, he keeps defenses from taking advantage in the paint. He is a capable defender who rarely goes rogue or is out of position. He understands Stotts' system of sagging on the pick-and-roll and his length is good for it. He is slightly more agile than Lopez while shuffling his feet (though that's not saying much).
Freeland is a good rebounder whose per 36 numbers match up closely with those of Lopez and is especially effective on the offensive glass, helping create extra possessions for a high-velocity Trail Blazers offense.
According to The Columbian, 17 of Freeland's 25 assists have resulted in three-pointers. Stotts told the publication that Freeland has taken pride in doing just that, getting the offensive board and kicking it out to open shooters, and Freeland elaborated:
It helps our team a lot and it's one of the easiest shots in the game. If I can get an offensive rebound, kick it out, most of the time the defense will be drawn in the middle of the paint so they are going to be wide open on the three-point line.
That's the way Freeland generates offense.
Dorell Wright doesn't play much, averaging just above 13 minutes per game, but when he does he gives the Trail Blazers some solid time.
His average of five points per game doesn't suggest as much, but his per 36 numbers of 12.7 points per game tell a more complete picture.
Because Lillard, Matthews and Batum are gobbling up minutes on the wing, Wright isn't heavily relied on. His three-point field-goal percentage (36 percent) could use a bump, especially in the corners (38.7 percent), but it isn't as if Portland is desperate for long-ball help.
He is a valuable veteran on a young team who can come off the bench, score some points and add some length. He's been solid—nothing more, nothing less—and that's fine for a bench player. With C.J. McCollum set to make his NBA debut soon, Wright's kicks might kiss the court even less.
Thomas Robinson was recently benched for Meyers Leonard. That is basically considered failing, but let's look at this a little more. Why was he benched in the first place?
Stotts said that he was looking for Leonard to stretch the floor in the second unit, and that the decision, which was made in advance of Saturday's game against the New Orleans Pelicans, is expected to continue indefinitely. Leonard added that the coaches seem to like the idea of pairing Joel Freeland with Leonard for spacing purposes.
Erik Gunderson of The Columbian reported the change was to help the offense of the second unit that includes the aforementioned Freeland:
I wanted to help that second unit out with a little bit of spacing. Meyers has a good understanding of spacing, he sets screens, he and Joel (Freeland) play well together.
So, this is less to do with how the two compare individually to one another and more to do with how each fit within the dynamics of a five-man lineup.
Robinson has been one of the team's best rebounders across all statistical categories and his energy off the bench has value. However, he is still much too raw and cannot stretch the defense out of the paint (justl look at his shot chart). Meyers, allegedly, can. But we will get to that.
Leonard was inserted into the rotation on Dec. 21 because he can help stretch the defense and make room for his moving guards. His shot chart compares favorably to Robinson's, and in Portland's offense-first system, that gives him the leg up.
He has played just 117 minutes this season, a very small sample size. To give him a grade here would be premature. In his last seven games since his promotion, Leonard is shooting 52.4 percent for 3.1 points per game.
He is still apt to do silly things that make Blazers fans cringe, but those mistakes should be weeded out with more playing time.
More likely than not, Stotts will play around with his second unit as his first unit continues to thrive. We might see Robinson and Leonard switch off a few times, but there is little doubt that Leonard is a better fit for Stotts.
Still, I have Robinson over Leonard because I think he is a better player. Eventually, I think that will win out.