Setting Up The Board: A Portland Trail Blazers Season Preview
This year, for the first time, Hickory-High will be tackling the challenging of crafting season previews for all thirty NBA teams. Beginning today we’ll be rolling out these previews, one each day, leading up to Opening Night. This was a task of considerable size and complexity and it required the help of every member of our staff. The only guidelines given were that each writer approach team by staying true to their own style and the result is season previews of a difference sort. We hope you enjoy!
The Trail Blazers finished last season with a 33-49 record, and while they stayed in competition for a playoff seed throughout most of the season, largely in part to excellent seasons by LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, they eventually ran out of gas and lost their final 12 games. This year, however, I look at the Portland Trail Blazers and I think of a classic board game – chess.
I want to begin by stating that I am by no means a competent chess player. If the success of a mission to secure a valuable item from the possession of an evil dark wizard lay on my shoulders, I’d get butchered by the other side, no problem.
I do, however, have a passion for the game. The only thing I remember my high school calculus teacher saying was, “If we learned how to play chess every day in this class instead of math, you’d all be better prepared for life than if I was to teach calculus.” He was also the basketball coach, and we didn’t have a good team – maybe he should have spent less time studying Ruy Lopez and more time studying Adolf Rupp.
What leads me to see a comparison between chess and basketball? There are a few similarities. The main goal in chess is to put the king in checkmate and obtain victory. The main goal in basketball is to get buckets, win games, and lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy as champions. Basketball organizations have a plan (hopefully), a strategy to implement that plan, and the materials to carry that plan to fruition. A game of chess begins with a plan, with a variety of strategies, and sixteen pieces to carry that plan to fruition.
Why do I think of chess when I see the Portland Trail Blazers? I think of chess because it seems like Neil Olshey has finally acquired the materials necessary for the team to be a contender in the Western Conference. Nearly every season preview you will read about this team will talk about three things.
1. The improved depth from last season.
2. The trade requests made by LaMarcus Aldridge.
3. The upside of Thomas Robinson.
This is not one of those season previews.
In the book, “Modern Chess Strategy,” by Luděk Pachman, a Czechoslovak-German grandmaster, explains how chess pieces are valued. A bishop or knight is worth three points, a rook (or castle) is worth five, the queen is worth nine points, the king has no value, for without him, the game is lost, and pawns are worth one point each. In the right position, the value of each piece can increase, but in the end, their ultimate value is found by helping the player win the game.
As the 2013-14 season begins, with the Trail Blazers traveling to Phoenix to play the celestial palindromes on October 30, here are the values of the pieces that will see the court throughout the season.
King – Terry Stotts
Yes, the head coach is the king. Limited in his reach, yet classy in his suit and tie on the sideline, this figure leads the team. Stotts is the visible piece in the Trail Blazers statistical movement, and is in charge of laying the foundation of a team that plays to their statistical strengths. Most head coaches don’t do to school to study zoology or earn a MBA – but most head coaches aren’t Terry Stotts.
You can likely assume that Stotts gathered with his scouts and data analysts this offseason and pored over the results of the previous season. How can they utilize Lillard’s accuracy from the perimeter? How can they plan to get the most out of a Lopez-Aldridge frontcourt? Should Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews attempt nearly 500 3-point shots from the wings (they made 181)? Can they move out of the bottom ten in scoring margin in the second quarter of games? How can they give a starting unit that played the third-highest minutes together more rest throughout the season, keeping them healthy through April and into the playoffs?
It all rests upon Stotts and his staff.
Queen – Damian Lillard
No other player on the team has quite the ability to attack from across the court as the rookie of the year Damian Lillard. The former Weber State point guard excelled in his first year, backing up his selection as a high lottery pick despite playing against a weaker schedule. Lillard led the league in minutes played, beating out Kevin Durant, Monta Ellis, Kobe Bryant and DeMar DeRozan.
While the queen is the best offensive piece in the game of chess, the weakness of the queen is defense, because losing that piece will lower the probability of winning. Also, an isolated queen is a vulnerable queen, because if lost, there is no ability to counter the loss of value immediately. So it is also with Lillard, who is a clear threat on offense, racking up 185 3-point shots and leading the team in scoring, there is a definite weakness to his game – defense. Despite a solid frame, decent wingspan, and solid work ethic, Lillard struggled at times to stop his man on defense when isolated. 82games.com reports that Lillard gave up an average of 19.2 points per game to opposing point guards, with an eFG% of 47.7.
Lillard is the most important piece of the team going forward. The Trail Blazers have their point guard of the future now, and his value will be shown as he goes toe-to-toe with some of the best point guards in the game today in the Western Conference – Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Ty Lawson, Ricky Rubio, Tony Parker, and Steph Curry. While one of Lillard’s teammates is statistically the superior player, I believe Lillard has the higher potential and the ability to reach that potential, and is a keystone of the franchise going forward.
Rooks – Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge
“The Rook can enter into the game only after great preparation … the Rook has hardly increased its scope after a single move,” Pachman writes of the Rook. In chess, the third most valuable piece is the Rook. Next to the queen, no other piece is as effective in putting the King in check and winning the game. Aldridge is 1a to Lillard’s 1, and while the moppy-haired center may not have the most visible impact, Lopez is a vital part of the Trail Blazers success this season.
Aldridge had another All-Star performance last year, and was one of two players in the league to average more than 20 points and 8 rebounds – the other was LeBron James. It remains to be seen if Aldridge will receive a boost in rebounding from having Lopez, who is capable on the boards, playing alongside him. If Aldridge can repeat his performance from last season, and improve his outlook on the franchise, the Trail Blazers will be happy. Expect trade discussions around the power forward from Dallas, whether he plays well or poorly.
Lopez is an underrated addition to this team. While Aldridge can have the scoring opportunities, Lopez can help defend the King by doing the dirty work and being conservative. Portland ranked No. 18 in total rebounding percentage last season, which was last in their division and third worst in the Western Conference. Lopez posted a 12.9% total rebounding rate last season, and for comparison, Marc Gasol was at 13.1% last year.
Will Lopez be an All-Star? That’s really unlikely. He’s not as talented as his brother, Brook, and he is on his third team in six seasons. But if he can be a better defender than J.J. Hickson, and help protect Meyers Leonard while the younger center continues to develop, than he’s worth every cent he gets.
Bishops – Wes Matthews Jr. and Nic Batum
“In order to obtain its full working force, a Bishop must be provided with open diagonals; here it’s long-range power can be put to good effect,” Luděk Pachman says in his book. Last season, the Trail Blazers saw these two players launch 493 3-point attempts from the wing, connecting on 181 of them. They were both very balanced in their attempts, with Matthews attempting 109 from each side and Batum attempting 136 and 139 from the left and right.
Matthews and Batum are also polarizing figures for Trail Blazers fans. Batum has the “potential” label affixed to his game, yet is inconsistent in his production and hasn’t taken the jump from good role player to All-Star talent. Matthews is a solid contributor as well, often sacrificing his energy while taking advantage of opportunities on offense.
Their weakness is in fact that they have struggled to create offense for themselves. Can these two players help the team win? Yes, they can, and used properly, can be very effective. But, in terms of value, they’re just bishops, restricted to their role and unable to expand beyond that. A Bishop that starts on white will never take out a piece on black – it’s a limitation, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be found.
Knights – Mo Williams and C.J. McCollum
“A centrally placed and protected Knight often exerts the same power as a Rook. On the other hand, a badly placed Knight is a definite weakness,” Pachman writes. In chess, there is a saying, “A Knight on the side brings only trouble,” but if Williams and McCollum are basketball chess pieces, they are best on the side when the game starts – out of the starting lineup.
Williams had a good season for the Jazz last year, when he was healthy, but there wasn’t anything in his game that left you thinking, “Yeah, he’s the man!” He will be 31 years old this year, and has been in the league for 10 years – yeah, he’s part of the draft class of ’03. Of those ten years, Mo has only played in 80 or more games twice, and while you’re getting a player with great competitive fire, he has a history of injury.
McCollum looks to me to be the conclusion of a weird alien tool that took Williams and Lillard’s basketball talent, mixed them together, and transferred them to the combo guard from Lehigh. The Trail Blazers need McCollum to not be a minus on defense and create opportunities while on offense. What stands out from his college career is his ability to get to the free throw line. That’s where elite scorers in the NBA are able to collect points, and if McCollum is able to do that at the next level, he’ll be an incredibly valuable member of the team.
Terry Stott has them in a good position. Lillard and Matthews are the starters right now – there is no need to start Williams, and there is no hurry to start McCollum. Properly positioned, these players provide great power to the team.
“Despite their limited powers, the pawns have special qualities that play a large part in shaping the character of a position and in influencing the strategical plan to be followed,” Pachman says in his book. While these players are limited in their impact, the Blazers need pawns – desperately. The starting five of Lillard-Matthews-Batum-Aldridge-Hickson played 13,490 minutes in total last season – that’s a lot. Those minutes played added up, and it’s no wonder the team struggled late in the season. In comparison, the L.A. Clippers starting unit played 10,010 minutes together – yeah, nearly 3,500 minutes less, this comes to an extra 14.5 played games at full 48 minutes.
An interesting part of chess is the power of pawns grouped together. A pawn chain grows stronger the larger it becomes, while an isolated pawn becomes a strategic weakness. While pawns are of little value, run a pawn all the way down the board, and the pawn has the ability to become something much greater. So it is with many of these players.
Meyers Leonard is a pawn. Now, that being said, Leonard is a very tall pawn, measuring at 7’1” and 240 pounds. He has the physical tools to be a valuable basketball player, but didn’t show up during his rookie season. During summer league this offseason, Leonard averaged 11.8 points and 7.0 rebounds in 30.8 minutes per game, and shot 87.5 percent from the free throw line, numbers that look nice. The not-so-nice? Leonard averaged 4.4 fouls per game and had 4 blocks (total), which wasn’t even tops for the team (that would be Thomas Robinson with 6). Some people think Leonard could become a franchise center – let’s see if he can become a minor piece before he becomes a major player.
Dorell Wright is a pawn. This veteran swingman is entering his 10th season in the NBA, and comes to the Trail Blazers from Philadelphia. Wright is content coming off of the bench at this point in his career, but his belief in himself as a point forward is a little misguided. If Terry Stotts wants to shoot more from distance, Wright will benefit from that direction from the sidelines. Wright is a below average finisher at the rim, and is inefficient shooting from inside the arc. His defense is a minus, which limits him from starting, but with Leonard protecting the rim, perhaps his doggy-door defensive habits will not be overly detrimental.
Thomas Robinson is a pawn, but one that’s spent a lot of time in the weight room. It’s incredible to observe the fall of T-Rob in just one season. While at Kansas, his game screamed top-level athleticism but the top-five pick really struggled his first year in the league. A comparison can be made for Robinson to Kenyon Martin, who was the top pick in the draft, and was taken by the New Jersey Nets in 2000. While K-Mart wasn’t traded, the Nets changed the team dramatically, adding Jason Kidd during his second season and reaching the NBA Finals, where they would lose to the Lakers. Was Martin ever the best power forward in the league? No. But Martin did impact the game with his physical attitude, his competitiveness, and his leadership. Can Robinson make similar improvements in his game now that he has an elite point guard playing alongside him? I’d like to see him succeed – I think he can become a great player in Portland. For now, he’s a sophomore big man struggling to learn the game and who might lose minutes to Victor Claver.
Allen Crabbe is a pawn. The 6-foot-6-inch shooting guard showed improvement each season at California, and is a valuable catch-and-shoot asset from the perimeter. If Crabbe is going to make an impact, it will come due to beating Wright in training camp for a spot with the second unit. He did not impress during summer league, playing nearly 26 minutes a game yet averaging just 4.8 points per game, with a high of nine in the first game in Las Vegas. Crabbe could become a dependable shooter off the bench – for now, he’s probably just a pawn that you’d sacrifice late in the game.
Victor Claver is a pawn. Of the end of the bench rotation players, Claver (Cluh-vair) is one of the players that have value. An import from Europe, Claver has quick feet, decent athleticism, and a solid understanding of the game. If he can continue to show development under the tutelage of Coach Stotts and the staff, there is a place for him in the rotation.
Earl Watson is a pawn. If injuries leave Watson as the starter for an extended period of time, the Trail Blazers might as well set their sights for the NBA draft and the 2014-15 season. The thing about Watson is, he’ll play hard, he’s tenacious on defense, and he cannot score. Like, at all. The lack of shooting touch would be acceptable if Watson was able to set up the offense and give the ball to playmakers, but he’s also a historically bad turnover machine. Since 1946, there have been six seasons where a player had 800 minutes of court time and had a turnover percentage above 30% – Earl Watson has done it twice, in 2011-12 and 2012-13.
Will Barton is a pawn. Barton, the former University of Memphis guard, can’t score from the perimeter. When Barton plays, his defender is able to sag off and guard against cuts to the basket. While he goes full-bore on defense, if he can’t improve his touch, it’s hard to argue that he should be given minutes.
Joel Freeland is a pawn. As the fifth big man on the roster, his impact on the season for the Trail Blazers will come in blow outs or if the team is in foul trouble. A word to describe Freeland’s style of play is rugged – tough also comes to mind. It reminds me of when I would play basketball during high school against teams that had football players in the post – lots of hair, lots of bulk, and lots of contact. During the summer league, Freeland averaged nearly one foul per minute – which is roughly one every two defensive possessions.
While I can see the Trail Blazers fitting everything together and making a run for the playoffs, I expect them to be too inconsistent to truly challenge the better teams in the Western Conference. Can they score against the better defensive teams in the conference? Can they defend against the better offenses? I don’t believe they’ll be able to do that consistently, but I have been proven wrong in the past. I think 41 wins is an obtainable goal, and they’ll just miss the playoffs.