Portland’s big test

Michael Pina is founder of Shaky Ankles, a must read for anyone who loves watching killer crossovers. Follow him on Twitter.

The best feel-good stories are always the ones that ignore expectations, and right now the NBA is choking on them. But nothing has been more beautiful, more joyous, or more fun than what’s micro-brewing in Portland. The Trailblazers came into this season as one of the most pitied team in recent memory. But by making several sneaky-good offseason moves, maybe they played us for a fool. To beef up their front line they grabbed Craig Smith and Kurt Thomas, to bolster their bench and fill the void left by Brandon Roy’s shot they won the Jamal Crawford sweepstakes, and in hope of getting LaMarcus Aldridge as many scoring opportunities as possible, they replaced the slow and faithful Andre Miller with a relatively more dynamic Ray Felton.

If there’s one team playing like a shark’s fin just about to break the ocean’s surface, it’s Portland.

Here’s a quick rundown of where they stand in some significant statistical categories. Right now the Trailblazers’ offense is 19th in eFG% and 4th in TOV%. They’re averaging 1.052 PPP, placing them just behind Orlando and Miami at 9th in the league. Much has been made of their sudden transformation from the league’s slowest team to one of its fastest (at 94.8 possessions per game, only Miami and Denver are moving quicker), and with good reason. The permanent losses of Andre Miller and Brandon Roy, combined with the permanent additions of Gerald Wallace and Felton, have allowed Nate McMillan to do what great coaches do: adjust to the given personnel. Of all the units in basketball who’ve logged at least 100 minutes together so far this season, Portland’s Felton, Matthews, Wallace, Aldridge, Camby lineup is the second most efficient group—behind only Indiana’s starting five.

What the offensive numbers mean is that what we’re seeing from Portland is exciting and wonderful, but with an eFG% falling below the league’s average and a turnover rate that defies the current style they’ve latched onto, it’s an unpredictable entity that could fall cold at an inopportune time. For all this talk of depth, youth, and athleticism (see Denver, Indiana, Philadelphia) helping teams with no traditional superstar mutate into regular season juggernauts, when the postseason arrives and the game slows down—when Gerald Wallace’s body is running like a car that’s experienced one too many head on collisions—how reliant will this team be on a Wes Matthews or Jamal Crawford hot hand? What if LaMarcus Aldridge’s brilliant low post play sputters against an enormous opposing front line (like, say, the Lakers’)? That’s a situation neither Portland, nor their fans would like to see. 

Image by @AnthonyBain

The key to preventing this may rest in the hands of their new point guard, Felton. Whether the relatively portly point chooses to swallow that key or unlock a more versatile method of play when the games really begin to matter could determine how far this team ends up going this year.

Though Felton is responsible for the Blazers new, exciting style of play, the reality is that Portland is receiving brutal play from the point guard position. Apart from last night’s win against the Clippers, there hasn’t been a more glaring weakness. Throughout his career, Ray Felton has somehow managed to be both unspectacular and underrated. At the moment, his TS% is an abysmal 44.4%, good for fourth worst among all point guards in the league averaging at least 25 minutes a game, while his usage rate surpasses Chris Paul’s. He’s second on the team in minutes yet holds a PER teetering on the brink of single digits. 

For the pudgy player he’s been these last few years, somehow, Felton remains a dart on the court. He bobs and weaves through defenses and plays the game with a little man recklessness that can be great at times, yet detrimental at others. That up-and-down play has to stop if Portland truly wants to challenge for a title this season, because the team’s greatest strength, LaMarcus Aldridge, will be more valuable than ever when the team needs to slow the pace down and go for a more systematic attack. If Felton isn’t making smart entry passes or and being judicious with his shot attempts, tight playoff games could turn ugly. Felton’s value also lies in his ability to join Wesley Matthews in a backcourt capable of spreading the floor, a key asset on a post-centric team. (Right now Felton is taking just over three shots from deep every night. He’s made four all season! That’s 14% shooting from someone who was 46% on long balls in 21 games for Denver last season. This needs to/should improve.)

If chaotic happenings begin to turn on the Blazers, with Wallace, Matthews, and Crawford forming a mini-perfect storm of inefficient shot selection, it’s Ray Felton who needs to be that strong ship in the water, fighting against the crashing waves, slowing the pace down and letting their true superstar even out the barometer. If he’s unable to do so—with expectations and stakes higher than they’ve ever been in his career—the Trailblazers could fall back to where most predicted they’d end at the season’s beginning. Back to square one: the league’s great receiver of mass condolences.

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