The Boring (but good!) Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers are boring.

I was not expecting to have to write that sentence. I went into the research for this article expecting the opposite, really. At 10-7 and the fifth best point differential in the entire league, I was expecting to watch Blazers games and get ready to watch the Dame Show with Best Supporting Actor C.J. McCollum.

But then I started watching, and the Blazers are just boring. This isn’t to say that the Blazers are a bad team; they just aren’t fun to watch. I’ve written previously that Damian Lillard is the second most exciting player in the league to watch when he’s got it goin’. But if Dame ain’t dropping off-the-dribble 30-footers, the Blazers are just not fun to watch.

Why? Why are they not fun to watch, with one of the best backcourts in the league, they should be a League pass must-watch…what’s the deal?

But first, its luke-warm take time!

Since Joel Embiid decided to destroy the Clippers and Lakers last week, and since Ben Simmons has decided to put up stats that no player – not just rookies, but players in general – has ever put up before, the world has started to come around that The Process worked. And a lot of takes have come out that tanking worked, and other teams should try to tank and tanking is bad for the NBA.

I had this all written up as a giant hot take, but then looked at myself in the mirror and couldn’t figure out why I was getting all riled up over something Stephen A. Smith said. HOWEVER, I don’t think the Sixers tanked.

What the Sam Hinkie-led Sixers did during The Process years was rebuild. Tanking is losing games on purpose. Tanking is letting Mark Madsen fire up seven 3 pointers in a 9 minute span. Tanking is sending your veteran players home in the middle of the season.

Lots of teams are bad. The Kings have been bad for what seems like ever (although shouts to White Chocolate Jason Williams. Thanks to his recent birthday there were highlight videos all over r/nba and Instagram, and it reminded me of being 14 again and trying every single one of those passes in my driveway, with the garage door playing the role of Chris Webber or Peja or Vlade). The Lakers have been bad for at least 3 years now. Phoenix is awful. None of these teams have the promising young core of the Sixers.

And that’s because those are other teams have poor management. Hinkie’s plan not only got the Sixers guys like T.J. McConnell and Robert Covington, but he also pulled off trades where he came out ahead seemingly every time. Most notably is the trade with the Kings that got them swap rights and a future first round pick. Those were the assets they used to trade up and get the number 1 pick in the draft, again. That stuff doesn’t happen with an incompetent front office.

It doesn’t take a genius to put a bad team on the floor and get high draft picks. The genius comes from the trades, the culture (not firing Brett Brown and letting him see the fruits of his labor), and having the longest view in the room. #TrustTheProcess

Portland Trail Blazers

Our favorite NBA gambler Haralabos Voulgaris went on Twitter recently calling out the Blazers for not being good:

https://twitter.com/haralabob/status/931744188785291265

I was in the middle of doing my research for this article when I read it, and my first thought was ‘Oh shit I disagree with what Haralabob says I need to rethink my position’. Because I have a lot of evidence that the Blazers might actually be pretty good.

Numbers, as always, are noisy this season, but the defense and rebounding numbers could be real. Right now, Portland is second in Defensive (98.2), and first in Rebound Percentage (54.4). Those numbers would have led the league last year.

Speaking of last year. The Blazers were terrible on defense for the first half of the year. Through February 13, they ranked 26th (108.9). From February 13th through April 1, they were 10th (105.7). Those dates are B.N. (Before Nurkic) and A.N. (After Nurkic – he missed the final 7 games of the season with a broken leg). So while a D-Rating of 98.2 is not sustainable over the course of the season, the idea that the Blazers will be a very good defensive team with a full season of Nurkic is not completely flukey. The number itself is flukey, the ranking relative to the rest of the league is not.

Offensively, the Blazers were 13th (106.8) B.N., and 5th (110.4) A.N. It’s no wonder they were 14-6 with Nurkic and survived down the stretch to make the playoffs. The makings of a really good team are here – it’s not inconceivable this is a team in the top 10 in both Offensive and Defensive ratings. That’s a solid playoff team, and they will win a bunch of games if they can keep that up. Their currently point differential of 5.6 is that of a 55-win team.

So why are they so boring to watch?

When you look at the roster, it looks like it was built using the old fantasy basketball strategy of ‘Point Guards and Power Forwards’. I count four players who’s best position is running the point: Lillard, McCollum, Shabazz Napier and Evan Turner. The first 3 are fairly obvious, but I really think Evan Turner would have been a point guard had he come along 4 years later. I tweeted this before as a bit of a hot take, but the more I think about it, and the more I watch, I think it’s a pretty apt comparison – he’s Lonzo Ball without Lavar. 6’5-ish, can’t shoot, good vision and handle for the size. Not a great athlete. I’ve always said that Evan Turner is ‘Good Evan Turner’ when he has the ball in his hands and is able to run the show. The problem is, if Evan Turner has the ball in his hands a lot, your team probably isn’t very good.

Aside from the 4 point guards, they also have 5 power forwards – guys that are 6’7 to 6’10, and who’s only discernible NBA skill is ‘hustle’. Try and describe what skills one of these players have without using the word hustle or describing their physical attributes:

Noah Vonleh
Ed Davis
Mo Harkless
Caleb Swanigan
Al-Farouq Aminu

It’s hard to tell these guys apart when they play because they all look the same – similar height, similar skill set. That may be a bit unfair to Aminu, since he is hurt right now, but no one there gets you excited if you’re a Blazers fan. And if you’re just tuning in to watch, you don’t even realize they’ve made substitutions. And I know, not all of them might play ‘power forward’, but we’re talking about similar skill sets here, not actual positions.

While point guards and power forwards may have been a viable fantasy strategy, it doesn’t make for especially fun viewing. These power forwards, in particular, might help you win real-life games, and might be great teammates, and do all the things that help you win games. That doesn’t mean it’s fun to watch.

The one good thing about watching Blazers games, though, is Kevin Calabro. He’s a NBA League Pass legend, and makes the otherwise bland Blazers games slightly more entertaining. Lamar Hurd is not very good, as he is a bit too homer-y, and missed out on a golden opportunity to press Calabro on his ‘pizza with black olives, kalamatas, and three different kinds of mushrooms’ preference.

(For the unfamiliar: Each Blazers home game has a promotion that if the Blazers are ahead at the 4:25 mark of the 1st or 2nd quarter, then you can go into a local Papa Murphy’s and get a large pepperoni pizza for $4.25. While announcing this promotion, Hurd mentions that he would not put pineapple on his pizza, and Calabro concurs saying, ‘that’s not pizza’. Calabro then goes along to mention his above-reference preference on pizzas, but Hurd neglects to ask some obvious follow up questions: What type of mushrooms? What if they only have 1 or 2 kinds and not 3? Do you ever eat non-mushroom pizza? The fact that Hurd just went rolled with the statement and didn’t follow up at all got me more excited than anything that happened on the court. I still have so many questions.)

The lineup that I want to see more of, that according to NBA.com has only played 2 minutes together, is the 4 point guards and Nurkic. I think that line-up could light up teams offensively for stretches, depending on the match-ups. It’s worth throwing out for a few minutes a night, let the point guards switch everything on the perimeter and have Nurkic just hang out at the rim. Offensively, the passing ability of all 5 players would make those stretches much more fun to watch than watching Moe Harkless clank home another open 3. (Side note: I’m writing this in Pages on a Macbook and it auto-corrects Harkless to Harmless. Just sayin’.)

I think Portland will keep winning games, the Lillard/McCollum/Nurkic combo should be enough to win at least 50 games. I think there is enough evidence to say their defense is Top 10 good, which is remarkable considering where they were at this time last year, B.N. So do yourself a favor and look into what the Blazers are doing. Also do yourself a favor and don’t watch them on TV.

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