Sorry this is so late, citizens. Due to the high frustration last night, I had no opportunity to post this then as I had planned. I then had a game in the SFV this morning, so now we can finally get to it. Dave was great and provided insightful, thorough answers to my questions. Unfortunately, do to holiday business, there won't be an accompanying post featuring Dave asking me questions on BlazersEdge, but we'll certainly look forward to seeing that next time these teams play.
1. How good is Damian Lillard? He's scoring at a really good rate for a point guard, but he's under 6 assists a game. Can he defend? Is he a high IQ guy? To Clippers fans like myself who have only seen the 23 year old sophomore play a handful of times, he's sort of an enigma.
He's not your all-purpose Superman-level superstar. He's more like Aquaman: way better than mere mortals and nearly invincible when in his element but you have to use him right. He's under 6 assists per game because his role in the offense has been more marksman and finisher than direct distributor. He still moves the ball but there's usually another pass between Lillard and the shot. Damian's been playing more off-ball too, which suits him. He's been working harder on his defense but it's still on and off. With IQ he's less of a floor general than one of those guys who knows what time it is. He has a good sense of the rhythm of the game, when it's time to pass or shoot, when to step up and when to let other guys take the fore. He's blending in seamlessly with his teammates. Sometimes that means 16 points, other times 30. What the team needs, he tries to provide.
Lillard is the absolute king of the last-second shot, though. If you have one possession and you need a score, Lillard is a dangerous man. You better make sure you're at least 4 points ahead of the Blazers as the game closes or Aquaman is going to summon that sharp-toothed three-pointer and you're going down.
2. Along the same lines, how good is LaMarcus Aldridge? I didn't quite realize that he was averaging over 23/11 on the season. That's remarkable (even though it's not a huge upgrade over his normal 21/9 line). Have improvements in his game been the reason the Blazers have succeeded this year, or is he largely the same player as in years past?
There's no way to describe how well Aldridge has been playing this season or the effect he's had on this team. He's the center of everything. His shot is near-unstoppable and it's been falling from every direction. That bend the defense inward, forcing the defense to help. That usually leaves a three-point shooter wide open. Wide open Blazers don't miss this year. The unguarded three is like a layup for them. Take away Aldridge and all those shooters are covered. Portland's percentages plummet and they're nowhere near the current win total.
Aldridge has also led the team rebounding, put in effort on defense, rallied the troops emotionally when needed. He's Mr. Everything.
3. Can the Blazers sustain their levels of shooting? PDX's main four shooters, Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nic Batum, and Dorell Wright, are all between 2 and 4% better than their career averages from deep. Is it a case of improved mechanics combined with better looks, or will these percentages likely regress to the mean?
This team was build to shoot that shot. The offense is designed to get looks for shooters. They won't regress to a mortal level anytime soon. That said, among those shooters only Lillard has a dribble-drive option when you close on his shot. Opponents will probably scheme to cover Portland's triple tighter as the season progresses. It'll be harder for the Blazers to get the completely open looks they've feasted on early.
4. Long story short, tell us the core one or two reasons that the Blazers are so much better this year than last year.
Chemistry, effort, a beautiful offense, and playing a crap-ton of Eastern Conference teams on the road.
5. Some optimists who believed in the Blazers (like myself) thought that they could contend for a 7 or 8 seed this year. Did anyone predict that, through 28 games, they'd be atop the Western Conference? Do you think that they'll stay there? Will the Blazers be a top 4 seed come playoff time? Can they compete for a championship with a subpar defense?
Nobody predicted top of the conference. They'll not likely stay there, since two other teams surround them already despite the amazing start and more than half of the West sits at or above .500. The start has been remarkable, but not unique compared to their brethren. Top four seed? I suspect that'll be hard but the Blazers have been doing hard things all season. They'll have to show their ability to win in the playoffs before you can safely predict it. There's a huge difference between playing a team once on a Wednesday night in December and playing a team that's been scheming for you 6-7 times in a row.
Bonus Question/Nerd Rant: Whose decision was it to change the name of the Rose Garden to the Moda Center? Doesn't this matter? Shouldn't people have talked about this more when it happened? The Rose Garden is one of a few iconic NBA stadiums, up there with the Boston Garden, the Forum, Staples Center, MSG, and Oracle. Nobody cares that they changed the name?
We talked about it plenty. People cared. On the other hand, what are you going to do? Profit is a keystone to the organization. Ownership has kept the team going through non-profitable years. If they think the naming rights will make a difference they're well within their rights to sell them.
Thanks to Dave for taking my questions and giving us thoughtful answers to ponder heading into tonight's matchup. Check out his editorial team's coverage of the game at Blazer's Edge.