To help preview tonight's battle in Portland, I asked Chris Lucia of Blazer's Edge to answer some questions about the Trail Blazers. My thanks to Chris, who his boss calls the best preview man in the business!
Be sure to check out his site, where I answered some of Chris' questions from the Clippers' point of view.
Thomas Wood: The Blazers famously finished last season as a middling defensive team (16th in points allowed per 100 possessions), but have turned themselves into a powerhouse (they're 3rd as of this writing) with the same starting five (Robin Lopez' injury excepted). I'm sure your blog is filled with all the gooey and delicious details, but please give Clips Nation readers a little taste of what is behind the improvement.
Chris Lucia: One of Portland's defensive philosophies is to shut down the three-point line while allowing opponents to shoot inefficient midrange shots. In pick-and-roll situations, the wing defender usually goes over the screen while the big drops back. The Blazers give up a decent amount of points in the paint and some long jumpers, but so far they've allowed opponents to attempt just 17.7 three-pointers a game (No. 2 in the NBA), and they're making a league-low 28.7 percent of those, according to TeamRankings.com.
Willy Raedy, a staff writer over at Blazer's Edge, just broke down Portland's elite perimeter defense this year and concluded that, essentially, there are no clear statistical or empirical reasons to account for the team's improvement. I think a lot of it boils down to a few things: continuity, effort and commitment. The Blazers have had the same starting five since the beginning of the 2013-14 season and 4/5 of the same unit -- minus Lopez -- since 2012, Lillard's rookie season. They've had over two full seasons to install and tweak coach Terry Stotts' and his staff's defensive schemes. Familiarity with each other and the system -- and a commitment to implementing it -- has paid off so far this year.
Effort is a huge factor as well, and wing defenders like Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews will always bring it. Lillard clearly worked on his defense over the summer and while he's not a shut-down defender, he's learned how to deal with screens better and has quick enough hands to create steals where he hadn't his first two seasons. When healthy, the frontcourt rotation of LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Kaman, Joel Freeland and Lopez doesn't have elite rim protection, per se, but they're all good defenders and Freeland and Lopez, in particular, have excellent "verticality" on defense.
TW: Robin Lopez is still out with a broken hand, and his replacement, Joel Freeland, strained his shoulder about a week ago, giving our old flame, Chris Kaman, the chance to start. How have the Blazers adjusted to the change at center? Has Kaman endeared himself to you and fellow Blazer fans and followers?
CL: At Kaman's age and ability, he's probably not a great long-term starting center. But in a pinch? I think a team could do a lot worse. Defensively, he's a big body, knows where to be and is a hard fouler. Offensively, he has range out past the free throw line and can score facing the hoop or with his back to the basket, using an array of spin-moves and head-fakes to get the ball in with either hand.
On the downside, Kaman can be a bit overambitious at times. Off the bench, his individual scoring paces the reserves. As a starter, though, he'd likely be considered the fourth option behind Aldridge, Lillard and Matthews, and it's sometimes frustrating to see him looking for his own shot when others are open. Lately, opposing defenders have figured out how to disrupt him when he's operating with the ball in the paint, and he's had the ball poked away by defenders a fair amount of times.
Either way, though, Kaman is a more-than-serviceable third big man in the rotation and I'd say his time as a starter has been more good than bad. I think the Blazers' fanbase has generally embraced him and his quirks both on and off the court. Last summer, Portland GM Neil Olshey swung and missed on Spencer Hawes, and Kaman -- at least from what I can gather -- was seen by many as a cheap consolation prize, especially considering his age and that he was on his fifth team in as many years. He's now leading the offensive charge off the bench when the team is fully healthy, however, and fans in Portland seem mostly content to have Kaman instead of Hawes at this point.
TW: Another former member of the Clippers' organization, Neil Olshey, is now in his 3rd season as Portland's General Manager. Can you comment on his performance and recent contract extension? Many of us fondly remember a time when our coach and GM were two different people.
CL: Olshey picked Lillard at No. 6 and Meyers Leonard at No. 11 in 2012, then CJ McCollum the following year at No. 10. So far, both Leonard and McCollum have proven to be works in progress but both have shown some flashes of potential in limited minutes. Leonard, in particular, has played well lately with the injuries in the frontcourt and has been able to display his extended shooting range and some tenacity on the glass. McCollum can create his own shot and is a great catch-and-shoot player from the perimeter, but he's pretty inconsistent at this point.
Will Barton was a solid second-round pick by Olshey a few years back, and he traded Jeff Withey -- the No. 39 pick in 2013 -- and a couple future second rounders for Lopez, which was a steal for Portland. Mo Williams and Dorell Wright were solid, affordable signings two summers ago and Steve Blake and Kaman have become two of Stotts' most relied-upon reserves. Thomas Robinson was picked up in a salary dump by Houston for the rights to Kostas Papanikolaou.
Olshey has more hits than misses, the obvious home runs being the drafting of Lillard and the trade for Lopez. Everything else has been a solid value pick, signing or trade. I'll withhold my final judgement on Olshey until I see how he manages the free agencies of Aldridge, Matthews and Lopez while still adding additional talent this summer. He's done a great job so far, though, and it's nice to see some long-term stability in a Portland front office that saw two GMs fired in less than a year's time prior to his hiring. Paul Allen seems like a unique personality to work with, and Olshey has ostensibly fit in and earned the owner's trust when few others have in recent years.
TW: As most fans should have seen by now, Damian Lillard did something filthy and mean and dunked all over the Lakers on Sunday night. Where is he in the NBA point guard hierarchy? Also, not to push you into Sophie's Choice, but which player can the team least afford to live without: Lillard or LaMarcus Aldridge? (Don't worry, we're not plotting anything nefarious that you know of...)
CL: Right now the NBA is in the midst of a Golden Age of point guards. I won't rank the elites, but Lillard is there along with Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Kyle Lowry and probably Mike Conley and Jeff Teague. Not far below is Kyrie Irving, Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, Ty Lawson, etc. It's such a truly loaded position, but Lillard is arguably top-3 and easily top-5.
Picking between Aldridge and Lillard is next to impossible, because both are such key ingredients to Portland's success. Aldridge has a unique skillset, as the midrange jumper -- which many teams would otherwise gameplan to allow -- is his favorite shot. He's also a very physical scorer in the paint, able to score via sweeping hooks or with a soft touch around the basket. Aldridge's offense gets a lot of attention from opposing defenses, which opens things up for his teammates. Of course, his length allows him to hit midrange jumpers even when he's well covered and he's very difficult for power forwards to guard individually.
Lillard might be the most clutch player in the NBA right now and can take the wind out of any opposing teams' sails in the waning seconds of a game -- just ask the Houston Rockets. He can get to the rim almost at will, and as you saw against the Lakers, he can finish with the best of them and deflate a defense. If it's not a dunk over two players, it's a 26-foot three-pointer off the dribble that sucks the air out of crowds in opposing arenas.
If I have to live without one, I guess I'll say Aldridge, but that's mainly due to the Blazers' roster composition. When healthy, Portland has enough talented bigs to better absorb the loss of Aldridge; If Lillard were gone, Blake's the only other point guard on the roster and things would look pretty messy in the backcourt.
TW: Speaking of Aldridge, he is an unrestricted free agent in June. What seems to be the consensus among Blazer fans: panic or calm? Is he coming back? Is he going to the Lakers?
CL: Aldridge seems to be the type of player who really appreciates having a legacy in Portland, and he's climbing up the career rankings in most significant statistical categories in team history. He's said he wants to eventually be considered the greatest Blazer of all-time, and that he plans to stick around long-term. That, along with the money and years Portland can offer, has led fans here to remain pretty calm about Aldridge's upcoming free agency. There were grumblings a couple summers ago, but the playoff success last spring, along with Allen and Olshey's commitment to bringing in talent to surround the team's core, has apparently been convincing enough for Aldridge to remain a Blazer.
TW: The Clippers seem to have many rivals: the Lakers for obvious reasons, and the Grizzlies and Warriors for playoff reasons. The Clippers also seem to find a rival in any team with a star power forward, particularly those with less perceived public acclaim than Blake Griffin. I see Portland as one of those teams because Aldridge may be as unheralded as star big men come, and I recall him bristling about it in the past. Do you see the Clippers as a rival? Do Portland fans come with a little extra something when the Clippers arrive in town? Will you admit that the Blazers were the first team to try beating up Blake during his ascendancy instead of just beating him? (Sorry for that last bit -- I'm bitter and more than a little protective...)
CL: Andre Miller was just retaliating against Griffin for pushing him in the back on two straight plays!
At any rate, I think Aldridge used to get hyped to go against other premier power forwards, but I think he's now at the point where other guys are circling their matchups with him on the calendar, rather than the other way around. He seems like more of a "business as usual" kind of guy these days.
Lillard, on the other hand, got up for his matchup with Chris Paul in a preseason game this year. I'd say he's more the type of player to relish a matchup with one of the elites and use it as a measuring stick -- which isn't to say Lillard doesn't take all his opponents seriously, because he definitely does. He just has a knack for rising to the occasion and using any slight -- perceived or not -- as motivation.
I don't think the Blazers or the team's fanbase see the Clippers as a rival, even considering the Lillard/Paul and Aldridge/Griffin matchups. I wrote about Portland's rivals this past summer, and asked readers which team they considered to be the biggest one. The Rockets took 64 percent of the 2,500+ votes, and the Clippers were hardly mentioned.
Now, this could all change if the two teams meet in the playoffs. I could see Blazers fans really starting to despise Paul, Griffin & Co. in a seven-game series and a rivalry could be born. It's just not quite there yet.