The Portland Trail Blazers weren't expected to make a serious run for a lower Western Conference playoff seed—not by a long shot.
They were, however, expected to be competitive throughout the season—especially for those die-hard Rip City fans who flood the Rose Garden each night.
But with the Blazers currently at 6-9—their latest loss handing the cellar-dwelling Washington Wizards their first win of the season—it's time to identify and address the very issues that plague Portland's 2012-2013 campaign.
Surely at the forefront of those issues is bench production. Hoopsstats.com has the Blazers pegged dead last in bench scoring, at a measly 12.3 points in 12.5 minutes per game, which is just under nine points lower than the 29th-ranked L.A. Laker second unit (21.1 ppg). But teams have succeeded—to an extent greater than the Blazers are—without adequate bench scoring.
Next would have to be the defense. Portland is giving up 101.1 points per game—a fact that could be overlooked if they were running a D'Antoni-styled offense—and only pouring in 97.5.
Not even the Wizards allow remotely that many points.
The only teams that average more allowed points per game are the Phoenix Suns (102.6) and the Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors and Dallas Mavericks, who are all tied at 101.5. But again, teams have still succeeded while allowing triple-digit scoring (to some extent).
The only thing remaining is the starting lineup and the coaching staff. You can argue that Nic Batum is living up to that monstrous contract he signed, putting up career highs in points (17.9), rebounds (6.0), assists (3.1), steals (1.7), blocks (1.1) and minutes per game (38.9). Wesley Matthews is reaping the benefits of an elevated mid-range game, and young Damian Lillard is second on the team in scoring, averaging 19.1 points to go with 6.1 assists and 1.4 steals per game.
J.J. Hickson, who averages a double-double (11.4 points and 11.1 rebounds), leads the entire team with an 18.98 Player Efficiency Rating, and is adequately filling the hole the Blazers have at center for the season.
Do you see where I'm going with this?
The only two people left to question are coach Terry Stotts and captain and former All-Star, LaMarcus Aldridge—and I say former because his play this season doesn't warrant a ballot.
To date, L.A. is only averaging 20.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, while shooting a career-low 43.9 percent from the field—that's barely acceptable for a top-tier shooting guard, let alone a big man. What's even more disturbing is his shot selection.
Aldridge has the mid-range jumper down to a science; we all know that. But there is absolutely no reason for his clearly above-average low post game to be underutilized.
In last night's sloppy loss to the Wizards, only four of L.A.'s 19 attempts came from in the paint. He would then miss eight of 14 mid-range jumpers and brick a 25-foot three-point attempt. This type of shot selection is trending throughout the Blazers' 15 games this season.
“I want to try almost everything that we did with Dirk, with LaMarcus, to get a comfort level. On the left block he’s as good of a block player as there is in the league. A pick-and-pop shooter for a big man, he’s almost on the same level as Dirk with mid-range. Dirk can take it out a little bit further, or at least he has. I’d like to expand his game a little bit.”
But is it possible that this just isn't L.A.'s game?
Aldridge is just as good of a post scorer as he is a jump shooter. Even though their numbers are way higher from last season, Batum and Matthews could both benefit from open looks caused by a double sent to the low post.
Portland's not going to the playoffs, and it would hurt them in the draft to try to win games. Get the bench playing at least 20 minutes per game, and for heaven's sake, move Aldridge back down to the low block where he's thrived in his career.
Will Barton is a diamond waiting to be uncovered, and I've been high on Victor Claver since the preseason. This season was a wash once Roy Hibbert re-signed in Indiana.
Cut your losses—maximize them, actually—and get into the Cody Zeller running.