Coming into the season, the Blazers were expected to be a doormat team, a shell of their former selves. They have four rookies in their regular rotation, including their starting point guard, and were expected to have a defense among the leagues worst. 11 games in, they are far from a top-tier team, but they are certainly playing better basketball than predicted. So far in this young season three players have had far more impact on the outcome of games than the rest of the team.
LaMarcus Aldridge’s wattage. While I am not enamored with L.A.’s play this year, it is hard to ignore that he is hands down the best player on the team and one of the most productive players in the league.
He is averaging 20 points and 7.4 rebounds per game but his play is more reminiscent of his early years in the league rather than the terror he unleashed on the NBA last season, earning him All-Star honors. He is taking an alarming 10.2 shots per game between 16-23 feet. That leads the league.
Last season Aldridge started rolling toward the basket when he got the ball, rather than away like he did early in his career.
This season defenders seem to have taken notice because they regularly push him off the elbow and into the dreaded deep two-point range. Aldridge has always felt comfortable in that part of the court and has happily moved back and shot long two’s.
He is an excellent range shooter, but he is far more effective when he gets the ball and the elbow and can draw double teams to pass out of, post up, or roll to the basket with that magnificent spin move he unveiled last season.
This season he is still playing well as he is ninth in scoring, but the dominance looks to be fading.
Batum’s breakout. Batum sure has been a treat to watch this season. Actually, throughout his career he has been a treat to watch. His incredible grace makes an awkwardly skinny 6-foot-8 frame housing a 7-foot-1 wingspan look coordinated.
He has always tantalized Blazer fans with his quick attacking of the rim, beautiful shot, and the impeccable timing when he comes from behind to swat away a would-be layup, but only in small spurts intertwined with average play. This year Batum seems to have figured it out.
Batum is averaging 20.1 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.09 blocks per game. Those numbers are incredible for a player who previously was passive, afraid to make big plays, and primarily stood in the corner waiting to take 3’s. He has set a new career twice this season (35) and had five blocks in a game against San Antonio.
Batum is finally starting to live up to the expectations and is on his way to becoming a well-rounded player with length who can defend, similar to Chicago’s Luol Deng, or, dare I say it, Scottie Pippen. Those comparisons have always been there, but now they are a little less far-fetched.
Biggest surprise of all. Nothing came as more of a surprise than the play of Damian Lillard. The point guard out of Weber State hasn’t played against top competition at any level, yet seems unfazed by the NBA game.
He leads all rookies in points, assists, minutes, three’s, and steals. In seven of his first 11 NBA games, Lillard has scored at least 20. The last player to do that was Allen Iverson. He joins Isiah Thomas and Oscar Robertson as one of three rookies to average 19 points and six assists through 11 games.
He has gotten regular comparisons to Derrick Rose for his athleticism and relentless attacking of the basket. As of now, he is edging out Anthony Davis as the top choice for Rookie of the Year.
Granted, he has only been playing for three weeks and could surely dip in productivity but his body of work so far is beyond impressive. In a game against Houstan, Lillard took over in overtime, scoring 8 points in the extra five minutes. Throughout the season he has shown that he is fearless in clutch moments, something that has been missing on the Blazer’s roster since the departure of Brandon Roy.
It is too early to call Lillard a future superstar, but he has definitely been a major factor in Portland’s 5-6 record and is giving Blazer fans some well-deserved optimism.