1. What are the early returns on the Damian Lillard-Nicolas Batum-LaMarcus Aldridge trio?
Good, mixed, and mixed respectively.
Lillard has opened the eyes of a fan base that hasn't seen a truly amazing point guard since the days of Rod Strickland and Terry Porter. His step-back jump shot is a sight to behold. When he figures out how to use it as the finish to a faked drive it'll be a near-unstoppable move. Lillard is just one of those players where nearly every shot that leaves his hands seems good. His court vision and maturity are light years beyond those of a normal rookie. He commits plenty of rookie mistakes-picking up his dribble, committing too early to passes, repeating passes by rote, leaving his feet to pass-but those will iron out in time. The only lasting issue with Lillard may be defense, but hey...you can afford one of those guys on your team, especially when he's going to score near 20 and dish 8-9 assists. He won't average that as a rookie, of course, but down the road this guy will be plenty good.
Batum is...Batum. He has brilliant moments and invisible moments. Like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get. He's getting more minutes, more touches, and more freedom this year than he's ever had, so his highs are higher. But he's still missing something-killer instinct or urge to dominate or maybe just need to self-aggrandize-that makes a true star. He remains the Blazers' go-to defender at the small positions and he's a reliable three-point shooter in catch-and-shoot situations. But he seems destined to be the guy who appeals to basketball gurus and stats majors but didn't achieve lasting greatness in real life.
Aldridge is one of the most interesting stories of the new season. Like Batum, he has far more freedom in Terry Stotts' offensive system than he did in Nate McMillan's. Ball movement and permission to bomb away have Portland players scoring from all kinds of new positions. Aldridge takes full advantage of that freedom with the straight-away jumper from the elbow or top of the key. The problem is, he became an All-Star because of efficiency, most of which developed in the post. I can count the number of times Aldridge's feet have touched paint on offense this season on two fingers. Even when he posts on the left block he finishes fading away. He's still scoring 22 per game but his field goal percentage is below 44% when it was above 51% last year. He's also drawing 3 foul shots per game this season as opposed to 5 last year. It's early, but people are starting to notice and wonder openly whether he shouldn't be encouraged to reclaim the post and paint a little. The problem is, iso sets and the ball stopping are anathema to the Stotts offense. He does want his players to drive but face-up dribbling is not Aldridge's forte. It'll be interesting to see how this story develops.
2. Will Portland be back in the playoff conversation next season, or does it look like it'll take longer?
Have you met our bench?
The starters are fine on this team...at least for now. The Blazers need help at center (perhaps provided by a maturing Meyers Leonard eventually) and could use a little more reliable sizzle at shooting guard. But really, Portland will stack up their starters against just about anybody. The problem is, they have to. If the top five don't play 40 minutes the Blazers are in trouble because their bench is averaging, like, 5 points a game. Total. In the Blazers' last game versus San Antonio the Spurs reserves out-produced their Portland counterparts by a total of 63-4. Seriously. (The Blazers only lost that game by 3, by the way.) Until the Blazers get some depth it's hard to forecast them making it to the end of a season in one piece, let alone going to the playoffs. Setting aside Leonard, you couldn't trade Portland's entire bench for one decent player in this league. That's a lot of depth to make up.
Fortunately all of those players are cheap and easily-jettisoned. Another lottery draft and a semi-decent free-agency period would do wonders for this team. But they have plenty of catching up to do in order to claim relevance.
3. With Neil Olshey and Terry Stotts in place, are fans by and large comfortable with management?
This mandates the classic, "Yes, but..." response.
Olshey sold Portland fans on the wisdom of patience this off-season, claiming it'd be foolish to overpay mid-range free agents who wouldn't make a lasting difference. In essence he sold losing as winning. Being Neil Olshey, he pitched it quite well. Most fans are on board with this philosophy for now.
Similarly Stotts talked about ball movement, faster tempo, pretty cuts, and three-point mastery. Fans around here were ready for a more beautiful style of offensive basketball and the Blazers have delivered so far.
Reality is starting to hit Blazer fans like a cold fish across the kisser though. Prettier doesn't mean more efficient. Patience has a price. It's easy to accept theory in August but a .255 winning percentage in February is harder to swallow. No matter what promises were made and accepted in the bloom of summer, both Stotts and Olshey are going to experience a winter of discontent. Most everything will be forgiven once draft time rolls around again, though. Providing Stotts doesn't end up sparring with Aldridge or Batum he should be safe. Olshey should be good to go for a few years either way.
Thanks again to Dave at Blazer's Edge for the info. I love hearing about teams from the horse's mouth.