It has been quite a while since we’ve done on of these, but welcome back to Fraternizing with the Enemy, where today I’ve been visiting with managing editor of PtR’s sister site for the Portland Trail Blazers, Blazer’s Edge. As the two teams head into their first of three matchups this season, they’re separated in the standings by a single game. Dave lost the coin flip, so I got to go first.
J.R. Wilco: Good day, my friend. It’s been too long since we’ve done one of these and as our two teams prepare to play an early game (2pm STTOTTM) on Monday, I must begin by asking you: What’s it like to have a team who knows what they’re good at and knows who it must lean on when things get tough? The Trail Blazers are 1st in the league in offense, and with two starters down with injuries, Damian Lillard torched the Hawks for 36, and played some clutch defense down the stretch to seal the win for Portland.
I imagine it must be very comforting to know where your points are coming from and what kind of game to expect. See, the Spurs are (finally, as much of the league would say) too young to know who they really are, they’ve had seven different guys lead the team in scoring (in just 13 games), they play high-scoring games and win them, they play high-scoring games and lose them, they play low-scoring games and — well, they haven’t won any low scoring games yet...but they’ve played in them.
The Blazers are good at shooting, and good at shooting threes. The Spurs are finally shooting threes this season, but they’re not always good at making them; going 5-24 from deep on Saturday against Houston. Both teams have beaten the defending champion Lakers, and both have lost in blowouts to the Jazz.
But you guys know who and what your team is: they’re going to be in a high scoring game and (outside the debacle against Indiana) they’re going to get to the century mark. They’re winning at a .615 clip and shouldn’t worry about being short-handed against a San Antonio team that was one bad quarter away from dropping two straight to the most severely depleted team in NBA history, the post-James Harden blockbuster trade Houston Rockets, who could only put 8 men on the court but still took one of two from a Spurs team who seems happy to play at whatever level their opponents prefer — Lakersesque excellence, or Timberpuppies cellar-dwelling.
So that’s my first question to you, Dave, what’s it like to cheer for a team with an identity?
Dave Deckard: Here’s the thing about identities. You can get stuck in them! The Spurs, for instance, are probably a little bit stuck in “used to be good with Tim Duncan” land, kind of like looking in the rear-view mirror. Who could blame them? Portland’s identity is different.
The Blazers are like a wonderful Iowa farm wife known for her green bean casserole. Sundays, Thanksgiving, graduation parties...whatever the occasion, “Gosh, ma, that’s good!” In 2019 she even took it to the State Fair and won Third Prize. That ribbon sure is pretty, hanging on the laundry room wall.
But see, THIS summer the Blazers went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond and got themselves one of those fancy food processors. It slices! It dices! The commercial said you could make anything from pizza dough to steak tartare with it. It was going to revolutionize the kitchen!
So they took it home, unboxed it, set it on the table, and pressed all those fancy buttons. BZZZZT! BZZZZT! Can you feature??? Those blades move so darn fast!
Then they opened the top and poured the contents onto a dish and...it’s green bean casserole. I mean, it’s GOOD casserole. It always was! But we were expecting some Pad Thai, or at least a little fettuccini.
Scoring big, relying on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum (who is playing brilliantly, by the way), and playing bad defense is Portland’s version of the casserole. The occasional showy game from Carmelo Anthony or Enes Kanter is like extra crunchy onions on the top.
Portland fans will happily eat this. It feels like home cookin’. But it’s hard to imagine them winning the grand prize in Des Moines with it.
So far, it doesn’t look like Robert Covington and Derrick Jones, Jr. were enough. The Blazers need even more defense, healthy bigs, and a dose of hard-nose play.
Speaking of bigs, though, you still have one of our classic Blazers down there. How’s LaMarcus Aldridge doing these days? As his career winds down, would you say you’ve been happy with his tenure in San Antonio?
J.R.: How’s LMA doing, you ask. Well, he’s currently being received about as well as steak tartare would as the main dish of a 3rd grader’s birthday party. You’ve got the helium balloons everywhere that half of the kids are untying to make their voices higher, and the bouncy house in the back is a huge hit, but as soon as all the kids sit down to the table and everyone was expecting cheese pizza, waiters bring out the fine china and set down … “What’s up, Joey? Why didn’t your mom cook this hamburger meat!”
Like the china, Aldridge has been brittle (off-season surgery on his shoulder, and missing multiple games with knee soreness), and like the overly-mature choice of steak tartare for kids, LaMarcus has been the wrong kind of change of pace. See, all of the youngsters love to bounce like crazy. I mean, for the first time in years San Antonio’s fast break attack is fearsome, powerful, and full of hops galore. We’ve even got a rookie, Devin Vassell, getting playing time and contributing some high-caliber defense. And although our ex-Blazer is getting playing time, his high-caliber defensive days seem to have passed him by — as have his average defensive and his mediocre ones as well.
To wit, I recently suggested that Pop play Aldridge on a minutes restriction (say 4-5 minutes per quarter) with instructions to, you know, just play hard for those minutes. The Spurs defense is a hot mess when he’s on the court, and when he goes to the bench the team regularly finds itself digging out of a hole. His scoring has fallen off, his rebounding too, and his mobility is about as poor as an ill-conceived birthday clown wearing those humongous clown shoes.
So, yes, his career seems to be winding down, and if I had to rate his 6 seasons in San Antonio in terms of birthday outings for grown-ups, I’d say his first two years were like renting a little 6-seater twin-engine plane for a sightseeing tour of your hometown; great heights were reached and the views were incredible. The second pair of years were like skydiving out of the plane; very exciting but most definitely travelling in a downward direction. These last two years have been like realizing that Kawhi Leonard actually packed your parachute, but used soiled bed sheets instead; and the ground sure is approaching awfully fast.
You say that all you guys need is a dose of hard-nose play and for your bigs to be healthy. What happens if you guys get both of those?
Dave: The Blazers could be really good. Covington and Jones, Jr. are great with the wing defense. (Their three-point shooting hasn’t come around, but the Blazers cover that other ways.) If they have a center to link to, the Blazers become fearsome on that end. When Portland’s defense is mediocre, even, they excel. Those guards are so potent on offense, nearing unstoppable. They just need to hobble the other team a little to succeed.
The problem is, Kanter looks great in the boxscore but his individual defense is pretty bad. He can help form a wall with that big body and he can rebound like the dickens, but he’s not a stopper. The options after that include young and thin Harry Giles III (mobile, but not a defensive terror), Covington, and I guess Anthony (yerrrrghhh). The Blazers are also missing Zach Collins, who could have defended, but instead keeps getting injured.
Remember that Camaro in Better Off Dead that just sat in Lane’s front yard? That’s the Blazers right now: great potential, up on blocks. We need a French foreign exchange student to come and fix it up.
You say you have a mismatched roster and are trending towards youth. Will San Antonio be making any mid-season moves this year, do you think?
J.R.: If there’s anything I’ve learned as a Spurs fan, it’s that it doesn’t pay to let yourself hope for a mid-season move that’ll clear the questions around the roster or give the fanbase some momentum for the rest of the season. The last time that happened was in 2012 after the Bobcats bought out Boris Diaw so the Spurs could sign him before promptly going on a 3-season tear that yielded the Beautiful Basketball of the 2014 Finals, inspired the Warriors offense, and ended with the current pace and space style that’s the entire league’s standard of play. So, it’s not a regular thing for PATFO to do.
And yet I can’t help but to think that this season sets up nicely for it. Aldridge’s contract is expiring, so he has trade value for that alone. And since DeMar DeRozan has added a three-ball to his highly-effective-though-primarily-midrange game, he’s expected to be attractive to any team looking to deal for additional scoring and playmaking for the run to the playoffs.
If that happens, and your team gets toughened up, the Spurs are Blazers won’t be sitting side-by-side in the standings as they currently are. San Antonio will drop like a stone while the youngsters learn to lead by themselves … but what will happen to Portland? Where do you see this season going?
Dave: With Jusuf Nurkic out for at least eight weeks and waiting on a diagnosis on CJ McCollum’s foot, it’s hard to say anything but “swirling ‘round and ‘round” right now. BUT Gary Trent, Jr. is going to turn into a real player and the Blazers still have firepower. I can’t imagine them missing the playoffs unless Lillard goes down. I’m going to say that they’ll finish 7th in the West.