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PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland is coming off their most impressive stretch of the season, a 4-1 road trip that featured wins against the Grizzlies, Wizards and Knicks. It's time to check in on the Blazers with another edition of 3-on-3, a weekly KGW feature.
Every Thursday, three members of the KGW sports team will answer three questions about the Blazers. You can join the conversation on Facebook during a live chat with our panel every Thursday afternoon at 3. Can't join us on Thursday? Not a problem. You can listen later on the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast.
This week's questions focus on the return of Al-Farouq Aminu, whether the 3 seed is a realistic goal for the Blazers this season, and predictions for the next three games.
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MEET OUR PANELISTS
- Orlando Sanchez is the sports anchor and reporter for KGW News, Sports Sunday and Friday Night Flights. Orlando has covered multiple NBA Finals, NCAA Basketball Tournaments and World Series.
- Jared Cowley is a digital media producer who writes about the Blazers for KGW.com. Before he came to KGW, Jared wrote about the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors as a sports editor at two daily newspapers.
- Nate Hanson is a digital producer who contributes to KGW.com’s coverage of the Blazers, Ducks, Beavers and high school sports.
1. Al-Farouq Aminu is back! The Blazers forward told reporters on Wednesday that he expects to play about 20 minutes off the bench in Thursday’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks. Once Aminu is all the way back with no restriction on his minutes, which two players should start at the forward spots?
Jared: Pat Connaughton and Noah Vonleh should continue to start at the two forward spots, at least for the next couple games while Aminu gets his legs back. But once he's ready for starter's minutes, I think Terry Stotts should consider replacing Connaughton with Aminu in the starting lineup. If Aminu can shoot the ball well from distance, a pairing of Aminu and Vonleh — who I believe should start at power forward the rest of the season because of his rebounding and defense — has a lot of potential to excel on both ends of the court. The insertion of Connaughton into the starting lineup has demonstrated the importance of adding another shooter to the group. Since Connaughton replaced Maurice Harkless at small forward, the starting lineup, in 61 minutes, has been excellent on offense, scoring 124 points and outscoring opponents by more than 11 points per 100 possessions. But they've been terrible defensively, allowing 113 points per 100 possessions. If Aminu can continue to shoot the ball well from distance (he was shooting 43 percent on 3-pointers before he got hurt), he can provide extra shooting and spacing like Connaughton, but as the team's best defender, held solidify the defense.
Orlando: Al-Farouq Aminu has to be one of the most underrated players on the team. He gives the Blazers even more depth at the 4 spot and it gives coach Stotts more options in managing the rotation. Aminu will be limited in minutes in his return, but he will be the starter at his position soon. He’s a key defender and can spread the floor on offense. Yes, he’s capable of playing small forward, but he’s practicing at the 4. He’s not a lock all year, but the likely choice. That leaves the small forward position. Maurice Harkless has owned that role, but his lack of production has been an issue. Noah Vonleh will get his opportunity, but Pat Connaughton is the hot hand right now, you gotta ride it. Get ready for a juggling act most of the season at these positions because of the depth.
Nate: If the starting five of Nurkic, Vonleh, Connaughton, McCollum and Lillard continues to provide positive offensive results, I would stick with that unit until it cools off. The Blazers’ offensive rating this season is 103 points per 100 possessions. But in their last three games, that production has risen to 109 points. While that’s come at some expense to the Blazers’ defense, the trade-off has been well worth it. When the Blazers struggled to score through the first 18 games, they couldn’t extend leads or close out games. We’ve seen them do both of those things during this mini three-game winning streak since Connaughton was inserted into the starting lineup. The improved offense isn’t all Connaughton, even though he is shooting 72 percent since being named a starter. Lillard and Nurkic have also scored more efficiently while McCollum has remained steady. But there appears to be a rhythm with this starting five for the time being. I believe Aminu will eventually replace Connaughton in the starting five, but there’s no need yet to switch it up.
2. The Blazers are 13-8, on pace for 51 wins and currently occupy fourth place in the Western Conference. Is it too early to start talking playoff position? Who cares, we’re doing it anyway! Is the 3 seed a realistic goal for the Blazers?
Nate: No. The Blazers’ 4-1 road trip was certainly a success and should have fans excited but let’s pump the brakes. Portland still has had the easiest schedule of any team in the NBA so far this season. That will change, especially in the final month of the season. The current No. 3 seed, the San Antonio Spurs, are in that position even without their best player, Kawhi Leonard. Meanwhile, the Houston Rockets are undefeated in games when Chris Paul plays and the Golden State Warriors are still the Warriors. I think the Blazers’ ceiling is the No. 4 seed, which given the early season inconsistencies of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves, seems to be more of a realistic possibility than many thought before the season started. In the end, I still think the Blazers end up around 46 wins and the No. 6 seed, like I picked before the season.
Jared: The Blazers have been good this season and I'm optimistic they can maintain something close to this level of play the rest of the way. But I think the 3 seed is out of reach. I think the top two seeds are locked up by the Warriors and Rockets. The Spurs have been very impressive so far this season, running off a 14-7 record and outscoring opponents by more than three points per game while playing without Kawhi Leonard. I think the Spurs, Warriors and Rockets are the class of the Western Conference and will occupy those top three seeds in some order. However, I do believe the Blazers, because of their improvement on defense — which still ranks third in the NBA — have a realistic shot at the 4 seed this season, which would give them homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Orlando: Way too early for that, but let’s do it anyway. They are rolling right now, 4-1 on an East coast road trip was impressive, but let’s not get carried away. We’ve seen what this team can do when it’s clicking, there’s no doubt it is a playoff squad. A three seed is a great goal for the team to have, but we shouldn’t expect that. 51 wins is a lot to ask for, especially when the schedule picks up. Let’s see how long it takes them to get to 26 wins. Right now, I don’t see it.
3. Prediction time! The Blazers play three tough games, all at home, before we meet again next Thursday, starting with tonight’s game against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks (10-9). The Blazers have a day off before facing Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and the New Orleans Pelicans (11-10) on Saturday, followed up by a Tuesday tilt against Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards (11-10). Which games do the Blazers win and which do they lose?
- Jared: 14-7
- Nate: 14-7
- Orlando: 13-8
Orlando: This is a tough stretch of games. I could see them losing to any of these teams, but I can also see them winning all three games. The Blazers have to be feeling good being back at home, it also means a shot at revenge against the Bucks. I like Portland to win this game versus one of the NBA’s best players in Giannis Antetokounmpo. New Orleans is a tough call, I don’t know which team will show up. The Pelicans have beat some good teams this season and I expect big games from Boogie and the Brow. Pelicans come into the Moda and steal one. The Wizards are without John Wall, Blazers catch a break and win that game. Portland goes 2-1.
Nate: The Blazers will go 2-1 during this three-game stretch. They’ll beat the Bucks and Pelicans before losing to the Wizards next week. I think the Blazers are just a better team than the Bucks and will take care of business in the first game of the homestand. Although I believe a lengthy Pelicans team, similarly to the 76ers, is a tough matchup for the Blazers, the Pelicans don’t have a quality road win and I don’t see them beating the Blazers on the second night of a road back-to-back. As for the Wizards, even though it is also the second night of a road back-to-back for them, I think they’ll have revenge on their minds after the Blazers’ epic fourth quarter comeback. There is a reason Portland trailed by 17 so late in that game. Washington, even without John Wall, still has a lot of talent and I think the Wizards will be motivated to redeem themselves after letting a win slip away.
Jared: I think the Blazers win all three games. The Bucks have not been playing well lately. In their past five games, they've lost by double digits to the Mavericks, Wizards and Jazz, including a 32-point loss at Dallas. Since November, they're only 3-5 on the road. The Blazers, who will be rested and motivated to build on the momentum of their road trip, will avenge their October loss to the Bucks. The Pelicans are a tough call. They can be really good, like in a 21-point win against the Cavaliers or a 17-point victory against the Spurs. But they also have a 32-point loss to the Nuggets. Statistically, they've been mediocre all season, and since they're playing the second night of a road back-to-back when they visit Portland, I'll take the Blazers. The Blazers were lucky to get out of Washington with a win on their recent road trip, but I'm still picking Portland to beat the Wizards again. Washington will be playing the second game of a road back-to-back in Portland and will still be without its best player, John Wall. The Blazers will beat the Wizards and make it six wins in a row.
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