PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers’ season so far could probably best be described as an enigma.
The Blazers have fared better than expected as a rebuilding team. But there are still so many questions — mostly concerning an inconsistent bench and the stamina of Portland’s starters to make a push for the playoffs.
The Blazers are 25-28 and come off the All-Star break with a five-game losing streak. They are three games behind Houston for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, and a half-game up on the Los Angeles Lakers.
They’ve relied heavily on their starting lineup: ever-steady All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, rookie Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and J.J. Hickson. All of Portland’s starters are averaging in double figures, led by Aldridge at 20.9 points per game. Hickson is averaging 12.7 points and a career-high 10.3 rebounds.
Lillard, the former Weber State star, leads the league in minutes played, with 2,038, while Batum is fifth and Aldridge is 10th. No other team has three players in the top 10.
Luke Babbitt and rookie Meyers Leonard are the Blazers’ leading scorers off the bench, each averaging 4.2 points per game. Both are also averaging fewer than 15 minutes a game.
Obviously, the concern is that Portland’s starters — particularly Lillard in his first NBA season — will hit a wall.
Lillard has easily been Portland’s biggest surprise of the season. The sixth overall pick in last June’s NBA draft out of Weber State is averaging 18.3 points per game, 3.2 rebounds and 6.5 assists. He leads all rookies in both scoring and assists.
He has won rookie of the month honors in each of the first three months of the season, joining Brandon Roy as the only Blazer to win the award three times. During All-Star weekend festivities, Lillard won the skills challenge.
Utah Jazz forward DeMarre Carroll is among those who have become fans of the 6-foot-3 guard.
“He’s a complete player,” Carroll said. “He’s a young guy but you’ve got to give him credit, he plays hard and the team really relies on him. He’s not afraid to take the big shot.
“The sky’s the limit.”
Lillard is the only rookie to have at 20 or more points in 25 games this season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is the only player in NBA history to score 900-plus points and make 100-plus 3-pointers in his first 50 career games.
And he’s not the only one have a stellar individual season. After offseason wrangling with Minnesota over his services, Batum has improved in all of the major statistical categories. He’s averaging 15.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.25 steals and 1.15 blocks.
Additionally, he has two triple-doubles and a rare 5x5, a game with at least five points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
“I know I’ve got a lot of expectations this year, so I have to do so many things on the court and that’s what I try to do,” the French forward said. “I can’t promise a triple-double every week, but I try to do something and help the team win every game.”
The highlights of Portland’s season have also come with frustrating lowlights, however. The Blazers were flying high with wins in five of the first six games of the year, climbing to five games over .500 and amassing a nine-game winning streak at home. Then Portland lost its next six games.
The streakiness continues: The most recent five-game losing streak has come after the Blazers won five of seven.
“We had a losing streak like this earlier, and we came back with a vengeance. It’s all about peaking at the right time,” guard Wesley Matthews said.
Matthews rested during the All-Star break after spraining his right ankle in the Blazers’ 99-63 loss to New Orleans last Thursday. Batum was also beat up with a sore right wrist that has bothered him for several weeks.
Portland returns home for the first time in 17 days to face the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday. Two days later the trade deadline looms with persistent rumors about Hickson’s future in Portland.
Hickson is having the best season of his career and is reportedly drawing interest from other teams. But he has Bird Rights, meaning he’d have to approve any deal.
There’s also the very real possibility that the Blazers will stand pat and see where the enigmatic season winds up.
“The beauty of the season in the NBA is that there are so many ups and downs and runs and glory and being mad,” Matthews said. “We’re just in a funk right now. I hope the All-Star break will cure that.”