Yes and no.
The Blazers are a little bit better. They seem to be unstoppable when they play extensively through Nurkic, who has had his best season thus far. It opens up the Blazers offense and disallows the opponents defense from isolating Portland’s guards. Lillard and CJ are Lillard and CJ. Portland would be a lot better if they played through one another rather than parallel to one another. But, using Nurkic as a conduit is proving rather effective in its stead.
The Blazers have also have moved the ball much better this year. They are up to 22.5 APG from 19.5 last season. Not a huge jump, but it shows. Last year most of the Blazers assists were at the arc. This season we are seeing more assists at the basket, with cutters hitting the paint for open shots off confused and disoriented defenses who are still adjusting to Portland’s movement. They are used to last seasons team which was largely stagnant and seemed to have less movement then residents at an old folks home.
The Blazers bench is also somewhat better. They are at about 34 points a game up 6 points from last season. Curry is better than Napier, but needs to produce more. He is finding his legs after a season off and with them his consistency. Pat Connaughton and Nik Stauskas are interchangeable. Their stats are practically identical. Connaughton has slightly better shooting percentages, and Stauskas averages slightly more points a game. They both have suffered at the hands of inconsistency.
Zach Collins is still young and developing, and he is struggling a bit with more minutes and responsibility. But, his numbers are up. The Loss of Ed Davis has hurt the Blazers, but not as badly as expected. Evan Turner is finally fitting in to an applicable degree, after giving the Blazers and the fans headaches, earlier this year and the last few seasons.
Meyers Leonard 6.0 aka “the hammer” is a vast improvement over his ill-achieved previous iterations. He can score effectively and set screens like no ones business. He has helped Portland’s bench take a step forward this year. He should get more plays called for him.
Jake Layman has been the biggest and most pleasant surprise. Everytime he plays, it is like opening presents on Christmas morning. He can hit the three with savage ease or get to the basket with ungodly speed. He is a hell of a cutter. Opponents are still trying to figure him out.
The Blazers are 28-19, three wins better than this time last season when they were 25-21. Last season they had a 5 game losing streak, this year they have 2 three game losing streaks. Over all it is pretty even. The Blazers have an easier second half of the season schedule this year as opposed to last. Will they get another 13 game winning streak? No. But, they will get their wins a different way. The Blazers will probably end their season a couple games ahead of last season say 51 or 52 wins.
Is Terry Stotts better this year? No. Not really. He is starting to learn to adjust to opponents a bit and he is using timeouts more efficiently, but he is commiting a lot of the same mistakes. Overplaying the bench, making costly gameplan mistakes at the end of games, and is still married to that damned index card. He is roughly the same coach as he has been.
Does two effective beat downs of the Pelicans who swept Portland in the 1st round of the playoffs mean the Blazers are better? No. The first meeting saw Anthony Davis sitting on the bench in his suit. There is no equitable measurement to be had there. The second meeting was a dog fight till Jake Layman came in the game. Gentry was using the same tactic he used in the playoffs to suffocate Lillard and McCollum with double teams. But, Aminu who was left open was having an on night from the arc. It was shot for shot basically. The Blazers had a small lead going into the 2nd. The Pelicans fought back and then Stotts brought in Layman, who had 20 points in the quarter. Gentry and Pelicans weren’t ready for that, they hadn’t thought of it. How could they? You can bet when the Blazers see the Pelicans in New Orleans in a couple months, they will give Layman a bit more respect.
Also, trading Rajon Rondo hurt the Pelicans badly. Payton is a heavy downturn at PG. They will look to upgrade at the deadline. So, part of Portland’s success in those games is that the Pelicans got worse. They don’t get all the credit though.
And, before you say, “But, the Blazers beat the champs in overtime in Oakland, they must be far better,” remember the champion Warriors trounced them in the two meetings before that. The Warriors have gotten worse too, but I expect them to be #1 at the end of the season. They have had injuries, but also they miss the prescence of Javale McGee dearly. Their center Damion Jones suffered a season ending injury. And, they have been without DeMarcus Cousins who has recently returned. He is going to help them wipe the floor with opponents, and shore up any weakness they have had.
Will the Blazers fare better in the playoffs? Maybe. Portland has had more help this year, and they may bring in another player or two at the deadline. Will the Blazers get to the 2nd rnd? Depends on the matchup. Depends on if they run the ball through Nurkic or settle on Iso ball. Depends on the Blazers movement and trust in one another. So, yeah the Blazers are a little bit better. They are headed in the right direction. They will need more help before they can make a deep run. But, I believe they can make a hell of a dent.