A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Talent grading the Pacers and Blazers starting lineups!

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The Indiana Pacers and Portland Trailblazers are two of biggest and fun stories of the year, with a combined 34-5 record to start the season.

Both sport well balanced, cohesive teams and neither relied on ‘tanking’ to build its core. Not counting the lockout season, the Blazers haven’t been under 30 wins since 2005-2006 while the Pacers haven’t seen 1988-1989. A combination of talent evaluation through slick trades, signings or late round drafting have helped them build contenders.

Here is how my talent grading system rates each starting 5

Portland Trailblazers

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent

Damian Lillard and Lamarcus Aldridge lead the way in this category. Lillard is both an above average athlete and has great ballhandling skills, allowing him to blow by opponents and to the rim. A good frame for a point guard also helps his finishing. Lillard is a talented slasher physically.

Although Portland likes to use him on the perimeter, Lamarcus Aldridge is also an above average athlete and can use his explosiveness to make plays. His size and mobility helps him physically on the defensive end as well.

The rest of the starting lineup has mixed results in my physical impact talent category. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum both lack either the athleticism or ballhandling to attack the basket explosively, becoming perimeter orientated shooters. Matthews has good size for a SG helping him on the defensive end, while Batum is one of the longest players at his position.

Mirroring Matthews and Batum, Robin Lopez is an average athlete at center but has impressive length, helping him contest or block shots.

Physical impact talent (Athleticism, size, ballhandling) talent grades:

Damian Lillard: 8

Wesley Matthews: 3

Nicolas Batum: 4

Lamarcus Aldridge: 7

Robin Lopez: 6

(Average: 5.8)

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent:

I rate three of the Blazers as among the best at their position in this category: Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Lamarcus Aldridge. LIllard is already one of the best shooters at point guard both spotting up and off the dribble and is an adequate passer for a point guard. Lamarcus Aldridge is one of the best midrange shooters at PF and has developed an outstanding post repertoire, with his length helping in that area. Nicolas Batum is both an elite shooter at SF and has strong point forward skills. He also has the length to play in the post.

Wesley Matthews is largely a spot up shooter from skill perspective, but is one of the best in the league at that skill.

Robin Lopez is the weakest link in the starting 5 for skill. He can finish around the rim a bit and is developing midrange, which is enough for average ability for center.

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grades:

Damian Lillard: 9

Wesley Matthews: 8

Nicolas Batum: 9

Lamarcus Aldridge: 9

Robin Lopez: 5

(Average: 8.0)

Feel for the Game talent:

This category is also a strength for the Blazers. I’ve come to largely use fluidity and the ease/control of a player’s game as the measure of feel for the game and instincts. Batum and Aldridge are two of the most fluid and natural players at their position, while Matthews is also known for his mistake-free, natural game on both ends.

I wouldn’t call Lillard elite in feel for the game, but he has control and craftiness and enough fluidity to be above average. I would also rate Robin Lopez’s feel to be above average, which helps him make the right decisions offensively and defensively.

Feel for the Game talent grades:

Damian Lillard: 7

Wesley Matthews: 8

Nicolas Batum: 9

Lamarcus Aldridge: 9

Robin Lopez: 7

(Average: 8.0)

Here is the players total grades:

Damian Lillard

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 7

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 9

Feel for the Game talent grade: 7

Total talent grade: 23

Wesley Matthews

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 3

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 8

Feel for the Game talent grade: 8

Total talent grade: 19

Nicolas Batum

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 4

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 9

Feel for the Game talent grade: 9

Total talent grade: 22

Lamarcus Aldridge

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 7

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 9

Feel for the Game talent grade: 9

Total talent grade: 25

Robin Lopez

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 6

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 5

Feel for the Game talent grade: 7

Total talent grade: 18

I tend to treat 19 as a threshold of sorts for “blue chip” and 25 as a “true star” talent, so using these grades Lamarcus would rate among the league’s elite talent, Lillard and Batum a next tier down and Matthews and Lopez on the edge of blue chip status.

The Blazers have a tremendous skill impact talent due to their shooters and Aldridge at PF, with good to elite feel for the game across the board. While physical impact isn’t their strength due the lack of slashing at SG and SF, the team length defensively is great and they get enough from Lillard and Aldridge attacking the basket offensively.

Indiana Pacers

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent:

My top rated Pacer in this category is Lance Stephenson. Lance has a strong combination of athleticism, ballhandling and strength giving him ideal slashing tools for a shooting guard.

Paul George is an impressive athlete with elite length for his position, albeit ballhandling can push him to the perimeter and prevent an elite grade in this category for me.

Roy Hibbert is a difficult player to grade in this category. On one hand he has sluggish athleticism and speed, however he is one of the longest players in the league, especially valuable at C helping him block shots. I would rate him as above average in physical impact talent.

The two remaining Pacers starters George Hill and David West are limited in the category. Hill is a big PG defensively, but has impressive ballhandling and speed, hurting his ability to attack the basket. West is strong but is neither explosive athletically or long at PF.

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grades:

George Hill: 4

Lance Stephenson: 8

Paul George: 7

David West: 3

Roy Hibbert: 6

(Average: 5.6)

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent

Paul George and David West lead the way in this category for me. George has turned himself into one of the best outside shooters in the league, uses his length to create midrange shots and has both passing skills and post potential. West has long been a master of the midrange jumper at PF and has post skills near and away from the rim.

George Hill is an impressive open 3 point jumpshooter and decent passer, but has struggled to create at a high volume from the perimeter. Roy Hibbert has strength and moves in the post and can shoot a few feet out, but is not a skill first player and can struggle with touch.

Lance Stephenson is the weakest link in this category. His jumpshot has long been a work in progress, a big weakness at shooting guard. He does have passing and post talent.

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grades:

George HIll: 7

Lance Stephenson: 4

Paul George: 9

David West: 9

Roy Hibbert: 6

(Average: 7.0)

Feel for the Game talent:

I rate Paul George’s feel for the game as one of the best in the NBA, showing supernatural fluidity, ease and control offensively along with his defensive instincts.

David West and Roy Hibbert are also among the best at their position in the category. West has superior craftiness and timing against his opponents, while Hibbert is the big easy recognizing plays offensively and defensively.

Hill is a noticeably smooth decision maker and thinker compared to his position. Stephenson is the most erratic Pacer in the starting lineup but I have always been impressed by his feel, fluidity and control on his drives. As he matures he can catch up to the rest of the Pacers in high IQ play thanks to this feel and raw instinct talent.

Feel for the Game talent grades;

George Hill: 8

Lance Stephenson: 8

Paul George: 10

David West: 9

Roy Hibbert: 9

(Average: 8.8)

Total grades:

George Hill

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 4

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 7

Feel for the Game talent grade: 8

Total talent grade: 19

Lance Stephenson

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 8

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 4

Feel for the Game talent grade: 8

Total talent grade: 20

Paul George

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 7

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 9

Feel for the Game talent grade: 10

Total talent grade: 26

David West

Physical impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 3

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 9

Feel for the Game talent grade: 9

Total talent grade: 21

Roy Hibbert

Physical impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 6

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 6

Feel for the Game talent grade: 9

Total talent grade: 21

Mirroring the Blazers, the Pacers have one talent in Paul George that rises above the rest, but importantly surround him with at least blue chip talents. The combination of elite feel for the game and length as a team helps them dominate defensively, while offensively they lean on their skill level to win games.

I believe it’s useful to cross compare a few of these players, to see the impact of each category.

For example, I gave Lamarcus Aldridge and David West and identical score in my skill impact and feel for the game categories. This means my system rates the difference between them in talent, as coming from Lamarcus Aldridge’s greater physical tools (athleticism and size). In fact I believe it’s reasonable to say that outside of physical talents, Aldridge and West are practically the exact player.

Likewise Paul George and Nic Batum’s skill level and feel for the game is very similar, as is Damian Lillard and George Hill’s. George and Lillard are both more physically dynamic players, helping them attack the basket get to a level up.

Roy Hibbert and Robin Lopez likewise rate similarly in my physical impact and skill impact categories. However Hibbert’s elite feel for the game gives him an advantage.

Wesley Matthews and Lance Stephenson are very hard to cross compare in this way, since Matthews strength of shooting is Lance’s weakness and Lance’s slashing is Matthews’ weakness. I’d use a player like Manu Ginobili or James Harden, to show what Lance’s talent could be if he had a shooting game like Wesley Matthews’. Or the reverse, Matthews may also be Harden or Manu if he could drive like Lance.

Coincidentally, adding up the grades of both starting lineups add up to the exact same score of 107, or an average of 21.4. Although the Trail Blazers came out of nowhere, for me their starting lineup’s talent level checks out as contention caliber.

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