Could This Be a Breakout Year for the Portland Trail Blazers?
The Portland Trail Blazers are coming off arguably their best season in fourteen years. In fact, their 54 wins a year ago is tied for the best record since the 1999 season. Their trip to the Western Conference Semi-Finals was also their best playoff finish since the turn of the millennium. But might that just be the first of many successful years to come? It might.
The Blazers look poised to repeat if not improve upon their record from a season ago. And if they can do that, they could find themselves right in the thick of things out West - maybe even competing for a Western Conference title. But how could I be saying this after just nine games? The season is still so young. Nonetheless, there are three reasons we should start taking the boys out in Rip City more seriously.
What We Do Know
Portland can score. There's no question that the Blazers are one of the most offensively gifted teams in the league. With the likes of point man Damian Lillard, sharpshooter Wesley Matthews, playmaker Nic Batum, and go-to guy LaMarcus Aldridge, how could anyone disagree with that? The core four average 68.5 points per game with an average offensive rating of 115 between them. And they are doing so with great efficiency. Between the four of them, their combined nERD is 39.0 - in large part due to the fact that they possess a true shooting percentage of 56% while shooting 39% from downtown. But what about the rest of the team?
As Sam Hauss pointed out in his Blazers power rankings preview, the bench was a big question mark coming into this season. They were in desperate need of production from their bench in order to take pressure off the starters. And, so far this year, they've gotten it. Journeyman Chris Kaman has led the Blazers' bench with a nERD of 5.0 while scoring over 10 points and grabbing nearly 7 boards per night. While Kaman has provided some much needed scoring off the bench, fellow journeyman Steve Blake has given Portland a second-team floor general. His numbers (-3.7 nERD, 4.8 points, 3.4 assists) don't jump out at you, but he's a very reliable backup to Lillard off the bench. Kaman and Blake are welcome additions in Portland.
So, when you're getting solid production from your bench, in addition to your starters, it's no wonder that the Blazers rank third in offensive efficiency. They can flat out score with the best of them. Just ask last night's box score.
What We Don't See
The Blazers' grueling schedule. Let's take a look at who the Blazers have played so far this season.
|Opponent||Team nERD||NBA Rank|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||30.9||#26|
|Golden State Warriors||73.1||#2|
|Los Angeles Clippers||53.5||#14|
Now, if I asked you at the beginning of the season, what you thought the Blazers' record would be through nine games, you'd probably have said 5-4 optimistically or 4-5 realistically. That's what I would've told you at the beginning of the season if you told me they'd have to face the Kings, Warriors, Cavs, Mavs and Clips in five consecutive matchups. But I would've been wrong. The Blazers are 6-3 through their first 9 contests, winning by an average margin of 15.3 points in those six wins. They've really showed that they can match up with some of the best teams in the league and come out with crucial victories.
After disposing of the depleted Thunder in their first game of the year, the Blazers lost to the Kings, in Sacramento, and the Warriors in a close game at home. But they then impressed in back-to-back wins over the Cavaliers and Mavericks by winning by an average margin of 20 points en route to scoring over 100 points in each contest. The Blazers then suffered a four point loss to the Clippers at the Staples Center before putting up 116 against the Nuggets the following night. And now, Portland's riding a three game winning streak after beating the Hornets and Nuggets in consecutive nights.
The Blazers now sit at 6-3 by doing simply doing what they needed to do - competing in every game and taking care of business against inferior opponents. It's no wonder they're our number-three ranked team (with a nERD of 69.2) behind only the Rockets and Warriors.
What We Don't Hear
The Blazers have been playing solid defense. This season. Though the Blazers enjoyed a successful 2013-14 campaign, good defense was not a contributing factor. They finished last year 22nd of 30 teams in opponents' points per game (102.8). They also finished 16th in Defensive Rating (107.4) and dead last in turnovers forced per game (12.0). But the Blazers seem to have turned over a new leaf on the defensive side of the ball.
Through nine games, the Blazers have held opponents to 97.2 points per game - good enough for 10th in the league - while posting a much improved Defensive Rating of 103.9 (10th). Even though they haven't turned over opponents any more than last year (12.2 per game), the Blazers have managed to hold opponents to 42% shooting from the field. That's fourth in the league.
While Batum and Matthews have proven themselves willing and able defenders, Lillard's poor defense has drawn the ire of Portland fans. This past season, Lillard posted a very mediocre Defensive Rating of 110 - meaning he allowed 110 points per 100 possessions to opposing players. With such a poor defensive effort, it comes as no surprise that Lillard tallied a mere 1.8 defensive win shares in 82 games played. However, Lillard has picked up the defense this year. His defensive rating has improved to 105, and he already has a sixth of his total defensive win shares from a year ago (0.3) in just nine games.
If the Blazers can continue to thrive on the offensive end of the floor while also improving on the defensive end, there's no telling what the Blazers might accomplish this season.