Why the Trail Blazers Are Legitimate Contenders in the Western Conference

Despite a 22-7 record and two legitimate All-Stars, the Portland Trail Blazers are stilly vying for respect.

With all the talent crowding the Western Conference, it’s easy for teams to slip under the radar, and thus far, the Portland Trail Blazers have certainly become one of those teams. Owners of the third best record in the NBA and winners of seven out of their last 10, the Blazers are steamrolling the NBA. But should they be considered part of the NBA’s elite?

A third of the way through the season, Portland has been playing an exquisite brand of basketball on both ends of the floor. The Blazers rank among the top 10 in almost every significant offensive and defensive category. Most notably, they are first in the league in rebounding, seventh in the league in scoring, fourth in defensive efficiency, and first in 3-point shooting percentage against in the NBA.

Moreover, the Trail Blazers are ranked fifth overall per our in-house metric -- nERD -- which aggregates a number of important offensive and defensive factors. They trail only Golden State, Dallas, Toronto, and the Los Angeles Clippers.

PPGRPGAPGPoint Diff3PM/GameOff RtgDef RtgOpp FG%Opp 3PFG%nERD

But despite all that, few have labeled Portland as a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.

In many ways, this season has started similarly to the last, when the Blazers stormed out of the gates and took the NBA by surprise, owning the league’s best record during the first few weeks of the 2013-14 season. However, inconsistencies on defense and unreliable bench play limited their upside throughout the year and the team finished in the fifth spot as the playoffs began.

But that team managed to pull off an impressive upset of the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, punctuated by Damian Lillard’s epic Game 6 buzzer beater. With all its starters returning and an improved bench, this year’s Portland team has picked up right where it left off.

Portland’s defense and bench both ranked among the league’s worst last year, and Portland’s reserves were actually dead last in points per game and efficiency last season. But this year’s defense has improved dramatically, and the additions of Chris Kaman and Steve Blake have added much needed scoring off the bench. Kaman is enjoying a productive season thus far, averaging 10 points and 6 rebounds in just under 20 minutes per game. Blake, too, has comfortably filled the backup point guard position vacated by the departure of Mo Williams to Minnesota. Meanwhile, Portland is top-five in nearly every defensive category.

Still, being lucky is just as beneficial as being good, and Portland has certainly had some luck in the injury department. Health has been the Blazers’ greatest asset during Portland’s resurgence, and the team has benefited from the significant minutes logged by its starting five. Last season, LaMarcus Aldridge was the only starter to miss a single game (he missed 13 games sporadically throughout the year).

In part, last season’s putrid bench output could be attributed to the limited number of minutes seen by Portland’s reserves and this season's team has exhibited a similar reliance on its starters. When healthy, Portland’s starting lineup of Lillard, Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Aldridge and Robin Lopez is the third-most used five-man unit in the league.

However, coach Terry Stotts seems to have lost that luxury for the time being due to recent injuries. Batum and Aldridge have missed several games, and Lopez will be on the shelf for six-to-eight weeks with a broken right hand. Still, the Blazers seemed poised to continue their run among the Western Conference elite, even with Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland seeing significant time in the front court. Backup wings C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe have been serviceable as well, and Portland’s young cast of role players seem to be benefiting from another year of NBA experience.

With so many games remaining, it’s hard to predict which teams will end up on top come playoff time. But if pre-season favorites like the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers are still considered elite playoff teams, its only fair to give Portland the benefit of the doubt. As far as we’re concerned, the Trail Blazers are legitimate contenders and are pegged to win 52 games, third-most in the league.