The Portland Trail Blazers have been one of the big surprises in the NBA this season. A team that didn’t even make the playoffs in 2013, the Blazers have played well all year this time around and bring a 36-17 record into All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. It’s good enough to be tied for third in the Western Conference. Let’s take a look at how they’re doing it and whether it can sustain now that the season is about to get serious.
Offense is the reason the Trail Blazers win. They rank 3rd in offensive efficiency, excel at hitting the three-ball and are the best free-throw shooting team in the NBA. Playing at a fast tempo, Portland is one of the league’s more entertaining teams.
Guard play drives the tempo and Damian Lilliard has followed up his Rookie of the Year campaign last season with 20 points/4 rebounds/6 assists per-game average thus far in 2014. He also hits 40 percent from behind the arc. Wesley Matthews, his running mate at the two-guard spot is averaging 17 ppg and is also on the right side of 40 percent from trey range.
But if Hilliard and Matthews push the pace, the straw that stirs the drink on this team is power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. One of the league’s underrated players, Aldridge averages 24 points/11 rebounds per game. He deserves to be in the MVP conversation.
Aldridge’s MVP credentials are further burnished by the fact that Portland does not have great depth. Nicolas Batum is a nice contributing piece at small forward and Robin Lopez is serviceable at center. But this is a pretty thin starting lineup, at least by the championship standards we have to start measuring Portland against. And there’s nothing really reliable coming off the bench.
The lack of depth is troubling, but the lack of defense is truly disconcerting. Portland’s defensive efficiency numbers are in the bottom third of the NBA. This stat adjusts for tempo, so you can’t use the excuse that the defense just looks bad because of the up-and-down character of their games. At least the Blazers rebound the ball well, but when you don’t force enough misses that doesn’t do you a lot of good.
That’s why I’ve been skeptical of Portland as a true championship contender ever since they emerged leading up to Christmas. I think they are more likely to find their level as the #6 seed in the West and play a fun, but ultimately unsuccessful first-round series. At the very least, they would not advance further past the second round.
Keeping in mind that the Blazers had fallen off the map the last couple years and play in the league’s toughest conference, this is still substantial improvement and would have been gladly taken by any Portland fan at the start of the season. I suspect expectations are higher now, but I think the Trail Blazers have already peaked.