The Portland Trail Blazers are off to a…well, blazing…start, at 22-5 and running with the big dogs of the NBA Western Conference in the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. What we’ll do today is look at how Portland is succeeding and ask whether it’s sustainable.
It’s all about offense in the Pacific Northwest. The Blazers are the best in the NBA in offensive efficiency, and they do most everything on the side of the floor well. They’re the best three-point shooting team in the league, with Damian Lilliard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum all shooting 40 percent or better from behind the arc.
Portland is no less effective from the free throw line, where their 82% rate is the game’s best. Whether it’s three or frees, the Blazers are piling up the points. And they do it with discipline, taking care of the basketball and avoiding turnovers, something that speaks to well the work of Lilliard and Matthews.
LaMarcus Aldridge gives this team some big-time production from the power forward spot. Aldridge is averaging 23 points/11 rebounds per night. Portland is a good rebounding team, and they’re at their best on the offensive glass, ranking second in the NBA at getting back their own misses.
Defense and depth are the problem areas for the Trail Blazers. They rank 24th in defensive efficiency, shockingly low for a team with so many wins. And while they may be a top five rebounding team overall, if you narrow that to strictly defensive rebounding, Portland turns into a subpar team. The Blazers need to be as aggressive closing out a defensive possession with the rebound as they are at going after points on the offensive side.
The team’s production and minutes are also top-heavy. Lilliard, Mathews, Batum and Aldridge make up a really nice core four. Lilliard was Rookie of the Year in 2013, and while Aldridge struggled with injuries last season, he’s one of the game’s truly underrated players. But there’s not much beyond that. Robin Lopez is mediocre at center. Mo Williams is washed up as the backup point guard. No one else gets any real minutes.
A long haul is still ahead–the Blazers still have two-thirds of the regular season ahead, not to mention the playoffs. It’s completely unrealistic to think you can drag your way through a brutally tough conference without quality depth, and it’s also unrealistic to think you can play championship-caliber basketball without a defense worthy of the name.
Furthermore, these two items are directly related. Players who start to lose their legs lose some intensity on the defensive end. This is a great start for Portland, but it has to be seen more as giving them cushion in the push to return to postseason play after a two-year absence rather than creating the illusion that this is a real championship contender.