A semi-critical look at why exactly the Portland Trailblazers are good right now

Let me start with a quick story: I’ve never been to Portland. Not once. Not even for a layover. When I was a little kid, though, I absolutely loved those “Rip City” Blazers teams — the ones with Drexler and Porter and Kersey and Duckworth (RIP) and Williams; the ones who never got over the hump because of Jordan, just like the Sonics didn’t and the Jazz didn’t — and sometimes, I would get up early on Saturdays, watch some cartoons, and then watch NBA Inside Stuff to get the late Friday night results from the opposite coast. If the Blazers had lost, I’d be pissed. This made absolutely no sense but that’s part of the glory of both childhood and sports: sometimes, neither makes any sense at all. (Deep, I know.)

I don’t follow the Blazers very hardcore, but I have been noticing that they’re 12-2 right now, which is the second-best record in the Western Conference (through about 1/7 of the schedule, yes). They have a 3-9 Knicks team coming West to play them tonight, so it’s entirely possible they’ll be 13-2 by tomorrow morning. They weren’t supposed to be that good, though. These Bill Simmons-Jalen Rose NBA previews on the Grantland Channel had them No. 16 in the NBA — basically the definition of “middle of the pack.”

That might be where they end up — on surface, they probably seem closer to a 7/8 seed in the WC than a 1/2 seed — but for now, how or what are they doing this?

Start with their schedule. They have beaten some legit teams — San Antonio back on November 2nd and then Golden State this past Saturday night — while feasting on other squads, like a seemingly-in-disarray Brooklyn team or a probably-headed-for-a-top-3-pick Milwaukee team. Their schedule hasn’t been amazingly tough, in other words.

Next, check out a recent NBA.com Power Rankings edition; the Blazers were slotted fourth. Their pace and defensive ratings are middle-of-the-pack; their offensive rating and rebound differential are both top 10. Wesley Matthews is indeed shooting the lights out. Look at his shot chart from Saturday through three quarters:

Right now they have four guys averaging in double figures; LaMarcus Aldridge, the most recent Western Conference Player of the Week, is averaging pretty much 22-10. Damian Lillard is essentially 20 and 6 (assists), and Matthews is shooting 52 percent from three-ball, which is unheard of. All those stats alone would begin to explain the early-season dominance.

Last season, the “big man” combo in Portland involved Aldridge and a rotating crew, including J.J. Hickson. This year, the team added Robin Lopez; it wasn’t a huge move nationally but it helped the Blazers a lot.  Head coach Terry Stotts, who was once an assistant in Dallas, explained the resonance.

“He’s really fit in well,” Stotts said. “He’s a selfless player who’s all about winning, and he defends. Offensively he’s been effective when he’s had opportunities. More than anything else, when Tyson Chandler came to Dallas, he kind of brought that selfless defensive mentality to the team. I think Robin’s done that for us. They really respect and appreciate what he brings. He’s all about winning. We’ve got a lot of guys on this team where winning has to be the most important thing.”

Here’s a good read on everything the Blazers have done right — and some of what they’ve done wrong — this season. It makes the case pretty early that the road map to playoff contention was fairly clear: upgrade the offensive to “semi-elite” and upgrade the defense to “passable.” Both have happened. A trade would be nice for the Blazers, especially in the realm of grabbing someone like Omer Asik, but they might not have the pieces. They may need to rely on a team like Milwaukee or Toronto totally imploding and going all-in on the mostly-loaded 2014 Draft. If that happens, they may be able to grab some contender elements at cost and move into a situation where the Western Semis wouldn’t be that far-fetched an idea.

Here’s the one major issue hanging over Portland, aside from the strength of schedule and Aldridge/Matthews falling back to Earth: it’s starters’ minutes. Last year, the Blazers started 20-15; they finished 33-49. One reason for the 13-34 season-ending stretch? Through the first 35 games last year, their starters were playing 72 percent of the minutes. This year? It’s much the same trend: their starters play more minutes, percentage-wise, than any team in the NBA. Stotts is careful to praise his bench in some of the interviews you’ll find on these links, but in reality he mostly plays a nine-man rotation and the back four (the non-starters) aren’t cracking it a ton. Mo Williams is logging close to 27 minutes per game; that’s the highest, and definitely higher than any sub represented in POR last year, but still … more is needed out of Thomas Robinson, Dorrell Wright, and C.J. McCollum (when he’s healthier). Fatigue and injuries could become a concern; that’s another reason why adding an additional piece of value on the cheap would benefit this squad more than most fringe-level contenders.

Some claim no one should be surprised by the hot start. Some claim the real key is twofold: (a) the improvement of Lillard from Year 1 to Year 2 and (b) surrounding Aldridge with shooters. Bill Simmons and Steve Kerr believe they might be in that 7-seed range, and should consider trading for Asik. (Here’s more on that convo.)

The true nature of this team will probably start to reveal itself in two games right after Thanksgiving — both at home — vs. the Pacers (currently the best team in the NBA) and the Thunder (obviously a top-level team in the West). Win both of those, and they could be headed for even a home-court situation (yes, still early).

This team seems good, and it seems the parts they added over the summer were good fits for them. The starters’ minutes thing is a major concern over a grind of a season from October to April, especially if they do make the playoffs. (By the way, Portland hasn’t made the playoffs since ’10-11, and hasn’t won a first-round series since ’99-’00.) Their transition defense isn’t elite, and finding some more run for their bench is a concern; just like any team, they have their issues. But there could be something here, especially if this keeps up:

And hey, just because the 1991 Blazers were so fun to watch, here’s this:

Ted Bauer


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