The Portland Trail Blazers have officially hit the halfway point of the season and to say they have exceeded every expectation would be a massive understatement. I projected them to win 45 games and even that felt like a bit of a reach compared to other predictions. But here they sit near the top of the NBA standings with a 31-11 record. So how have they gotten this far?
Portland’s starting five has been the same for every game this season (KNOCK ON WOOD!!!!). The league has been hit hard with numerous injuries to key players and some how, the Blazers have been able to avoid the injury bug despite the fact that the team’s starters are still playing a lot of minutes (With the exception of Lopez, the other four starters are in the top 50 in minutes per game according to espn.com).
While health has never really been a concern for the current roster, there’s always that thought in the back of fan’s minds that someone will go down. Maybe after all those years of injury after injury, the law of averages is in Portland’s favor. They could use a break (poor choice of words).
Ask any player if they would prefer to play in a structured offense with designed plays the majority of the time or a free-flowing style with improvisation and freedom and they’ll choose the latter every time.
Terry Stotts is an offensive-minded coach and he’s come to the conclusion that letting players do their thing, with a little bit of structure involved, is an effective game plan and it’s worked wonders so far.
Today’s NBA game is about 3-point shooting, ball and player movement on the perimeter and pick-and-roles and Portland leads the league in scoring (109.3 PPG), because they do all of these things really well. These are the most efficient ways to score the basketball and the Blazers have made it their mission to focus on these areas.
Ironically, the team’s best player relies on taking mostly inefficient shots (the midrange jumper), but he may be the best in the world at it so it’s fine.
Aldridge is having a career-year in scoring and rebounding by a wide margin and he’s been on a tear as of late (28.8 PPG, 15.8 RPG in his last five). Despite Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews scoring better than they did a year ago, Aldridge has taken and made more shots than any other player in the league (Yes, even more than Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony).
Teams are rarely double-teaming Aldridge because of the shooters on the perimeter and this is allowing him to take his patented fadeaway jumper or work closer to the rim with his new and improved post moves.
There are only four guys in the league averaging 20 and 10 and LA is one of them. This is thanks in large part to Robin Lopez’s presence, but Aldridge has also made a concerted effort to crash the boards more on the offensive end (he has 20 in the last five games).
At the moment there are four MVP candidates; Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George and Aldridge. Everyone already knew he was one of the top 15 players in the league, but a possible MVP? Even being in the discussion speaks to the improvements he’s made in his game over the last few seasons. Now the team is playing well and he’s getting some well-deserved national recognition.
Defense Still an Issue
Portland ranks 27th in points allowed at 103.5 PPG. They sit 19th in overall opponent FG percentage and 3-point FG percentage which isn’t bad but isn’t exactly great for an aspiring elite team.
The real issue is points in the paint. Despite the edition of Lopez in the middle, teams are still scoring at will near the basket. Matthews is Portland’s only legit defender, (Batum is good, but a little overrated) and opposing players are getting around Portland’s guards with ease resulting in 47.6 PPG down low. That’s second worst in the league and it accounts for 46 percent of opponent’s total offense against the Blazers.
Stotts’ perimeter philosophy on offense is working against the Blazers at the other end. The scary part is Stotts changed the team’s defensive mindset to deter interior scoring after last year when they were dead last in points in the paint. This season, there’s been a greater emphasis on the bigs hanging back on pick-and-roles in an effort to better protect the rim. But they’re actually giving up more points than a year ago when undersized forward J.J. Hickson was forced to play center.
The defense has to improve if Portland has any notion of advancing in the playoffs. Scoring points is fun, but stopping opponents consistently is what separates the contenders from the pretenders.
So far it’s been a fun and unexpected ride for the Trail Blazers. They’re playing an entertaining brand of basketball. Making the playoffs was the goal for this team entering the season, but now expectations are much bigger. The national media has been waiting for them to eventually falter, but it hasn’t happened yet. The next test will be sustaining this high level even longer and carrying that momentum into the playoffs where they haven’t been in four years.