The Portland Trail Blazers, renters yet again of that uncomfortable real estate between fringe contender and championship challenger, are rolling. They’ve tacked on eight straight victories early in the season, are ranked first in the injury-ridden Northwest Division and their net rating of 8.8 (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) is fourth-best in the NBA.
Let me know if any of that sounds familiar. You may have read it a year ago, followed by a few reasons why the Blazers’ hot start was a mirage.
Even at their zenith, reason for caution was attached to every Blazer victory last season – a soft early schedule with lots of home games, unsustainable shooting efficiency, no meaningful injury issues – and then followed up by a list of weaknesses: below-average defense, especially from star point guard Damian Lillard, to go along with a ill-equipped bench.
If the NBA released a 2013-2014 Yearbook, the Trail Blazers would have been voted “Most Likely To Regress,” or “Most Likely To Lose in The First Round.” Where small sample-size theater usually excites our nerves, Portland invoked collective doubt. You almost want to tack a “They started 24-5 last season” asterisk to their current 11-3 record.
I venture this is because it’s tempting to understand Portland as a finished product, a team unlike the West’s high-upside visionaries Houston and Oklahoma City. Even Lillard, supremely marketable, lacks the rapturous tug of Conference rivals like Stephen Curry and Chris Paul. As much as these might sound like long-winded attempts at saying the Blazers are boring, they’re not. They’re churning out a fun product on a nightly basis, but a lack of gravitational pull has misleadingly implied a lack of gravitas.
Today, the defects that seemingly define the Blazers don’t seem so founded. Look inside the creases and you’ll see: this iteration of the Blazers might never pulsate with star power – LaMarcus Aldridge’s team-leading usage rate of 27.6 is pretty ho-hum – but they’re coloring in the margins, playing sound defense and extending leads with a revamped bench.
New additions Steve Blake and Chris Kaman are diligently anchoring the second unit, with a 12.7 net rating to thrash every bench in the league. Blake’s stabilizing pull has crystallized the secondary attack and Kaman was pretty much born to feast on second units. He’s a deadly matchup from inside 16 feet and his footwork is confounding for lesser bench bigs. More importantly, he’s nearly mimicking Robin Lopez’s defensive effort. Coach Terry Stotts has locked in on that seven-man group and filled out the rotation on the fly based on matchups and practice performance. The technique is already fostering some returns; 14 games in, both Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard can boast their own DNP-to-3-and-D stories.
On defense, the Trail Blazers’ system is eerily similar to last year’s. The big men conservatively drop back on pick-and-rolls to force guards into uncomfortable corners and they don’t bother trying to create many turnovers. So, what breaks the cookie here? How did they go from an average defense to the NBA’s seventh best?
It begins at the point of attack. Bad perimeter defense is the Achilles’ heel of a dropped back pick-and-roll defense and until this season, Lillard hadn’t met a screen that didn’t eviscerate him. He is still a work in progress (just ask Rajon Rondo, who burned him a few times on Sunday) but he’s more diligent now and his one-on-one defense has completely stifled opponents. The development has given Robin Lopez – who’s stopping shots at the rim like a fuzzy-haired Tim Duncan – more leverage, and when a stretch big tries to pop to the 3-point line for an open shot, Portland neutralizes the attack by switching Lopez onto guards in the pick-and-rolls.
In the process of suffocating opponents and kicking ass with their second line, the Blazers have also started to eliminate the concerns that doomed them to mere decency last season.
After spending upwards of a year flirting with the famed “Are they for real?” question, they aren’t really closer to an answer. It likely won’t rest in the maximal progress of a star, though, or any such crystallized symbol of ascendance. To say these Blazers transcend the sum of their parts downplays just how individually talented those parts are, but they have always functioned as an obstinately collective unit.
What the Blazers are – and really, this is what makes them so difficult to understand – is a test case in whether a fusion of incremental improvements can reap exponential results. The early returns, caveats and all, have been fruitful.