As the calendar turns over to December and the snow begins to fall, a month of the NBA season has gone by just like that. Just like Drake reminded us in September, nothing was the same. Teams that looked poised to make deep playoff runs on paper have turned out to be vying for the rights to Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins instead of the Larry O’Brien trophy, while teams that everyone overlooked are emerging as serious title contenders.
One team that has shocked the world this season resides deep in the Pacific Northwest. This team comes from a place without any glamour and glitz. Just hard-nosed, winning basketball. This team is, of course, the Portland Trail Blazers, who seem to have set the rest of the NBA on fire with an 18-4 record and a first place in the deep Western Conference.
Who would’ve thought with teams like San Antonio, Golden State, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers that the Trail Blazers would be leading the Western Conference after a little over a month of action? I didn’t. Especially since the Blazers haven’t been past the first round of the NBA playoffs since the 1999-2000 season. However, I’m starting to become a believer in this team and here’s why.
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Damian Lillard’s Emergence
If you had any questions about Damian lillard’s ability to keep up his Rookie of the Year production in his sophomore season, you probably shouldn’t be asking questions anymore. Lillard is averaging 20.7 points and 5.6 assists, while shooting 41 percent from the field (42 percent from deep) and 92 percent from the free throw line. Statistically, Lillard has been one of the top point guards in the league. Lillard is getting about 85.7 touches per game (compared to 95.6 touches for CP3 and 99.9 for John Wall) and is scoring 0.24 points per touch. Compare Lillard’s 0.24 points per touch to Chris Paul’s 0.19 and John Wall’s 0.20 and consider that Lillard is getting around 10 less touches than both these players a night, per NBA.com/stats. With these facts presented, Lillard might be the best scoring point guard in the league right now. Another reason I consider him one of the top point guards in the league is his developing ability to deliver in the clutch.
There’s a difference between hitting an open shot to tie/win a game and willing a shot in that’s heavily contested. To me, a necessary aspect of being clutch is the ability to hit shots in crucial moments of a game that look like they have no business going anywhere near the rim. Here, we see Lillard willing this shot over Marion to tie the game up with 1.9 seconds. (The Blazers would later lose on a Monta Ellis shot, but that’s besides the point here.)
To make a shot like this, you have to have confidence leaking from your pores. Lillard pump fakes Marion and as he recovers, Lillard is forced to double clutch a three-pointer and BANG, nothing but net. That’s clutch right there. Let me also point out the fact that Lillard is shooting 50 percent in the fourth quarter (better than CP3’s 42.3 percent) and he’s scoring 3.7 points in the fourth quarter, which is 10th in the NBA (outpacing CP3’s 2.7). He’s not the best point guard in the NBA, but he’s making strides to enter the conversation. In only his second year, it’s insane to think that Lillard is this talented, and honestly, it feels like Dame started the season slowly. (He just recently pushed over the 40 percent shooting mark from the field.) Believe the hype. Lillard is serious and is a large part of why the Blazers are sitting at the top of a very strong Western Conference
LaMarcus Aldridge Turning The Corner
Well, let’s start off by congratulating Aldridge for being named the Western Conference Player of the Week for his performances from December 2 to December 8. Aldridge led the Blazers to a 3-1 record on 26.3 points, 12.8 boards, 4.5 assists and 1.5 steals. Aldridge also had a double-double (points and rebounds) in every game during that week. This is the second time Aldridge has received this honor this season (November 2013).
This season, Aldridge is averaging 23.2 points and 10.0 boards and is considered the best power forward in the league by many pundits. Aldridge has always been considered one of the better big men in the league, but this year, he has finally turned the corner. His 23.2 PPG is good for eighth-highest in the league, while shooting 47.8 percent from the field, which is higher than Kevin Love‘s 43.9 percent. Teammate Damian Lillard has been vocal of Aldridge’s amazing season, telling the media after a win against the Thunder (via Blazersedge): “I think he is [unstoppable]. You’ve got a guy that can score over both shoulders, you can’t get to his fadeaway. High release. Too tall. It’s hard to stop. I haven’t seen anybody stop him yet. Any time I throw it to him on the block, if he doesn’t score, it’s guaranteed we’re going to get a good shot.”
From looking at LaMarcus Aldridge’s shot chart, it’s easy to see why his performance is a huge reason why the Trail Blazers are looking more and more like serious title contenders. Aldridge is shooting 45 percent from midrange and is shooting over 50 percent from the inside corners and the free throw line area. He’s also converting on 58.6 percent of his attempts at the rim. Aldridge is also scoring 0.34 points per touch this season, which outpaces fellow big men Blake Griffin (0.26), Kevin Love (0.27), and Dwight Howard (0.29), per NBA.com/stats. He’s becoming one of the most consistent and dominating players in the league and is a significant reason why the Blazers could be NBA champions at season’s end.
The Blazers have set the three-point line on fire this season. With a three-point percentage of 41.5 percent, which is second in the NBA to only the Golden State Warriors (41.7 percent), the Blazers have emerged as one of the best teams at shooting the long ball. The Blazers are making nearly 10 threes a game (9.8 exactly), with three players on the team shooting over 40 percent from deep. Leading the team is Wesley Matthews at a ridiculous 48.3 percent, next is Damian Lillard at 42 percent and Nicolas Batum is stroking the long ball at a 42 percent clip. This past Friday, the Blazers set the NBA record for three-point percentage by making 17 of 23 attempts (73.9 percent) in a 130-98 of the Utah Jazz. If that performance didn’t prove the Blazers have the Super Splash Brothers in Matthews, Lillard and Batum, then I don’t know what will.
One of the more important things to note about the Blazers 18-4 start is the amount of quality victories they have racked up. To date, the Blazers have notched wins over the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder. How impressive is that? The Blazers have taken care of business with victories over proverbial Western Conference powerhouses and even notched a victory over the best team in the Eastern Conference (and currently in the NBA) in Indiana.
The Blazers aren’t ballooning their record with victories over a bunch of cupcakes — these are victories against teams the Blazers will see in a deep playoff run. The Blazers are beating the teams they are supposed too and aren’t supposed too. What a recipe for success. The average margin of victory for the Blazers with these wins against the Spurs, Warriors, Pacers and Thunder is 8.25 points… included is an 11-point victory over the Spurs and a 12-point victory over the Warriors.
Importance of Quality Veterans
Last season, the Blazers had one of the worst reserve units in the league. Okay, the worst in the league. Portland ranked 30th in bench scoring with 18.5 PPG (no other team had less than 26.1 bench points per game). Portland also ranked dead last in the NBA in bench minutes at 13.3 per game. This past offseason, the Blazers addressed this issue and it’s paying off. The issue was addressed with cheap reserve players like Dorell Wright, Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson and Robin Lopez. Now, the Blazers bench is scoring 23.3 PPG this season. Coach Terry Stotts turned one of his team’s biggest weaknesses into a solid group of players that he can rely on for quality minutes. It’s not one of the best benches in the league, but much improved from last year.
Lopez has moved into the starting lineup, and has responded with 9.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. His scoring isn’t as important as his rebounding is. Lopez’s 8.6 boards per game is the highest of his career (previous career-high was 5.6). To put this in perspective, Lopez is grabbing 4.1 offensive rebounds per game and pulls down 4.1 contested rebounds per game, per NBA.com/stats (outpacing LaMarcus Aldridge, Nikola Vucevic, Greg Monroe and Andrew Bogut to name a few). The scoring can be carried by the likes of Aldridge and Lillard while Lopez will be there to pick up any loose ends. What a match made in heaven.
Besides Lopez, enter in experienced veterans Dorell Wright and Mo Williams. Neither are lighting up the scoreboard, with Wright averaging 4.8 points and Williams averaging 8.9 points. Their importance is far deeper than the statsheet, however. There is a reason why players like these two and others like Antawn Jamison and Elton Brand are still around the league. You can teach jumpers, defense and offense, but experience can only be earned. With Williams in his 11th season and Wright in his 10th, both these players are comfortable with any situation Stotts puts them in. They aren’t rookies. Williams and Wright are chiseled veterans that can come off the bench and put up points in a heartbeat. The importance of quality veterans on a team threatening to make a playoff run is something analytics will never be able to understand.
Oh yeah, let’s not forget about Thomas Robinson too. He was the No. 5 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and is already on his third team in a little over a season. Robinson is only playing 11.7 minutes per game with the Blazers and is averaging 5.5 points and 3.7 rebounds. Very underwhelming numbers I know, but what does one expect with less than a quarter of action a night? If Robinson can convince Stotts to throw some minutes his way, something special might happen. Robinson’s per-36 minute stats show he would average 16.8 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. If an injury occurs, Robinson can slide right in and start to look like a player that can average 17 and 11 on a nightly basis. A season ago, the Blazers had no depth to speak of and now we are discussing a player that can produce monster numbers if given minutes in Portland. I told you guys that nothing was the same.
The emergence of one of the most lethal and explosive offenses in the NBA is a clear reason why the Blazers are ready for a title run. Listen, last season the Blazers were scoring 97.5 PPG (15th in the league), while giving up 100.7 PPG to opponents (21st in the league). You don’t have to graduate from Harvard to articulate those numbers won’t results in many wins and that’s why Portland finished 33-49 last season. Last season also included an offensive rating of 105.8, which was good for 15th in the NBA. This season however, the script has been written a little differently.
To date, the Blazers are scoring 106.2 PPG (second in the league), while giving up 100.2 PPG to opponents (18th in the league). Also improved is the Blazers offensive rating, which is at a league-leading 112.8, per Basketball-Reference. Scoring 8.7 more points per game has pushed the Blazers from becoming perpetual bottom feeders of the Western Conference to a team destined to get back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2010-2011 season.
I already talked about Robin Lopez’s impact on the boards, but the team’s improvement as a whole in offensive rebounds can also be attributed to the effectiveness of the offense. Last season, the Blazers grabbed 25.3 percent of their offensive rebounds, good for 23rd in the league. This season, the Blazers are rebounding 29.5 percent of their offensive rebounds, which is third in the league, per Basketball-Reference. Once again, the Blazers have taken a weakness from a season ago and made it a strength, which is the key to becoming a title contending team.
Defensive Structure Changing
The Blazers defense hasn’t improved drastically, but it’s improved enough to not be a liability. The undersized J.J. Hickson, who was playing center when his natural position is power forward, has been replaced by a legit center in Robin Lopez. That switch has already clogged up a lot of space in the lane that was left open last season. Consider that opponents are shooting 44.7 percent at the rim with Lopez there to defend, while opponents are shooting 56.3 percent on DeAndre Jordan, 45.6 percent on Dwight Howard and 45.6 percent on Serge Ibaka at the rim. The changes aren’t turning the Blazers into the Spurs or Pacers defensively, but it’s improvement nonetheless. This awesome video from Blazersedge explains the Blazers new defense structure, most notably their PnR defense:
Last season in the PnR, the big man would hedge the pick hard, meaning that he wouldn’t allow the primary ballhandler any space to roam. This was ineffective, because Hickson was extremely slow in his rotations and would leave the post player wide open for an easy bucket. This can be seen in the picture below when Aldridge comes to help Damian Lillard out as Ibaka sets the screen and Aldridge hedges Westbrook to stop him from penetrating the lane (Westbrook wound up splitting the hedge and went to the bucket for a successful layup, so you can see the ineffectiveness here).
Terry Stotts now has the Blazers playing a “soft ICE” PnR defense, which has the guard fight over the screen while the big man will stay back and cover the wing. An example of this can be seen below.
Instead of having Lopez come out and hedge on Vasquez, he sits back and defends the wing. Batum picks up Thompson as he rolls and the “ICE” defense forces Vasquez to force up a long two (analytics junkies know this is one of the worst shots in basketball). Vasquez misses the shot and Mo Williams gets the rebound. The Blazers are determined this year to not get beat in the PnR. Per Synergy Sports, the Blazers are ranked 10th in the league when defending the PnR roll man, giving up .94 points per possession and allowing him to shoot only 44.3 percent. The PnR ballhandler is only shooting 41 percent from the field and 25 percent from deep. The defense will take time to improve, especially with a group of young players, but it’s looking like something that will help the Blazers’ chances to make a deep playoff run in the future.
Can the Blazers keep it up?
This is the only question left to ask. The reasons why the Blazers will be a threat in the playoffs have already been outlined. Without a doubt, the Blazers have been the most surprising impressive team in the NBA. The Blazers will be challenged in December and that will throw more paint on the wall. The Blazers last four games in December come against the Pelicans, Clippers, Heat and Pelicans again. After these four games, it will be easier to tell if the Blazers are serious title contenders. But, with key victories over some of the toughest teams in the league already, this team is looking like the real deal.
The Blazers have won 15 out of their last 16 and are off to their best start at 18-4 since the 1990-1991 season. People can scream all they want about how it’s too early in the season, but the Blazers record speaks for itself.
Are the Blazers legitimate title contenders?
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