The Portland Trail Blazers have shown flashes of brilliance early this season. They’ve also been downright bad.
They’ve beaten the best team in the best division in the NBA, and they’ve lost to a team dwelling in its division’s cellar.
So how good will these Blazers be? Can they win the Northwest Division?
Right now, the simple answer is no.
The Northwest Division is the best in the NBA.
Four of the five teams in the division are winning more than 60 percent of their games. Only one other division—the Southeast, with three—has more than two. But the Southeast Division’s overall record is 42-45.
The Central (43-42) and Southwest (45-42) divisions both have overall records better than .500. The Northwest’s record? 54-30.
Clearly, it is the NBA’s best division top to bottom.
For Portland fans, the bad news is the Blazers are closer to the bottom than the top.
The Blazers are in fourth place at 11-7.
A handful of these losses have been of the curious variety: The 25-point stinker to Phoenix on Jan. 6, the poor shooting that led to a 99-83 defeat in San Antonio on Jan. 13, the 94-91 defeat to the cellar-dwelling Pistons in Detroit on Jan. 20.
The common trend: All of these were on the road. The Blazers are inexplicably ineffective away from the Rose Garden. To become a contender in the NBA’s toughest division, the Blazers need to get better away from home.
Interestingly, the team’s signature win so far this season came on the road in early January. Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum frustrated Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City as the Blazers picked up a 103-93 win over the Thunder. The next night, the Blazers beat the Los Angeles Lakers to move atop the Western Conference at 5-1.
How long ago that seems.
Those two wins indicate this team can play at a high level. The question is, when will they sustain that high level of play for a long period of time?
That is what Portland needs to do to compete in the Northwest Division.
Portland is a good head-to-head matchup with division-leading Oklahoma City. Outside of South Beach, there is no better combination of wing defenders than Wallace and Batum. They can harass Durant the entire 48 minutes.
No other team can go to its second-string small forward without a dropoff like Portland can. While Wallace’s physical ferociousness differs from Batum’s wiry, Tayshaun Prince mold, they’re equally effective.
That’s what makes the Blazers-Thunder matchup so intriguing. Both teams’ best defenders play the same position as the other team’s top offensive weapon.
When the Blazers have the ball, it’s LaMarcus Aldridge defended by the Thunder’s Serge Ibaka. Aldridge is a good enough perimeter shooter to pull Ibaka out of the paint, where he is so dangerous as a shot blocker.
The Blazers don’t have another scoring threat in the post. Marcus Camby is a terrific defender and a good high-low post passer, but he is not much of a threat to score.
Adding a younger, offensive-minded center would help, but that’s not the necessary piece.
What the Blazers need is more knockdown shooters. Batum has been hitting threes at a nice clip this year, but he is the only one.
Wesley Matthews needs to get into a rhythm. Like Batum, Matthews is a lock-down defender who is able to get the job done on the offensive end as well. He just needs to raise his three-point accuracy from its current 34 percent to the 40-percent range he was at last year.
While perimeter shooting can help this team, it’s also hurt the Blazers. Raymond Felton needs to stop shooting from behind the arc. That’s the one similarity between his game and his predecessor Andre Miller’s—a knack for missing from deep.
Felton should stick to getting into the lane and either finishing or drawing the double-team and finding the open man. His arrival has quickened the pace at which the Blazers play. That maximizes the team’s potential with all the long, athletic players on the roster—Wallace, Batum, Matthews and most importantly, Aldridge—who can get out and run.
With that roster, the Blazers can be a good team. But they won’t be good enough to make noise in the postseason.
To do that, they need a three-point specialist, like Boston’s Ray Allen.
If the rumors are true that the Celtics are exploring the idea of breaking up the Big Three, a play for Allen would be worth considering for the Blazers. A package built around Jamal Crawford, Greg Oden and draft picks may be appealing enough to Boston GM Danny Ainge.
Oden will be a free agent at the end of this season, so he could be valuable as added cap space. Or maybe Boston has a great trainer who can make Oden valuable as a player.
Crawford’s contract with Portland is for two years with a player option for the second, meaning he would choose whether he wanted to stay in Boston.
Because Allen is 36, there aren’t a lot of years left with him. However, he is shooting 56 percent from three-point range this year and also brings a lot of postseason experience.
If the Blazers trade for Allen, that sends the message that management thinks this team is ready to win now.
Then the only question left is whether the players believe it.