The Portland Trail Blazers have sprinted to a 7-2 record after besting the Boston Celtics Friday night 109-96. Their auspicious start includes wins at home over the San Antonio Spurs and in a tough road environment against the Denver Nuggets.
Though they have fattened up on some inferior competition—the current five-game winning streak began with a home-and-home series against the Sacramento Kings—that's what good teams do.
Portland's offense has looked lush, and this seems like a team that is ready to overwhelm poor defenses.
However, the Western Conference is stacked with teams that have playoff aspirations. It won't be an easy road to the postseason, and it comes with the ubiquitous qualifier about avoiding injury, but the early returns on the Blazers prove they are indeed playoff-caliber.
They Call It "Rip City" for a Reason
Entering Friday, the Blazers boasted the third-most efficient offense in the NBA behind the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers, measured by points per 100 possessions (per Basketball-Reference). That is good company indeed, and it speaks to the potency of Portland's scorers.
The trio of Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum drive the bus for Portland. They are supplemented by the slick-shooting Wesley Matthews, who had knocked down 452 treys over the three seasons prior to this one.
These four combined to average more than 69 points per game last season. None of them are superstars—Lillard could be in several years—but the quartet offers quality all over the floor.
Center Robin Lopez remains something of a work in progress, but his 8.8 points, 7.3 boards (3.6 offensive) and 1.4 blocks per game through eight starts have been useful. He gives Portland another dimension as a true center, something they lacked before Lopez replaced J.J. Hickson.
Point guard Mo Williams has looked good off the bench after starting last year with the Utah Jazz, and he provided the L.A. Clippers 13.2 points per game as a reserve just two seasons ago.
The Blazers' Achilles' heel is their defense. They have begun the season in the bottom third for points allowed per 100 possessions.
On the plus side, they take care of the ball and rank fifth in turnover differential. They also lead the league in three-point defense by holding opponents to 29.1 percent, showing their closeouts on jump-shooters are aggressive and consistent.
Portland also rebounds well, led by Aldridge and Lopez up front.
Just finished Blazers-Spurs. Impressive defense by Damian Lillard on Tony Parker for most of the game. Nice improvement.— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) November 3, 2013
Somewhat surprisingly, they play at a relatively slow pace, ranking 23rd at 95.8 possessions per game (per NBA.com).
With Lillard running the offense, one might expect the Blazers to get out and run more often. So even allowing for their mediocre D, their scorers can keep pace with most teams.
They should pile up enough wins to grab the No. 8 seed, but that will take some work.
The Rest of the West
Let's go ahead and assume the following teams will grab the top six seeds in the West in no particular order: San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.
To go out on a not-very-long limb, the Utah Jazz, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns will be at or near the bottom of the West.
That means Portland will still have plenty of company on the postseason bubble, and the finally healthy Minnesota Timberwolves will lead the charge. Presuming Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love remain upright, you can pencil the T-Wolves in for the postseason. Then there's the Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and even the New Orleans Pelicans, who might as well be called the New Orleans Eyebrows.
So how does Portland stack up against those four teams?
The Nuggets are already dealing with an injury to JaVale McGee, and Andre Iguodala is now hitting game-winners in the Bay Area, but the bigger loss by far was head coach George Karl.
Brian Shaw is certainly a capable coach, but signs are pointing to a swoon for Denver this year. As long as Danilo Gallinari is sidelined, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried will have to do all the work. Gallo told the Associated Press (via ESPN) that he has "no idea" when he would return. Without the Italian, Denver's offense has ranked 10th in the West in efficiency (per Basketball-Reference).
They are lame ducks at the moment, but the Nuggs are Portland's toughest competition for the No. 8 seed.
Can the Blazers make the playoffs?
The Dallas Mavericks have actually been fourth in the league in offensive efficiency during their 5-3 start. A healthy Dirk Nowitzki will do that for you.
But how much of that offensive prowess is due to the blistering three-point shooting of Jose Calderon and Jae Crowder? They have both knocked down treys at better than 48 percent to begin the year, and that will come back down to Earth.
Monta Ellis has sunk 47.4 percent of his shots through eight games, which is six percent better than last season. Expect a regression to the mean for him, or as I call it, a regression to the Monta. He is a notorious black hole on offense, and it's just a matter of time before Dirk wants to make sauerkraut out of him.
When the offense lapses, the curtain will be pulled back and everyone will realize this is a team starting Shawn Marion and Samuel Dalembert.
The Lakers have been cobbling together a rotation, and things aren't going completely horribly, but they are a shell of a team without Kobe Bryant. At present, their net efficiency (the difference between offensive and defensive rating based on points per 100 possessions, via Basketball-Reference) ranks 28th in the league. Portland ranks seventh.
Even if Kobe returns to 100 percent this season, Steve Nash doesn't look like he'll hold up until April, and Chris Kaman is a substantial downgrade from Dwight Howard. Expect to see the Lakers in the lottery.
Finally, the Pelicans have a tremendous defender in the middle with Anthony Davis, but their defense still ranks 13th in the West. They have a lot of players who play about as much D as Bill Murray in Space Jam, though they are on the roster to score. This team can't even find room for Tyreke Evans to start, but their rotation ranks 24th in effective field-goal percentage which accounts for three-pointers (via NBA.com).
The Trail Blazers can't worry about their competition in the West, but they are more talented and complete than the Nuggets, Mavs, Lakers or Eyebrows.
They must keep their heads down and the offense cooking. The wins will accumulate, but Rip City will have to continue ripping bad opponents because there are precious few playoff spots up for grabs in the West.
As April turns from lion to lamb, expect the Blazers to be playoff-bound on the back of their offense.