Breaking Down the Portland Trail Blazers' Hot Start

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Breaking Down the Portland Trail Blazers' Hot Start
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The Portland Trail Blazers are the NBA's early surprise team through the first weeks of the season.

They stand at 9-2 overall, second in the West behind reigning conference champion San Antonio (9-1) by a half-game. They have the third-best record in the entire NBA behind the Spurs and Indiana Pacers (9-1).

So who are these guys?

The Blazers have certainly taken advantage of a soft schedule, as their opponents so far have collectively been mediocre, sporting a combined winning percentage of .456. Winning on the road is not easy, however, and Portland has won games in cities where it has traditionally struggled, including Denver and Boston, to snap nine-game losing skids in both arenas.

The start is one of the best in recent memory.

It's been said, but Portland's offseason additions of Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson have paid huge dividends.

Last season, the team's top scorer off the bench was point guard Eric Maynor at 6.9 points per game. The former VCU standout that made his name in the NCAA tournament a few years ago is presently backing up John Wall in Washington. After him? Center Meyers Leonard averaged just 5.5. The 2012 first-round pick has now fallen out of the rotation.

Their 2013 first-round pick, C.J. McCollum, is also nearing a return after breaking his foot in training camp, which should bolster the Blazers backcourt.

Behind a free-flowing offense centered around two-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers have jumped up to third in the league in offensive efficiency (number of points scored per 100 possessions) at 107.4. They sit just behind the Miami Heat (110.7) and Los Angeles Clippers (109.0).

Last season, the Blazers were in the middle of the pack, tied for 15th in the league (102.7). Grantland's Zach Lowe summed up the team's strategy simply:

Aldridge is the key to the team's offense, as the eighth-year forward is averaging 22.6 points and 9.2 rebounds—both on pace for career-highs. He's also attempting more shots and converting them at a higher clip, averaging nearly 10 field goals made on more than 20 shots per game.

He's one of the best pick-and-roll players in the game today, as he commands so much attention with his ability to knock down 15-to-18-foot jumpers all day. General manager Neil Olshey targeted shooters in Wright, Williams and McCollum to surround Aldridge, and so far it's worked out.

Wesley Matthews is also having a career year, based on a quick look at his shot chart. Green means good by the way.

At all times, Portland will have at least three three-point threats on the court with Aldridge.

In this half-court setup against the Raptors, Nicolas Batum's versatility as a point-forward is a huge plus, as he's able to initiate a pick-and-roll up top with Aldridge, while Williams and Matthews are camped out in the corners.

Photo: NBA.com

Leaving Batum wide open off the screen is not an option, as he's nailing three-pointers at a rate of 40.3 percent this season. After Batum is doubled, he feeds Aldridge the ball atop the key, where he is automatic if left unguarded. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan each leave their man to help.

Photo: NBA.com

This leaves Aldridge with two options: Williams or Matthews wide open in the corners for a three-pointer. It's a pick-your-poison scenario, since both players are shooting at least 46 percent from the field this season.

Aldridge skips the ball out to Matthews, who is shooting a blistering 52.6 percent from deep. DeRozan can't close in time, and the play ends with one of Portland's 15 three-pointers for the game.

Photo: NBA.com

Plug in Matthews and Williams with Damian Lillard, Wright or Batum when he's not setting up the play, and the Blazers will always have threats on the outside.

The Blazers can also run the same play up top with Lopez, who is a serviceable offensive player at center. In this scenario against Detroit, the Pistons defense has decided to stay home on Portland's shooters as Batum and Lopez set up the pick-and-roll.

Photo: NBA.com

Brandon Jennings and Rodney Stuckey stick to Williams and Matthews in the corners, while Aldridge's defender makes certain not to leave him open atop the key. Being a more traditional center, Lopez rolls to the basket wide open with no Pistons defenders in the paint.

Photo: NBA.com

Stuckey arrives late and doesn't have a chance anyway as a guard trying to stop the 7-foot, 255-pound Lopez at the rim. Lopez has an easy dunk and is fouled, earning a three-point play.

Photo: NBA.com

The Blazers' ability to space the floor and stretch opposing teams' defenses has been paramount to the team's success.

The biggest question moving forward is whether they can sustain the hot outside shooting. Portland is fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 42.2 percent. The Blazers have made the third most three-pointers in the NBA with 108, trailing only the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers at 122 apiece.

They are also heavily reliant on jump shots, leading the league right now in field goals made from 15-to-24 feet, according to NBA.com. On the contrary, the Blazers are 25th in the league in points scored within five feet of the hoop.

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Should the outside shooting cool off, however, Portland still has enough playmakers—Lillard is able to create his own shot and Aldridge is a constant threat in the post—to score in the paint to keep it in games.

Arguably the biggest concern is on the defensive side, where the Blazers are allowing a league-high 47.8 points in the paint per game. On the flip side, Portland is 29th in the NBA in offensive points in the paint at 33.3.

Can the Blazers sustain their winning formula by giving up a lot of easy buckets while getting most of their points from the outside? The theory will be tested in the next few weeks with powerhouse matchups against the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder.

However, the start is nothing short of impressive. Their core of Aldridge, Batum and Matthews is entering its prime, while Lillard has cemented himself as one of the top point guards in the game.

It's not an easy feat to win seven straight games in the NBA, as well five of six on the road, and in doing so, the Blazers have definitely put themselves on everyone's radar as a team to watch.

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