A certain team in the Western Conference has gotten off to a blazing start.
Based on the title of this article, the picture up above and that admittedly groan-inducing pun, you can probably guess it's the Portland Trail Blazers. And if you guessed that, you're correct!
Led by Damian Lillard, the second-year 1-guard out of Weber State who is lighting up scoreboards and making defensive improvements each and every time he steps onto the hardwood, Rip City is back. With a 10-2 record to start the season, Portland isn't just a top-three team in the West, but rather, in the entire NBA.
With Thanksgiving right around the corner, only the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers have better win-loss records during the 2013-14 season. And while the team has admittedly played a somewhat easy schedule, it's still not easy to win eight games in a row against NBA competition.
No matter how you slice it, this team is for real.
The Development of the Star Players
It's officially time to accept Lillard as a star.
The 23-year-old point guard is laughing in the face of a sophomore slump and backing up his Rookie of the Year campaign by averaging 19.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game with an 18.79 PER, courtesy of ESPN.com.
Yes, his sub-40 percent shooting looks bad, but it's made up for by his ball security (only 2.3 turnovers per game), prowess from beyond the three-point arc (39.1 percent shooting on 7.3 attempts per game) and work at the charity stripe (5.1 attempts per contest at an 86.9 percent clip).
That's why, according to Basketball-Reference.com, he has a much more impressive true shooting percentage of 54.9 percent, one that's actually higher than the mark he posted during his rookie season.
Particularly noteworthy has been Lillard's knack for draining jumpers off the bounce.
NBA.com's SportVU databases track stats on pull-up jumpers now, and they leave the indelible impression that Lillard is just about as good as it gets.
Thus far, only eight players in the NBA have averaged at least eight points per game on pull-up attempts, which are defined by NBA.com as, "Any jump shot outside 10 feet where a player took one or more dribbles before shooting."
|Player||Pull-Up Points Per Game||Pull-Up Shots Per Game||Pull-Up eFG%|
Of those top guys, only Durant has a better effective field-goal percentage than Lillard. And since when has it been bad to beat Stephen Curry in a shooting contest while finishing second only to the league's most potent scorer?
Lillard has developed a simply phenomenal pull-up three-pointer, and he's using to great success.
Just 14 players in the NBA are taking at least two pull-up triples per game, and Eric Bledsoe and Kyrie Irving are the only two to top Lillard's conversion rate of 41.9 percent. But while they're taking 2.1 and 2.3 attempts per contest, respectively, the Portland floor general is firing away 3.6 times each game. Only Curry is attempting more, and he's making "just" 38.1 percent of them.
Once Lillard starts making a higher percentage of shots when driving to the basket, his field-goal percentage will rise up to a more respectable territory. And then he'll be all the more dangerous.
But it's not only offense that has improved for this second-year guard. He's become a much more confident defender, and that's particularly apparent when he's guarding ball-handlers in pick-and-roll sets.
Last season, Lillard was awful when a screen was set. He just couldn't figure out how to navigate them, constantly got lost behind his man and didn't understand whether to go over or under the pick. This season, he has a much better grasp on those fundamental concepts.
After finishing 138th in points per possession allowed on PnR ball-handlers as a rookie, Lillard has shrunk that number to a much more impressive No. 78 mark in the league. Seeing as opponents just love to run PnR sets against Rip City, it's an important development.
Although he could still stand to make a few more defensive improvements, he's developing into a more well-rounded point guard during his second professional season. But it's by no means all about Lillard in Portland.
He's not even the team's best player.
That would be Aldridge.
Portland's top frontcourt player has averaged a career-high 22.5 points to go along with his 9.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. He's also shooting 48.4 percent from the field while posting a 20.5 PER.
He's finally playing unencumbered, and that's allowed him to take over down the stretch of close games, as he did against the Brooklyn Nets by scoring 19 second-half points on 10 shots in the comeback victory.
When the Blazers run offense through Aldridge, everything seems to click.
His turnaround mid-range jumpers are just beautiful to watch (see 1:41 in the embedded video), and he's remarkably adept at creating looks with the ball in his hands. Without as many defensive responsibilities and buoyed by the rest he receives thanks to a workable bench, Aldridge is blossoming into an even better player than he's been in the past.
And the Blazers are just reaping the benefits.
Sustainable Offensive Production
While playing at a fairly slow pace, the Trail Blazers have scored 103.8 points per game and emerged as one of the best offensive teams in the NBA, even though they've been outscored on a per-game basis by six teams in the Western Conference and the Miami Heat in the East.
|Los Angeles Clippers||5||15||7||6||33|
|Portland Trail Blazers||8||10||3||25||46|
Above, you can see the top five offenses in terms of offensive rating and their ranks in each of the "four factors" displayed.
We're dealing with effective field-goal percentage (combined three-point and two-point efficiency), turnover percentage (care for the ball), offensive-rebounding percentage (ability to generate extra possessions) and free throws per field-goal attempts (knack for getting to the line). Elite offensive teams usually dominate in these areas, as they're most important to racking up points.
As you can see, the Blazers are pretty good across the board, except they have difficulty getting to the free-throw line. That should shift in the positive direction once C.J. McCollum returns to the lineup and starts attacking the hoop, but it'll only be a slight boost.
By adding up the ranks in each of the four categories, we have a rough estimate of the overall excellence of an offense. And from the looks of it, the Rockets and Clippers are the only ones who will be sustaining their scoring rates more successfully than Portland.
Not only does Rip City shoot the ball extremely well—let's not forget about guys like Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews—but it also thrives on the offensive glass and minimizes turnovers, both of which help lead to extra shot attempts.
Those extra chances are what allows Portland to score with anyone, even though the team plays at a slower pace. All in all, the balance on the offensive end, as well as the team's improved depth, suggest that there isn't going to be much of an offensive decline as the season progresses.
Managing the Expectations
Are the Blazers going to continue the torrid pace they've enjoyed at the start of the year? Their current clip projects to a 68-14 record, one that would put them behind only the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference.
It's safe to say that that is asking for too much.
Going into the season, Portland was considered one of those fringe competitors for the No. 8 seed in the brutally difficult Western Conference. But the Blazers have two standouts who should continue to play like strong All-Star candidates. On top of that, Batum and Matthews are excellent starters, and Portland now has more depth and quality role players to work with.
Now it seems reasonable to consider them postseason locks, even though we're still just in late November.
Where will Portland finish the season in the Western Conference?
The only concern is defense.
Portland has been right in the middle of the pack for defensive rating, as it's struggled at times to force turnovers and control the defensive glass. As a result, the team is prone to giving up big scoring runs, and that's eventually going to come back to bite this bunch.
Still, the Blazers are clear favorites for a playoff spot at this point in the season, even if they come falling back to Earth a little bit. That decline is inevitable, but it's not like Rip City is pulling an Icarus.
Lillard, Aldridge and everyone else in Portland are flying dangerously close to the sun, but that doesn't mean their wings will completely stop working.