Do Portland Trail Blazers or Indiana Pacers Have Better Shot at NBA Finals?

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 2, 2013

Getty Images

Neither the Portland Trail Blazers nor the Indiana Pacers can win an NBA title in December.

But both are off to red-hot starts that have them sitting atop their respective conferences. So, as they prepare to face off in one of the most intriguing matchups of the young season, a question arises: Which one of them has the best chance to parlay their early success into an NBA Finals berth?


Portland's Credentials

We've seen enough to know that the Blazers' torrid start has at least some basis in reality. 

Yes, there are viable questions about Portland's cushy schedule. With less than a quarter of the season complete, it's perfectly natural to question a team's quality when it has largely feasted on cream puffs.

But the Blazers' resume also includes a tough road win over the Nuggets, a home triumph against the Spurs and a hard-fought victory at Golden State. So, we know Portland has the chops to play with some of the West's best.

At the same time, the sheer volume of dangerous in-conference opponents makes it tough to imagine the Trail Blazers making it all the way to the NBA Finals. To get there, they'd have to go through three of the Clippers, Thunder, Rockets, Warriors, Mavericks, Nuggets and Spurs if the playoffs started today.

And any thorough analysis of Portland's potential road to the finals would also have to include possible matchups against the Grizzlies, Timberwolves and Lakers—all legitimately dangerous teams that are currently outside the postseason picture.

That's a total of 10 teams that pose threats to the Blazers. Make no mistake; the West is brutally crowded with excellent competition.

Nov 27, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) handles the ball against San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan (21) during the first quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA T
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Then again, Portland's offensive firepower makes it a threat to knock off even the most dangerous opponents. Currently in possession of the NBA's third-best offensive rating, per, the Blazers are a threat to defeat anyone.

Damian Lillard presents opposing defenders with a genuine no-win situation, as he's just as likely to slice up his opponents with penetration as he is to bury them with long-range bombs. And LaMarcus Aldridge is playing the best ball of his career.

Still, though, the Blazers don't presently profile as a team capable of making the finals. That's because they simply don't defend at the level necessary to survive a rough-and-tumble playoff slate.

Portland's defensive rating is just 21st in the league right now, which all but precludes it from having any real shot at the finals. Improvement is possible (and will be necessary) for the Blazers. That'll start with Robin Lopez, who has the size and tenacity to defend the paint effectively but simply isn't benefiting from a scheme that does him no favors.

The Blazers are experimenting with defensive principles that deny three-pointers at the expense of leaving their interior defenders on an island against isolations, post-ups and pick-and-roll sets, per Grantland's Zach Lowe. That strategy hasn't led to much success so far. 

December 1, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Portland Trail Blazers center Robin Lopez (42) defends against Los Angeles Lakers small forward Xavier Henry (7) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Getting better on D might require individual growth from guys like Lillard, Lopez and Aldridge. But it could also mean a total schematic overhaul is in order. If any team can pull off the trick, it's the forward-thinking Blazers. After all, they had the guts and creativity to try out their current system. Maybe they'll be just as experimental in their willingness to scrap what's turned out to be a subpar idea.

Bringing things back around to where we started, this is where the schedule actually tells us something. The Blazers haven't defended at an average level despite playing against weak competition. Knowing that, how can we expect them to hold up against the league's best offenses?

You've got to hand it to the Blazers for making such a huge early run. They've been terrific so far, and if they make a few tweaks as the season rolls on, maybe they'll become an even bigger threat.


Indiana's Credentials

December 1, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers point guard Darren Collison (2) is fouled by Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) as power forward David West (21) defends on a scoring drive during the second half at Staples Center. Mandator
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

One of the same criticisms that dogs the Blazers also applies to the Pacers; Indiana really hasn't played anybody yet. In fact, the Pacers' early schedule has been weaker than anyone's.

Per ESPN, the combined winning percentage of Indiana's opponents is lower than that of any other NBA team.

Only the Pacers' 105-100 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 1 stands out as a quality achievement, and it'll be very interesting to see what kind of potential hangover effects might linger when they take on the Blazers on Dec. 2.

Schedule similarities aside, there are some key differences between the Pacers and Blazers. Most significantly, Indy can defend.

That's actually understating the case. Indiana is built on the league's most potent defense, a trait that matters more in the pursuit of a finals berth than any other. Right now, the Pacers boast the league's best defensive rating, and that number might only get better as the new cast of reserves becomes more familiar with head coach Frank Vogel's system.

The other key difference between Indiana and Portland is the former's superior star power.

The Blazers have a couple of very good players in Lillard and Aldridge (and guys like Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum are hardly slouches), but the Pacers have a bona fide MVP candidate in Paul George. And if there were any justice, Roy Hibbert would be getting Most Valuable Player consideration right alongside his teammate.

Nobody makes a bigger defensive impact than the Pacers' hulking center. He simply refuses to allow opponents clean looks at the rim, possesses the NBA's lowest defensive rating (86.2) of any player logging at least 20 minutes per game. 

Thanks to guys like Hibbert and George, the Pacers have something else the Blazers don't: recent evidence that they can pull off a deep playoff run.

Of course, talk of Indy's success in last year's postseason brings up the biggest obstacle in its way. The Miami Heat are the only other threat in the Eastern Conference, but they're a terrifying one.

Last year, Indiana came close to knocking off the eventual champs. And even though the Pacers have improved since that seven-game defeat, the Heat might have also gotten better. There's no doubt that the Pacers will have to face fewer elite opponents in their quest to reach the finals, but they'll almost certainly have to vanquish the one foe they haven't been able to defeat so far.

So, even if Indiana is a much better team than Portland, its road might not ultimately be any easier.


Prediction Time

December 1, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Indiana Pacers  center Roy Hibbert (55), power forward David West (21) and small forward Paul George (24) celebrate the 105-100 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. V
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In the end, the Blazers just don't appear to have the defensive makeup to reach the finals this season. Perhaps more importantly, their all-offense brand of ball seems unlikely to measure up against the murderers' row of competition in the insanely difficult Western Conference.

Portland is very good, but it needs to be great to have a shot to make it all the way through the West.

The Pacers get the edge because they profile statistically as a team that can win a championship. A middle-of-the-road offense could be problematic, but elite defense matters much more in the crucible of playoff basketball.

And there's just no getting past the relatively easy road Indy will have to the conference finals. From there, marginal improvements from the Pacers could be all they need to knock off the Heat. Remember, they were remarkably close to doing so last season.

We'll find out even more about these two teams when they face off on Monday. But for now, the Pacers are the club with the best shot to reach the NBA's championship round.