Raise your hand if you expected the Portland Trail Blazers to be sitting pretty at the top of the Western Conference with a 16-3 record after taking down the Oklahoma City Thunder thanks to a second-half comeback.
Seriously? Put your hands down. You're all liars.
Portland has been—by far—the biggest surprise of the 2013-14 season, as the Blazers have elevated to the top of the NBA's tougher conference by following the exact same blueprint utilized by one other team.
And not so coincidentally, that team is the Indiana Pacers. You know, the one that sits atop the Eastern Conference with a 17-2 record.
Rip City's success has been years in the making, and it's not too difficult to see the influence that Indiana has had.
Acquire Talent Through the Draft
The NBA draft is such a crapshoot that most teams can't successfully build contenders solely through the selection of collegiate and international prospects.
Some successful teams have, namely the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, but those are the exceptions to the rule.
The new breed of teams in contention is starting to follow that same mold.
Indiana catapulted to a top spot in the Eastern Conference last season once it was evident that the organization had struck it rich with yet another draft pick. Paul George morphed into a superstar during his third professional go-around, and he was just the latest player in a string of successful picks.
In fact, three of the team's most prominent players were acquired during the selection process (and I'm counting Roy Hibbert, who was traded from the Toronto Raptors to the Pacers during the same offseason that he was drafted). Although George Hill was brought aboard from the Spurs and David West was a free-agent signing, Hibbert, George and Lance Stephenson are all in-house talents.
Well, the Blazers have taken that same route.
One of their starters was acquired via the Tyreke Evans sign-and-trade (Robin Lopez), and another (Wesley Matthews) was picked up as a free agent after he went undrafted and failed to make an impact with the Utah Jazz, but the other three are home-grown players.
How's that for a lopsided deal? I apologize to any Bulls fans reading this, as they don't deserve to be reminded of that.
Nicolas Batum followed a similar path to Portland. After he was drafted by the Houston Rockets in 2008, he immediately became a Blazer as part of a three-team deal.
Most recently, Portland acquired Damian Lillard with the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA draft, then watched as he became the unanimous Rookie of the Year.
That's right. The three best players on the team were all acquired in the draft, even if it required multiple front-office regimes to do so. Even if much of this happened almost by accident, how many other contending teams can say that?
Build Depth While Developing a Unique System
Of course, it's not good enough to just draft upper-echelon talent. It's also necessary to supply depth and build a system that works for the entire roster, and that's what has allowed both the Pacers and the Blazers to thrive.
Last year, they each had one fatal flaw: depth.
For Indiana, it was enough to leave them gasping for air against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. For Portland, the lack of depth saw them drop out of the playoff race in the ridiculously difficult Western Conference.
According to HoopsStats.com, no squad boasted worse bench play in 2012-13. Here were the teams' league ranks in numerous bench categories:
|Team||PPG||FG%||Offensive Efficiency||Defensive Efficiency|
But fortunately, the story has been a little bit different in 2013-14:
|Team||PPG||FG%||Offensive Efficiency||Defensive Efficiency|
Is either team excelling with its second unit? Nope, not really. But they're each at least competent now, and they're no longer in a class of their own at the bottom of the pile.
That's been one of the biggest differences for both teams, as it's not only provided them with some element of production when the starters need a rest, but it's also allowed the starters to remain fresher. Although Aldridge and Lillard are playing a lot of minutes each, they're no longer counted on as the sole source of offense when surrounded by second-string players.
Indiana built up depth by drafting Solomon Hill and acquiring C.J. Watson (via free agency) and Luis Scola (via trade). Portland added Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson. For both squads, it was all about the little moves, the small pieces that push them over the top.
As Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski wrote about the Blazers, "All these smaller moves, one by one, have created a sum so much greater than the parts." And he's exactly right, although it's also about how the team got the pieces to fit together.
A puzzle can have beautiful pieces, but it's not a work of art until they all mesh together perfectly.
The Pacers rest their laurels on the league's best defense, one that forces everything toward Roy Hibbert, the master of verticality, while switching on screens and showing off the versatility of their defenders. They play help defense remarkably well, recovering to close out on shooters no matter how far they stray from their men.
And they do all this while rarely fouling.
It's resulted in a 93.6 defensive rating that, per Basketball-Reference, paces the league by a rather large margin. The San Antonio Spurs are No. 1 at 96.4, and no other team is in double digits.
On the flip side, offense is certainly the calling card for the Blazers. After all, they have a 111.5 offensive rating that leads the league thanks to the remarkable complementary ability of the prominent players.
Everything fits well together.
Lillard is a burgeoning marksman who can drive and kick. Matthews spreads out the defense. Batum does the same and can also handle the ball. And the combination of the three ensures that opponents rarely converge on Aldridge, so he can go to work with plenty of time to get off those incredible mid-range jumpers.
But as impressive as the offense has been, it's the defensive improvement that is keeping this team at the top of the Western Conference.
Although they rank in the bottom half of the league in terms of defensive rating, they've become one of the best teams in the NBA at minimizing the damage a squad can do from the perimeter. Only the Pacers and Boston Celtics have allowed fewer triples (remarkable considering Rip City doesn't employ a tortoise-like pace), and the C's and Phoenix Suns are the two teams allowing a lower three-point percentage.
Portland has decided to let Aldridge and Robin Lopez play one-on-one defense in the paint, contrary to the philosophy of most NBA coaches.
The en vogue system is the one Tom Thibodeau popularized with the Chicago Bulls: packing the paint and daring referees to whistle the defense for violations. But instead, Rip City is eschewing tradition in favor of shutting down the perimeter by keeping more players around the arc than any other team in the Association.
This was already a strength for the Blazers last year, but it's gotten even more effective in 2013-14, which has pushed Portland over the top.
The most telling play in the Blazers' win over the Oklahoma City Thunder wasn't even a made shot. While establishing legitimacy as one of the top teams in the Western Conference, Rip City proved exactly how unselfish it could be.
Aldridge had multiple opportunities that would have allowed him to break into the vaunted 40-point club, but he instead chose to spurn the me-first attitude. Here's The Oregonian's John Canzano on what happened:
The Blazers were teasing Aldridge mercilessly after the game about passing up successive shots in the final minutes. Lillard fed Aldridge the ball. Everyone waited.
Instead of shooting, the All-Star forward passed to Wesley Matthews on one possession, and gave the ball up to Nic Batum on the next. Lillard was beside himself about it in the locker room. There were chants in the final minute of, "MVP! MVP!" for a guy who could have easily posted 40 had he wanted it to only be about him.
Although the team ranks just 12th in assist percentage, courtesy of NBA.com's statistical database (subscription required), it plays completely selfless basketball. There is no individual mentality on this team, but rather an acknowledged collection of individuals.
It's the exact attitude that allowed Indiana to take the next step.
Remember when Roy Hibbert was wholly supportive of Paul George's desire to step into a leadership role (h/t NBC Sports' Kurt Helin)?
@Paul_George24 wants to take the lead. I'm cool with that. We both been working. He knows I got his back. I'm gonna hold this defense down.— Roy Hibbert (@Hoya2aPacer) August 26, 2013
It should be no surprise that both of these squads have risen to the top of their respective conferences thanks to team play. After all, they've done everything else similarly.
Neither of these teams has the market capacity to draw in marquee free agents. The Pacers landing David West a little past his prime is about the best they can hope for, so they've turned to drafting talent and adding small pieces.
Can the Blazers win a title this year?
Now, after the accumulation of many solid parts, each squad looks like it can actually contend. Indiana almost certainly can, and Portland should be a fringe contender once Wesley Matthews falls back to earth a little bit.
But the scary thing about what Blazers general manager Neil Olshey has done is that he's built a long-term squad. The prominent pieces are young and should continue to both improve and grow together, especially as even more complementary parts are inserted around them.
Portland isn't just going to go away.
Not now, and certainly not in the future.