The Portland Trail Blazers have been the surprise of the 2013-14 NBA season.
Entering the year, Portland was projected to be the 10th team out West by ESPN. Taking it one step further, ESPN declared Portland to be as middle-of-the-road as it comes, as the team from the Northwest Division was named the 16th-best squad in the entire Association.
It's easy to scoff at those rankings now, but at the time, they were reasonable for most unbiased onlookers. The Blazers lost 13 straight to close out 2012-13, and while their bench was clearly improved, the entire Western Conference was as deep as it had been in recent memory.
As it turns out, Portland is as real as it comes. The team is 24-7 through 31 games, and it is taking down top-tier opponents left and right.
The Blazers have surprised everybody through the first trimester of the season, and if you look closely, you just might find that they're a contender at this point in the process.
Anybody who claims the Blazers have had it easy hasn't looked at the numbers.
ESPN defines Relative Percent Index as, "...25% team winning percentage, 50% opponents' average winning percentage, and 25% opponents' opponents' average winning percentage."
In terms of winning percentage, the Blazers have played each of the top eight teams (besides themselves) in the league at least once. What's surprising is that they've defeated every squad on the list except for the Miami Heat—a team they nearly took down on the final possession.
Portland has been triumphant in winnable games, but it is also playing up to its competition. That's a winning recipe for any team across the NBA, and it's what has the Blazers near the top of the standings despite their preseason rankings.
The Portland Trail Blazers have been winning games in close fashion, but to quantify how good they've been, consider this: Portland has scored more points in crunch time than any other team this season.
Without question, Damian Lillard is the biggest reason why. We saw him put the team on his shoulders numerous times as a rookie, but as a sophomore he's worked his way up to third in crunch-time points behind Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul.
Following Lillard's game-winning three-pointer against the Cleveland Cavaliers (his second walk-off jumper in as many nights), teammate Earl Watson was quoted by Joe Freeman of The Oregonian as saying, "He's like a silent assassin on the court. He's deadly when he shoots the ball."
For all the credit Lillard has received this season, you can't ignore the players around him. Nicolas Batum came up big against the Los Angeles Clippers, LaMarcus Aldridge did the same against the Houston Rockets and the team is 14-5—the highest winning percentage in the league—in crunch-time situations.
As head coach Terry Stotts told The Oregonian's Mike Tokito after the win against the Clips, "We just keep finding ways to win games...We make it interesting at times, but I thought it was a terrific game and I'm glad to get a win."
*Crunch Time is defined as, "The final five minutes when the point differential is five points or fewer"
**All statistics on this slide are courtesy of Stats.NBA.com.
The Portland Trail Blazers may be winning close contests, but they're also not afraid to blow their competition out of the water.
Despite finding success in the closing minutes of games, the Blazers feature the fifth-best points-per-game differential in the NBA. Only the Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat have a better average margin of victory.
The Blazers have been diverse this season in how they've found wins. For instance, take their victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. They set a franchise record with 21 three-pointers and dominated a lowly Eastern Conference opponent 139-105.
Then there's the battle that took place in the Bay Area. Portland traveled to Golden State, and while the game appeared to be the Warriors' to lose, a third-quarter skirmish sparked a Blazers run and led to a double-digit Portland victory.
Portland has 11 wins by double digits, and it's finding success at different times against different teams. This squad is hard to predict, but that's what makes it so dangerous on a nightly basis.
If you're superstitious—or even a little stitious—knock on wood before reading this one.
When rookie C.J. McCollum broke his foot in training camp, the Portland Trail Blazers faithful considered it a bad omen. Optimistic fans still felt the bench would be improved, but for a fanbase that has endured so many injuries in the past, another player going down had to be considered a bad sign.
As it turns out, the rest of the roster has been fortunate to remain healthy this season.
When it comes down to it, health is crucial to sustaining success. One of the biggest questions at this point in the season is whether or not the Blazers can maintain their winning ways, and in order to do so, staying injury-free is a must.
Additionally, the starters are still playing hefty minutes. The bench is drastically improved from last season, but the truth is that it's still 27th in terms of points, according to HoopStats.com.
In 2012-13, Portland avoided catastrophic injuries throughout the course of the year, but it still dealt with lingering issues to Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and even LaMarcus Aldridge.
Staying healthy is typical for most franchises, but with this one, consider it a luxury.
We all knew that offense would be the Portland Trail Blazers' saving grace in 2013-14. What we didn't know is just how efficient they could be this far into the season.
According to Stats.NBA.com, the Blazers boast the top offensive efficiency rating in the entire NBA. As a result, they're No. 1 in points scored per game and they're No. 4 in assists.
This team has become synonymous with long-distance shooting, and it's easy to see why. The team has jumped from 20th in three-point percentage a year ago (.353) to first this season (.404).
Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright are all consistent threats from behind the arc, but it's Damian Lillard who leads the NBA in made three-pointers.
Only the Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns attempt more shots from behind the arc, but no team in the league makes more than the Trail Blazers. Rip City has become known for the long ball, and that's not going to change any time soon.
Lost in the glory of Portland's offensive production has been a drastic improvement on the boards.
In 2012-13, the Blazers finished the year 24th in rebounding. This year, they're fourth in the league, trailing only the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves.
The biggest reason for the jump is the addition of Robin Lopez. The big man is pulling down 8.5 rebounds per game (compared to 5.6 last season), and he's doing whatever it takes to box out bigger bodies at the rim.
Not only is the center pulling down the boards on defense, but he's boosted his numbers on offense as well. He's grabbing four rebounds per game on that end of the floor—the fourth-best mark in the league—and he's a top-15 player in second-chance points, according to Stats.NBA.com.
The other thing Lopez has done is open up opportunities for LaMarcus Aldridge to attack the glass. The power forward has been the biggest player in the starting lineup for quite some time, but now having Lopez by his side has pushed him to 11 rebounds per game—a career high by a relative long shot.
The misconception is often that three-point-shooting teams are also uptempo teams, and while we can thank Mike D'Antoni and his seven-seconds-or-less offense for that, it's simply not true for the Blazers.
Portland is just 13th in the NBA when it comes to pace, per ESPN, dispelling the notion that their rebounding numbers are inflated. This is a team that works hard, and it's showing in the numbers.
LaMarcus Aldridge is happy in Portland, and it's easy to see why.
Following a summer of speculation and trade rumors, the big man has taken his game to another level. He has the small-market Trail Blazers on a constant quest for a No. 1 seed, and he's established himself as a legitimate MVP candidate at this point in the process.
In his eighth season, Aldridge is averaging career highs in points (23.5 PPG) and rebounds (10.8 RPG), and he is one of just two players to be a top-seven figure in both of those categories—the other being Kevin Love.
As Bleacher Report's Josh Martin points out, Aldridge is an MVP candidate for what he's doing against top-level competition. He's had huge games in the team's two nationally televised broadcasts, and he'll remain one of the league's most valuable players as long as Portland continues winning.
As much as the national media agrees that Aldridge is crucial to the Blazers' success, teammate Wesley Matthews said it best. "In my opinion, LaMarcus is the best power forward in the NBA," he told NBC Sports Radio, via ProBasketballTalk.
You would expect his teammates to back him with that kind of conviction, but now that the team is winning, it's tough to deny the impact he has on a night-in, night-out basis.
The 28-year-old is fourth on NBA.com's Race to the MVP Ladder, and that's something no one saw coming.
If you're anything like me, you were bewildered, befuddled and bemused when it was announced that Joel Freeland would begin the year as the backup center.
As it turned out, head coach Terry Stotts knew what he was doing, as Freeland has improved in leaps and bounds in his second season.
Looking at the big man's basic statistics, it's easy to assume an increase in minutes is the reason for the inflated stats. However, when you look at the advanced metrics, the story shifts to personal growth and intangibles.
Freeland's PER (per 48 minutes) has jumped from 6.5 to 10.5. The win percentage when he is on the floor has also increased from 38 percent to 56 percent.
Freeland admitted to The Oregonian's Sean Meagher that he wants to improve offensively, but that his focus is defense. "I'm buying into what we want to do defensively...I'm a lot more aware of things, the positions I'm supposed to be in."
From what we've seen thus far, he's focusing on both ends of the floor. His ball movement has led to open shooters, his rotations on defense are quicker and his ability to stay straight up on block attempts is something Meyers Leonard can learn from if he wants to improve.
Freeland has been a breath of fresh air for fans in Portland, and an unexpected one at that.
*All advanced statistics on this slide are courtesy of 82games.com.
If you had known before the season began that the Blazers would start 24-7, you would have assumed they'd hit their ceiling.
You would have assumed that there were no improvements to be made and that the team had maxed out every opportunity in a fluke-like, one-and-done type season.
As it turns out, the Blazers still have areas to improve, which is why there's reason to believe they can still get better.
"Our offense covers up a lot of that," Damian Lillard said in a story by National Public Radio. "Our record covers up for a lot of the mistakes that we've made on the defensive end of the floor."
Lillard is exactly right. Portland is just 26th in the NBA in points allowed, and despite acquiring Robin Lopez this past summer, the team is dead last in defensive points in the paint, per TeamRankings.com.
This group still has plenty to work on, and that's why NPR points out guys like Charles Barkley, who believe a jump-shooting team can't win long-term.
Luckily for Portland, not all of the national media is discrediting its title chances. ESPN's Tim Legler says that the Blazers are legitimate, and that he loves them the more he watches them.
With what Portland is doing, nobody should be surprised any longer. This team is for real, and it's time that we put the surprises behind us and recognize a contender when we see it.
The Blazers aren't content with where they are, and that may be the best sign of all at this point in the season.
Despite being one of the best teams out West, Portland is itching to improve. Specifically, Wesley Matthews is on a mission, and after the Blazers' first back-to-back losses this season (to the Miami Heat and New Orleans Pelicans), he's willing to speak candidly on the state of the team.
"We can't go in (thinking) we're going to outscore this team, we're going to outshoot this team," he said to Casey Holdahl of Trailblazers.com. "We have to go in (thinking) that this team is going to be a hell of a night for them trying to score on us."
Matthews is preaching defense, which is unheard of for most players shooting 44.1 percent from the three-point line—nearly a top-10 mark.
If you're a nitpicker, this category closely resembles the previous slide. The team needs to improve in certain areas, and people realize it.
But while the media is willing to critique the success of the Blazers, it's a whole different story to hear the players strive for improvement. Portland isn't happy with simply exceeding expectatoins; it wants to contend for a title, and it wants to do it sooner rather than later.