Why You Can and Can't Believe in Portland Trail Blazers as Contenders

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 1, 2014

Why You Can and Can't Believe in Portland Trail Blazers as Contenders

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    Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

    Believe in the Portland Trail Blazers.

    Trust that they're better than we thought. That the team tied for the Western Conference's second-best record is better than we thought.

    But don't let newfound faith become ignorance.

    Portland remains new to the spotlight. Despite winning an inordinate number of games early on, the Blazers are still unexpected darlings, relatively young and inexperienced.

    After 25 wins through 32 games, that could be true. The Blazers could be better than anticipated but on course to become overrated. Or they could be just as spectacular as their record suggests, budding contenders in a conference headlined by repeat powerhouses.

    We cannot really be sure who the Blazers are at this time, because while they've given us enough reasons to believe, they've posed enough questions for us to doubt.

     

    *All stats used courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise attributed.

Believe in Their Offense

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    There's something wonderfully simplistic about the Trail Blazers' offense. 

    They aren't running complex sets or pushing the tempo more than normal; they're just smart.

    The Blazers frequently employ pick-and-rolls—according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), pick-and-roll plays make up more than 21 percent of their offensive possessions—and rely on potent performances from LaMarcus Aldridge (23.6 points per game) and Damian Lillard (21.3). And it's working.

    Portland ranks first in offensive efficiency and is on pace to become the 37th team in NBA history to post an offensive rating above 113. With Lillard quarterbacking the offense, the ball moves crisply and deliberately, rendering Portland happy harmony personified.

    You cannot teach this kind of moxie. Not on a team that ranks just 26th in fast-break points per game and doesn't will extra possessions into existence but has still eclipsed 100 points in 26 of 32 games.

    Sometimes, you just have it. And the Blazers, who fancy themselves three-point sages, just have it.

Doubt Their Defense

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    At times, Portland's defense is adequate. Mostly, though, it approaches horrific.

    The Blazers rank 23rd in defensive efficiency, and while they've topped 100 points 26 times this season, they've also allowed 100 or more in 20 contests.

    The last team to win a title while ranking outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency was the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers, so that's an obvious concern. Portland also doesn't have that one elite defender. No one on the roster is posting a defensive rating under 104.

    Statistically speaking, Aldridge is Portland's most reliable defender with a 104 defensive rating. Nicolas Batum is supposed to be the primary stopper, but he's been middling, if not worse.

    During the regular season, defensive deficiencies aren't a huge deal. If you have the offense to cover it up, you're fine. Right now, the Blazers, who still have the NBA's fifth-highest point differential, are fine.

    But come playoff time, when offensive pace lessens and defensive intensity strengthens, the Blazers could find themselves in serious trouble.

    Serious enough that they fall well short of their ceiling.

Believe in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard

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    These two are their own reason.

    Thinking about where Portland would be without Aldridge and Lillard is unpleasant. One is a fearless sophomore point guard already prone to knocking down game-winners; the other is tacitly dominant, only now escaping unjust obscurity in favor of MVP candidacy.

    Separately, Aldridge and Lillard, who are both averaging more than 20 points per game, are great. Together, they're even better.

    One-two punches are important. Most legitimate contenders have them. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade; Kevin Durant and when healthy, Russell Westbrook; Chris Paul and Blake Griffin; James Harden and Dwight Howard; and so on and so forth.

    Now, the Blazers have one of their own. They had one since last season actually, but we are witnessing the best of this pair now, just in time for them to show doubters they're more than a fringe playoff team.

Doubt Their Bench

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    Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    How deep does the Blazers' rotation run? You can almost count it on one hand. Aliens with seven fingers per hand most certainly won't need a second limb.

    Their rotation runs roughly six or seven deep. Only six players are averaging more than 15 minutes per game, while five are averaging over 30 and three more than 36. No other team in the league has more than two players logging over 36 minutes a night.

    Lack of a true second unit has killed the Blazers' bench production. They rank 27th scoring, pitching in just 23 points a night.

    This from a bench that was supposed to be worlds better than last year, when Portland's second unit was considered historically bad, ranking dead last by putting in 18.5 points a night.

    Rotations are shortened during the postseason, but the Blazers must get there first. Which they will. Their hot start pretty much guarantees them a playoff spot.

    But their seeding could be negatively impacted by absence of depth. They're not built to withstand injuries. What happens if Lillard goes down? Or Aldridge? Or Batum?

    The Blazers can only hope they're not forced to find out.

Believe in Their Convincing Wins

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    Portland got game. Mad game. 

    Blowouts, comebacks, more blowouts, comfortable margins—you name it, the Blazers have won it. Whether they're coming from behind to unseat the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road or dropping 139 points on the tanking Philadelphia 76ers, the Blazers are serious threats.

    Wins against teams like Oklahoma City aren't aberrations, either. The Blazers are 6-3 on the season against top-six Western Conference contingents.

    Whatever, right? Who cares?

    We all should.

    Consider this: The San Antonio Spurs are just 2-6 against fellow top-six teams. The Los Angeles Clippers are just 4-3. The Houston Rockets are just 3-5. 

    The Blazers are playing contenders daily. Such is life in the Western Conference, where unlike the East, teams don't play with their eyes closed and hands in their pockets. But they're winning those games. Consistently.

    On the road, at home—it doesn't matter. Portland is finding ways to beat good teams.

Believe in the Western Conference

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    Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    Believing in the Western Conference forces you to doubt Portland, if only a little.

    This isn't the ghastly Eastern Conference. There are more than three teams above .500. The Los Angeles Lakers, who rank 12th in the West with a 13-19 record, would be just a half-game outside the East's playoff bubble. 

    That's how bad the East is. More importantly, that's how good the West is.

    There are no such things as "easy" conference victories for the Blazers. Come playoffs, it gets even worse. Rip-rolling opponents becomes a thing of the past. Depending where they finish, the Blazers will likely meet a contender in the first round.

    If the postseason started now, they would be facing the Rockets, against whom they are 1-1 thus far. Can you honestly say they would win? Without a doubt?

    You could, but you shouldn't. Because it's not true.

    "It's a long way to go," coach Terry Stotts said of his team following a victory in Oklahoma City, per the Associated Press (via ESPN). "It shows what we're capable of doing. We have to sustain it."

    Western Conference life isn't easy, hence Portland's interest in joining the East. If only that were possible.

    But it's not. And just as the Blazers cannot switch conferences, we cannot ignore how uncertain their immediate future still is.