The Portland Trail Blazers haven't gone away.
After a blazing start to the 2013-14 season, Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and the rest of Rip City have remained right near the top of the ridiculously tough Western Conference. While the San Antonio Spurs have ascended to the pole position, no other team is ahead of the Blazers.
But is the surprising success sustainable?
Grantland's Zach Lowe asked that very question much earlier in the season, writing about Portland's strategy, "It’s not an ideal title contention model, but the Blazers aren't chasing rings."
Except, they are now.
Nearly 40 games into the season, we can legitimately start wondering whether this is a team capable of winning the title. So, are they?
The Case For The Blazers
To beat the Blazers, you must slow down the offensive machine. It's not an easy task, as Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Aldridge can all light up the scoreboard.
It seems like everyone on the team has improved this season, but no one more so than Matthews. Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry ranked him as the NBA's fourth-best shooter in 2013-14 (among players who have attempted at least 300 shots and are healthy), writing the following about the three-point marksman:
Portland is the best story of the year so far, and one big reason why is its long-range shooting. Matthews is having a fantastic year shooting the ball, and he should be in the discussion for most improved player. Simply put, Matthews has been great beyond the arc, but much of that greatness is along the left wing and in the left corner, where he is arguably the best shooter in the league this year.
Matthews is making it quite difficult to disagree, as he's averaging 16.5 points per game while shooting 48 percent from the field and 42 percent beyond the three-point arc. He's posting the latter number while taking 6.2 attempts per game, which gives him a combination that only eight players in NBA history have maintained over the course of a season, per Basketball-Reference.
But Portland's offensive prowess isn't the result of just one player. It's the combined effort that is so impressive.
Rip City currently leads the NBA in offensive rating, scoring 113.7 points per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference. The Miami Heat check in at No. 2 with a 111.1 offensive rating, and that 2.6-point gap is larger than the one that separates the San Antonio Spurs (No. 3) from the Phoenix Suns (No. 10).
Just as they rely on contributions from many players, the Blazers rely on many different fundamental aspects of offense. They've become elite—or nearly elite—in each of the four factors that can be used to gauge offensive performance:
The team's only weakness is its ability to get to the charity stripe, but even that isn't a true flaw. The Blazers are still doing that quite well, especially when you consider they're knocking down shots, taking care of the ball and grabbing plenty of offensive rebounds.
As you can see in the chart up above, Portland ranks in the top half of the league for all four factors.
The Heat can't say that. Neither can the Spurs, Houston Rockets, Minnesota Timberwolves or Oklahoma City Thunder. Only the Denver Nuggets rank in the top half across the board, though, they trail Rip City in three of the four categories, barely beating the Blazers when it comes to drawing fouls.
This is clearly an elite offense, and it runs through more than one star.
That's the other undeniable positive, as both Lillard and Aldridge are worthy of some serious All-Star consideration. Though they're not popular enough with fans to earn starting gigs for the Western Conference, the coaches will certainly pick Aldridge as a reserve and could make a case to do the same with the dynamic point guard.
Additionally, the Blazers boast a better bench in 2013-14 than they did in 2012-13, something that will only be aided by the return of C.J. McCollum. The second unit was Portland's downfall last year, but the starters' minutes have been more manageable during the current go-round.
Lillard is playing 2.4 fewer minutes per game after leading the league in time on the court during his rookie season. Aldridge's minutes have declined by 0.7 per contest. Batum's are down 2.6, and Matthews has seen his drop by 0.5 despite his improved performance.
All this points toward sustained success. Once the Blazers run into the wall—which inevitably happens for all shallow teams—the starters should be able to push right through it.
Perhaps they'll even be able to keep up their 6.14-point margin of victory, the No. 4 mark in the league.
The Case Against Rip City
Unfortunately for Portland, there's this thing called defense.
Even if a team puts up points in bunches, it still has to hold down the other squad's offense. Defense is half the battle, after all.
While the Blazers have been absolutely fantastic on the more glamorous end of the court, they've had an awfully difficult time trying to prevent other teams from following suit. Their defensive rating of 107.3 is tied for the No. 20 mark in the league, and the four teams directly trailing them are within striking distance.
Can that be overcome? Maybe, but check out the other teams in the bottom 10:
- Detroit Pistons
- Memphis Grizzlies
- Los Angeles Lakers
- New York Knicks
- Philadelphia 76ers
- Brooklyn Nets
- New Orleans Pelicans
- Utah Jazz
- Sacramento Kings
It pretty much reads like a who's who for teams that you'd want to face in the playoffs, except that these squads probably aren't advancing that far. If you're considering one of those squads a serious title contender, you're delusional.
There's a reason the phrase "defense wins championships" has become such a major part of the sports' world's collective consciousness. Defense is so fundamentally important when play slows down, and each possession becomes more valuable during the postseason.
Another problem is that there's a slight chance Rip City's offense is built on a house of cards.
While everything currently looks good, Portland relies heavily on three of the most variable shots in basketball: the three-pointer, pull-up jumpers and mid-range attempts.
Only two players in the NBA have attempted more three-point shots than Lillard, but it's not like the rest of his teammates are too far behind. In fact, Basketball-Reference shows that 29.6 percent of the Blazers' shots have come from beyond the arc, which is the fifth-highest rate in the league.
It's easy to maintain success during the regular season when building an offense around the three-ball, as there are more games to make up for the inevitable poor shooting percentages. A slump can be overcome by a hot streak.
But what happens if a slump occurs in the postseason?
The triples are troubling enough, and that's before factoring in the portion of the offense that comes from Aldridge's deep two-pointers and Lillard's perimeter pull-ups.
While taking the 24th-most pull-up jumpers per game in the Association (6.0), the Weber State product has put together a 54.9 effective field-goal percentage, according to NBA.com's SportVU data. Among players who have taken at least five per game, here are the leaders in that latter stat:
There's a chance that Lillard is by far the best pull-up shooter in basketball. There's also a solid chance that he's eventually going to regress to the mean and put up a mark that's more in line with the rest of the league leaders.
Finally, the Blazers have been feasting on the easy part of their schedule.
Not only have they gone up against one of the weakest slates of any NBA team, but they're produced a striking record disparity against the two conferences.
Against the Eastern Conference, easily the weaker of the two, Portland has gone 13-2, outscoring opponents by 9.8 points per game. When playing the West, the Blazers have gone a less impressive 14-7, doing the outscoring by only 3.6 points each contest.
Which case do you believe?
Additionally, they've struggled against teams when playing them for the second or third time. It's tougher for a squad to maintain dominance once the second go-round is upon them, and the Blazers have a 5-4 record when not playing a team for the first time.
At this point in the season, it's still too soon to determine whether Portland's fantastic start to the 2013-14 campaign is legitimate. There's no doubt that this is a playoff team, but the quest to be a contender is still not quite complete.
Heading into the middle of January, there's slightly more evidence against Rip City being a true contender than there is for it. That said, the decision is still up to you.