It's been a long time coming, but the Portland Trail Blazers are back as contenders in the Western Conference. Portland hasn't made it past the first round of the playoffs since the 1999-00 season, but this year's group has meshed well to ensure that trend comes to an end.
It's been customary for teams to have multiple talents to achieve success. The most recent structure seems to be that of constructing a "Big Three", as seen with the Miami Heat or the recent Boston Celtics era, and the Blazers are following suit.
It's taken longer than it needed, namely due to complications with prospects like Greg Oden and/or Brandon Roy, but Portland has a terrific core that is ready to take on the best in the business.
The trio of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum rivals many in terms of both skill and versatility. Wesley Matthews joins them, making for a dominant perimeter squad and a big man that can hold his own in the post.
The Blazers also have rookie C.J. McCollum back from a broken bone in his foot, bolstering an already solid reserve unit alongside the likes of Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright.
Through the first half of the season, the Trail Blazers have been right alongside the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder for the top seed in the West. They currently sit at No. 3 with a 31-11 record, just a game and a half back from seizing the top spot.
Portland is in the midst of the a two-game losing streak, and just 6-4 in January. Despite this, the team's early-season dominance proved what the team is capable of.
Per NBA.com, Aldridge, Lillard, Batum, Matthews and Robin Lopez are shooting 47.3 percent through January. This lineup is also converting 39.5 percent on long-range shots, which has become a staple for the Blazers.
Portland leads all teams in three-point field goals made per game this season, knocking down 10.1 per game. The team is second in three-point field-goal percentage at 39.5 percent, going even beyond that in some games.
The Blazers became the first NBA team to convert 20 or more threes in two games in a season, attaining the achievement on Jan. 2 in a 134-104 win against the Charlotte Bobcats. The first instance in doing so was against the Philadelphia 76ers on Dec. 14, a 139-105 victory.
It hasn't just been Portland's outside shooting though, as they rank among the top teams in the league in terms of offense:
Portland ranks first in terms of offensive efficiency, per ESPN.com. The team also ranks first in assist-to-turnover ratio, led by the outstanding passing of Lillard, Batum and reserve guard Mo Williams.
Offensively, Portland is seemingly unstoppable. There's any number of combinations for head coach Terry Stotts to work with. Aldridge could seemingly be paired with any of the aforementioned trio in the pick-and-roll, which then could develop to an easy score, a jumper or a pass to the perimeter for a long-range shot.
Aldridge, whose career highs in points, rebounds and assists could draw MVP consideration, is leading the way for the Blazers.
Lillard is truly deserving of a place on the All-Star squad this season, putting up 21.2 points and 5.8 assists in just his second season. Batum and Matthews both provide the necessary help in picking up the slack, along with the rest of the roster.
The Blazers are 16-9 in the West, which is solid at best but needs more light shed to understand more. Of those nine losses, five were within single digits and three within two points. Portland has had some clutch highlights, namely by Lillard, but are consistently fighting until the end.
Per NBA.com, the Blazers are shooting 55.6 percent with 10 seconds or less left in the game when ahead or behind by three points. There's obviously cases where the team comes up short, but it goes to show just how dangerous Portland can be down the stretch in games.
It's also worth mentioning that of those nine losses, just one (Minnesota Timberwolves) was against a team the Blazers hadn't already beaten or gone onto beat. That doesn't take away from the losses or mark them up as isolated incidents, but it isn't like Portland is defeating the lesser opponents and losing to the stronger ones.
After Portland's win in Dallas tonight, the Trail Blazers are back on top of the Western Conference standings! #RipCity— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) January 19, 2014
For example, the table below details the Blazers' win-loss record against Western Conference teams they've faced more than once thus far:
|New Orleans Pelicans||1-1|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||2-1|
|San Antonio Spurs||2-0|
The Blazers are also 5-2 in the Northwest Division, with one loss coming on Jan. 21 against the Thunder. Kevin Durant, who has scored 30 points or more in eight straight games, dropped 46 in a 105-97 loss for Portland.
Without being dismissive, the game was the second in a back-to-back set for the Blazers, with the first being a 126-113 loss to the Houston Rockets. It was also the fourth and final game in Portland's road trip since a victory over the Spurs on Jan. 17.
Whether fatigue played a role remains to be seen, but the Blazers couldn't put it together to close out the trip. Despite both losses, Portland remains second in winning percentage on the road with a 15-7 record outside of the Moda Center.
In any case, the Blazers' outstanding and potent offensive construction is doing wonders as a team. The prolific outside shooting leads the NBA and will be extremely important come the postseason, as well as the efficient passing along the perimeter.
Are the Portland Trail Blazers contenders in the Western Conference?
Portland has a ways to go defensively, but the team's tempo and style of play goes away from a lockdown defensive squad. It could still do with some improvement, but opponents will be more concerned with how to contain the Blazers as opposed to an offensive game plan.
Despite the West consistently being a stronger conference, it seems to be a three-way race between the Spurs, the Thunder and the Blazers this season. The Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and the Rockets are on their heels, but it isn't as close.
Portland doesn't have much cause for concern though, as seen above by the Blazers combined 4-1 record against San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Despite the plethora of All-Star players on both sides, Portland matches up well in both cases, as seen below:
The Blazers faltered slightly against Oklahoma City, but were able to lean on Aldridge, who's averaging 30.7 points and 14.3 rebounds in the three games. Lillard and Matthews are both shooting under 40 percent in the contests, with credit due to the Thunder's strong perimeter defense.
The same can't be said against San Antonio though, as the duo average 23 points and 22 points respectively in two games. Aldridge is still the centerpiece with averages of 25 points and 10 rebounds against Tim Duncan and the Spurs frontcourt, but Portland was much more complete offensively.
It will be exciting to see "Rip City" back in the playoffs, and Portland will be right up there with San Antonio and Oklahoma City to claim the Western Conference crown. The Blazers have proved as much thus far, it just has to continue through the rest of the season.
All statistics of the Portland Trail Blazers courtesy of ESPN.com.