What's Holding Portland Trail Blazers Back from Joining NBA's Elite?

Bryant Knox@@BryantKnoxFeatured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2014

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When you think of elite NBA teams, the Portland Trail Blazers appear directly after the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. This isn't a bad place to be, but it's clear that the squad from the Northwest strives to be greater than a second-tier contender.

Up to this point, you've probably read the following sentence countless times: The Trail Blazers are the surprise of the 2013-14 season. That became the cliche surrounding Rip City's revival, but it's important to note that it was used for a reason.

Portland truly was, and still is, exceeding expectations. The team owns the league's fifth-best record, and following a difficult 2012-13 campaign, a top-three seed out West would be more than respectable.

The problem is, the Blazers have things to work on before the grueling postseason, and fans recognize where they must improve to become a championship favorite.


Low-Post Production

Robin Lopez has been invaluable to the Blazers this season, but he's hardly a go-to option on offense.
Robin Lopez has been invaluable to the Blazers this season, but he's hardly a go-to option on offense.Alex Brandon/Associated Press/Associated Press

On the year, Portland averages 36.3 points per game in the paint. That number is 29th leaguewide, but the stat is emblematic of a larger issue.

The Blazers' absence down low makes life easier on defenses. Teams recognize that Portland doesn't score in the paint, justifying defensive schemes that focus primarily on the perimeter.

Although the numbers are worrisome, don't expect Portland to fret. Terry Stotts is content letting LaMarcus Aldridge control the mid-range, and chances are, Damian Lillard will eventually find his groove at the rim.

Furthermore, the Blazers are sixth in fast-break efficiency, equalizing the concern that they score just 11 transition points per game (a contributor to points in the paint).

The bigger problem is defense, which has been a recurring theme all year.


Defense, Defense, Defense

On Feb. 7, George Hill went for a career-high 37 points against Damian Lillard and the Blazers.
On Feb. 7, George Hill went for a career-high 37 points against Damian Lillard and the Blazers.Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

If defense wins championships, the Trail Blazers are in trouble.

Through 51 games, Portland has allowed 103.5 points per contest. That's the fourth-worst mark in the Association, and it's a problem when the offense struggles.

Truthfully, Portland should be better on this end of the floor. Nicolas Batum is a lengthy swingman with excellent timing, Wesley Matthews is as gritty as it comes and Robin Lopez is averaging 1.5 blocks a night.

GIF created at GIFSoup.com.

Unfortunately, Lillard is still learning on that end of the floor, and that was never more apparent than when George Hill torched him for a career-high 37 points.

Rebounding is also a topic of controversy. As good as the Blazers are on the offensive glass, they give up too many boards on the other side.

Portland allows second chances on a regular basis, as it ranks 15th in defensive rebound rate, per ESPN.com. Not so coincidentally, it's also tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for 21st in defensive efficiency, also per ESPN.


Bench Woes

As bad as Portland's defense is, we point our fingers directly at the reserve bigs for both offensive and defensive struggles.

Portland Trail Blazers: Backup Bigs
PER (per 48 minutes)Opponents' PER (per 48 minutes)On-Court Team ProductionOff-Court Team Production
Joel Freeland (PF)10.215.8+2.0+7.5
Meyers Leonard (C)10.326.0-6.2+6.8
Thomas Robinson (C)10.222.3-5.5+8.7

Giving credit where it's due, Joel Freeland has been solid. He and Lopez have played well, hitting mid-range jumpers and impacting shots without drawing fouls. Unfortunately, that's where the congratulations come to a halt, as Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard leave something to be desired. 

The Trail Blazers bench is better than it was last year, but that's an indictment on how bad it was then—not an indicator of how good it is now.

According to HoopsStats.com, Portland ranks last in bench scoring, and it's not even close. The average distance between teams (No. 1 through No. 29) is 0.57 points per game, but the distance between Portland and the Indiana Pacers (No. 30 and No. 29, respectively) is a whopping 5.6 points per contest.

As hinted above, the Blazers need a big man who can lock down the paint. However, they also need one off the bench who can score. Freeland, Robinson and Leonard combine for 16.4 points per outing, but even that number is generous considering the latter two rarely play in the same game.

The question becomes: How can Portland improve? This applies to every concern the Blazers have, and it ultimately brings us to the trade deadline.

The narrative surrounding the Blazers involves chemistry versus contention. Portland doesn't want to risk losing cohesion, but the right move could spark immediate postseason success.

Chances are, Omer Asik is out of the question. The Houston Rockets have been stingy thus far, and frankly, the Blazers don't have assets that entice Daryl Morey.

Shifting to more feasible options, Spencer Hawes is available. He's not the defender Portland needs, but as CSNNW's Chris Haynes pointed out to B/R's Adam Lefkoe, "It's a nice change of pace with Robin Lopez," referring to Hawes' outside shooting and scoring off the bench.

The other option is to continue developing the reserves. That, of course, won't expedite the process toward long-term success, but it offers the illusion that Leonard and Robinson can become the two-way players they're supposed to be.


Consistency Moving Forward

The Blazers have learned that they can flip a switch when needed, which isn't necessarily a good thing.

Portland has performed valiantly in second halves this season. It's second in both third- and fourth-quarter points per game; it's also first in second-half points and third in second-half margin.

The concern is consistency, or rather inconsistency. Despite the stats, the team has allowed comebacks on multiple occasions as of late. We've also seen it spark comeback efforts of its own, albeit against teams that have no business sticking around in the first place.

We've heard players talk about not being content, and while it's easy to take their word for it, we must see it on the court. In a recent interview with Ken Berger of CBS Sports, we heard the same sentiment from Wesley Matthews:

Luckily we built ourselves a good cushion. We're not content with falling back on that at all. We've got to continue to get better, continue to work. We'll get through this. Every team has a slump.

It's true that all teams face adversity, and it's also true that the Blazers did themselves a favor by starting 24-5. The problem is, their success came so quickly that any slump makes them targets for detractors.

As much as Portland has to work on, it would be foolish to ignore the team's hot start. Inconsistencies fuel the fire for critics, but this group is closer than most to competing with elites in a seven-game series.

Regular-season success is great, but the Blazers have bigger goals in mind. Portland has come back down to earth from its brilliant beginning, but if it can address a few key areas, it will be aiming for the stars in the playoffs.


*All advanced statistics and rankings are accurate as of Feb. 10, and unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of TeamRankings.com.


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