If you told a Portland Trail Blazers fan back in the 2013 offseason that their team would be fifth in the Western Conference and featuring two All-Stars, they likely would have jumped for joy, but that is not the current mood surrounding the Blazers.
Portland has cooled off after a torrid start, tumbling in the standings after maintaining a top three spot in the Western Conference.
LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are playing well, and rookie C.J. McCollum has given the offense a boost, but the breaks are simply not falling the Blazers’ way as they did at the beginning of the year.
Still, there is plenty of basketball left to be played, so let’s take stock and make some predictions about how the rest of Portland’s campaign will shake out.
Since returning from a broken foot McCollum has played in just 17 games, but in that time he has shown flashes of being the elite combo guard the Trail Blazers hoped when they spent a lottery pick on him.
McCollum’s averages of 6.9 points, 1.4 rebounds and 0.9 assists per game on 44.4 percent shooting overall and 41.9 percent from deep don’t jump off the page, but he’s playing just 15.2 minutes per game.
Prorated over 36 minutes, however, his numbers are strong. He’s posting 16.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists, and looks incredibly poised for a rookie.
For the early part of the season Mo Williams was Portland’s primary reserve ball-handler, and while he has done a nice job pushing the ball and shooting from outside, his defense is atrocious and he’s not the scoring threat he once was.
Additionally, McCollum has been better at the point than the off-guard spot. His Player Efficiency Rating at the 1 is 14.0, while his PER at the 2 is just 10.6, per 82Games.
At 6’4” McCollum is not suited to cover the league’s bigger, more physical shooting guards. While the pairing of Williams and McCollum works offensively, it makes Portland’s shaky perimeter defense even worse.
While there is a possibility the Blazers ship McCollum out for immediate help, their recent slide makes it more likely they will be thinking long-term instead of win-now.
Before the break, McCollum was on a tear, scoring 45 points over the final three games, while making nine threes and dishing out eight assists.
He has a blazing first step and can get past opponents off the dribble. He also can play off the ball, a must when he joins Lillard on the floor.
McCollum is shooting a staggering 55.6 percent in catch-and-shoot situations, including 57.1 percent on threes, and 50 percent coming off screens, proving his versatility, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).
There will be some bumps and bruises along the way, but by the postseason expect to see McCollum soaking up most of the reserve guard minutes over Williams.
When the Blazers were chugging along at their best, it was due primarily to the stellar play of Aldridge and Lillard. But part of the credit also goes to Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, who were stroking threes at an absurd rate before cooling off.
Portland’s offense is heavily based on the drive and kick, which creates juicy corner threes. Both Batum and Matthews are lethal from the corner, and their shooting ability has opened up the floor.
The Blazers are fourth in the NBA in three-point shooting at 38.1 percent, and in attempts at 24.7, but they could easily creep back up to first.
Batum is shooting just 33.8 percent from deep on the year and a paltry 26.1 percent over his last five games, while Matthews has shot just 34.4 percent over his last five.
Portland has other volume three-point shooters in Lillard and Dorell Wright, but its offense from beyond the arc lives and dies with Batum and Matthews.
Batum is a career 36.7-percent shooter from deep and Matthews is at 39.8 percent for his career, so it’s safe to assume that they’ll rebound from their recent struggles.
The Blazers’ offense has been strong even with them misfiring, but it is on a different level when the two wings are connecting from distance.
Portland’s success this season has been so dependent on their core unit’s chemistry that making a major trade isn’t likely in the cards, but they have enough pieces that a smaller deal may be possible.
Trading for someone such as Houston Rockets 7-footer Omer Asik could potentially raise the Blazers’ ceiling, but the danger of giving up a key piece is likely too much for the Portland front office to risk.
Instead, look for a deal that could offload a player such as Dorell Wright or Thomas Robinson to get a more productive backup big man.
With Joel Freeland out for 4-8 weeks due to a sprained MCL, Portland’s frontcourt rotation is stressed. While Meyers Leonard has been decent, the Blazers may want someone who is more of an offensive threat.
Wright has played just 12.7 minutes per game. While he is a respectable threat from deep, he is shooting just 35.2 percent from the field overall.
Robinson still shows flashes of the talent that made him the fifth overall pick in 2012, but he is prone to attempting to do too much with the ball. He occasionally jacks up a jumper from too far out or tries to bring the ball up the court, unacceptable moves for a player who is at his best carving out space in the paint.
If the Blazers can add a big man to provide offense off the bench, or even a swingman that can take some of the burden off Matthews and Batum, it would be foolish for them not to consider it.
This ties somewhat into the Batum and Matthews prediction, but it is highly unlikely Portland’s offense remains the highest-scoring unit in the league, even if the two shooters regain their mojo.
The Blazers lead the Los Angeles Clippers for the top spot at 107.9 points per game versus 107, but their field-goal percentage of 45.2 is just 13th in the league.
They are also only 14th in free-throw attempts per game, trailing high-octane offenses like the Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets and more.
Portland is a jump-shot reliant team. While the Blazers generally get quality looks, it is simply more likely that a team that relies on getting to the basket will eventually eclipse them.
The flow offense of head coach Terry Stotts has been a revelation, but Portland's grip on the top spot is already slipping.
LaMarcus Aldridge’s trip to New Orleans was well deserved, but a more lofty accomplishment would be an All-NBA nod.
He made All-NBA third team in 2011. With his improved numbers he has a shot to surpass that accomplishment.
Aldridge is averaging 23.9 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists and one block per game. He’s shooting 46.6 percent, a disappointing number for a big man, but that is partially a product of the huge offensive load he carries.
His numbers are strong in both the pick-and-roll and the spot-up game. According to Synergy Sports, L.A. shoots 48.9 percent as the roll man and a solid 44.1 percent in the spot-up game.
He remains one of the game's best mid-range jump shooters. And he is now not only comfortable in catch-and-shoot situations, but also fading over either shoulder and creating space with a dribble or two if a defender closes on him.
Playing both the power forward and center positions Aldridge has been incredibly efficient. Posting a 22.6 PER at the 4 and a 24.1 PER at the 5, per 82Games.
His defense is serviceable. L.A. is holding opposing 4s to a 15.8 PER and centers to a solid 13.8.
Additionally, Aldridge has been huge in the clutch. Almost all of the Blazers' late-game plays involve him, either working in isolation on the block or as a screener for Lillard.
The power forward position is stacked as always, and Aldridge will face some stiff competition from Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and Carmelo Anthony. But if Portland keeps winning and he keeps putting up incredible numbers, Aldridge should be a lock for the second team.
Now that Portland is struggling somewhat after its incredible start and its record in close games (three points or fewer) has regressed to just 6-5, it’s hard to see how this team could sneak into the Western Conference Finals.
Portland is fun to watch and has a bright future, but the team is not quite ready to be considered a title threat.
If the Blazers can't move up from fifth place, they likely will play the Clippers on the road, a series they could certainly win but would not be favored in.
While all of the Western Conference’s playoff teams are strong, there is a huge difference between being the third seed and hosting the Phoenix Suns and being the fifth or sixth seed and having to slog through a series with the Clippers, Rockets or San Antonio Spurs.
Another problem is that Portland simply does not have much playoff experience. The team hasn’t made the postseason since 2011. Even veterans such as Aldridge, Matthews, Batum and Lopez do not have much meaningful experience compared to the veterans they would be up against.
It would be a shock to see the Blazers fall out of the playoff picture entirely, but when you consider their relative inexperience, reliance on outside shooting and poor overall defense (27th in points per game at 103.7), it is hard to see them winning multiple rounds.