For the first time since 2011, the Portland Trail Blazers look like they are heading squarely towards the NBA Playoffs. That being said, the Blazers are far from a finished product ahead of the postseason. They still have plenty of work to do before the next chapter of this season begins.
The Blazers have benefited from a truly remarkable starting five and a drastically improved second unit. They boast one of the top power forwards in the game and one of the league's best young point guards. Coach Terry Stotts has orchestrated the league's top offense and has this team playing inspired basketball.
But there are still some holes on this squad, especially on the defensive side of the ball, and the Blazers are running out of time to address them.
Here are some of the issues the Portland Trail Blazers must address between now and the playoffs.
With the exception of Robin Lopez, every one of the Blazers starting five is averaging 34.9 minutes per game or more with LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard averaging 37 and 36 mpg, respectively. For Aldridge, that puts him ninth in the league.
The result has been a slight dip in production, especially from Aldridge. He has gone from averaging nearly 24 points and 11.4 rebounds per game on the season to 21 and 10 over the past month. But what has been even more noticeable has been Aldridge's dip in field-goal percentage. He is shooting 46.6 percent for the year but only 43 in February.
Wesley Matthews has also seen a bit of a slide in production, going from hitting over 45 percent from the field for the year to just 38 percent this month.
Nicolas Batum is down both an assist and a rebound per game this month.
So what exactly is to be done here? The Blazers need to keep their starters sharp, so they can't exactly drop their minutes into the 20s. Besides, the Blazers are a young team, not an aging bunch like the San Antonio Spurs, so they don't need to be dramatic in their plans.
Ideally, the Blazers should aim to cut the minutes of their starters between two and three per game. If Aldridge could see his minutes drop to 34 and Lillard down to 33, they should maintain their sharpness while getting some extra time off. A drop of three minutes per game over the remaining 26 games would basically take two full games of action off of their workloads.
While that may not seem like a ton, every minute adds up at this time of year.
When the Portland Trail Blazers brought Thomas Robinson aboard this offseason, it was assumed that two things would happen. One, Robinson would finally find a home and rediscover the talent that made him a stud at Kansas. And two, the Blazers would finally find a dependable backup for LaMarcus Aldridge.
So far this year, Robinson has struggled to see meaningful minutes. Part of the problem has been the fact that Aldridge averages so many minutes per game. But the biggest problem has been Stotts' inability to find ways to pair both Robinson and Aldridge together.
Sure, they both play the same position. But there should be a way, especially against teams without a genuine center. Aldridge played plenty of minutes last year as essentially the center, given how undersized J.J. Hickson is. It doesn't seem like a stretch to move Aldridge over to the five for brief minutes and allow Robinson the opportunity to play alongside him.
Robinson has shown the ability to put together great stretches this season when allowed enough time to get into rhythm. For instance, in the three games that Aldridge has missed, Robinson is averaging close to nine points and 10 boards per game in just over 22 minutes per game. This includes a breakout game this weekend against Minnesota in which he put up 14 points and 18 rebounds.
If the Blazers could get Robinson's minutes up to 20 per game, they could start to cut Aldridge's minutes while getting excellent production from Robinson.
Truly a win-win.
When the Blazers drafted C.J. McCollum in last year's lottery, it was met with some skepticism. Some fans thought that McCollum was being groomed to be Wesley Matthews' replacement at the 2-guard spot. Some thought that McCollum would be this year's incarnation of former Blazer Jamal Crawford, essentially a super-sub who would provide instant offense off the bench.
But due to an early season injury, neither looks to be close to the truth. Stotts has yet to find a definitive role for McCollum.
McCollum is a dynamic scorer. He can get his shot off with the ball in his hands or coming off of picks or even sitting in the corner as a bail-out option.
But the Blazers haven't figured out a way to utilize McCollum's talents. Ideally, Stotts would find a way to put McCollum in the game to spell Lillard and play more with the ball in his hands. McCollum could also develop into a stud in the pick-and-roll game given his range.
Overall, the Blazers need to find a true role for McCollum and allow the offense to flow through him from time to time.
It has been no mistake that the Blazers have struggled on the defensive side of the ball.
What is disconcerting is the fact that the Blazers seem to be getting worse as the season has gone on.
Sure, they began the season attempting to make up for their lack of defensive talent by exerting a ton of effort. The addition of Lopez certainly has helped the interior, and Matthews has become the team's top perimeter defender. But Lillard's inability to keep opposing point guards out of the paint has become an issue.
Additionally, when Lopez comes off the floor, there is a considerable drop-off defensively. There are two ways to help this issue, and both of them have been addressed already in this article.
Aldridge needs to see his minutes drop and Robinson needs to see his minutes rise. Aldridge's defensive ability will improve if he is fresher. And with more minutes, Robinson should be able to exude plenty of energy around the hoop.
The perimeter defensive issue is a bit more tricky. Lillard, McCollum and Mo Williams are all below-average defenders. Perhaps the Blazers can take a page out of the old Phoenix Suns' playbook during the Steve Nash-era and find a way to hide their defensively-inept point guards.
Batum could potentially be tapped to guard quicker point guards and use his quickness and length to disrupt them. Matthews could also help, using his strength and defensive instincts to aid the cause.
Great offense will lead to a ton of wins in the regular season, but during the playoffs you need defense in order to advance to the later rounds.