Are Portland Trail Blazers Fool's Gold as a 2014 Playoff Threat?

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Are Portland Trail Blazers Fool's Gold as a 2014 Playoff Threat?
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Trust the Portland Trail Blazers like you would impish infants around unprotected, active outlets.

Trust the Blazers like you would known pastry capers behind the counter of unattended, fully stocked bakeries.

Trust the Blazers like you would Kendrick Perkins with a game-winning three from four-point range.

In other words, don't trust the Blazers—especially in the playoffs.

Hype has subsided and reality has set in. The Blazers aren't a surprise Western Conference power, gearing up for a deep playoff run, like they resembled months ago.

Potent offensive displays are no longer enough, or even frequent. The defense is a permeable cluster of blown switches and poor rim protection that is no longer partially veiled by outstanding offensive efficiency.

What the Blazers have, what they are now left with, are flawed, barely-good-enough-to-stand regular-season tests of self-preservation, let alone the brutal grind of postseason basketball.

 

Fall From Grace

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Blazers fans can perhaps find comfort in knowing the team's trajectory wasn't always this uninspiring.

Earlier in the season, the Blazers approached juggernaut status, placing themselves atop the Western Conference with a preeminent 31-9 record through their first 40 games. 

Everything was going their way. The wins were impressive, the losses correctable and the future bright. 

Since then, they have gradually descended from inviolable states of near-perfection onto solid ground. Their 45-26 record, while still somewhat remarkable, is ordinary. Hovering around 20 or more games over .500 is standard for Western Conference contenders.

Only the Blazers aren't true contenders. Not anymore. They are are 14-17 through their last 30 games and 3-7 through their last 10, playing brands of basketball that would have rendered them lottery-bound if implemented earlier.

Portland's Regression
When Record Off. Rtg. Off. Rank Def. Rtg. Def. Rank
First 40 Games 31-9 110.6 1 104.8 20
Last 31 14-17 105.4 13 105.7 17
Last 10 3-7 106.1 14 110.3 26

NBA.com.

Pinpointing their specific flaws isn't difficult. It's not a question of "What's wrong?" It's a matter of "What's right?"

Grantland's Zach Lowe took a deeper dive into the Blazers' two-way demise, identifying a number of areas in which they have resigned to inconsistency or outright failure:

The dip in offense is worrisome, and it begins with Aldridge, once a stealth choice for a no. 3 or no. 4 spot on MVP ballots. Aldridge’s post game has fallen apart since early February, when his groin issues flared up (ow!), and that fall-off has infected the rest of Portland’s beautiful game. Aldridge is shooting just 35.6 percent on shots from the block since mid-January, per Synergy Sports. Aldridge shot 41.5 percent on post-up shots over Portland’s first 40 games, so he was never an especially efficient shooter after catching down there, but he rarely turned the ball over, and he drew a ton of help. His turnovers are up, and 35 percent is just a disastrously low mark for a guy on pace to break the record for most midrange jumpers ever attempted in one season. Among 102 players who have attempted at least 50 post-up shots this season, that 35.6 would tie Kosta Koufos for 95th.

(...)

Portland’s assist rate has cratered after it started the season as one of the league’s most pass-happy teams; only eight teams have assisted on a lower percentage of buckets since mid-January, per NBA.com. The Blazers have, somewhat remarkably, been better on both sides of the floor since that time when Aldridge is on the bench. And they’ve taken many more 3-pointers when Aldridge sits—21 per 36 minutes, compared to 15.5 when he plays, per NBA.com.

LaMarcus Aldridge appears to be the route of multiple problems, but it's not that simple. The Blazers' 7-4 record without him means little; their 2-5 slide during his brief return means even less.

Too many times, the Blazers are caught overusing Aldridge. Their offense has reached the point of predictability, which is tough to overcome when you play at the deliberately modest pace they do.

Stagnant repetition isn't necessarily on Aldridge, either. The ball moves more without him more because 1) the Blazers have no choice and 2) Aldridge isn't an accomplished passer, though he is serviceable when at his best. Still, for all the Aldridge-related blunders, the Blazers' splits with and without him continue to highlight his importance. 

Measuring Aldridge's Season-Long Impact
Blazers... Off. Rtg. Def. Rtg. Net Rtg. AST Ratio
With Aldridge 110.3 103.9 6.3 17.7
Without Aldridge 105.1 107.3 -2.3 16.4

NBA.com.

That's really no surprise. No one player is responsible for Portland's ongoing strife.

The Blazers are a mess in so many areas. They allow the third-most points in the paint, according to teamrankings.com, and their bench remains an anemic disaster, scoring the fewest points of any second unit (14) while also posting the league's sixth-worst differential (minus-6.6), per hoopstats.com.

Rotations are shortened come playoff time, but the Blazers are already seeing what their limited cast can do, and it isn't pretty. And it isn't on Aldridge.

This is just what happens when an average team plays average basketball.

 

Tasting Playoff Defeat

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Fielding a run-of-the-mill offense in conjunction with a bottom-feeding defense isn't going to culminate in any playoff victories.

Marching toward an early exit will become reality with such an imbalanced and unstable attack. It is already reality. 

In their last 12 games against (likely) Western Conference playoff teams, the Blazers are 0-12. For the entire season, they're just 8-14, so there isn't one first-round matchup they can look to with absolute confidence. Not the way they're playing, and most certainly not with who they will have to play. 

Finishing in fifth place sets them up for a first-round battle with the Houston Rockets, against whom they're 1-3 this season. But that could change. The Rockets could easily become the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs.

The Blazers have fallen so far, they're only one game in front of the sixth-place Golden State Warriors, 2.5 games ahead of the seventh-place Memphis Grizzlies and three games ahead of the eighth-and ninth-place Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks. So while it's all but certain the Blazers stumble into the postseason, their fate isn't yet tethered to one specific opponent.

Not that it matters. Again, no one matchup favors them at this point, no one opponent is theirs to own.

 

Struggling Powerhouse or Grounded Mirage?

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Automatically dismissing the Blazers would be to ignore everything they've done before now.

For half the season, they rivaled the best. They were the best. Are we to actually believe they're now habitually regular, nothing more than a stepping stone to another team's postseason excursion?

"I don’t think it’s a larger issue," Wesley Matthews told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian following a disastrous loss to the Charlotte Bobcats

Folding to inferior opponents happens. Teams go through rough patches, experience trying stretches.

But the Blazers are facing larger issues. Their problems aren't limited to one loss or five games, or even 10 games. This is about 31 games of unsettling and deteriorating basketball, which neither Damian Lillard nor Aldridge, Nicolas Batum nor Matthews, has been able to rescue them from.

And so, the Blazers will enter the playoffs still searching for answers, hoping their current issues are transient anomalies as opposed to harbingers of doom. They will use the season's final 11 games as soul-searching expeditions, attempting to regain the swagger and offensive consistency that made them great for nearly half the season, all while hoping it isn't too late.

How far will the Blazers go in the playoffs?

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"If you kill us, you’re going to look dumb come next game," Matthews told Freeman. "Because we’re going to be a whole new team, we’re going to be the team we’re supposed to be. So you go ahead and kill us."

No one is killing the Blazers. The Blazers aren't even killing the Blazers. This all seemed inevitable; their elite status was always fragile. 

Trust them, then, for what they are: an average team unable to fend off Western Conference giants any longer, trying to reach a ceiling they just cannot touch, readying for a playoff grind they just won't conquer.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required).


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