The Portland Trail Blazers are quickly becoming the league's lovable darlings. They have started out the season on a tear and after 14 games they have the league's third-best record.
So just exactly what happened to turn around a team that ended last season on a 13-game losing streak into the biggest surprise of the young NBA season?
Its starting lineup still has four of the five players from last year's squad. The Blazers still feature the same top four scoring options from a season ago. And they still are coached by the same man, Terry Stotts.
But how that man has coached this team, as well as a few crucial personnel moves, has meant all the difference in the world for the pride of the Rose City.
Dedication to Defense
When the Blazers kicked off their media day, there was a common theme running through the Moda Center. This team was going to live and die through defense.
Defense, like few other aspects of the game is dictated by effort. With the right amount of effort, even a subpar defender can make strong defensive stands. But coaches can't coach effort. Rather, they can stress the importance of defense and set their rotations as such.
If a player doesn't show the appropriate amount of effort, that player is replaced by someone who does.
This came to fruition with Stotts' rotation decisions, especially in regards to the frontcourt. Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland beat out Meyers Leonard to be the first big men off the bench, and this was due in large part to their effort on defense.
That type of accountability set the tone early on for the Blazers and reverberated throughout the roster.
The results have been staggering.
Last season, the Blazers averaged 100.7 points per game allowed which was 21st in the league. This year they are at 98.1 which is 10th in the league. They are holding opponents to 44.6 percent shooting this year (10th in the league), while last year they were 29th in the league at 47.4.
A huge part of this has been the interior defense and the upgrade at center, with Robin Lopez manning the position instead of the undersized J.J. Hickson. Still, the perimeter defense has been much better with basically the same squad.
The Blazers are currently first in the league in defending the three, holding opponents to 30.4 percent shooting from long range. Last year they allowed 34 percent shooting from downtown.
And for the advanced stat crowd, the Blazers are in the top five in the league this year at holding opponents to 1.15 points per shot while last year they were sitting at 20th with 1.21 (compiled via stats.NBA.com).
From top to bottom, the Blazers are just leaps and bounds better defensively from a year ago. For a team that features roughly the same starting lineup as last year, that is truly a reflection of the coach.
Efficiency on Offense
In addition to the Blazers woes on defense from a year ago, the offense was also a point of contention.
This year the Blazers are averaging over 104.0 points, while they finished last year at 97.5.
Their shooting percentage for the 2012-13 season was 16th in the league. This year they are on the verge of the being in the top 10. This includes shooting 42.2 percent from three-point range this year, a tremendous increase from last year's 35.3 percent.
Additionally, their effort on the offensive glass has been remarkable. Despite losing their leading rebounder from a year ago (Hickson), their offensive boards have gone from 23rd in the league to sixth. This is due to a dedication to team rebounding and tremendous individual effort.
Their assists are up from 18th in the league to ninth, and their points per shot have taken them from 15th a year ago to the top 10 this year.
While the Blazers' improvement on defense can be tied to the addition of Lopez, their offensive efficiency is owed to smarter play by mostly the same players who were on last year's squad.
This obviously has been the result of the team buying into the coaching philosophy.
Finding the Right Rotation
The Blazers of a year ago had an excellent starting lineup but a historically bad bench. As a result, few role players remain from a year ago and hardly any of last year's holdovers are receiving minutes.
Because of last year's anemic bench, the 2012-13 starters were run ragged.
Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews each averaged at least 34.8 minutes per game, with Lillard and Batum playing over 38 minutes a night. This year each of those players is still over 34 minutes, but Lillard and Batum are logging 36.9 and 35.8 minutes, respectively.
This may seem like a small difference, but during an 82-game season two or three minutes fewer per night add up in a hurry.
Part of this has been due to the fact that the bench has been drastically improved. Mo Williams, Robinson, Freeland and Dorell Wright have all contributed mightily off the bench.
Wright is drilling triples, Williams is distributing and scoring, Freeland is providing an active body and Robinson is improving as a rebounder.
Holdovers who struggled to contribute last year, such Victor Claver, Leonard and Will Barton, have been removed from the rotation. While time will tell whether they each become contributors in the future, the results from this year's bench show that Stotts has been making the right calls with his personnel.
This Blazers team has been a huge surprise so far. But the question becomes whether or not they are built to last.
With a team built around one of the league's premier power forwards in Aldridge and one of the top young point guards in Lillard, this team figures to always be solid.
But the contributions of role players like Lopez, Freeland and Williams have made all the difference for this team. Its stellar starting lineup has finally been supplemented with a good bench, and coach Stotts is pushing all the right buttons.
It seems like this team is built to compete all year.