Portland Trail Blazers
Last season, the Trail Blazers finished with a record of 33-49 and were ranked 11th in the Western Conference. The team was playing well into January, 2013, but injuries led to a 13-game losing streak, the longest in franchise history. So far this year, the Blazers are 43-23 and fifth in the Western Conference. The improvement from last year to this year didn’t come about through a major overhaul of the team, or through a superstar free agent signing. It has come through the development of players already on the roster, strong coaching, solid acquisitions, creating an identity and, until recently, good health. The team’s performance has slipped in recent weeks, but the Blazers still stand firmly in the Western Conference playoff race, and have time to get back on track. Considering that entering the season this team was expected to be a fringe playoff team at best, and spent a significant portion of the season atop the historically deep Western Conference, there is little doubt that Portland is this year’s most improved team.
The Blazers this year added significant role players in Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson, Mo Williams, and Dorell Wright. All of these were solid additions executed by savvy General Manager Neil Olshey. The most important of these additions has been Lopez.
Lopez has added size to the center position, which last season was mainly held by J.J. Hickson, who is the size of a power forward rather than a center. Lopez’s numbers this year are roughly in line with his production last year in New Orleans, however, he has increased his rebounding from 5.6 per game to 8.6. More importantly, Lopez has added rim protection as the Blazers allow opponents to shoot 55 percent at the rim this year, good for third best in the NBA, and up from 22nd last year. Additionally, Williams, Robinson and Wright have added depth and stability to a team that did not always get solid contributions from its bench last year.
While these acquisitions have helped, the Blazers’ most significant improvement comes from players who were already on the team; specifically Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge.
In his second year, Lillard has increased his scoring (21) and rebounding (3.6), and he’s currently ranked second in three pointers made this year behind only Stephen Curry. Lillard played in his first All-Star game this year, and became the first player to ever participate in every single event. Players often decline invitations to participate in multiple events for fear that they will over work themselves. That concern has not affected Lillard, who has played extremely well since All-Star weekend. In Portland’s most recent game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Lillard scored 27 points, and hit a corner three that shifted the momentum in favor of the Blazers, who won 111-103 and snapped a four-game losing streak. Pelicans head coach Monty Williams told ESPN, “You know what he’s capable of doing… Some of the stuff is un-guardable like the last three-pointer he made…We’ve played against him a number of times the past two years so you’ve got to know what to expect.” Lillard has quickly established himself as an elite point guard, and the sky is the limit for him moving forward.
While Lillard has been phenomenal this season, this team will only go as far as Aldridge will take them. Aldridge has been one of the best power forwards in the NBA for several years now, but this year he has increased his scoring (23.4) and rebounding (11.1), and continues to be an elite midrange shooter, hitting the third most shots from 10-14 feet this season, behind only Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki. While Lillard, Wes Matthews and Nic Batum knock down jumpers from the perimeter, Aldridge is constantly creating space by drawing double teams.
This has allowed the Blazers to hit three pointers quickly and often, which has resulted in the team scoring 108.3 points per 100 possessions, up from 102.7 per 100 possessions last year. This is a jump from 15th in the NBA, to fourth, a very significant improvement. However, while the Blazers’ offense has improved significantly, its defense still needs to tighten up. Last year the team allowed opponents to score 106.9 points per 100 possessions, good for 26th best in the NBA. This year the team is allowing opponents to score 104.7 points per 100 possessions, which is 19th best in the league. So while the team has improved its defensive efficiency, it still ranks in the bottom half of the league. In spite of this, the team still posts a 3.6 point net rating per game, good for ninth best in the NBA and shows that the team has made significant strides this season.
More important than the statistical improvements, the culture in Portland has greatly improved. In 2012, Batum signed a restricted free agent offer sheet with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and lobbied for Portland to not match the deal. Olshey did not listen, and Batum remained in Portland. Then, during this last offseason, rumors swirled about Aldridge wanting to leave the Blazers and join another team. Despite the rumors, Olshey maintained a steady hand and kept his star power forward. Now there are no rumors about players not liking the system, which was Batum’s major complaint under former head coach Nate McMillan, or frustration over missing the playoffs. Rather, head coach Terry Stotts has the team playing in a wide open system that emphasizes ball movement, players getting open shots on the perimeter and featuring Aldridge in his sweet spots in the mid-range areas. Additionally, Olshey has continued to make solid additions to the roster through the draft, trades and free agency, while maintaining financial flexibility.
With the regular season winding down, the Blazers anxiously look to the playoffs. It is not hard to imagine some upsets occurring as the gap between each of the top teams in the West is so small. With Portland’s offensive firepower, and the star power of Lillard and Aldridge, this team can make a run in the postseason. There are strong teams to get through from top to bottom, including the ageless Spurs, the talented Thunder and the streaking Clippers, but the Blazers can potentially beat any of them. For a team that finished last year on a 13-game losing streak and11th in the West, was facing discontent with its star power forward, had an unproven coach and was thought to be a long shot to make the playoffs this year, that’s a significant turn-around and earns my vote for most improved team this year.
– Jesse Blancarte