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NBA PM: Blazers Finding Their Groove

The Trail Blazers have finally gotten healthy and are starting to hit their stride. Are they sleepers in the Western Conference?

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All things considered, the Portland Trail Blazers should be more than happy with where they are in the standings. The Blazers have dealt with injuries all season long to their key players. Rather amazingly, they still find themselves in sixth place in the crowded Western Conference and just three wins behind the third seed. 

The driving force behind this season’s success is has been the play of MVP candidate Damian Lillard. Lillard has been insane in the clutch and has willed the Blazers to countless close game victories. Lillard is averaging 29.8 points on an incredible 62.3 true shooting percentage. He has been one of the five best players in the NBA this season. 

Lillard is the offensive fulcrum to the Blazers’ heavy pick and roll offense, his seemingly never-ending range forces teams to guard him at halfcourt. Teams are often forced to trap him and he can hit the short-roll, which leads to the Blazers attacking a rotating defense. Even when teams trap, Lillard finds a way to stay aggressive and attack. 

The Blazers are winning games due to their explosive offense. They rank fifth in offensive rating at 116.4. But what makes that number all the more incredible is that they are last in assists. Portland stacked with players that can create their own shots and welcome it, this is an offense that doesn’t create for others. They are basically the opposite of the Utah Jazz, whose three-point looks almost always come from ball movement. 

As good as their offense has been, their defense has been abysmal. They rank 29th in defensive rating at 116.6, giving up a ton of good looks to opposing teams – but their offense has been so good it has mitigated their defense. The return of Jusuf Nurkic should help, but it is a major concern. 

Overall, the franchise has a negative net rating of -0.2. The Blazers have outplayed their expected record in terms of their net rating. This is in large part due to how many games they have won that were close. 

Thus far, Portland has received great play from backup center Enes Kanter, who was thrust into a starting role after Nurkic went down with an injury early this season. Averaging 12.2 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, the veteran continues to be one of the best rebounders in the NBA and constantly gives his team extra possessions on the offensive glass. 

But the Blazers’ trade for Norman Powell may have been one of the more underrated moves at the deadline. Powell brings shooting, an ability to attack in transition and someone with deep playoff experience. Better, he’s also a great fit alongside CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard. 

McCollum and Nurkic have both returned from their lengthy absences and been productive in their time back. They’re two high-usage guys who’ve played in this system before, so their re-acclimation to the lineup should be fairly easy. Their returns solidify the starting lineup and rotation too. Derrick Jones Jr. moves back to the bench in a role more suited for him. Robert Covington has started to get hot as well, making 51.7 from the three-point range in his last 10 games. 

The bench has been an assortment of positive contributions. Carmelo Anthony continues to be a revelation, providing his usual scoring against teams’ second units. Anfernee Simons has shown progress in his development, becoming a reliable player on Terry Stotts’ bench. They also have an interesting young piece in Nassir Little, who’s shown an ability to defend. 

Portland, ultimately, has a ton of upside and reason to be optimistic. They have a top-five offense while missing two guys are central to their team’s identity. Their defense should improve with the return of Nurkic and having Kanter play fewer minutes. The question is how much of an improvement will it be? It will be hard for the Blazers to truly be considered contenders unless their some improvement on the defensive side of the ball. 

With the Los Angeles Lakers hit with the injury bug, there is hope that the Blazers could realistically get a top-four seed in the West. Seeding will be crucial for the West with how stacked it is, and the Blazers could really benefit from having home-court advantage in a playoff series. 

Portland are winners of four straight and continues to improve. Of course, they do have one of the tougher schedules remaining, but they have proven that they can win tight games. Still, in the end, they are a team that no one will want to face in the playoffs. 

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