It was only a little over two weeks ago that the Blazers opened their season against the Oklahoma City Thunder, effectively beginning a two-team, 82-game race for the Northwest Division title. The stage was set - the Thunder were the defending champs, the Blazers were gunning for them and, given a brief injury to Kevin Durant, the door was slightly ajar for Portland to sneak in and seize control of the division.
Flash forward to today, and it feels like it's been a lot more than two weeks. Quite a bit has happened - the Blazers have surged with five wins in their last six games, the Thunder have seen Russell Westbrook join Durant on the injured list and the other three teams in the Northwest look like a mishmash of the young, the inexperienced and the uncoordinated. The division is Portland's to lose. In late October, the Blazers looked like possible favorites; in mid-November, they're the oh-my-goodness-so-obvious-why-are-we-even-discussing-this favorites.
At the start of the year, I introduced this question and discussed whether the Blazers had a shot at Northwest glory. The season is still young, but I think the topic already merits revisiting. It's worth coming at this from two angles - one being just how strong the Blazers' position is at this juncture and the second, in the big picture, being the more complex question of why this matters.
How the Blazers have dominated
It's incredibly easy after nine games of an NBA season to jump to absurd conclusions that end up looking ridiculous in retrospect. A lot of goofy things can happen in nine games - a team's success can flukily fall into place because of a hot shooting streak, a soft schedule or just a weird couple of bounces. There's a reason they schedule 82 of these things. You need a full season schedule to draw any real conclusions.
The Blazers, however, appear to be no fluke. The obvious place to start is their won-lost record, which towers above the other four teams in the division - with Portland at 6-3 and OKC and Utah both at 3-6, that's a three-game lead right there. A sizable advantage this early in the season. But dig deeper into the numbers, and the team's start only becomes more impressive.
Looking at team scoring numbers is often a better predictor of long-term success than simply counting the wins and losses. Are you consistently putting up points and preventing the other team from doing the same? That's how you sustain success over the course of a full 82.
The following is a chart showing the Blazers compared to their Northwest competitors in three categories - offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions), defensive rating (points allowed per 100) and simple rating system (a stat that takes your average margin of victory and adjusts it for strength of schedule). Check it out:
The Northwest division, by the numbers:
|Portland Trail Blazers||112.7||103.9||7.27|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||101.2||105.8||-2.79|
These results are pretty staggering. The Blazers are the best team in the division both offensively and defensively, and (especially on offense) it's not even close. The offense has thrived with efficient shooting, limited turnovers and a good deal of feistiness on the offensive boards; the defense has contested every shot in sight and made life generally miserable for the opposing team. By SRS, the Blazers are a top-five NBA team. Everyone else in the Northwest is decidedly below average.
Numbers like this don't lie. A few timely shots can put you atop your division in November, sure, but if you're head and shoulders above your competitors on both ends of the floor, that's not an anomaly. The Blazers are the best team in the division and it is absolutely not even up for discussion.
Now for that second question.
What a division title means
There's an old cliche in the NBA, popularized by franchises like the Lakers and Celtics that have rich histories and proud winning traditions. I believe it goes like this: "We don't hang banners for division titles."
Surely you get the sentiment. We're all conditioned as NBA fans to believe that championship rings are the ultimate goal. The season is all about the quest for June glory; any victory that's achieved in April is inconsequential and easily forgotten. In other words, winning the division doesn't really count.
Here's the thing, though. The Blazers aren't the Lakers or Celtics. They don't have 16 or 17 titles and the reputation that comes with them. In Portland, you might remember the 1977 championship that Bill Walton brought this city, and you might be dying to taste that feeling again, but you also must know that titles can't be won overnight. There's a slow and steady process of building up to that point which can't be overlooked.
For a team like the Blazers, a division title represents a building block. Winning the Northwest might not seem like much on paper, but consider these points:
1. If you win your division, you're guaranteed home court for the first round of the playoffs.
2. If you have home court and you can push your first-round series to seven games, you historically have a 79.8 percent chance of winning that Game 7 and advancing.
3. If the Blazers advance to the second round of the playoffs, it would be a huge step forward for the franchise - its second year in a row winning a series. They haven't won series in back-to-back years since 1999 and 2000.
The Blazers are already a playoff team, but the next step is developing into a perennial playoff threat - a team you expect to see in May every single year. You earn that reputation by putting in the work and achieving success year in and year out. Once you have that reputation, your franchise gets more respect from everyone around the league - opposing teams, referees, media members... and valuable free agents.
Vince Carter was on the open market this summer. Carter is aging but remains one of the most efficient two-way players in the NBA at the shooting guard position; he signed with the Memphis Grizzlies for a paltry $4 million a year.
Jameer Nelson was a free agent too. He's past his prime but still a respectable starting point guard in the NBA; he went to the Dallas Mavericks for $2.8 million.
Why did these solid veteran players choose their respective teams? Hint: It wasn't the money. Those guys are both anticipating the ends of their careers and still lacking a ring; as such, they went to teams with long-standing reputations as winners. The Grizzlies have made the playoffs in four straight years and gone deep twice; the Mavs have been postseason-bound in 13 out of 14 years during Dirk Nowitzki's peak years. Those franchises have a sense of winning culture. They've earned it.
Now imagine the Blazers with a Vince or a Jameer in place of Steve Blake.
This isn't just about Vince Carter or Jameer Nelson, two guys who are getting on in years and aren't exactly championship needle-movers. You may not love either player, but that's not really the point. What really matters is that, in the long run, developing a successful franchise is about stacking those building blocks and compiling a track record. The Blazers, who were losers of 49 games just two seasons ago, are really just beginning that process.
That's why a division title matters. It's because the Western Conference is fiercely competitive, and you can't just vault into the upper echelon overnight. You have to climb that mountain one step at a time. A division title is the Blazers' next step - and fortunately for them, it's a step that appears to be within reach for the first time in 16 years.