The Portland Trail Blazers have reached the quarter pole of the season with a 13-8 record. Stretched out over an entire year, their winning percentage would yield 51 wins, not exactly NBA Title material, but far better than pre-season projections. What are the chances of Damian Lillard and company continuing their streak, though, and how much does the record really reveal? Let’s break it down further with five things going well for the Blazers and three that probably aren’t.
Things That Are Going Well
1. The Blazers are allowing opponents to shoot 43.3% from the field, second only to the Golden State Warriors, and 33.1% from the arc, good for 4th in the league. In all the years of wishful thinking and false starts, they’ve never excelled in those categories. If they keep this up for a season, their defensive revival will be secured.
2. While they are not the rebounding giants they were in the opening weeks of the season, the Blazers still rank 8th in offensive rebounding percentage and 1st in overall rebounding rate. That’s a huge key to transforming low field goal percentage allowed into fewer points allowed overall.
3. Jusuf Nurkic has normalized. He’s not quite the beast he was last season but his defensive energy has improved, his scoring rate has returned to his 2016-17 Trail Blazers level, and his foul rate has dropped from tragic to average. The “Big 3” are starting to look like a trio instead of two guards and a question mark.
4. The supporting cast has picked up as well. Moe Harkless is much-maligned. The contributions of Pat Connaughton are probably overrated, or at least need more time to bear out. But Noah Vonleh has avoided his annual “Worst Starter in the League” push out of the gates, is playing seamlessly with teammates, and is actually exceeding his career-best performance from last year. Ed Davis has been darn near heroic on the glass and has given the Blazers a defensive lift when Nurkic has flagged. Shabazz Napier’s production has fallen off over the last couple games but his efficiency is still incredible. Evan Turner remains the only guy in the middle, vacillating between solid contributor and eyesore. But even he looks more comfortable with the ball in his hands. He’s just not suitable as an appendage third guard. Saying the bench is good or competitive would be a stretch, but they’ve helped the Blazers win games this year, not just lose them.
5. It’s a shade too early to look at point differential, but even after the opening-night blowout of Phoenix has receded, Portland’s margin of victory remains positive and puts them in the second tier of Western Conference contenders. The Warriors and Houston Rockets are running away with everything, but the Blazers stand alongside the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. If that lasted until the end of the season, they’d be in good company.
Things That Are Not Going As Well
1. The Blazers are not scoring easy points. They remain dead last in the NBA in transition points at 4.5 per game, a miserable total. Despite their rebounding prowess, they’re 24th out of 30 in points in the paint...a product of offensively-challenged big men (Davis, Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Nurkic) snagging most of those boards. Over time, that’s going to tell. If you had to bet whether their defense would falter or their easy shot game would rise first, most would place their money on the former.
2. A coda on the end of that song: Portland’s offensive efficiency is slipping. Three weeks ago, with a 6-5 record, they ranked 10th in the league. They’re now 20th.
Much has been made of the Lillard-McCollum-Nurkic triangle. They’re impressive. But scratch beneath the surface and small cracks are appearing. All three had a higher a true shooting percentage last year than this. Only Nurkic is producing more points per possession and his gains are more than offset by the loss from the guards. Last year the three combined for 56.4% of the team’s field goal attempts on average. So far this year, they’re at 58.4%. In short, they’re absorbing more of the offense and scoring less efficiently overall. The margins are still small and the season is barely a quarter through, but the Blazers aren’t exactly having a banner offensive year. Placing more of the burden on the shoulders of the Big 3 may not cure what ails them.
3. Portland’s 13-8 record looks good, but their schedule has been populated with home games, questionable opponents, and teams missing key players...in many cases not just a starter, but THE starter. For all of that, the Blazers have notched just 5 convincing wins in 21 games (New York Knicks, Sacramento Kings, Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns). This has not been a grand march, but a series of daring escapes amid a season of fits and starts. Earlier in the season people within the organization were claiming that had a couple more shots fallen, their record could have been incredible. Not only did that not happen, there’s an argument to be made that the Blazers are benefiting from a bit of luck when it comes to other teams’ misfortunes. That’s not a bad thing; they can only win the game in front of them each night. But we’ve seen this before and it’s become quite evident that—one 2016 series against the Los Angeles Clippers aside—luck plays little role in the playoffs. They’ve done well, but if they want to be genuinely good, they’ll have to be better than they’ve shown so far.
I have it on good authority that you can keep Portland’s current hot streak going by helping us send 2000+ kids in need to see the Blazers play the Sacramento Kings on Februrary 27th. Your donation matters!