It’s a new season. Will the Blazers right the wrongs of last April?
What happened to the Trail Blazers in the playoffs last season?
They were supposed to be a real factor in the West. They worked so hard for the #3 seed, just to get shellacked in a sweep elimination at the hands of the Pelicans. Damian Lillard averaged just over 18 PPG in that series—well below his career average—and ‘Dame Time’ was nowhere to be found in four consecutive fourth quarters.
It’s disappointing,” Lillard said following Portland’s game 4 loss in New Orleans. “I think we worked really hard…We had a great group, and you work so hard to give yourself an opportunity to play in the playoffs and it’s a disappointing end for us. It’s not how we envisioned it—especially getting home court.”
A season that had so much promise went really bad really fast, as Portland ran into an up-and-coming Pelicans team, with a defensive stud in Jrue Holiday having his best season and an all-world talent in Anthony Davis. This season is about redemption for Portland, and they’re off to a solid 9-3 start.
Here’s how they’re doing it, and how far they can go.
The Blazers didn’t do much in terms of offseason acquisitions. Two mildly productive bench guards—Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry—are about the only notable adds. In addition, Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier are the only significant loses. Portland’s front office enters this season with largely the same squad, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Their signature guard-oriented play continues to be their staple, as Lillard and C.J. McCollum both score over 20 points per night. Although Lillard is the better of the two, each of them has everything a team could want in a guard: creativity, shooting, passing, handles, and that extra intangible something that makes a player a star. Lillard’s 26.6 PPG is seventh in the league, while McCollum’s 21 PPG and timely three-point shooting make the duo the heartbeat of the Blazers. The team goes as they go, and Coach Terry Stotts will do well to ensure that at least one of them is always on the court in the team’s rotation.
The stellar backcourt is supported by the interior dominance of Jusuf Nurkic, a 15 PPG and 10 RPG double-double machine. His scoring doesn’t necessarily jump off the stat sheet, but a quick look at a typical Blazers game will show you how valuable Nurkic is. His physical presence and inside scoring threat provide Portland with a sense of toughness and grit that is needed to withstand the Western Conference. He is a dangerous pick-and-roll partner for either guard, and feeding Nurkic in the post every few possessions takes pressure off of the guards to make every play.
Like last season, they are again among the middle of the pack in pace of play at 17th, but their 117.2 PPG is sixth in the NBA. There’s no doubt that Nurkic’s touches in the post slow down the pace for the team; but they are such an accurate shooting team, that they still manage to score in bunches, boating an offensive rating that’s second in the league at 116.3.
The fact that the Blazers score so many points with fewer possessions shows how efficient they are offensively—especially at home. They’ve scored over 115 points six times this year at home, and they haven’t failed to score 100 in any game this season.
The Blazers have no problem scoring, but it’s their defense that surprises most fans. Also carrying over from last season is a top-10 defense. The Blazers rank sixth in opponent’s PPG (107.2) and ninth in defensive rating (106.4). Defense is what makes the Blazers a playoff team. Their relatively average pace puts extra emphasis on their ability to get stops, rebound, and make the most of subsequent offensive possessions. Quite simply, you can’t get away with a slow pace if you’re constantly giving up baskets to your opponents. Without a solid defense, the Blazers’ 9-3 formula would fall apart.
Lillard, Nurkic, McCollum and a solid supporting cast make for an excellent team with one of the league’s most influential home-court advantages. But how far can they go?
Right now, the Blazers and Nuggets are neck-and-neck for the second-best team in the West. Preseason contender picks like the Rockets and Lakers have gotten off to slow starts, and the Blazers have an opportunity to create some separation at the top of the standings before those teams make an inevitable push.
Things won’t stay as they are, and by the All-Star break the West will be an absolute dogfight; so it would behoove the Blazers to gain as much ground as possible. Although their absolute ceiling is the second seed, they’ll most likely finish somewhere between fourth and sixth in the West.
However, there will be redemption for this team. The Blazers will win their first-round series as long as they avoid Golden State or the Lakers in the first round. Portland’s backcourt has something to prove, and they’ll do so on the grand stage. The guards won’t disappear as they did against New Orleans last season; they’ll show up, and Portland will be a tough out for whoever they play.
Nevertheless, they won’t get out of the second round. This isn’t a knock against their ability or talent, it’s just a nod to the depth of the West. It’s also hard to deny that the Nuggets are actually a slightly better version of the Blazers right now—backcourt, big man, home court crowd and all.
If the Blazers were an Eastern Conference team, they might compete for the one seed. Perhaps Adam Silver should consider that heavily discussed change to the playoff format, because the Brooklyn Nets—yes, you read that right—are the eight seed in the East right now. It feels like great teams like the Blazers should have a better forecast, so something has to be done about these lopsided conferences.
But that’s a discussion for another day. Anyway, enjoy “Dame Time” Blazers fans. It’ll be an excellent year.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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