Are the Portland Trailblazers Good?

Posted: 02/26/2016 by levcohen in Basketball

Two years ago, the Portland Trailblazers surprised everyone by going 54-28 a year after losing 13 consecutive games to end the season. The next season, they kept most of the same core intact and won another 51. After last season, though, star big man LaMarcus Aldridge left for San Antonio, shooting guard Wesley Matthews signed with Dallas, center Robin Lopez went to New York, and small forward Nicolas Batum was traded to Charlotte for mediocre wing Gerald Henderson and raw big man Noah Vonleh. One of the best starting lineups in the league was torn to shreds, and five of the team’s six best players left (sixth man Arron Afflalo joined Lopez with the Knicks). With only young and unproven Vonleh, Henderson, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, and Maurice Harkless replacing the departed veterans, this team looked likely to take a big step back. Many preseason predictors thought that the Blazers were primed to tank this season, setting themselves up for a top pick and oodles of cap space going forward.

Those predictors underestimated the scoring potential of the backcourt. Running the point, of course, is Damian Lillard, the only starting Blazer from last year who is still on the team. Lillard has always been a very good point guard, but this year the 25-year old has taken his game to the next level as he’s been given additional scoring responsibilities. He’s averaging 25.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 7.2 assists per game and has posted a career high 23 PER, tied for 13th in the NBA. His defense is still a question mark, but Lillard’s one of the best offensive players in the NBA, as evidenced by his absolute destruction (51 points in a 32-point victory) of the Golden State Warriors (52-5) last week. But we all knew Lillard, a two-time all-star in his first three seasons who somehow got snubbed this year, was great. The emergence of C.J. McCollum, the presumptive Most Improved Player award winner, has been slightly more surprising. McCollum was a classic small-school draft darling (actually, kind of like Lillard). He was dinged time after time for going to Lehigh but ended up going 10th in the draft anyway because of his clear talent and high basketball IQ. For the first two seasons of his career, McCollum played sporadicly, appearing in 12.5 minutes per game in his rookie year and 15.7 last season. With the departures of so many key players, though, McCollum was given the chance to take on a much heavier burden. The result? 21.1 points per game (15th in the league, while Lillard is 5th), 3.6 rebounds per game, 4.3 assists per game, and 45/41/80 shooting. Like his backcourt mate, McCollum lacks much in the way of defensive prowess, but he makes up for it with his consistent scoring.

The Blazers are 30-28 and average 103.5 points per game, which means that their starting guards score about 45% of the team’s points, even with the Warriors (Steph Curry and Klay Thompson average 52 combined points per game) for the highest percentage in the league among guard duos (Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, at 47%, are highest among duos at any position). It’s no surprise, then, that the Blazers rank fourth in the league in threes attempted and tied for third in threes made per game, nor is it shocking that they rank 25th in paint points per game. What is more surprising is that the Blazers rank fifth in the league in rebound rate (51.6%) and 19th in defensive efficiency (with those starting guards, I would have thought they’d be in 30th). And for that, Portland has its unsung heroes to thankThere are a lot of unsung heroes on this team, but there are three who really stand out: Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, and Mason Plumlee. The fact that all three of these guys came to the team in under-the-radar moves is a true testament to the job that GM Neil Olshey has done. Aminu, the team’s starting small forward, actually leads the team in Net Rating at +3.2. While he lacks the passing ability that makes departed small forward Nic Batum so good, Aminu is a perfect fit for a team with two high-octane guards. He doesn’t use many possessions, is a solid rebounder, and is a very good defender. Most importantly, though, he’s developed a three point stroke this year; after hitting a combined 64 threes in the last four years, he’s hit 83 already this season while shooting a career-high 35% from three. Aminu is pretty much the definition of a gritty, valuable player who performs a huge role behind the scenes. Meanwhile, Plumlee, the starting center, is a quietly-skilled player who is averaging 9/7.6 per game (in 25.5 minutes) while adding 2.7 assists, third-most on the team. He’s played good defense, shot 51% from the field, and, like Aminu, has started all 58 Portland Trailblazers games this season. But the most unsungiest of the unsung heroes has to be Ed Davis. I mean, this guy has been really good (and consistent) for his entire career, which is now in its sixth season. Sure, he’s never averaged double-digit points or rebounds in a single season, never started more than 24 games in a season, and never played more than 25 minutes per game in a season, but the guy is good. This season, he’s averaging 6.5/7.3, which doesn’t seem that great, but that comes in just 21.2 minutes per game. Davis ranks 12th among 185 players who’ve played more than 50 games in rebounding rate (18.6%, meaning that he gets 18.6% of possible rebounds when he’s on the court). So that surprisingly-good rebounding rate that the Blazers sport? Yeah, a lot of that is Davis. Furthermore, Davis is shooting 61% from the floor, second in the league among guys who have played 50+ games. And yet most people scoffed at the contract Portland gave Davis this offseason (3-years, $20 million). That is what we call underrated.

So the Blazers have totally outperformed preseason expectations, and, with their two stud guards and a lot more youth (none of the 10 players in their rotation is older than Henderson, who recently turned 28), look to have a bright future. But what’s the outlook to close out the season? As one of four teams currently separated by 1.5 games for three playoff spots, can they hold onto a spot? Well, they have the third-toughest remaining schedule among Western Conference teams and will play 12 of their next 15 games on the road before going home for seven of their final nine. They still have two games at Golden State, one at San Antonio, one at Oklahoma City, one at Toronto, and one at Boston. But they’ve won 15 of their past 19 games, and if they can just tread water during their brutal stretch of road games, they’ll be able to pad their record with a bunch of easy home wins at the end of the season. It’s far from a sure thing, but the Blazers definitely have to be considered a favorite to make the playoffs, if only because three out of the quartet of Portland, Dallas, Houston, and Utah will almost certainly make the postseason. And once they get to the playoffs, who knows? Maybe they’ll be able to take down Golden State four more times!

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