The Portland Trail Blazers have been the feel-good story of the first half of the season. Widely considered a fringe playoff contender before the season began, they got off to a gang-busters start, winning 22 of their first 26. They haven’t cooled off much since, heading into the All-Star break with a 36-15 record. With two All-Stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, Portland seems like it has a bright future ahead of them.
Instead of going for the headlines, the Trail Blazers made a series of small but significant moves over the summer. The most important was at the center position, where they replaced an undersized power forward who didn't play any defense (JJ Hickson) with a legitimate two-way 7'0 250 banger in Robin Lopez. While not a star like his twin brother Brook, Robin has established himself as a starting-quality center in the NBA.
Portland also boosted their bench, upgrading a unit that had been one of the worst in the NBA last season. The key has been Mo Williams, a former All-Star who has reestablished himself as a premier sixth man, as well as the improvement of Joel Freeland, who turned himself into a poor man's Robin Lopez. Along with Thomas Robinson, Dorrell Wright and CJ McCollum, they have given Portland a legitimate second unit.
Last season, the Trail Blazers had a lot of front-line talent, but they were essentially a four-man team of Aldridge, Lillard, Nic Batum and Wes Matthews. As a result, their starters wore out over the course of the season, culminating in a 13-game losing streak to end the season that pushed them all the way down to tenth place in the West. With so many good teams in front of them, whispers about Aldridge's free agency began spreading.
The key to Portland's success this season has been the combination of Aldridge and their outside shooting. At 6'11 240 with a 7'4 wingspan, Aldridge is one of the longest and most skilled power forwards in the league. An elite shooter with a developed post game, he is one of the toughest covers 1-on-1 in the NBA. The only real way to stop him from scoring is to send double-teams, which opens up offense for everyone else.
Portland starts three elite three-point shooters on the perimeter -- Lillard (41 percent on seven per game), Matthews (42 percent on six) and Batum (34 percent on five). All three can shoot, dribble and move the ball, making it easy for them to exploit a scrambling defense. It’s the same story on the bench: everyone for Portland can shoot 3’s, with Williams (38 percent on 3), McCollum (36 percent on 2) and Wright (34 percent on 3) all capable of stretching the floor.
Having so much perimeter shooting allows the Trail Blazers to maintain floor spacing while playing big. Portland is one of the only true two-post teams left; they stay big for all 48 minutes, with Freeland and Robinson coming off the bench to back-up Aldridge and Lopez and playing with them as well. Playing all that size allows the Trail Blazers to be an elite rebounding team; they are currently ranked No. 2 in the NBA in that category.
The concern for Portland is on the defensive end of the floor. While Matthews and Batum are elite perimeter defenders and Aldridge has all the tools to be an interior stopper, the same can’t be said for Lopez or Lillard. Their bench is an even bigger problem on that side of the floor, as Freeland and Robinson are both somewhat raw while Williams (6’1 195) and McCollum (6’4 200) give up a lot of size and athleticism to bigger guards.
As a result, Portland is one of the most unbalanced teams in the NBA. They have an offensive rating of 112.4 per 100 possessions, tops in the NBA and a defensive rating of 107.8 per 100, good for 20th. Their rebounding ability means they don’t give up a ton of second-chance points, but that does them no good if they are rebounding the ball from under their own net. In the crucible of a seven-game playoff series, that could be a concern.
When you examine their schedule more closely, the Trail Blazers appear to be a bit of a paper tiger.
Going forward, they have one of the toughest schedules in the NBA, with only four home games left against Eastern Conference foes. They only have one East Coast road trip left all season; for the most part, they are playing only Western Conference teams in the last three months. They won’t have many chances to pick up easy wins.
With this current roster, the Trail Blazers will have to win games on the offensive end of the floor, which becomes harder in the playoffs, when you mostly face elite defenses. Since none of their perimeter players is an elite slasher, opposing defenses can press up on their guards and dare them to attack the rim. Aldridge prefers playing 20+ feet from the basket; Portland doesn’t have anyone who makes a living at the rim.
The lack of an elite slasher negates some of the value Aldridge brings to the floor. His dead-eye shooting from long range forces one of the opposing big men to leave the paint, which opens up a ton of driving lanes to the rim. If the Trail Blazers want to make a deep run in the playoffs this season, that’s a hole they will need to address. There are too many good teams in the Western Conference for them to get away with that.
The good news for Portland is they have the pieces to be very active at the deadline. Neil Olshey has done a fine job of upgrading their talent base in the last two years. Meyers Leonard, Will Barton and Allen Crabbe all have the upside to be NBA starters and none of them can find minutes on the Trail Blazers. Even McCollum, the No. 10 pick in 2013, isn’t needed on this team. Lillard and Williams do all the things he does but better.
It would be easy for the Trail Blazers to stand pat at the deadline, as they’ve already done more than enough to clinch their first playoff appearance since 2011. At the same time, though, Aldridge is 28, Matthews is 27, Batum is 25 and Lillard is 23; they are ready to win right now. Nor has Aldridge’s long-term status been resolved. If they lose in the first round, no one is going to care about what happened in November and December