When you look at the bubble of the NBA Western Conference playoff race, almost all the talk is about whether the Los Angeles Lakers can recover and make it into the playoffs. None of the talk seems to surround the team that’s actually holding the #8 spot in the West right now and is playing good basketball. That would be the Portland Trail Blazers. With the Blazers getting some national attention tonight, as the back end of the Thursday night TNT doubleheader when they host Miami, let’s take a look at what they’ve done, what they’ve got and what the prospects for getting into the playoffs.
Let’s begin by pointing out that while the Lakers get the attention of the teams in pursuit, the Blazers do have a solid 4 ½ game lead on the Kobe’s dysfunctional and wounded group. Utah is a game and a half out, and Minnesota is also close behind, although their loss of Kevin Love probably rules out a playoff push. If we look the other direction for Portland, they’re only a game out of the 6-spot in the West and reasonable striking distance of getting much higher.
But are they deep enough? Portland has no one beyond the starting five who averages more than 20 minutes per game, so it’s a big load the starters have to carry for a season that’s barely 40 percent complete. At least they have young legs. Rookie point guard Damian Lilliard has put some juice into the offense, as he averages 18 points and dishes six assists per game. He’s joined in the backcourt by Wesley Matthews, the 26-year-old who’s knocking down 16 a game himself.
The frontcourt is well-balanced across. The meal ticket is Lamarcus Aldridge, the 6’11” forward who is the veteran of this starting five at age 27. Aldridge is good for 21 points/8 rebounds a night, and center J.J Hickson has been a beast on the boards, averaging a 13/11 each time out. Nicolas Batum handles the small forward role very well. At 6’8” he can go inside and rebound. He can also step out and hit the three, where he averages a respectable 36 percent.
Hitting the three is something this team is very into—or at least launching the three. Portland is fourth in the league in raw volume from behind the arc. That’s quite different from saying they do it well—the shooting percentage from three-point range is 22nd, though in fairness high percentage and high volume are a tough thing to make go hand-in-hand. Lilliard and Batum’s percentages are good enough to justify their taking as many treys as they do, and Wesley Matthews is genuinely good from three-point range, connecting 43%.
My concern about this team is how long you can go on an offense that’s built so heavily on shooting threes. Particularly when depth problems and long starters’ minutes mean tired legs, and less shooting accuracy as a game (or a season) wears on. This becomes an even bigger concern when you consider that Portland does not play good defense—they rank 24th in defensive efficiency, nor do they rebound, where they rank 18th.
Portland is coming off a nice run. They’ve won five of their last six coming into tonight and that stretch encompasses a four-game road swing which included wins in New York and Memphis. But when you have a team with no depth, doesn’t play defense, doesn’t rebound and shoots a lot of threes to survive, how confident can you be in long-term success?
If this were the lower levels of the Eastern Conference, I’d say there was a shot—Portland’s as good as Milwaukee. But the West is a different animal and there’s no backing in without being genuinely playoff-caliber. Utah has shown a capacity to get to that level. The Lakers still might. The odds are good that Portland will at least have the kind of slide that opens the door from someone down under to play their way back into the picture.