Links: Assessing at the contending chops of the Blazers
It’s a New Year and the Trail Blazers are still hanging around at the top of the standings.
A couple of places around the basketball internet focused on the Blazers, their chops as contenders and teams that might be more “for real” than the 25-7 Blazers.
Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com had entire column where he writes that the Golden State Warriors should be considered more of a contender than the Blazers. He cites that the two team’s point differential is comparable despite Portland having much better health than Golden State.
But with the exception of a rookie being sidelined, what we’re watching is just about the best-case scenario for the Blazers. And nonetheless, they’re just barely better than the Warriors on the season in point differential (plus-5.3 vs. plus-5.1 per 100 possessions). Even with Iguodala out for a long stretch, the two teams are neck-and-neck in the Hollinger Power Rankings despite the gap in the standings. The Blazers’ superior record is boosted by some Lillard-spun good fortune in clutch situations. In games where the score margin is within three points in the final minute, the Blazers are 12-3 while the Warriors are just 8-6.
With health — for now — on their side, the Warriors went 11-5 in December and enter Thursday’s showdown with the Miami Heat carrying a six-game win streak. And four of those five December losses have been by four points or fewer. What’s more, the road is about to get smoother thanks to a scheduling quirk that has 24 of the Warriors’ next 49 games coming against the sorry Eastern Conference.
Contrary to popular belief, the Warriors are a defense-first team thanks to Iguodala and Bogut.
Ultimately for the Warriors, Iguodala changes everything. When Iguodala went down with a strained hamstring in November, it derailed the Warriors’ season as they played without their best perimeter defender and primary ball handler behind Curry for 12 games. In his absence, the Warriors went 5-7 and surrendered 105 points per 100 possessions to the other team, a rate that would rank 25th in the league over a full season or roughly the same rate as the Blazers’ defense (104.8 points per 100 possessions).
J.A. Adande and Izzy Gutierrez of ESPN.com had a “Coast-to-Coast” back and forth and the first question of their piece centered on the Russell Westbrook injury and the viability of the jump-shooting Blazers.
Yes, they’re a jump-shooting team and jump-shooting teams usually find themselves making more putts than jumpers come June. But the way the Blazers perform in crunch time makes me think their way could work. They’re 11-2 in games decided by three points or fewer. Yes, they’re shooting jumpers. But they execute so well they’re shooting open jumpers. According to NBA.com stats, the Blazers are tops in the league in clutch scoring and clutch true shooting percentage. And what are playoff games if not 48 minutes of clutch time?
What Portland can ride to playoff success, more so than random shots late in games, is their trust in each other. Their starting five, plus Mo Williams, is moving the ball like the Spurs and Heat, seemingly finding wide-open shooters regardless of the time of game. When you’ve built up a season of those kinds of habits, it tends to translate in the playoffs. And what two teams were in the Finals last season? The teams that arguably moved the ball best all season. So I’m with you on the Blazers.
Our friend Ben Golliver from Blazersedge.com, wearing his SI.com hat, discussed the Blazers as contenders with his partner in crime Rob Mahoney.
Portland is different in a number of ways from the other teams in this group in addition to their defense, which is the lowest ranking on either side of the ball by any of the five teams mentioned here. The Blazers’ core players lack in meaningful playoff success, their bench is arguably the weakest of the five teams discussed here, and their core pieces have had less time to jell than the others. Those conditions aren’t enough to prevent the Blazers from winning the franchise’s first playoff series since 2000, but they do make it seem a bit early to crown the Blazers as unqualified title contenders. Usually, contenders achieve postseason success step-by-step — the Heat, Pacers and Thunder are all examples from recent years — and the Blazers are in a position to bring back all of the key pieces of their rotation next season, while making tweaks around the edges and filling out their bench next summer. Put it this way: I like the idea of Blazers as title contenders in 2015 more than 2014, much like the Pacers look more ready this year than last.
The Blazers are an elite offensive team capable of stout defensive stretches, and in that they’d seem to qualify as contenders in some form. Their 25-7 record — tied for third in the NBA — speaks for itself, and has the proper pythagorean foundation and strength of schedule to confirm its integrity. The Blazers’ pace-adjusted point differential, too, is right in the mix with the Warriors, Rockets, and Clippers. That’s a fair grouping; Portland may not be a contender by the same standard as Miami, Indiana, San Antonio, or Oklahoma City, but they have the offensive dominance, occasional defensive viability, and underlying chemistry necessary to make a run if the right string of matchups presents itself.