Straight out of the mighty Western Conference a new contender has emerged. Led by an offensively dynamic point guard, one of the league’s best bigs, and an improving defense, a dark horse has appeared that has been turning heads.
The Portland Trail Blazers have provided a shock to the NBA world early this year. Entering the season, College Sports Town believed that they’d be good, but not this good. They currently own a 23-5 record, tied for the best in the league with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Indiana Pacers. They also possess an equally impressive 12-3 record at the electrified Rose Garden. The Blazers have not looked this good since probably 2008, when Portland was home to a squad powered by sophomore forward LaMarcus Aldridge, All-Star guard Brandon Roy, and the incomparable center Joel Przybilla. That outfit went 54-28 but lost in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Unlike that team, this Trail Blazers group seems built to last. The only remaining pieces from the 2008 squad are Aldridge, who has been an All-Star the past two years and deserves to be one this year as well, and Nicolas Batum, who has grown better each year since his arrival into the league. The leader of this Trail Blazers team, however, is young point guard Damian Lillard.
A second-year player from Weber State, Lillard exploded into the league last year with a scintillating NBA Rookie of the Year campaign. The fantastic season set the stage for an even bigger sophomore year, and Lillard has been absolute dynamite directing the Blazers’ potent offensive attack. At one point earlier this month he knocked in game-winners in back-to-back games (the latter being this absurd bomb against Cleveland). Lillard’s numbers are gaudy–he’s scoring 22 points per game, dishing out 6 dimes a night, and knocking in a cool 43% of his treys (and he sure hucks them) . He’s been especially hot of late, scoring almost 30 per game over the Blazers’ last five contests.
LaMarcus Aldridge has been posting some fairly tremendous stat lines as well. The skilled near-seven footer from Texas is averaging 23 points and 11 rebounds per night–MVP level numbers. He’s been a night-in, night-out show for Portland.
Lillard, Aldridge, and Batum have all been stellar offensively this year, and Wes Matthews has been scoring an efficient 16 points a night on nearly 50% shooting (and 44% three point shooting) but a large part of Portland’s emergence comes down to their defense. Yes, they’re the best offensive team in the land, scoring over 108 points per game. And yes, they give up their fair share of points. But the Blazers have been a better defensive team than they were last year. After taking his fair share of lumps on the defensive end last season, Lillard now looks like a component (and at times even good) defensive player. With his athleticism and length, Batum continues to be one of the best defensive wings in the league. And Robin Lopez, a key off-season acquisition, has been a godsend for Portland on defense and on the boards. With his help, the Trail Blazers have found ways to get big, clutch stops. While they’re still not the Chicago Bulls on the defensive end, they’re not the Kings either.
The Trail Blazers should not be taken likely. Coach Terry Stotts commands a team that can beat you both with their backcourt and their frontcourt. They’ve arrived. And with young guns like Lillard and Batum leading the way, and talented injured rookie C.J. McCollum waiting in the wings, the Blazers should maintain their success for quite some time.