The Portland Trailblazers: Are They Contenders?

The Portland Trailblazers just keep on rolling. On Saturday night, they improved to 20-4 on the season after a record breaking win in Philadelphia. They set a franchise record by making a remarkable 21 threes, going 21-37 from deep. LaMarcus Aldridge continued to make his case to be in the MVP conversation, finishing with 20 points and 16 rebounds, two nights after finishing with 31 points and 25 rebounds against the Houston Rockets. Portland’s supporting cast also continued their phenomenal play. Nicolas Batum added 17 points, 9 rebounds, while big man Robin Lopez chipped in with 12 points, 3 rebounds and 4 blocks. Shooting guard Wesley Matthews contributed with 14 points while Damian Lillard added 16 points with 6 assists.

With previous wins over the Indiana Pacers, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets, the Blazers own the best record in the Western Conference and second best record in the league. These impressive wins combined with the hot start beg the question, are the Portland Trailblazers title contenders?

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The Portland Trailblazers currently have the most potent offense in the league, averaging a league best 110.5 points per 100 possessions. As a team, the Blazers are shooting a whopping 40.9% from three, placing them second in the league right behind the Golden State Warriors. They sit sixth in effective field goal percentage at 52.0% and fifth in true shooting percentage at 56.1% while also being fifth in the league in rebounding percentage at 52.1%. Portland’s offense is centered around spacing the floor, setting multiple back screens, down screens, flare screens while also utilizing the pick n’ roll.

LaMarcus Aldridge has been their most lethal weapon averaging 23.4 ppg and 10.8 rpg while shooting 48% from the field, having the best season of his career. Aldridge is extremely effective in the post and from midrange, arguably having the best midrange jumper in the game. Naturally with a post player as talented as Aldridge is, most teams would send a double-team in order to get the ball into someone else’s hands. What makes this Portland offense so dangerous, is that you can’t double Aldridge in the post. The Blazers space the floor extremely well and have some of the best ball movement in the NBA. With three starters shooting over 40% from three (Batum – 41%, Lillard – 42%, Matthews – 46.3%) and having a top five point guard, it makes it almost impossible to double Aldridge.

Portland’s defense however, is still a work in progress. It’s not terrible by any means, but it’s not spectacular either. The Blazers currently rank in the bottom half of the league in defense, surrendering 103.4 points per 100 possessions. Teams are shooting a league average 45% from the field against the Blazers, but Portland is fifth in the league in opponent 3P% allowing teams to shoot only 34.3% from deep. They are 29th in the league in forcing opponents to turn the ball over, and are league average in opponent fast break points. As you can tell, the Blazers are good in some areas on defense, bad in others and average in other aspects. The addition of Robin Lopez this summer has definitely helped the Blazers and Aldridge with rim protection this year, Mattews and Batum also provide solid defense. During Damian Lillard’s rookie year one of the few knocks on him was his defense, this summer he took it upon himself to improve on that side of the ball. This year Lillard has shown progress on defense end, much better than last year’s effort, help defense has improved along with getting over ball screens etc. We are only a quarter of the way through the NBA season, though with the personnel the Blazers have and Terry Stotts at the helm, the defense should improve throughout the season.

Now we return to the question at hand, are the Portland Trailblazers title contenders? The answer here is yes. They have a star, potentially superstar point guard in Lillard, Aldridge who is arguably the best power forward in the game, surrounded by fantastic three point shooters and a viable center. But where do they rank among the other title contenders? Each year the NBA has around 5-10 teams that are considered as “title contenders”. This year with the abomination of a conference that the East is and the battle royal that is the West, as I see it, there are only five true contenders as of now. This number could change as the season progresses, but given the current state of the league, the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trailblazers are the current title contenders. Out of those five Portland would have to sit fifth in terms of a title contender, given that the four teams ahead of them have a plethora of playoff experience. But, hey, fifth out 30 isn’t too bad right?

(Via Hoops-Nation.com, Tyler Pleiss. You can follow him on Twitter at @ThePleissIsRite)

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