Where is the love? Why do so many pundits and taking heads consider these guys to be a flash in the pan?
As Martin Luther King Day arrives, the Portland Trail Blazers have the second-best record (31-9) in a brutal Western Conference, along with the third-best overall record in the NBA.
They have twice beaten San Antonio and Oklahoma City and come up victorious against Indiana, Miami, the Clippers and Golden State. Yet all of those teams continually garner more confidence from “experts,” despite tangible evidence this Blazers squad can hang with the best.
Of course, All-Star lock LaMarcus Aldridge himself pegged the Blazers as just a seven seed – not six, not eight, seven — heading into the season, more or less where many people (myself included) felt they would land, health provided.
Clearly, they’ve exceeded expectations, but is it sustainable when the stakes rise? That depends on whether you buy into this team’s strengths more than fear its weaknesses.
From an offensive standpoint, there may not be more balanced starting five than Damian Lillard, Wes Matthews, Nic Batum, Aldridge and Robin Lopez. Each guy’s role is plainly obvious, and their skill sets mesh beautifully. Lillard and Aldridge (rejuvenated playing his natural four-spot again) are capable of taking over games.
Matthews and Batum keep the floor stretched, and the latter is among the more versatile players in the league. Lopez has found his niche as a heady dirty worker who doubles as a defensive anchor. That job has been made easier by Batum and Matthews along the wings, plus the willingness by Lillard and Aldridge to pitch in despite their burgeoning superstar status.
Some may be concerned about reliable bench depth beyond Mo Williams, but perhaps C.J. McCollum’s return can eventually goose the works. If not, they can always swing a deadline deal, or simply take comfort knowing that a moderately productive seventh and eighth man could be enough in the playoffs, where rotations shorten anyway.
This should also alleviate some concerns about the pedestrian defensive numbers. As ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz recently noted, when Portland’s top five players are on the floor, the D is more than respectable. The most pressing concern might be collective inexperience, but for the time being, this group appears unfazed. Thus far, the positives have far outweighed the negatives.
Granted, a lot can change between now and April, much less beyond. But 40 games into this season, I’m increasingly convinced this group’s championship prospects may not be ironclad, but should also be dismissed at an opponent’s own risk.
On to the rankings.