Acker: 10 Reasons Why The Blazers Are For Real

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Raise your hand if you had the Portland Trail Blazers leading the Western Conference. LaMarcus_Aldridge2

OK, now put your hand down and stop lying.

The Trail Blazers are 16-3. After a disappointing loss in Phoenix that ended a double-digit winning streak, Portland is 3-0 in December, including back-to-back home victories over the Indiana Pacers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, two of the best teams in the NBA.

There are two things every NBA fan wants to know right now. First, is this Blazers team for real? And second, how are they doing what they’re doing?

The answer to the first question is yes, this Blazers team is definitely for real. Does for real mean they will win 50 games or make the Western Conference finals? It’s too early to tell. But it does mean that their record is no fluke.

As for how the Blazers are doing what they’re doing, there are plenty of reasons. Here are just a few:

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Tweet of the Night: NBA Players’ Reactions to Thursday Night Games

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Russell Westbrook pulls up for three in the waning seconds against Golden State.

You may think you know the biggest NBA fan…or, perhaps, you think you deserve that distinction yourself.

Everyone has their moment, impassioned by the play of their favorite player(s) on their favorite team(s) while watching their favorite sport. Some fans are crazy and have fits of rage when their team doesn’t play to their expectations. Others, however, may be more subdued when facing . They’d rather turn off the television and go to bed before seeing the end of the game if their team is losing.

Some fans enjoy a great game, regardless of who is playing.

However, the greatest fans—in any sport, but especially in basketball—are likely the guys who have committed their lives to it…the players, themselves.

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Tweet of the Day: Thomas Robinson Apologizes for Speeding Ticket

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Thomas Robinson

Portland Trail Blazers’ forward Thomas Robinson put an entirely new meaning to speeding through the lane this weekend. The third-year player was cited going 107 miles per hour in a 55 MPH zone Friday on the three-lane Interstate 5 in Portland.

An officer “observed a white 2013 Porsche Panamera traveling at a high rate of speed on the freeway,” said Sgt. Pete Simpson, Portland Police Bureau, in an email to Wendy Owen of The Oregonian. “The officer’s LIDAR would clock the vehicle at 107 MPH in a 55 MPH zone.”

Shortly after the infraction was reported by media, Robinson sent out an apology on Twitter.

 

Robinson is in violation of the Basic Rule (100 MPH +), which carries a fine of $1,150. Police say he was polite and cooperative during the encounter.

Robinson was traded from Houston in June for two second-round draft picks and the rights to Kostas Papanikolau and Marko Todorovic from the Blazers. The trade was designed to allow the Rockets flexibility to sign Dwight Howard in free agency.

In Grantland’s NBA preview, Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose both said Robinson has great potential in the league. Simmons noted he was drafted by a team (Sacramento Kings) that didn’t need a power forward at the time. Simmons then said the trade mid-season to Houston wasn’t beneficial for his development because he was put on the bench until being traded in the summer.

In two NBA seasons, Robinson has averaged 4.8 points and 4.5 rebounds in just 70 career games.

 

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Brett Poirier is a contributor to Sheridan Hoops.

Preseason Playoff Picture: Western Conference

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Dirk NowitzkiIn a teleconference last week, we asked NBA analysts Chris Webber and Greg Anthony to pick a Western Conference team which missed the playoffs last season but will make the playoffs this season.

“Dallas, mainly because of Dirk Nowitzki,” Webber said. “He’ll be back healthy. What he does, with spacing, getting guys involved … We take his game for granted.”

“I would go with the Pelicans,” Anthony said. “I think that’s a team that could make sizeable leaps and surprise a lot of people.”

Both those teams are certainly among the half-dozen in the hunt for what appears to be two postseason spots up for grabs in the West. Those spots belonged to the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets, who also remain in the running despite taking some backward steps in the offseason.

Without getting into seeding specifics, the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets look like mortal locks to be playing in May.

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StatBox Free Agency Breakdown: Improved Depth Makes Playoffs Possible for Portland

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Damian LillardDamian Lillard, last season’s Rookie of the Year, led the NBA in minutes played. To put that into perspective, over the last five seasons, only two rookies – O.J. Mayo and Derrick Rose in 2008-2009 – even placed in the top 15 in minutes played. That comes out to three rookies among 75 players, a minuscule 4 percent.

It is beyond a tremendous burden to put on a rookie, much less one who is handling the ball.

That burden extended to the rest of the Portland lineup. The Blazers were one of only four teams – joined by Golden State, Oklahoma City and Philadelphia – that had multiple players in the top 20 of minutes played. And if you use the minutes per game metric, Portland had three players in the top nine, with LaMarcus Aldridge joining the party.

One likely reason Lillard, Aldridge and Nicolas Batum logged so many minutes was the unreliability and poor play of Portland’s bench.

The Blazers’ bench play was unquestionably the worst in the NBA last season, as demonstrated by its abysmal numbers, per HoopsStats:

POR Bench MPG PPG FG pct. 3FG pct. RPG FTA FT pct.
Avg (Rank) 13.3 (30) 18.5 (30) 39.9 (29) 29.8 (30) 10.5 (30) 3.8 (30) 68.8 (29)

Nicolas_BatumHow can a bench shoot under 40 percent from the field and under 30 percent from three for an entire season? It’s impossible to trust a unit that plays so poorly, including rebounding the ball and shooting free throws. It’s no wonder the team’s bench logged by far the fewest minutes in the league, and that Lillard, Batum, Aldridge and others were forced to play so much last season.

To make matters worse, Portland’s bench allowed its opponents to shoot 45.1 percent from the field (27th in the league) and grab 15.3 rebounds (26th) according to HoopsStats.

So it should have come as no surprise that the Blazers’ top offseason priority was to improve their league-worst depth. And Portland general manager Neil Olshey did really well for himself and the team.

Mo WilliamsA key signing came last week when Mo Williams agreed to a two-year deal worth $5.5 million. Anytime you can sign a player who scored nearly 13 points per game while shooting 38.3 percent from three for about $2.75 million a season, that’s a huge win.

Williams also shot 88 percent from the line, nearly 20 percent better than Portland’s bench last season. Williams was limited to just 46 games with Utah last season but played nearly 31 minutes per game. He will take a lot of pressure off Lillard and 10th overall pick C.J. McCollum.

To help Aldridge and properly pace Meyers Leonard’s development, Olshey shoehorned his way into the Tyreke Evans sign-and-trade and acquired center Robin Lopez from New Orleans. He also capitalized on Houston’s desire to clear salary and snagged promising power forward Thomas Robinson, the fifth overall pick in 2012 who is now on his third team in seven months.

Even with his trade kicker activated, the 25-year-old Lopez will make $5.9 million next season, and his improvement over the course of his career is extremely encouraging.

Lopez Min FG% Points Reb Blk TS% PER WS WS/48
10-11 14.8 50.1 6.4 3.2 0.7 53.9 13.9 1.5 0.075
11-12 14 46.1 5.4 3.3 0.9 52.6 15.2 2.1 0.115
12-13 26 53.4 11.3 5.6 1.6 57.3 18.9 5.6 0.126

Robin LopezLopez deserves to play more than 26 minutes per game in the upcoming season and will be a major contributor to the Blazers. His numbers continue to get better practically across the board and will make things easier for Aldridge and second-year center Meyers Leonard.

Robinson is still extremely raw as an offensive player; his 43 percent shooting as a rookie was pretty bad for a big man. But he showed a lot of promise defensively after his trade from Sacramento to Houston in February.

With the Rockets, Robinson’s defensive rating improved from 109 to 101, his Win Shares per 48 minutes got better and his PER improved from 10.6 to 12.9. Robinson clearly has a long way to go if he wants to justify where he was drafted, but he is an intriguing prospect who will help Portland’s bench.

Olshey also realized that his bench needed a proven shooter, and he got a very good one in Dorell Wright, who signed a two-year deal worth just over $6 million. Wright was once among the NBA’s top minute-men, logging over 38 per game for the Warriors in 2010-2011. But he has settled nicely into a supporting role over the last two seasons. He shot 37.4 percent from three with Philadelphia last season, a huge improvement over the putrid Portland bench.

Wright averaged over nine points per game and Dorell Wrightshot over 85 percent from the line. He and Williams will immediately boost the team’s 3-point shooting and actually give the team a chance when the starters need a breather.

As stated in previous StatBox columns, there are seven teams in the Western Conference that will most likely make the playoffs: San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Golden State, the LA Clippers, Houston and Denver. That leaves one other team that will make the playoffs, with the rest going to the lottery.

With the improvements Olshey has made to the team’s depth during the offseason, Portland appears to be the most likely team to claim that eighth seed and reach the playoffs (sorry, Pelicans, TimberWolves, Mavs and others). As Lillard, Aldridge and Batum improve while having the additional supplementary support that was not there last season, things are finally looking up for the franchise.

Shlomo Sprung loves advanced statistics and the way they explain what happens on the court. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. His website is SprungOnSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter.