The Rise of the Blazers

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Portland Trail Blazers

The franchise from Oregon is probably the unluckiest among all NBA franchises. They have a long and well-documented history of injuries of their key players and they didn't select Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant.

- Bill Walton in 1978 when the Blazers were defending champions and had 50-10 records with star center, before his season-ending injury.

- 2nd pick in the 1984 draft Sam ’Could-Have-Taken-Jordan’ Bowie and his legs made of glass during the 80s.

- Greg Oden’s fatal injury just a few days after he was selected first overall in the 2007 NBA draft (Kevin Durant was the second pick).

- Brandon Roy's chronic knee problems and surgeries that ended his career before he even scratched his prime time. At that moment, B-Roy was the third best shooting guard in the league, just behind the superstars Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade.

Photo source: bleacherreport.com

Photo Source: bleacherreport.com

The Blazers have been a good team for most of their NBA existence, despite all of the aforementioned issues and troubles. Led by Clyde Drexler they made it to the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992 but lost both times. The Bad Boys Pistons were better 4-1 in the first appearance, and then Michael Jordan and Chicago Bulls defeated the Blazers in six games in the year of the Olympic games. After trading Drexler to Houston, new Blazers generation emerged in the late 90s, with Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, Damon Stoudamire, Steve Smith, Arvydas Sabonis and Detlef Schrempf as the team main players. This squad ultimately fell to the soon-to-be-champions Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference finals in 7 games. That marked the last time the Blazers made it to the conference finals.

Finally, better days came for Portland in 2012 when their newly appointed GM Neil Olshey used the lottery pick (6th overall) to select Damian Lillard, point guard from the minor NCAA college Weber State. Many doubted Lillard's skills and basketball knowledge, saying that his numbers were made in weak competition and that he had all the freedom on the court in Weber State team, but Dame proved them wrong soon enough. In 2013, Lillard became just the 4th rookie in NBA history to win Rookie of the Year award unanimously. Let’s not forget that Anthony Davis was part of the same draft.

Since then Blazers have been showing a steady improvement every season. After finishing 33-49 in Lillard's first season, they jumped to 54-28 last year and eliminated the Rockets with Harden and Howard in the first round before falling to the eventual champions, San Antonio Spurs in Western Conference semifinals.

This season isn’t shaky, for sure; Portland currently stands at 51-29 which is good enough for the 4rd place in the Western Conference bloodbath. Terry Stotts has finally earned respect and proved that his previous (mainly unsuccessful) stints with Atlanta, Golden State and Milwaukee had nothing to do with his capability, but rather that these squads were simply too weak to achieve any success.

Coach Stotts has established the culture of conservative defense within the team roster, and defense is the keyword in an attempt to explain how the Blazers have become title contenders. Just two years ago, Portland finished 26th out of 30 teams in DRtg, statistic category that shows us how many points some team allows per 100 possessions in basketball. Right now, they are ranked 10th (101,2) in the NBA league in the same category, with the worse one of the Lopez brothers, Robin, being the only addition to the roster in those two years. And Robin Lopez, while certainly an above average defender and rim protector, is not exactly Dikembe Mutombo. Or Alonzo Mourning. Or Ben Wallace. Which means he can't hold the team defense by himself. Blazers have found a completely new defensive identity, and now every player contributes to the team’s successes and wins.

The Blazers Strengths

Photo source: oregonlive.com

Photo Source: oregonlive.com

- The Silent Assassin.

- The Trail Blazers have one of the best and most well-balanced starting units in the NBA, with Lillard and Afflalo as guards, Batum and Aldridge on wings, and Lopez on the center.

-Aldridge is the top 5 power forward in the game. His 23.5 ppg and 10.3 RPG are pretty impressive, and L-Train is now the player with most double-doubles in the franchise history. If he is the team’s best player, Damian Lillard is the most important. Dame is averaging 21.2 ppg to go along with 6.2 apg and 4.7 rpg.

- The Blazers are 3rdin the NBA with (10.0) three-pointers made per game and 7thin three-point accuracy (3605%). Also, they are 1st in free throw percentage as a team (80.0%) and 2nd in total rebounds. Lamarcus Aldridge’s versatility allows them to run different styles on offense, thoroughly outplaying the opponents in some cases.

- Portland's forte is pick n roll with Lillard and Aldridge, sometimes they look like pioneers of this attack, John Stockton and Karl Malone. On most occasions, Aldridge is the executor, using his length, athleticism, speed and high basketball IQ to finish easily around the rim. He is also a great option for pick n pop, possessing lethal midrange jumper (the worst and toughest shot in basketball by many experts). Aldridge has hit around 45% of his midrange attempts over the last two seasons, according to SportVU, which is well above the league average.

-Aldridge can also create shots for teammates, waiting until he gets double-teamed and then passing the ball for a wide open 3-point shot. Some actions include Batum as facilitator, leaving Lillard on the perimeter for possible 3-pointer. The Blazers are often running hi-lo actions, when Aldridge goes to the high post and then makes plays for Chris Kaman or Robin Lopez.
In the second version of this action, the Blazers have three good shooters on the court (for example Lillard, Blake and Afflalo) and let Aldridge use his one on one skills. If he gets doubled, BANG!

-It's not unusual to see isolations for Lillard and Batum, taking advantage of their good ball-handling skills. Good spacing means lots of easy points and well-executed action plans. Finally, there are two more sets that Blazers occasionally use: the first one is the circle for Dorell Wright in the corner and the second one is a combination of Lillard and the wing player – Dame is the zone buster and after beating his guard he quickly returns the ball to Batum/Blake/McCollum/Afflalo for an uncontested shot.

On defense, they are forcing opponents into midrange shots, relying on their big men to drop off screens and contest corner 3-point attempts, which Aldridge and Lopez are very good at because of their mobility and keen game understanding. Batum can slow down any opposing backcourt and make their life miserable, even for the game premier players. With four above-average defenders, the Blazers can tolerate Lillard and his sometimes erratic play. Damian is a slightly below-average defender, but he is improving and showing interest in the work on that side of the court.

The Blazers Weaknesses

- Portland's biggest liability is poor bench depth (3rd worst in the NBA, with 27,0 points per game). Except for Chris Kaman, they don't have a single reliable player. Meyers Leonard, C.J. McCollum, Dorell Wright and Steve Blake would make valuable contributions in one game, but in the next five they'd simply disappear. In this group, Blake is the only one whose importance for the team can't be seen through his stats, but rather his veteran leadership, right-time decisions and sharp-shooting touch that will keep rival defenses nervous.

- Another big problem of this squad is health. Aldridge, Lopez and Kaman have all proved to be injury-prone and can let down the team in the critical moment in the playoff. Wesley Matthews suffered a torn left Achilles tendon on Thursday and will miss the rest of the season.

- Lillard's turnover-prone periods and Batum’s ice-cold shooting games.

- Just 6,4 steals per game (4th worst in the NBA).

- Must repeat, poor bench depth is the biggest problem of the Trail Blazers.

The Blazers Stock's

Photo source: http://posterizes.com/teams/portland-trailblazers/

Photo source: http://posterizes.com/teams/portland-trailblazers/

They play modern day basketball, with a lot of 3-pointers, pick-n-roll actions, dunks and easy layups. Having two superstars in Lillard and Aldridge is a big advantage for the Blazers. Trading for Afflalo, who will give them an extra dimension on both sides of the court, is another sign that they are all in this year. They gained valuable experience last season, they are one year older and wiser and most important, Blazers have developed the culture of winning. 

There are a lot of things that have to turn out favorably for the Blazers to succeed and make real noise in May (and possibly June), but the Spurs from the previous season showed that it is not impossible to frame the players’ form properly, stay healthy and avoid the toughest matchups in the postseason.

After all the bad and undeserved things that happened to the city of Portland and one of the best fans in the NBA, maybe the time has arrived to raise another championship banner at “Moda Center“.

Featured Image Credits: Ronan NcY

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used (Apr. 10) courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, Hoopstats.com and NBA.com