2018 NBA Playoff Preview: Portland Trail Blazers
After going 41-41 and being swept by the Warriors in the first-round a season ago, this year’s expectations were not much beyond that for the Portland Trail Blazers; another .500 season and a low seeded playoff trip would have been sufficing especially for a West team with only two real legit NBA starters in CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard. The Blazers had other ideas though, led by the aforementioned duo, they out preformed expectations and amassed almost 50 wins. They had an incredible stretch of play after the All-Star break winning 12 in a row, a streak that helped elevate them to the top half of the conference standing. Since March 20th, however, the bottom fell out on the Blazers season, going 4-9 in the final stretch including losses to cellar dwellers Dallas, Memphis and two losses to conference leader Houston whom they were 0-4 against over the year. Despite the slumping play at the back end of the season, the Blazers players and fans should be ecstatic with this year’s overall result and have high yet tempered expectations entering the playoffs.
It’s easy to see that the Blazers live and die on the defensive side of the ball. With only three players averaging in double digits in points per game, Portland stole a lot of games using defensive prowess. Allowing only 103.3 PPG, good for 5th best in the NBA, the Blazers excelled in slowing down offenses all year not only in terms of scoring but ball movement as well. The Blazers are 2nd in the league in assists allowed, giving up only 20.2 dimes a game. They successfully pressured shooters with opposing teams averaging .449 in FG% against Portland, putting them 5th in that category as well. Pair this with a defensive rating of 106.7, another stat the Blazers are in the top 10 of and the ability to protect underneath blocking a solid 5.2 shots a game, the Blazers win formula comes from limiting their opponent’s offensive success. They are a top 5 rebounding team behind the glass eating duo of Jusuf Nurkic and Al-Farouq Aminu supported by Ed Davis grabbing 7.4 RPG off the bench. Controlling the glass has been a large part of Portland’s DNA and although offensively stunted, Portland is also solid from the 3-point line, hitting 36.8% of all 3’s, good for another listing in the top 10 league wide. And, oh yeah, they have this guy Dame Lillard who is pretty good. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
While Portland may excel on the defensive side, they are offensively weak and inefficient. Being ranked 17th in PPG isn’t a total black eye but it’s the supporting stats that are alarming. They are ranked 19th in eFG% with a paltry .513 and rank the same in pace with a 96.5. Pair this alongside them being dead last in the league in assists per game, it becomes apparent the Blazers do not have a wealth of effective ball movement or consistent offensive. Outside of Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic, the roster lacks any real consistent scoring options or notable players. The bench in anchored by Shabazz Napier and Evan Turner, two players known for streaky offensive play and often failing to provide consistent usable support. The rest of the gang is full of role and bench players whose names mean absolutely nothing to a casual NBA fan and may in fact be part of federal witness protection due to the anonymity. In terms of depth, there isn’t…any. Even the starting 5, which lately has been rounded out by Turner starting in place of an injured Maurice Harkless, is barely a serviceable unit. If McCollum or Lillard miss any time in the playoffs, the Blazers are finished since they have only one real scoring option beyond them. Another sneaky weakness in the Blazers game is a lack of being able to create turnovers despite being highly competent defensively. They rank 27th in steals and have a ToV% of 11.7, leaving them towards the bottom of the league in both categories. For a team whose success has ridden so much on D, the inability to create turnovers is concerning especially in the playoff where closing deficits is a crucial part of success. Without consistent offense and extra possessions, comebacks are a near impossibility this time year.
We all know that Lillard has been a Swiss Army Knife all year and that without him, the Blazers probably would not even be a 35-win team but the true X factor for the Blazers is the guy on the sidelines, coach Terry Stotts. What Stotts has accomplished with this squad of bums…*ahem* professional athletes is quite remarkable employing a defensive mindset and squeezing any unseeable juice from whatever lemons he has had available. He managed to lead the Blazers to winning records against Golden State and a season sweep against OKC, both teams that dwarf Portland in terms of true tangible talent. Portland plays hard and scraps for every bit of success and that type blue collar mantra begins and ends with Terry Stotts. He has gotten production, albeit limited production, from a bench that may be one of the worst in the league. Nappier is having a career year, playing well beyond his past numbers. Davis has been an effective piece. Portland won 48 games with Turner and Harkless taking turns as starting SF. If you don’t think Stotts is responsible for a bulk of Portland’s success on the floor, I’m assuming you haven’t taken a solid look at Portland’s roster (again, it’s really not good). Stotts has gotten the most from a group that on paper looks wildly uninteresting and poorly skilled, even more impressive given the competition in the West.
Player to Watch
Lillard and McCollum maybe the PB and J to the bread of the Blazers but without Jusuf Nurkic inside, the Blazers would not be where they are. Top 20 in rebounds, 12th in Defensive +/-, and averaging 1.4 blocks a game as well being the only other player to average double digits in PPG for Portland, Nurkic is irreplaceable in his role this season. As mentioned earlier, rebounding has been a big part of the Blazers success and Nurkic is board wiper #1 for these guys. He has great chemistry with Lillard and Aminu and contributes positive minutes. He posted 25 double-doubles in the regular season and routinely picked up the slack when Dame or CJ were struggling. His play in the first round may dictate if the Blazers survive into May.
This is sort of a loaded question. Apart from Houston, it’s safe to say no team’s second-round birth is a guarantee in 2018. The Blazers fared well against the Western Conference playoff field, going 14-16 against all teams left in contention. With seeding still in motion, it’s hard to say who the first-round opponent will be for the Blazers. Best case scenario, they end up playing OKC, a team they swept in the regular season. Worst case scenario, they draw Denver or the Spurs, who Portland was a combined 2-5 against. The Pelicans have also been streaking and would be a tough first-round draw as well. Portland’s ceiling and floor may be the most intriguing of all playoff teams. They could go out in Round 1 if the defense breaks down and they continue to struggle to score points but they could potentially reach the WCF if they regain the swag they possessed during their post All-Star win streak. Unfortunately given the recent woes in the final weeks of the season, Portland and their fans are probably headed for another cold Northwest heartbreak. I think Portland will be dispatched in the first round in a long series no matter who they play. Portland’s strength of schedule was one of the weaker in the league, ranked 18th overall, a fact that cannot be overlooked when all that remain are good teams. Portland was an overachieving squad in the regular season that benefited from a weak schedule and got far more production from a weak roster than expected. I suspect it will not be sustained in the postseason when the level of competition is ratcheted up to a supersonic level leaving the Blazers out of the postseason in quick fashion.