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Three Questions for the Portland Trail Blazers

Thursday, February 19, 2015

 

Coming out of the NBA All-Star Break, let’s look at the signposts we set out back in October for Trail Blazers fans to measure the team’s progress toward the ultimate gauge of success in 2014-15—improving on last year’s playoff performance.

Heading into Friday night’s game at Utah, Portland’s 36-17 record is tied for third in the Western Conference with Houston, just a game ahead of Dallas,1 1-2 games ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers and two games ahead of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. 

And with 29 games left in the regular season, Portland is in first place in the Northwest Division, eight games ahead of Oklahoma City.  

Looking at the remainder of the Trail Blazers’ schedule, they can be reasonably expected to go 19-10--meaning Portland would stay in first place in the Northwest and guarantee itself a top-four seed and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. While there’s no danger of Portland falling out of first place and a top-four seed, it’s also unlikely the Trail Blazers could catch higher-seeded Golden State or Memphis—and given that every Western Conference playoff matchup is tough, moving up is not worth caring much about.

And that returns us to the three questions set out at the start of the regular season:

1. Is the bench stronger? Yes. The Trail Blazers – thanks in large part to newly acquired veterans such as center Chris Kaman and guard Steve Blake plus flashes of contributions from younger players like guard C.J. McCollum and center Meyers Leonard  -- rank 17th out of 30 teams in efficiency so far this season at -0.9. Fantastic? No. But a significant improvement from last year when Portland’s bench finished the season 27th in efficiency at -8.4. Seventeenth is good enough as long as starters LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, Damian Lillard and Wes Matthews remain healthy and bench grinder Joel Freeland returns successfully from his right shoulder injury.

2. Can the team defend the pick-and-roll? Well, the team’s overall defense is certainly improved this season. Portland’s opponents have the third-worst field goal percentage in the league at 43.1 percent, compared to the end of last season when Portland ranked 11th with opponents shooting 45.1 percent. Still, Portland’s loss to Dallas right before the break had to set off some alarms as Portland consistently switched the high ball screen, leaving Lillard or Blake to guard the Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitski. Note to coach Terry Stotts: Unless Lillard or Blake are allowed to take the court accompanied by a German shepherd, they cannot stop Nowitski from making mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper. We know the analytics say that’s the best shot to give up over the long haul. But analytics won’t be guarding Nowitski or San Antonio’s Tony Parker or Golden State’s Stephen Curry in a short playoff series. For the love of John Wooden, fight over the screen in the pick-and-roll in the playoffs when the games slow to a halfcourt crawl and sharpshooters can destroy an opponent.

3. In the back half of the season when teams begin rounding into playoff shape, can the Trail Blazers do better than the 3-7 record they compiled last season after Jan. 1 against the four teams most likely to be roadblocks to Portland reaching the Western Conference Finals – Golden State, San Antonio, the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City? With a caveat, not good so far. Since Jan. 1, Portland has gone 1-4 against potential Western Conference playoff opponents, though Portland had lost Lopez because of injury for those games. Portland will learn very quickly after the break how they compare against its possible conference postseason opponents, facing five potential conference playoff foes in their six games after Friday’s against Utah.

That stretch should provide an early indication if this Trail Blazers team meets up to the ultimate measure of success in 2014-15—improving on their playoff performance from 2013-14 when Portland made it to the second round for the first time since 2000. As we wrote four months ago, success this season will only be defined as continued progress into the Western Conference Finals.

A native Oregonian, Hank Stern had a 24-year career in journalism, working for more than a decade as a reporter with The Associated Press in Oregon, New Jersey and Washington, DC. He worked seven years for The Oregonian as a reporter in east Multnomah County, Washington County and Portland’s City Hall. In 2005, he became Willamette Week’s managing news editor and worked there until 2011.

 

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