Photo courtesy of TrailBlazers.com/Bruce Ely
The Portland Trail Blazers are many things: frustrating, dramatic, turnover-prone and exciting. But above all else, so far in this young season this team seems to excel at being average. But before we explore how the Blazers fit into the league hierarchy, we should first look at the NBA landscape. There are currently three tiers of teams in the league right now:
Tier One: Golden State.
Tier Two: Nearly everyone else.
Tier Three: The Dallas Mavericks. (Okay, and the Kings, Hawks and Bulls. And the Tier Three Hawks already have a win over the once great Cleveland Cavaliers this season. Sure that means nothing, but hey good for them.)
And those are the divisions of the teams: we have the Unattainable, the Maybe Good and the Bad.
Golden State is Golden State and as a society we shouldn’t trust anyone who thinks there is a current NBA roster out there that can beat them in a seven-game series. The end. But then we have that group of 25 teams that are seemingly a mystery. How good are these Rockets and what happens to their success when Chris Paul returns? How long can this Celtics winning streak go? How did the Clippers get so bad so fast (they are an abysmal 1-7 since Blake Griffin’s game winner against the Blazers with that one win being against the two-win Mavericks. What in the world Clippers)? And that is all without addressing the fact that Cleveland is currently ninth in the East and four games behind the Pistons which is all just astonishing.
Even though we are working with a somewhat small sample size, the parity of the NBA is a wonderful thing. As of this writing, there are three games separating teams number three to 13 in the East and 4.5 games separating number one to 10 in the West. That’s it. Every team is a brief win streak or quick slide away from flipping where they are in the rankings.
While we may know the ending to the book that is the 2017-18 NBA season – the Warriors claiming their third title in four years – the road there is full of exciting subtweets (LeBron and Eric Bledsoe already at midseason form), unicorns (Kristaps and Giannis are forever), the post-Process 76ers and future Wizard DeMarcus Cousins becoming everything we have ever hoped.
It is in this busy NBA landscape that we then have the Portland Trail Blazers. As they embark on their journey to not get bounced in the playoffs by the Warriors for the third consecutive year (I mean, they could take maybe a game or two? Is that in the realm of possibility??), they are still working out who they are as a team.
Instead of being granted clarity on early season questions about this team, the (as of this writing) 6-6 Blazers have grown more enigmatic. Can they finish games? Can Nurkic stay on the floor in the fourth quarter? Do they know how to run a fast break?
From the outside looking in, the Blazers are not confusing: they are an average team performing in an average way. It seems quite simplistic, really. But this team should seemingly be…better. And maybe even good?
In this early season, the Blaz ers have not yet been able to close games. In games decided by four points or less the team is 2-4. If we throw in the Utah loss, a game the Blazers lost in overtime after a missed game winner at the end of regulation, they end up 2-5 in these close games.
All teams have stretches like this because weird things happen at the end of games. But what is potentially concerning for the Blazers is that in these games things have slowed down a little too much. As the ball moves a little less and isolation play becomes more common, the Blazers have struggled. It’s too early to be full-on worried but the Blazers need to be more mindful of their late game play early on if they are serious about finishing in the top four of the West.
But despite any late-game struggles, the Blazers have positive signs of life that show this team is better than their record reflects. One area where the Blazers have been absolutely stellar is in rebounding. As a team they are first in rebound differential with +7.5. The next closest team is the Celtics at 5.5. The Blazers currently have a three-headed rebounding monster of Davis, Aminu and Nurkic who are at 8.3, 8.1 and 7.8 boards per game. And if Swanigan works his way into the lineup, whether this season or in the future, he seems insistent on keeping these numbers up.
As the NBA has become more and more three point centric, the Blazers are showing that they can keep up with the best of them. The Blazers are currently fifth in three-point percentage and are holding opponents to the fourth lowest team three point percentage in the league.
Ultimately, the Blazers should be ahead of where they are now. This is not a group that gained a lot of new faces in the offseason but is the same group that finished last year with some rookies thrown in. But they can still get there. Dame and CJ are going to get more than 50 points a night and they will see if it is enough to get a win.
The Blazers have the pieces to be a winning team. If they put those pieces together they can be a top four team in the West, win a first-round playoff series and then inevitably lose to the Warriors in the next round. It's going to be a fun ride.