Portland Trail Blazers: Why They Aren’t Contenders
By Troy Tauscher: Staff Writer At Hoopstuff…
It was only a couple of years ago that the Portland Trail Blazers were 33-49 and their lone star LaMarcus Aldridge was in “trade me to a good team or I’ll leave in free agency” territory. Now, the script has flipped in Oregon. The Blazers are 31-13, and sit 2nd in the Western Conference. There’s a lot to like about this Blazers team; Damian Lillard floats between really, really good and great, Wesley Matthews is shooting well, LaMarcus Aldridge is a machine both scoring and rebounding, and Robin Lopez has been a valuable unsung hero for that team. As a unit, they’ve played a very well-rounded season of basketball this year. They are seventh in the league in scoring, ninth in assists, third in rebounds and 3rd in opponent field goal percentage.
The trouble for the Blazers is they are right in the middle of the bloodbath called the Western Conference. Any weakness in the West is a big problem, and the Blazers weakness lies in the fact that they are injured and have insufficient depth. The Blazers are fully entitled to look in the mirror and be pleased with what they see, however, this team isn’t true Western Conference contenders in their current state.
The trouble starts when people remember that both Aldridge and Lopez are out. Lopez broke his hand in December and will likely not return before February’s All-Star Weekend and Aldridge needs thumb surgery that will keep him out for 6-8 weeks.
The loss of Aldridge is critical, and the differences between having him as the primary offensive weapon and having to play without him are significant. His dominant offensive ability opens opportunities for Lillard to get easier drives and Matthews (among their other marksman shooters) to get less contested looks. That sort of non-statistical contribution is something that becomes clearer when that player is out for an extended period of time. Portland will need to adjust to life without LA for about games. Lopez’s injury is big too, as although his stats aren’t great, he is a guy who does the dirty work, rebounds and defends.
Then there’s Nicolas Batum, whose season isn’t going well. His offensive and shooting numbers are very poor by his standards and he is now dealing with a wrist injury. Regardless, he has been a valuable asset to Portland for a long time and his injury is a big concern, because although he isn’t scoring, he is an excellent defender and their secondary distributor.
So three of Portland’s five starters are injured and the question now becomes, does Portland have the depth to stay elite despite its losses and along the same lines, does Portland have the depth needed to win in the playoffs?
The Blazers bench averages 26.0 points per game, which ranks 27th in the league. That’s not a good thing even with a healthy roster. Depth has been an issue in Portland for a while, but in some ways, it almost matters more now because they are a better team this season and have a chance at a title. This problem will only get more and more evident, because now guys like Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright, Joel Freeland (when he returns from injury) and Allen Crabbe (ditto) will be relied upon to augment their key players for extended playing time.
Portland also has had trouble executing early in games. Against the Clippers, Warriors, and Grizzlies (all possible playoff opponents) the Blazers started slow and couldn’t execute and Portland must recognize that elite teams don’t give you those chances very often if you let them jump ahead and if they do, like the Suns, they’ll fight to the hilt to make sure they still come out on top. Early game execution is something they need to show more of to truly be contenders.
It seems like a lot of people believe in Portland’s ability to contend, and like I said, they have many great qualities. But if we learned anything from the 2014 NBA Finals, it’s that depth does matter, and if a bench cannot support star players, then a team is in some trouble. The next stretch of games while the team is embattled with injuries will be a great test about whether or not they can step up when it’s most crucial. They’re a playoff team, and a scary match-up for any of the other 29 teams in the league, but I think they need to show a little more to be genuinely deserving of contender status in the brutal, unpredictable West.