Rip City Rolling: Can the Blazers Stay on Top?

At 22-4, the Blazers currently have the best record in the NBA. Is it sustainable?

Rip City’s back, baby!

We’re roughly one-third of the way through the 2013-14 NBA season, and the team with the best record in the league is the Portland Trail Blazers, as predicted by absolutely no one (ok, maybe a super biased fan or two, but no one who actually thought about it objectively). Most people didn’t even consider them a lock for the playoffs coming into the season, and now we’re discussing them as possible championship contenders.

So, what changed?

The Blazers started the season 2-2 and no one really took notice. Then, while we had our guard down, they went and ripped off 11 straight victories (inspiring many a Spinal Tap reference) and suddenly they were on everyone’s radar. Most people, while impressed by the run, spoke of an easy schedule and shrugged the early success off as a decent team overachieving.

Since then, the Blazers have won 9 of 11 games, including an impressive back-to-back set of wins against the Pacers and the Thunder. Their only losses this season have come against the surprising Suns (twice), the Mavericks, and the Rockets (all teams in the playoff hunt and over .500). They have closed out games with amazing composure, going a league-best 12-2 in games within five points in the final five minutes.

Now, it would seem, we have no choice but to take them seriously.

You Win Some, You Lose...Not Many

After last night’s thrilling 119-116 victory in Cleveland, the Blazers improved to a record of 22-4, giving them a winning percentage of .846. That’s the second-best record the team has ever had after 26 games, trailing only the 1990-91 team that started 23-3 (and went on to finish with a league-best record of 63-19). It was their 12th win on the road, which already surpasses their total of 11 wins on the road last season. So, the question is, are they for real?

Well, if you’re still on the fence about this Blazers team, you should know that our metrics believe in them to continue to be a top team in the West until the bitter end.

They have the league’s seventh-best nERD at 66.8. A team’s nERD is an evolving stat that predicts the team's final record based on a myriad of factors, regressions, simulations, etc. The rating is based on a scale from 0-100, with 50 as the league average. The resulting number is then used to predict the team's ultimate winning percentage, in this case .668. Extrapolated over a whole season, that puts the Blazers at a final record of approximately 55-27.

This obviously suggests a bit of a regression from their current pace, but it still puts them in the conversation with powerhouses like the Spurs, Heat, Pacers, and Thunder. Despite what the doubters might think, they deserve to be in that group too. The proof is in the numbers.

Offensive Language

One of the biggest clichés in all of sports is that defense wins championships. That’s the number one reason that people are using to claim that this Blazers team has no chance of contending.

Many point to their 20th-ranked defensive rating of 103.9 as a sign that their current success is unsustainable. Focusing on defensive rating as an isolated stat, however, unfortunately ignores just how exceptionally good this Blazers team is on offense.

Their offensive rating of 110.7 is the best in the league and the resulting net rating of 6.8 ranks them fifth, trailing only the Spurs, Heat, Pacers, and Thunder (teams that are almost unanimously considered championship contenders by NBA pundits).

Yes, defense is important, but it’s only one part of the equation. A team can be dominant defensively, but still lose the majority of its games if it can’t put the ball in the hole efficiently enough. Consider the Chicago Bulls, the league’s fourth-best defense (97.7) is only 9-14, because their 28th-ranked offense (95.7) gives them a lowly -2.0 net rating.

Fantastic Four

We stat geeks have moved away from looking at only defense as the be all and end all of winning at the game of basketball anyway. Dean Oliver’s Four Factors (effective field goal percentage, turnover ratio, rebounding percentage, and free throw rate) have become an industry standard for predicting a team’s ability to win basketball games.

When studying these numbers, the Blazers fare just fine.

eFG% Rank OPP eFG% Rank
.517 6th .485 11th

TO Ratio Rank OPP TO Ratio Rank
14.6 6th 13.1 30th

OReb% Rank OPP OReb% Rank
30.2 2nd 26.6 24th

FTA Rate Rank OPP FTA Rate Rank
.262 18th .251 6th

Their effective field goal percentage, turnover ratio, and offensive rebounding percentages are all elite, as they place in the top six in each category. They also hold opponents to the sixth-fewest free throw attempts per field goal attempt in the league. As you can see, they are near the top of the Association in either the offensive or defensive side of each factor.

They shoot better than they allow their opponents to, get more of the available rebounds, get to the line at a higher rate, and turn the ball over at a rate so low that it’s almost excusable that they don’t force a large number of turnovers. Simply put, the numbers back up their excellent record and suggest that they can keep this up going forward.

The Sum of Its Parts

The Blazers finished last season 33-49 and failed to make the playoffs. During the offseason, GM Neil Olshey set out to address the team’s well-documented depth issues. What he’s managed to come up with makes him an early candidate for Executive of the Year.

Around a solid core of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews, Olshey added Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson through trades, and signed Dorell Wright and Mo Williams through free agency. Second-year bigs Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard continue to develop at the end of the rotation and rookie C.J. McCollum (10th-overall pick in this year’s draft) is nearly set to make his debut. A team once devoid of depth is now brimming with it.

As if that wasn’t enough, their regular core is still getting better as well.

LaMarcus Aldridge is having a season worthy of MVP consideration, averaging career highs in points (23.6), rebounds (11.0), assists (2.8), and steals (1.2), while also adding 0.9 blocks per game and shooting .486 from the field and .788 from the line. He has the 10th-best PER in the league at 23.8 and contributes the 7th-most win shares at 3.6. He has won Western Conference Player of the Week three times in the past month and has fully embraced his role as a franchise player.

Damian Lillard, last year’s Rookie of the Year, continues to build upon a very strong first season, averaging 20.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game in his sophomore campaign. Just last night, he eviscerated the Cavs for 36 points, 8 rebounds, 10 assists, and 8 three-pointers, including a game-winning dagger at the buzzer. He already plays with the demeanor of a player well beyond his years of experience and he’ll only get better from here.

Nicolas Batum continues to be a great all-around wingman, averaging a solid 13.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.1 steals, and 0.6 blocks. The other wing position is being held down by Wesley Matthews, who is averaging career highs in points (16.1) and rebounds (4.2), while currently ranking third in the league in true shooting percentage (.646), sixth in effective field goal percentage (.619), and second in offensive rating (125.9).

All three of Lillard, Batum, and Matthews are shooting over .400 from deep and hitting over 2.0 threes per game. The inside-out attack of Lopez in the post, Aldridge at the elbow, and Lillard, Batum, and Matthews on the perimeter works like poetry. All five place in the top 25 of our NBA Player Rankings with great nERDs (Aldridge 10.7, Matthews 10.7, Lillard 10.7, Lopez 6.3, Batum 6.2), and all have PERs above the league average.

Coach Terry Stotts has his team playing like a well-oiled machine and deserves early consideration for Coach of the Year. If you consider Olshey a candidate for Executive of the Year, Aldridge for MVP, and Matthews for Most Improved, the Blazers will have a lot of opportunities to fill their trophy case this spring if they can keep up their current pace.

Upcoming Schedule

There has been a debate raging for a few years about whether the Wolves’ Kevin Love or the Clippers’ Blake Griffin will be the new heir to Tim Duncan's throne as the league’s best power forward. With Aldridge asserting his dominance as of late, it’s impossible not to see it as a three-man race. Love and Griffin have already faced off against each other twice so far this year, but now Aldridge will get his first crack at his peers this season.

Tonight, the Blazers face off against Love’s Minnesota Timberwolves. At 12-13, the Wolves aren’t nearly as good as many expected, but the main draw of this matchup is the battle between the two all-star power forwards. In 13 career games against each other, the two have risen to the occasion:

Player FG% FT% Points Threes Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
Aldridge .514 .800 21.4 0.0 8.7 2.0 0.8 1.1
Love .442 .829 17.8 0.9 10.7 2.1 0.6 0.1

Aldridge will soon take on Griffin as well, when the Blazers face the Clippers on December 26th. These two have had some epic battles down low in their careers as well, playing each other fairly even over eight career games.

Player FG% FT% Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
Aldridge .448 .737 16.9 7.5 2.8 0.5 0.5
Griffin .500 .597 19.1 11.5 4.9 2.0 0.0

As for the Blazers as a whole, the matchup with the 17-9 Clippers will be an opportunity for them to prove themselves to NBA fans. They’ll get two additional chances before the calendar rolls over to 2014, as they play host to the two-time defending champion Miami Heat (18-6) on December 28th and visit their division rival, the Oklahoma City Thunder (20-4), on New Year’s Eve.

All three of those teams place above the Blazers on our NBA Team Rankings, so wins in these matchups would certainly show that they belong at the big-boy table. If they can pull off two to three, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone willing to count them out any longer.

Keep on Blazin’ on

The Trail Blazers have one of the most passionate fan bases in all of sports. They are the only professional sports team in town and their fans have been absolutely starved for a chance to have a true contender again. The team has only made the postseason in six of the last 13 seasons, never managing to get past the first round during that time.

After the “Jail Blazers” period of the early- to mid-2000s, career-ending injuries to promising young stars Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, and rumors of Aldridge wanting out of Portland this past offseason, Blazers fans were certainly due to have a team worth cheering for. With the Blazers currently sitting on top of the NBA looking down, Rip City is buzzing with the same level of excitement it had in the late 80’s, early 90’s.

Here’s hoping they can keep it up.