With the NBA playoffs almost among us, each of the 16 teams who will eventually make up the postseason will have dreams of going all the way and be crowned the NBA champions. Of course for some this is still merely a pipe dream, while for others it is the absolute end goal, with any other result deemed a failure. With that in mind we take a quick and lighthearted look at how each team can potentially do once the playoffs start.
Why They Can Win It All
One of the more surprising packages of this season, the Portland Trail Blazers got off to a brilliant start before coming back down to earth a little. Still they have been in the thick of the playoff positions for the entire campaign, with their balanced squad able to beat opponents in a number of ways. LaMarcus Aldridge means so much to this team, and that was especially clear to see when he went down with multiple injuries, including a nasty fall leading to a back contusion, throughout the year. His importance to this team cannot be underestimated, but second-year point guard, and first-time All-Star, Damian Lillard has helped to take a lot of the burden off of Aldridge’s shoulders. His 20.9 points a game are wonderful, but what might surprise some people more is the fact that this is the ninth-best team in the league in terms of assists per game (23.1). As fun as this team is to watch, particularly on the offensive end with Mo Williams, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum able to fill up the bucket, this stat shows that this team is interested in passing the ball around and getting good looks for whoever is on the court. Lillard’s 5.6 assists are down on last year’s number (6.1) but do show that he is still willing to be a facilitator as well as a scorer.
In the playoffs, the Trail Blazers can have some joy in two key areas. Offensively, they rank fourth in the league in shots made from between 15 and 19 feet. These days mid-range shots such as these are frowned up, but being able to make 43 percent of them, as Portland has, can creates open opportunities elsewhere for bombers like the aforementioned Batum and Matthews. Both Aldridge and center Robin Lopez contribute to this number considerably, and having two bigs who can shoot the mid-range jumper so well will give opponents problems in the postseason. On top of that, this is the best free throw shooting team in the league, converting 81.7 percent of their trips to the charity stripe. It’s been said before and needs saying again, these are essentially free buckets if you can take them, and this team is able to constantly tack two points onto the board with their league-leading pace from the free throw line. This team is also the best rebounding unit in the entire league, grabbing 46.2 a night. The value of this hard work on the glass cannot be underestimated. Other than that, Aldridge is having a career year, averaging a double-double with 23.2 points and 11.2 rebounds. His 2.6 assists per game ties last year’s average and is also a career high. We’ll get to why Aldridge is having as big an impact as ever in a minute too.
Why They Might Exit Early
Obviously Aldridge and Lillard are so important to this team, and injury to either one of them is fatal. Mo Williams, playing the least amount of minutes (24.8) since his rookie year, is important for this team as well as a sixth man. From beyond the arc though, Portland needs to tighten up it’s defense. The Trail Blazers rank 26th in the league in opponents made 3-point attempts (36.3 percent) and with the 3 ball very much in style right now, this could spell trouble for the team. It is also obvious to point out that this equates to opponents getting an extra point when these shots are converted, which is pretty often. Bench production is simply woeful as well, and this puts more pressure on the starting members of this team. The second unit averages just 17.6 points per game, easily the worst output of all benches in the league. With this team also giving up the 11th-most points per contest (100.2) it is clear that more work needs to be done to keep opponents from having career nights scoring wise against this team.
When these facts are coupled together, it leaves the starting five with a lot of work to do on a nightly basis just to ensure this team can get wins. It also feeds into the notion that without one of their starting five, this team will struggle, and has struggled, mightily. The starters need to produce, play big minutes (currently averaging 35.1 a game) and that leads to fatigue and general wear and tear. You’ve got to think then that this team simply will not have the depth to compete in a crowded Western Conference. Even though who claim that the playoffs are a time for superstars first, which they are, there are better collections of stars on other teams that should see them past the Trail Blazers.
Robin Lopez. Before looking at what he brings to the team statistically, it is important to note that he is a large part of the reason Aldridge has been so good this year. Last season the Trail Blazers had J.J. Hickson as their starting center. Undersized for the role, it meant Aldridge had to match up with the bigger players on a nightly basis. With Lopez around clogging the paint, Aldridge can play like a 4 and be defended by opposing forwards, making it a more balanced matchup for Aldridge physically. Other than that, the 11 points and 8.5 rebounds are hard to argue with, they are solid numbers from the former Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Hornets big man. He is also .818 from the free-throw line, a great number from somebody playing the center position. Put simply he is a big upgrade for this team in the middle of the court, and you have to think that the best is yet to come from this guy too. The playoffs are the perfect time to show this.
How They’ll Do
As great a season as this has been, a first-round exit at the hands of the Houston Rockets awaits. It will be a fascinating matchup that will go at least six games, but right now the Rockets are a little further along in terms of competing for a championship. James Harden will prove difficult to control, and Dwight Howard is having a solid year, despite what some think. The additional threats of Chandler Parsons and a second big man off the bench as talented as Omar Asik will get the job done. Lillard should win his personal duel against Jeremy Lin or Patrick Beverley though. This offseason is important for Portland, they are onto something here.