Another installment in my regular roundup of Western Conference contenders. I'll be using this space throughout the season to discuss teams out West that are maintaining realistic championship aspirations. Today, I take a look at Portland's big gamble. (Stats via Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com/stats.)
It is very likely that when all is said and done, the 2013-2014 NBA season will be remembered for one unfortunate theme.
Westworld #1: Spurs lead pack of early West conten
In this season's first look at the Western Conference standard-bearers, we check in with five teams that are separating themselves from the pack as legitimate title contenders.
From elite stars to key role players, nearly every team in the league has been forced to scramble lineups or even bring in help in an effort to fill in for lost production. The Western Conference, in particular, has been one big field of roster destruction, with shoulder injuries to Chris Paul and Tiago Splitter being only the latest examples.
Injuries have been so rampant that it would seem dealing with them has become a prerequisite for a playoff appearance. Each team competing for a playoff spot in the West has dealt with a significant injury this season. Well, each team save one. If you look through the top eight teams in the West, one stands out as a shining, untarnished collection of healthy players having incredible seasons.
Of all the teams considered contenders in the West, only the Portland Trail Blazers have played the season with a roster mostly unaffected by significant injury. A look at the minutes dispersion reveals a remarkably healthy team. Coming into the season, it was the newly revamped bench that was going to be the savior of the Blazers' playoff prospects, but up to this point, the bench has been a rather small contributing factor to the team's success. Aided by the team's very fortunate health situation, new head coach Terry Stotts has been able to rely on heavy minutes from his starters -- each one seemingly playing the best basketball of his career -- in the construction of the league's best offense. Unlike other teams in the NBA, the Blazers have been able to enjoy a rare kind of roster consistency that helps to develop clearly defined roles and expectations. As Tom Haberstroh notes, the Blazers have used just 90 lineups this season, nearly fifty less than the next closest team. (The Minnesota Timberwolves have used 139).
In their remarkable dodging of the injury bug, it would seem the Portland Trail Blazers are living the NBA's version of a Final Destination movie. But if your roster's success is predicated on very heavy minutes for its starting five, a healthy season can actually hinder your chances at contention. It was just a few years ago that Henry Abbott proposed his 3,000 minute threshold, a regular season mark no player in the last eight years has passed in a year where his team won a championship. If current minutes averages (and health luck) hold, the Blazers will have one guy passing that 3,000 minute mark (LaMarcus Aldridge) and at least two other guys within a game or two of hitting it (Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum). This is a team that is very likely to sputter into the playoffs if it doesn't start extending playing time to its bench.
It's a dangerous scheme that the Blazers are relying on, but the benefits are obvious for a team that has not reached the playoffs in three years and has not won a playoff round in fourteen. But while this strategy has kickstarted the offense to a league-leading 108.7 points per game (and 113.5 offensive rating), the defense has been abysmal, allowing opponents to score 102.6 points per game, a mark that ranks 25th in the league. (In addition, their defensive rating is 107.1, 21st in the NBA.) As bad as they look, there isn't much they can do to solve things on the defensive end, as they're bench is somehow even worse defensively than the starting five. The heavy minutes for the starters make a good deal of sense, then, in that if the Blazers cannot consistently stop opponents, they can certainly outscore them with their starting lineup on the floor.
This is a huge gamble. Riding the razor's edge of a short rotation and heavy minutes makes just one injury a potential catastrophe. As Ben Golliver ominously points out, "Even one injury of consequence is going to leave Portland struggling to stop just about everybody, and it would break up their offensive flow, which relies on great chemistry and balance within the starting five." It's a wonder that more Blazers fans aren't breaking into nervous fits as they look around at an injury-plagued NBA.
What we're seeing in Portland is not without precedent, of course. A high-scoring offensive team with little capability for consistent defense? A coach that trusts a precious few to deliver wins while rarely looking to utilize or develop his bench? Spurs fans should recognize these descriptions well. What we're seeing in Portland is essentially a spiritual successor to Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix empire. Like D'Antoni's best teams, the Blazers can score from anywhere and seem conditioned well enough to handle significant minutes loads. And like those 7SOL teams, the Blazers rely on a thrilling offensive display to compensate for a frustrating lack of defense.
The similarities are really quite striking, but with the old comparison come old questions. Can this regular season success translate to championship contention? Will their key players have anything left as the postseason approaches? Will an incredibly dynamic offensive team be able to get by with a terrible defense? In resurrecting the Blazers this season, Stotts and his crew have done much to follow in the footsteps of some amazing teams, but the Blazers' success in April will depend on how much they can beat a path all their own.