Ever since the Seattle Supersonics left town five years ago, relocating to Oklahoma City and becoming the Thunder, the Northwest corridor of the United States has been starved of a competent NBA team.
Sure, the Portland Trail Blazers made three straight playoff appearances from 2008 to 2011, but they failed to get out of the first round each time while never presenting a real threat. Not since 2005 has a team from the Northwest made it out of the first round of the playoffs, when the Sonics beat the Sacramento Kings before losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round.
However, with the Trail Blazers off to a roaring 8-2 start, there is another glimmer of hope.
Sophomore Damian Lillard, last year’s Rookie of the Year winner, has taken a big leap in year two and looks poised to lead the Blazers to their first division title since 1999. Lillard and 28-year-old big man LaMarcus Aldridge form one of the best 1-2 punches in the NBA, and now have over a year’s worth of experience playing together. Aldridge seems to be benefitting from playing alongside one of the best young point guards in the NBA by putting up career highs in several categories: points per game, rebounds per game and steals.
While those two are the faces of the franchise, the Blazers have a great supporting cast that has been slowly brought along for several seasons and a few pieces they added to the mix this offseason that have, so far, gone under the radar. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum have become lethal options on the wings as both are averaging about 2.5 three-pointers made per game. They each average around 15 points per game, and Batum has chipped in with 6.4 rebounds per game and 5.3 assists. His versatility and ball-handling capabilities have lightened the load on Lillard.
The four aforementioned players have all been with the team for at least two seasons, but after them it’s primarily a new-look team. Starting center Robin Lopez has lived his NBA career as the less-skilled twin of Brook Lopez. But Robin is a far better defender, rebounder and all-around imposing force down low. While he doesn’t have the offensive touch that his Brooklyn Net brother Brook has, it is a superfluous skill playing alongside Aldridge in the post. Lopez’s stats won’t blow you away (7.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.4 blocks per game), but his presence has allowed Aldridge to remain at his natural power forward position.
Outside of the starting lineup, perhaps the biggest key to the Blazers’ impressive start is newly acquired veteran journeyman Maurice (Mo) Williams. The back-up point guard has typically been a starter in his 11-year career, but accepted a bench role for the Blazers. His impact has been felt on the floor — 10.4 points per game and 4.8 assists per game — but his influence on Lillard might be much more important in the long run.
The Blazers have a complete team built for postseason success. They’re off to a great start and their record can’t be taken lightly. Whether or not they will be prepared to get out of the first round come April is unknown, but it looks like the rainy region of the country can stay indoors and watch some exciting basketball thanks to the young and exciting Blazers.