I’m not sure what happened in Portland during the offseason, but it was definitely something. Here are the results of the final 13 Blazers games last year:
Loss @ OKC 83-103
Loss vs. BRK 93-111
Loss vs. UTA 95-105
Loss @ GSW 98-125
Loss @ UTA 102-112
Loss vs. MEM 76-94
Loss vs. HOU 98-116
Loss vs. DAL 91-96
Loss vs. LAL 106-113
Loss vs. OKC 90-106
Loss @ DEN 109-118
Loss @ LAC 77-93
Loss vs. GSW 88-99
Those 2012-13 Blazers lost 15 of their final 17 games, a brutal run that seems so very weird right now, as they have now won 22 of their first 26 games this season. Suddenly they have swagger, an emerging identity, the best record in the NBA, and most of all, they’ve got everybody’s attention. Last night’s game against Cleveland seemed to be the talk of NBA Twitter well before its dramatic conclusion.
One of the best games this year so far if not the best. Cavs vs Blazers
— LeBron James (@KingJames) December 18, 2013
Unlike the NFL, NHL, or Major League Baseball, when it comes to winning, the NBA doesn’t offer too many surprises. Barring significant injuries, the preseason predictions are generally more accurate than those in other sports. One reason for this is that there are fewer “moving parts” on NBA rosters and success really comes down to a few key performers guided by a dependable coaching staff. It makes sense that Miami, Oklahoma City, Indiana, and San Antonio are very good again this year; why wouldn’t they be?
When a team like Portland, which looked so bad at the end of last season, comes out of nowhere to win 85 percent of its first 26 games, including victories over San Antonio, Indiana, and OKC, it’s a big deal. You could argue that the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks were the last out-of-nowhere team to surprise the NBA. That team, led by Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler, and Rick Carlisle remains the last one to beat the Miami Heat in a playoff series. Many people believed the Mavs had no business beating the Heat in the Finals, but thanks to some great shooting from Nowitzki & Co., they did just that.
The most important scoring force in Portland is LaMarcus Aldridge, who is playing like a young Dirk Nowtizki, except with better rebounding numbers. Blazers coach Terry Stotts knows a thing or two about Nowitizki; he was an assistant on that championship Mavericks team. Like Dirk, to say Aldridge has an obsession with midrange shooting would be a vast understatement. He is Daryl Morey’s archenemy, and not just because he put up 31 and 25 against the Rockets last week.
So far this season, Aldridge has taken 339 midrange shots — repeatedly violating one of the key tenets of Morey’s efficiency-minded stratagem. As a team, Morey’s Rockets have tried only 292. Maybe Aldridge should start his own sports analytics conference, because his approach is working. He’s the leading scorer on the team atop the Western Conference standings. Take that, Dork Elvis! (Note: I love Daryl Morey and his wonderful conference!)
This midrange fascination is not new. Last season, Aldridge attempted 795 midrange shots, by far the most in the league (DeMar DeRozan was second with 628). The remarkable thing about Aldridge is that despite his ridiculous midrange volume, he produces points at rates above league averages in all of his active shooting zones. He can create scoring chances without much help, though he is a great pick-and-pop player as well.
Although Aldridge’s shooting numbers haven’t changed much since last year, almost everyone else’s have. The Blazers have three elite 3-point shooters now, and each of them has improved their efficiency since last year. Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, and Nicolas Batum are each in the top 10 in made 3s and each is shooting over 40 percent. Together, they form the most terrifying long-range scoring threat in the NBA. And yes, I am aware of, and impressed by, the Splash Brothers in Golden State.
Consider this: Klay Thompson and Steph Curry have combined to make 157 of their 368 3-pointers this season (43 percent); Lillard and Matthews have combined to make 143 of their 327 3s (44 percent). Add in Batum (not to mention Mo Williams), who’s made 58 treys himself, and you’ve got a trio of shooters unmatched anywhere in the league. Their combined numbers are scary, and as a result the Blazers make the most 3s per game of any team in the league despite being only fifth in attempts per game.
Ultimately, the Blazers story is one of improvement. The Lillard-Batum-Matthews combination has come a long way since last year, when they were active shooters, but nowhere near as efficient as they are this season.
Thanks to these three young guns, Portland has now won nine of its last 10. As the Blazers head into Minnesota tonight, they might also be the most fun team to watch in the league. Who knows if they’ll be able to keep it up, but their numbers look legit. Not only do they lead the league in offensive efficiency, putting up more than 110 points per 100 possessions, they also rank fifth in point differential per 100 possessions, trailing only Miami, San Antonio, Indiana, and Oklahoma City in that very telling metric.