The NBA's best-kept secret is not in Atlanta -- but Portland.
While the NBA world at large flutters through storylines of short-lived interest, the Portland Trail Blazers go about their damn business. They work from a place of deep familiarity, having made only ancillary changes to their roster or approach in recent seasons. From that relationship comes an accountability to cause. Commitment is never much in question for this group, which has allowed head coach Terry Stotts to lean further on scheme, safe in the knowledge that his players will execute capably.
To date, Portland has yielded the second-best record in the NBA despite the team's first major run-in with injury in its current iteration. Robin Lopez's broken hand has tested the Blazers' defense and depth, areas of their game that did not hold up well last season under scrutiny. They've responded by winning eight of their last 10 games – nine of their last 11, if you count the matchup with San Antonio that Lopez exited early – while posting defensive marks superior to those they had previously. The marvel here isn't merely that the Blazers are getting by without their starting center. It's that they've grown and solidified to the point that they could play high-level defense for 25 games and somehow improve upon the injury of the team's best defensive player.
The balance of pairing that kind of defensive efficacy with an already terrific offense issues a powerful statement: Portland should be entertained as a trustworthy contender for the Western Conference crown, if not the NBA title. There is little other way to regard a team both this good and this sure in its process. The core of the Blazers plays with no doubt, and leaves little.
All of which is striking given that the Blazers have improved their claim to contention without much changing the components involved. Chris Kaman was added over the summer to relieve Lopez and Steve Blake signed to replace Mo Williams. Neither qualifies as a blockbuster acquisition. It would stand to reason that Portland, then, would keep more or less in line with its performance last season.
Yet both Kaman and Blake have proven to be important variables, while the Blazers make further gains through internal development and a maturation of system. Trading in continuity might make the Blazers appear static, yet this is a team that now ranks No. 3 in the league in defensive efficiency after ranking No. 16 a year ago. The distinction makes all the difference. A Portland team that could only score with the best was doomed to be ushered out of the playoffs by a more qualified opponent. One this effective in coverage gives itself a chance to rally.
Already we've seen this dynamic in play this season through the Blazers' more patient victories. On some nights they first feel out a game slowly, lurking about its edges. Then comes the fury – a LaMarcus Aldridge mini-run, a few fast-passing sequences ending in an open threes, and a burial by the hand of Damian Lillard. Improved defense has allowed one of the most patient teams in the league to more fully leverage its composure.
It's all accomplished through an admirable restraint. Portland is a stay-home team in its coverage, principled to maximize the effect of its help by minimizing its need. When a defense is forced into hard rotation too often, it becomes exposed – smart opponents can prod for weakness or wait for the inevitable slip in repetition. The Blazers manage by guarding in a way that requires as little rotation as possible. Tactically, Stotts does not look for his team to force all that many turnovers. He wants all five on the floor to instead keep in front, maintaining defensive integrity on a position-by-position basis. This effectively keeps two or three Blazers defenders between the ball and the rim at all times, each balanced and prepared to respond as a situation demands.
The full power of Portland's synergy goes into taking away quality shots and never willingly surrendering open ones. As a result, the Blazers allow fewer points from unguarded jumpers (just 5.7 per game) than any team in the league, according to Synergy Sports. The corners are attended and every outlet covered, in part because whoever is defending on the ball can be trusted to maintain their assignment. Wesley Matthews is an exhausting defender who digs into perimeter scorers and wears them down with speed and hustle. Nicolas Batum, while not as singularly focused, wields long arms to the instruction of good instincts. Aldridge might be somehow underrated as an on-ball defender in spite of his All-Star status, and Lopez is exactly the kind of shot-blocking giant that best serves this team as a post-up deterrent and last line of defense.
Which brings us to Lillard, a third-year guard who has been fairly roasted for his defense in past seasons. Perhaps the best-kept secret of an already quiet Blazers campaign is that Lillard is no longer a liability. He's not yet a net positive on that end of the floor, but with the way Portland is constructed he needn't be. Lillard must only be good enough to hold ground, and this season he has been. Stotts doesn't hide Lillard; more often than not, Lillard is slotted as the primary cover at point guard with Batum or Matthews serving only as change-of-pace alternatives. Slowly but surely, he's starting to hold up his end of the bargain.
It helps that Lillard is a hyper-competitive sort. By the nature of the work, perimeter defense requires a certain relentlessness – hard screens are coming by the dozens, making the concept of keeping a man in front an outright impossibility. Portland is well versed in its choreography for handling those situations, be it through the pick-and-roll or otherwise. Yet Lillard is looking better and better in terms of fighting his way back into frame after being screened out of a play, giving himself a chance to influence its outcome beyond initial action.
This makes all the difference. Lillard will take time to realize how to better navigate certain defensive situations, though the fact that he's following through on his assignments helps to keep the basic structure of the defense intact. To watch Lillard lock and trail a defender this season is to watch a better, more committed player.
In that, Lillard contributes even more fully to a valuable team ethos. The Blazers of last season established themselves as one of the finest offensive teams in the league, as potent as they were fluid. That foundation remains, albeit in contribution to a modified collective identity: Portland is a team that does the work. It scraps, it commits, it executes. It makes the smart read and the responsible play. Yet more than anything, it persists. The defensive numbers will likely drift slightly as the Blazers' schedule equalizes. Even as they do, the underlying case endures. Any team that can guard capably across its rotation puts itself in a position to win any game. Any with this kind of offensive potency gives itself a chance at something more.