Game by game, win by win, the Portland Trail Blazers are reminding the Western Conference that, in the race for an NBA championship, they will not be left behind.

Excellence has become the standard for Western Conference contenders. While the Eastern Conference will invariably sport two or three playoff teams with sub-.500 records, the West has four squads on pace to win at least 70 percent of its games and eight flirting with victory rates north of 58 percent.

Such a broad postseason picture is both mesmerizing and, to a point, undermining. It’s great to know the West has pervasive championship clout—11 of the last 16 title-toters hailed from the West—but it puts good teams at risk of being forgotten.

Grantland’s Andrew Sharp wrote:

Maybe it’s because the Blazers play almost all of their games at 10 p.m. ET, and half the country is asleep while they wreak havoc. Maybe it’s because the Warriors are too good for any other young team to get noticed. Maybe it’s because everyone remembers that this team is good and that has kept people from noticing how great it’s become.

Playing beside a jillion juggernauts hasn’t helped. There’s this congenital habit of trying to restrict contention candidates—especially within conferences. The pursuit of the Larry O’Brien Trophy is supposed to be exclusive, reserved for only a select few. Yet the West has many.

The West is alive with contenders, which has pushed Portland to back-burner status in many ways.

The Golden State Warriors are the powerhouse that powerhouses admire; the Dallas Mavericks‘ dazzling offense and penchant for splashy, risk-riddled moves (Rajon Rondo) keep them forever relevant; the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers employ four of the game’s most polarizing players; the Memphis Grizzlies have turned The Grindhouse into a red carpet-worthy domain; and the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs, while oft-perceived as bland, are unforgettable.

Once legitimate contenders become available in droves, some are left out, even if unintentionally. The Blazers have been that team, dating back to last season. Their sweltering start retreated to the mean, giving way to skepticism that, frankly, hasn’t yet disappeared.

At 28-8, with the NBA’s second-best record, though, the Blazers are firmly fixing themselves to the above company—not as dark horses, fringe contenders, flukes or afterthoughts, but as genuine threats.

Indisputable Evidence

This is not one of those instances in which personnel and intuition override results. This is to say, the Blazers are not the slumping Cleveland Cavaliers. Their stats and personnel align.

LaMarcus Aldridge is one of few big men who can hit from anywhere on the floor. Long the mid-range virtuoso, he’s deepened his arsenal to include a steady flow of three-pointers, already making (16) and attempting (33) the most of his career.

Damian Lillard has blossomed into a megastar. He’s averaging 22.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game, while putting in 38.8 percent of his long balls, good enough for a career-high player efficiency rating of 23.2.

Only three other players in the league are averaging at least 20 points, four rebounds, six assists and one steal while shooting 36 percent or better from deep: LeBron James, James Harden and Stephen Curry.

When it comes to crunch time, Lillard is still king. During the final three minutes of games in which the Blazers are tied or behind by no more than five points, he’s shooting 60 percent, which ranks seventh among the 53 players to attempt at least 10 shots in such situations.

Wesley Matthews remains one of the premier three-and-D wings. He is averaging a career-best 16.6 points per game, is banging in 39.9 percent of deep balls and leads the league in three-point makes (109).

Those three spearhead what is, as of now, the Association’s sixth-most potent offense. This despite Robin Lopez being sidelined with a hand injury and Nicolas Batum having the worst offensive season of his career.

The Blazers’ offensive success is familiar, thus the reason it’s often overlooked.

But the results, while super, are nothing new.

Portland has been an offensive giant since last season, and its core contributors remain relatively unchanged. Even its bench, which is enjoying impassioned performances from newcomers Steve Blake and Chris Kaman, is still middle of the road to below average on both ends of the floor, per HoopsStats.com.

Continued stability, while a pivotal part of Portland’s success, makes for vapid impressions. There’s a been-there, done-that feel to the Blazers’ offensive laurels—those which earned them a second-round exodus last season.

They shoot threes frequently and efficiently, take and make more mid-range jumpers than 75 percent of the league, and they pass with purpose over volume. There’s nothing truly new about them.

Except their defense.

The Blazers rank third in points allowed per 100 possessions, behind only the Rockets and Warriors. It’s a stark improvement for a defense that started strong last season only to flame out ahead of the playoffs:

Blazers’ Balance
2013-14 108.3 5 104.7 16
2014-15 105.9 6 98.9 3
Difference -2.4 -1 5.8 13

NBA.com.

That 5.7-point difference on the defensive end is huge, and it’s left the Blazers more equipped to impede rival offenses than they’ve been in nigh two decades. And they’re doing so without especially elite rim protection.

Opponents are shooting 51.3 percent against them at the iron, the 13th-best mark in the league, and they’re among the bottom five in points allowed in the paint, per TeamRankings.com.

How, then, have the Blazers established themselves as an elite defensive team midway through the season?

Evans Clinchy of Blazer’s Edge has us covered:

More specifically, what the Blazers are doing is cracking down on opposing outside shooters. All the talk in NBA circles these days is about the changing style of play around the leagueteams want offenses that can pace, space and shoot. They want to control the flow of the game, spread the floor, move the ball and find open jumpersor, as many often put it more succinctly, ‘play like the Spurs.’ The Blazers’ greatest strength is they’re able to game-plan for this style and beat it. …

… Simply put, the Blazers just won’t let you get an open jump shot from the perimeter. If you’re going to take one, it’s going to be forced, it’s going to be contested and it’s going to be ugly.

Coach Terry Stotts has installed an ideology that makes it almost impossible for opponents to effectively space the floor. The Blazers don’t switch on screens. They anticipate them, shirking defenders before they even make contact. Doing so limits the number of rotations needed, further ensuring the Blazers aren’t burned by the absence of help.

Everyone on the floor also cheats toward the ball, obstructing court vision for the primary rock-wielders. This space they leave between them and their off-ball opponents is precise. It’s large enough to make a difference and provide occasional help yet marginal enough to close out on quick catch-and-shoots.

And while this brand of defense won’t generate a lot of turnovers—Portland ranks 27th in turnovers forced—the Blazers are equally happy to watch contested shots carom off the rim. As they should be. After all, they join the Warriors and Atlanta Hawks as the only teams to rank in the top seven of both offensive and defensive efficiency.

Surviving the West

It’s a contender-crammed jungle out West now more than ever. Aside from what’s become the usual conference bloodbath, the West’s title-seekers are now gearing up for an arms race.

The Rockets landed Josh Smith off waivers, the Oklahoma City Thunder dealt for Dion Waiters, the Mavericks brought in Rondo, the Phoenix Suns are acquiring rim protection in Brandan Wright and the Grizzlies are landing Jeff Green. Not one of the Warriors, Clippers or Spurs are going anywhere, either.

But the Blazers, despite existing outside the NBA’s rampant rumor mill, are armed to the teeth themselves. 

Lillard can be a plus-producer every night, even when he has to go up against Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Mike Conley, Russell Westbrook or Rajon Rondo; Matthews, as a two-way shooting guard, is one of the last of his kind; Aldridge can go toe-to-toe with any big man not named Anthony Davis; and when Lopez is healthy, the Blazers are surprisingly deep at center, the league’s thinnest position.

Blazers’ Production By Position
Blazers’ PER 16.2 18.6 12.2 16.9 18.6
Opponents’ PER 15.7 13.9 13.2 13.1 17.3
Difference 0.5 4.7 -1.0 3.8 1.3

82games.com.

Small forward is the only position that’s a net-minus for Portland, according to 82games.com. If Batum—frequently heralded as one of the NBA’s most versatile wings—ever regains his swagger, that can change in a heartbeat.

Just think of what the Blazers, already elite, would be able to accomplish then.

Bursting Through the Door

There are concerns to count for the Blazers.

Shallow rotations put them at the mercy of a healthy starting lineup, and their defensive system is personnel-specific. If they’re not fielding the requisite quickness, defensive stands aren’t going to end well. That they’re a combined 3-4 against fellow top-eight Western Conference teams is also a problem.

Where will the Blazers end up ranking in the wild, wild West?

Still, the Blazers rank third on Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System, which accounts for strength of schedule and subsequent margin of victory. This is indeed worth recognition—the kind they haven’t yet received.

“At first, it was just the highlights seeing some of the plays we made,” Lillard said following Portland’s win over Miami, per ESPN.com’s Michael Wallace. “But after that, I just wanted to listen for a minute. We don’t get talked about too much around here on that [national] level.”

That will inevitably change if the Blazers keep this up into the spring, when all their displays will be thrust under the spotlight. 

Until then, those who understand the significance of their performance thus far know the Blazers aren’t just knocking on the door of contention—they’re already there, among the NBA’s best, refusing to be left behind.

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise cited and are accurate as of games played Jan. 8, 2015.

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