The Portland Trail Blazers (9-2) are off to their hottest start since the 1999-2000 season and, guess what, if they win in Milwaukee on Wednesday they’ll surpass that. The last time Portland had a 10-2 record or better to start the season, their headliners were Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, and Kevin Duckworth in 1990-1991. More than 20 years later, LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, and Nicolas Batum are on the verge of another historic debut.
It’s actually rather astonishing to think that the Trail Blazers were 5-6 at this time last year. Usually an improvement that drastic and immediate is the result of a major trade or free agency signing, but Portland managed to achieve the same result with a series of low-level trades and some under-the-radar pickups. The whole team deserves credit for the success they’ve experienced so far, but it’s a true testament to the starters when a bench remodel makes this much difference.
Ready for the best part? Despite adding Mo Williams and Dorell Wright in free agency to share the scoring load, each of the returning starters is putting up even bigger numbers than they did last year (with the exception of Nicolas Batum, whose role continues to shift toward facilitation under head coach Terry Stotts). Factor the new bench back into the equation and there has been a direct translation in total points per game for the Trail Blazers.
Portland Trail Blazers 2012-2013: 97.5 points per game (15th in the NBA)
Portland Trail Blazers 2013-2014: 104.9 points per game (6th in the NBA)
LaMarcus Aldridge 2012-2013: 21.1 points per game
LaMarcus Aldridge 2013-2014: 22.6 points per game
Damian Lillard 2012-2013: 19.0 points per game
Damian Lillard 2013-2014: 20.0 points per game
Wesley Matthews 2012-2013: 14.8 points per game
Wesley Matthews 2013-2014: 16.0 points per game
(Mo Williams 2013-2014: 10.5 points per game)
This team feels an awful lot like last year’s Golden State Warriors. A young point guard trying to prove he’s no fluke, a Sixth Man of the Year hopeful backing him up, an underrated shooting guard on fire from deep, an all-star power forward, and a new center to shore up interior defense, all culminating in a high-scoring offensive system? The Trail Blazers are a carbon copy of a proven success story—and you know what? They might actually be better.
But for all the national attention the Trail Blazers have received this past week, I remain hesitant to tip my hat. They are functioning beautifully on offense now, but what happens when they play an elite team? Of the Trail Blazers’ nine victories, only one seemed worthwhile (the Spurs). Can we honestly say that beating the Nuggets, Kings (x2), Pistons, Suns, Celtics, Raptors, and disheveled Nets makes the Trail Blazers an elite team themselves? I’m excited to get a better gage on Friday when they face the Bulls.
Whether the Trail Blazers have benefited from a less than challenging schedule or not, they’re NBA identity is changing. People are starting to take notice, and for good reason. LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, and Nicolas Batum each made the all-star ballot this year for their outstanding effectiveness. That same effectiveness spans beyond those three, and the whole conglomerate has realized its potential under the watchful eyes of a nation. How far will they go?