Trail Blazers fans living anywhere NOT under a rock know that Portland has dispatched two of the NBA’s best teams in successive games: the (now) 17-2 Indiana Pacers, and the (now) 13-4 Oklahoma City Thunder.
How good are those teams? The Pacers have the NBA’s best record, the Thunder are one of only 5 teams with 4 or fewer losses, and both are in the top-10 in points allowed.
Despite an 11-game winning streak that included significant road swings and back-to-backs, there’s been quite a bit of doubt as to whether Portland’s hot start was “for realsies” (not a direct quote). Most of these comments, such as those by CBSSports.com writer Royce Young, harp on the Blazers’ opponents: “The Trail Blazers might not be the real deal, yet,” writes Young, because “overall, they’ve played a pretty soft schedule.” And this was AFTER they beat the Pacers.
That “pretty soft schedule” gave them opponents with a .505 winning percentage, slightly more difficult than the league average.
Some of the teams below them? The Pacers at 28th of 30 teams with a .454 opponent winning percentage, and Miami at dead last with a .451 opponent winning percentage.
The interesting part: go ahead and Google “Blazers schedule soft.” See how many relevant stories you get. If you’re like me, you’ll have quite a few more than if you did the same for either the Pacers or the Heat. Admittedly, one Pacers article did mention Indiana’s soft schedule, but then went on to say that they hadn’t yet reached their full potential. That’s quite the positive shine.
With the “soft schedule” theory debunked and the (admittedly less-than-perfectly-scientific) assumption that the Blazers get hassled for their schedule more than their peers, the question is begged: Why?
Why why WHY are the Blazers not given the respect they so desperately deserve?
The answer’s simple. They don’t deserve it yet.
Many are hesitant to mention Portland in the same breath as San Antonio or Indiana or Oklahoma City (all teams the Blazers have beaten this year, by the way), but neither because of their schedule nor their roster.
It’s because San Antonio and Indiana and Oklahoma City have had recent postseason success. The Spurs have played .650 ball for over a decade, have won championships and gotten to finals with the same players and system and coach as they have now, and were a disastrous few dozen seconds away from a title last year. OKC and Indiana have gotten to Finals and Conference Finals. All three teams are proven. They get respect because they’re good, and they’re good because they’re good, if you can excuse the tautology.
But the Trail Blazers are still largely unknown. Without a bench, with a new coach, and with a bucketful of new players, they played hard early on last year, then stunk it up harder than a forgotten bag of post-Thanksgiving day turkey. Portland’s offseason (or should we say Neil Olshey’s offseason) flew mostly under the radar. No big names were signed and no splashes were made, although you could argue that the Mo Williams signing was a late, pleasant surprise. ESPN ranked Portland 15th in its initial Power Rankings this year, and some people thought that was a touch generous.
Many of us suspected otherwise. One writer suggested before the season that the Blazers’ character would be an asset, that “the right culture can… maybe, just maybe, open the door to greater success than could have otherwise been hoped for,” and that Coach Stotts “might just be the right person for this team at this time, just like McMillan a handful of years before him.”
The Trail Blazers have surpassed all expectations thus far, but it will take sustained winning, and postseason success of some form, before everyone else gives them much credit for it.