The Portland Trail Blazers are on fire to start this season.
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The Portland Trail Blazers have the best offense in basketball. They feature a young point guard blossoming into a star. They boast wins over the Pacers, Thunder and Rockets. They have, despite Wednesday night’s loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, a stunning 22-5 record.
How in the world did this happen?
They were able to deal second-round picks and the rights to overseas players and pick an upgrade at the backup point guard spot (Mo Williams in place of Eric Maynor) and turn a brutally bad bench into a serviceable one. Damian Lillard went from Rookie of the Year to one of the game’s top closers. They swapped Robin Lopez in for J.J. Hickson at center, a move that has freed LaMarcus Aldridge up to play — and be guarded by — the four position.
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And, turns out, they really like each other.
“It’s been pretty special,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts told me Wednesday. “The players from last year got better and the chemistry came together fast. Everybody likes playing with each other and we adapted to the style we need to.”
There were signs this was possible, if unlikely, last season. Last March, with backup point guard Maynor joining the fray and allowing Lillard to play some off the ball, the Trail Blazers had one of the league’s best offenses. Williams is an upgrade over Maynor in that same role. And their core four of Lillard, Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum rivals any in basketball.
That’s not to say this will last. The bench is better — Dorrell Wright, Thomas Robinson, Joel Freeland — but far from excellent. And navigating the West is a slog full of very good basketball teams.
Still, the Trail Blazers would have been thrilled to finish somewhere from sixth to eighth heading into the season. They now seem, even if they revert to the mean, like a three to six seed. They’re a Western Conference power to be taken seriously.
SO, THEN, ARE THE TRAIL BLAZERS FOR REAL?
We asked three NBA experts to give us their take on whether or not Portland is for real:
Retired Hall of Fame player: Yes they are. Their regular season is for real. Are they playoff, battle-tested for real? That remains to be seen. Damian Lillard is really good. They shifted their focus from a point-guard-heavy-oriented offense to a main focus now with starting with Aldridge as first option and the point guard as the second option. Last year it was the other way around. Traditional basketball has won a majority of the championships with the exception of the freak of nature that is LeBron James. Look back at most and the big guys win. That’s good for Portland.
GM No. 1: I like them. I really do. Not just because of the wins. They added some really key pieces, and when LaMarcus is playing this well he’s as good as they get and that makes a huge, huge difference. Lillard is what Lillard is, guys like Batum, even Mo Williams coming off the bench, are very good. I don’t see them making a run at the Finals. But they’re definitely good. I didn’t think they’d be this good, but they are.
Scout No. 1: They’re pretty good. The most underrated move in the offseason was getting Robin Lopez. Big-time substance guy, dirty work guy, rebounder, defender, and allows LaMarcus not to have to do any of that stuff so he can play mid-range. Plays a ton of minutes for them. He’s a huge help. Last year their starters were really good but the bench was atrocious, and now those rotational guys are now overseas — they weren’t even good enough to play in the NBA. Replace that with Mo Williams and Thomas Robinson and Dorrell Wright. Batum is one of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA, tremendous defensively. I think it’ll be tough for them once the playoffs come around. These guys, where’s their big-time winner? They’re doing it with guys who haven’t really won.
ABOUT THAT TANKING THING …
This is indeed a phenomenal, game-changing draft class that has scouts and general managers drooling and awful teams convincing themselves “tanking” isn’t such an awful thing.
But how many truly amazing players are there waiting in the 2014 NBA draft? How many can’t-miss, won’t-bust, you-won’t-be-fired-for-selecting-them guys are out there waiting to be gobbled up by the league’s worst teams?
Several NBA front-office executives say after you get past the first seven or so the draft turns into players like, say, Kansas shooting guard Wayne Selden. He could be a stud, or a long-time starter, or a bust. Like many, many other draft classes there are mistakes and gems waiting after the sure things.
One GM said there are seven “can change your life” players who will be available, guys worth the trouble if the ping pong balls bounce the right way and give your team pick No. 1 through No. 7, guys you can’t mess up on if you don’t get cute.
In no particular order those players are: Marcus Smart, Jabari Parker, Dante Exum, Aaron Gordon, Julius Randle, Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins.
A CITY LIKE CLEVELAND CAN DREAM …
No, I am not saying LeBron James is going to Cleveland.
Yes, I think the Heat are by far the front-runners for his services when, after this season, he has the right to opt out of his contract and sign a new deal wherever he’d like.
And sure, it’s way too early to have any clue what the NBA landscape will like or guess what LeBron will or won’t be thinking about come June.
In casual conversations the past week with front-office executives, scouts and former players, several people mentioned — wholly unsolicited — that they’re not ruling Cleveland out as a player for LeBron’s services.
It’s just water-cooler talk right now, of course. But there’s also a widely held belief that if the Timberwolves aren’t in the thick of things come the trade deadline, several teams will go big-game hunting for Kevin Love’s services. And as part of that water-cooler talk, some have suggested that, well, hell, if Cleveland flipped some draft picks and traded some young talent and could seduce LeBron with an offer to play with Love and Kyrie Irving …
Like I said, it’s a long ways off. But people are talking about how it just might be possible to see again King James in a Cavs jersey.
WORTH NOTING …
Last season, three teams won at least 50 games and still fired their head coaches: Memphis (56 wins, Lionel Hollins), the Clippers (56, Vinny Del Negro) and Denver (57, Coach of the Year George Karl).
It’s early. There are lots of factors — injuries, new personnel, still adjusting to new coaches, the fact someone like Doc Rivers was hired to win in the postseason as well as the regular season — but the fact is two of those teams have worse records than this time last year.
The Clippers were 21-6 through this time last year and are 18-9 so far this season. Memphis was 18-7 this time last year and are 10-15 this year.
Denver has gone from being 12-12 last season to 14-10 this season.
THE FOX SPORTS Q&A: KINGS GENERAL MANAGER PETE D’ALESSANDRO
The Sacramento Kings raised some eyebrows last week when they acquired Rudy Gay from the Toronto Raptors and assumed his huge contract and $19 million player option next season. The Kings general manager talked to us about the move and what was behind it.
Bill Reiter: You guys have been dinged for this trade with some of the more analytics-minded NBA writers and some front-office people I’ve talked to. Why was this a good move for your team right now?
Pete D’Alessandro: We’re trying to add and acquire talent. We’ve been a team that I think has been somewhat stagnant because of some of the recent years and some of the recent history and to add a player of the level of talent like Rudy Gay to some of the young talent that we already have — we saw that as a great opportunity and we see that as a great opportunity.
BR: Why do you think a guy as talented as he clearly is has had a rough go of it? He sat out in Memphis and obviously that’s a more analytics-minded organization. Goes to Toronto and that doesn’t last there very long. What it is about Rudy Gay that turns off some people and obviously has other people really excited about him being part of their team?
PD: Well, now I think if you look at our group, we have some pretty analytical-minded people. There’s chemistry involved there and when you look at some of his success, some of his greatest success, it happened when there was a significant low-post presence. Rudy can be played in isolation as well, but when you can put him in a situation with multiple options for him, I think he can become all the more dangerous.
BR: How does being in Sacramento rather than, say, New York City alter what your long-range plan has to be in Sacramento?
PD: We’re looking at this as our opportunity for Rudy to get to know us and for us to get to know him and we’re excited about that. We have an opportunity here. You know, we see him at a level that is up there with the top-level players and he can see the way we treat him and we just think it’s a great opportunity for us to build that relationship to get him here.
BR: Obviously he has a player option next season for $19-some million. Andre Iguodala had a similar situation — opted out of a big contract this summer and then signed a four-year, $48 million contract. Are there some similarities between what happened with Iguodala and perhaps Rudy for you guys in the hope that he might do something similar?
PD: You know, every situation is unique. There are always different reasons why you do things. You know, but options are just that — they’re options and that is his and that’s a reality. We hope to see him here long term. That’s our goal.
BR: DeMarcus Cousins. Rudy Gay. Derrick Williams. Isaiah Thomas. Perhaps a very nice draft pick this summer in 2014. How good is the core of this team and do you have a vision right now in terms of how long you think it’ll take to be an actual playoff-contending team in what is a pretty crowded West?
PD: Well I think we have a much better collection of talent now. I don’t necessarily know that we put together a team yet and rounded it out that way. So there’s still time in this. Like I’ve said before, this isn’t a quick fix or get-rich-quick scheme. This is more of a long-term plan for us. And we see all of these pieces as part of that long-term plan.