Two years ago, the Portland Trail Blazers won the Northwest Division for the first time. It was the first time since the 1998-99 season that they had won their respective division. Back then it was the Pacific Division, before the 2004-05 realignment that created what we know now as the Northwest Division. (As of this writing), the Blazers currently hold down first place in the division. What needs to happen for Portland to keep that lead and win it again this year? Here’s five things that will help their chances.
- The Oklahoma City Thunder need to let Kevin Durant walk, and then maybe even trade away Serge Ibaka. Oh, wait.
- Don’t allow the Minnesota Timberwolves to figure out how to close out close games. So far so good as 3 of their 7 losses have come by 4 or less points. They have zero wins of 5 points or less.
- Change George Hill’s hair color back to blonde. Last season he walked in and asked his barber, “You know who Sisqo is?” His barber responded, “Say no more, fam!” That last season with the Indiana Pacers was a down season statistically for Hill. Since joining Utah over the off-season and sporting a natural hair color he has been on a tear.
- Let the Denver Nuggets be. They are not good.
- Portland needs to score more points than their opponents.
Okay, let’s be truthful here, the Northwest Division is filled with a lot of talent. The Thunder looked strong early on, only dropping 1 of their first 7 games before their recent slide. The Jazz have a new look team that is starting to gel. The Timberwolves have an abundance of talent, but they’re still very young. The Nuggets have some talent as well and they’re not looking like pushovers this season. This is going to be a tough division to win this season.
The Defense Has To Get Better
First and foremost, the Blazers have to be better on the defensive side of things. Portland has let their opponents score a whopping 111.3 points per game (2nd most in the league). They started off in top-5 of points scored per game, but now they have slipped to 10th now at 107 PPG – that’s a negative differential of 4.3 points.
If the Blazers are going to win the division this season, their defense has to improve from last year’s defensive rating of 108 (ranked 20th in the league). As mentioned, Portland has struggled this season to contain their opponents. So far their defensive rating is at 110.3, which ranks 27th in the league. I say that getting into the top-15 should be a goal of theirs defensively this season.
Maintain Their Offensive Firepower
With Damian Lillard playing at an MVP level, the Blazers offense has been firing on all cylinders. Well, most games, they sucked against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night and against the Los Angeles Clippers last Wednesday. Outside of those two poor performances, their offense is doing well. They’re scoring points (10th most in the league). They’re moving the ball, getting 21.3 assists per game. There are a few things that they could improve on moving forward, however.
The Blazers need more consistency from their forwards. Al Farouq Aminu is out for “a couple weeks” and they need someone to step up in his place. It would be good to see Maurice Harkless step up as a consistent third scoring option in that starting lineup, at least with Aminu out. Injuries are going to happen throughout the season and guys need to step up when these things happen. Meyers Leonard has been getting rotation minutes with Aminu out. Leonard has gone 2-17 from 3-point range. He is better than that. He has to be better than that.
The Blazers in general have shot a slightly lower percentage from 3 this season. One thing that made them so tough to beat last season was their top-5 ranked 3-point shooting. They are down to 10th in 3-point shooting so far this season. Aminu, before the injury was also struggling from long range. His 3-point percentage is down from 36% a season ago to just 25%. Harkless on the other hand has seen a vast improvement with his long range shooting, He only shot 18% with Orlando 2 years ago, 28% in his first year in Portland, and now he’s up to 39% on the year so far.
Cut Down On Turnovers-Steal Ratio
14.3 turnovers per game to just 7.3 steals per game. The gold standard in that category is the Clippers at 12 TPG to 10.4 SPG. Toronto (11-9.2) is also very good at taking care of the ball and creating extra opportunities themselves.
There are only 6 teams that are worse than Portland at getting steals. Portland is the type of team that excels in transition. They are young, athletic, and have they have some great shooters. To make things easier for them, they need to start creating those extra opportunities while cutting back on giving up those same opportunities. Turnover to steals ratio is something they’ll need to work on as the season progresses.
A little help
The Thunder got off to a hot start going 6-1 in their first 7 games. They have since dropped 4 straight games. Russell Westbrook is on a mission this season. His teammates have other plans. By not helping Westbrook out, the rest of the Thunder are helping out Portland. I mean, when you put up 33 points, 8 assists and 15 rebounds – but your team still loses by 16 to the Detroit Pistons, there’s something wrong there.
The Jazz were without Gordon Hayward to start the year. He’s back and healthy. George Hill is playing the best basketball of his career. The Jazz are looking like a tough team this season. I think it’s a 3 team race at this point between Portland, Utah, and Oklahoma City. Portland will need some help by seeing on of these two teams stumble a little bit.
I haven’t seen enough from Denver and Minnesota. I love the loaded talent of Minnesota, and I don’t think it will be long before they’re in the conversation as well, but they’re not quite there yet. Denver still has work to do as well.
Inside Scoring Presence
The Blazers have no inside scoring presence. They need a big man that can bang down low and take some pressure off of their shooters. I don’t see that on the current roster. Ed Davis is solid off the bench when it comes to rebounding and put backs. Plumlee has his moments. Maybe Festus Ezeli can help with that if he can ever get healthy, but he’s also more there for rebounding and defensive purposes. The Blazers are in the bottom half of the league in FG% from 10 feet or closer. An inside scorer would be a great asset to this team.
Noah Vonleh has been impressive at times, he’s shown some improvement down low and with his ability to step outside and knock down shots. I don’t know if Vonleh is the answer, but I would like to see more of him before the trade deadline to figure out if he can be that guy. If not, the Blazers should look at trades for an inside scorer. Improving from within is great, but if Portland isn’t getting what they need out of the players at hand, they need to use their resources to get what they need. If you aren’t improving, you’re taking a step back.