Dec 12, 2013; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) shoots the ball over Houston Rockets power forward Terrence Jones (6) during the first quarter of the game at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Portland Trail Blazers true contenders?


The Portland Trail Blazers have been the NBA’s early season darlings, starting the season with a 13-2 record and now standing at 19-4 after defeating the Houston Rockets on Thursday night on TNT.

The trouble is, we’re bordering on non-early-season status. We’ve passed the quarter pole, and the Blazers are still there. Other than two losses in Phoenix (to a nearly as surprising Suns squad that is currently carrying a 12-9 record), Portland doesn’t really have any bad losses on their ledger for the season. And everyone has bad losses, Miami, San Antonio, Indiana, and Oklahoma City included.

So it sure looks like it’s time for the league to sit up and take notice. It’s no longer a cute and fuzzy story anymore. Sure, they may not finish with the #1 seed come April (they won’t), but it would be difficult for them to fail to make the playoffs at this point in time. In fact, the ESPN Hollinger Playoff Odds have the Blazers’ postseason chances standing at 98.4%. Not too shabby.

Portland returns last year’s Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard. Despite not getting as much attention this year (he is not, after all, a rookie any longer), he’s actually played better all-around basketball than last season. His two-point field goal percentage is about the only number that has suffered, but Lillard has cut down his turnovers and increased his three-point shooting percentage so dramatically through 23 games that his on-court value has taken off.

The Trail Blazers best player, of course, has been LaMarcus Aldridge. Quite honestly, Aldridge is one of those players that was underrated for so long that he had become overrated prior to and throughout last season. This year, however, he’s stepped up his game in his age-28 season to a level that he had not previously reached.

But how much of that is sustainable? Aldridge has long been judged (and fairly so, in most cases) as a mid-range stretch four. He’s never had the range to shoot three-pointers, but he’s also never been a good rebounder for a power forward (this year’s per game averages of 8.4 rebounds and rebounding rate of 15.8% would both be career highs if sustained throughout the season). His low-post game is good, and he’s obviously quite deadly in the high-post, but the paint isn’t his best friend, to put it lightly.

But nobody, save for Doug Collins and Flip Saunders, could be convinced that a bevy of mid-range jumpers are the best way to score points. Of course, if you make them well above a league-average clip, things change a bit. But in turn, we must wonder just how sustainable that truly is.

Here is Aldridge’s shot chart from last season, 2012-13:

Shotchart_1386950103000

Again, he’s very good from the elbows and free throw line extended areas. But there are obvious patterns to LMA’s weaknesses. Take a look at what he’s done so far in 2013-14:

Shotchart_1386950302231

Yeah, it looks a bit different. He’s been unconscious from mid-range this year, except for that weird 27% mark from beyond the left elbow. But that spot aside, he’s shooting 71-134, or 53% from 16 to 24 feet this season. That’s crazy, and well above league average.

But take another look at last year’s shot chart. Can he keep this up? Looking back at his career track record, it’s difficult to confirm that he can. In addition, nearly 40% of his shots come from the 16-24 foot range, so it isn’t like his shot distribution is all out of whack this year. (Surprisingly, nearly 19% of his shots come from that yellow, 8-16 foot range to the left of the basket. He shoots just 40.2% from that spot on the floor.

If Aldridge keeps up his career pace from the floor, can the Blazers challenge for a top-four seed and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs? Sure. I would expect it, at this point.

But let’s not count on this continued, new-found efficiency from mid-range. The rest of the roster is solid, but important complimentary players like Wes Matthews are having career-years to this point alongside Aldridge. And that usually doesn’t keep up. Some of their rotational bench players, like Mo Williams and Joel Freeland, simply have not been very good. When the starters inevitably begin to regress to their career norms, it will become more noticeable.

As it stands, the stars are aligning for once for the much-maligned Trail Blazers franchise, and it’s hard to not feel good for their fans. Sure, they’ll make the playoffs, and I would have been the last to consider that possibility before the season began. But let’s not start putting them in the class of the Spurs, Heat, Pacers, and Thunder quite yet.

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Tags: Damian Lillard LaMarcus Aldridge NBA Portland Trail Blazers