The Portland Trail Blazers just played their 41st game, but already there's a sense that the season has passed them by. Their 11-game win streak, their national coming-out party, happened nearly two months ago, and the NBA news cycle, as is its wont, has shifted its focus elsewhere. The Blazers have kicked around the top of the West standings and, after their close loss to Oklahoma City on Tuesday, stand just one and a half games out of first place in the conference. It seems that most viewers are content to consider Portland a fixed entity -- a good team, sure, but not fitting of that slippery honorific “contender” -- while the Blazers keep chugging along on pace to hit nearly 60 wins.
So it seems an odd task to readjust expectations for a team whose own success has already made a mockery of preseason expectations. The smart money had the Blazers competing for a low playoff seed alongside the Timberwolves and Pelicans, and they’ve now reached a point where .500 ball all but guarantees them a playoff spot in the packed West. So what gives? How is it that a team on pace, conservatively, to beat out predictions by more than 10 wins seems to have faded into the background?
Part of it, of course, is the Blazers’ disposition. Upstart teams are usually marked by young players coming into themselves as players, and by extension, personalities. But the Blazers are anchored by veterans and young players who aspire to veteran dispositions. Without a doubt, they are a happier gang than in seasons past, but they’re more contented sigh than barbaric yawp, and while they continue to shoot the lights out, they’re not big on stoking the fire of public interest. The Blazers are fine with the in-game spotlight, but less friendly to the off-court flashbulb.
Perhaps more pressing is the material issue of their defense. With wins come scrutiny, and Portland’s defense doesn’t hold up under much. While the Blazers have been, at their peak, an above-average unit, they’ve spent the better part of the season below average and are trending worse. They currently rank 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, a figure that no amount of squinting can make palatable. The question is: As one of the league’s healthiest teams, why have the Blazers slipped from their defensive peak? Do we read that as a team that possesses the gear necessary to defend respectably, or as a team building the habit of relying on its offense?
Either position could be credibly supported. While the Blazers rebuilt their bench into a net positive this summer, they are relying on heavy contributions from Mo Williams, Joel Freeland, and Dorrell Wright -- decent or very good players all, but none of them lockdown defenders. With the heavy minutes the starters play and the defensive limitations of the bench personnel, this may be a strict effort-preservation mission. They are 8-4 against the Spurs, Pacers, Heat, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder and Warriors. That’s a small sample size, but it may suggest that the Blazers are as capable as dialing up for premier opponents as any other contender.
On the other hand, 26th is 26th, and the truly elite teams don’t rely on caveats to bolster their credentials. To some extent, every team but a few must -- the Warriors have their #fullsquad, the Heat are coasting or “conserving” -- but by and large, top teams look like top teams on both ends of the court. A little more than 70 percent of the time, the Blazers have spackled over their porous defense with their shooting, but that’s probably not the profile of a champion.
Still, though, is being a subpar defensive team reason enough for the tepid embrace the Blazers seem to be getting? Put it this way: Title-ready or not, they skipped an organizational step entirely this season, going from a team that needed to figure out how to win to a team that needs to fine-tune its formula to make winning habitual.
So the Blazers have moved from one set of questions -- do they belong in the NBA’s upper class? -- to another. They took half a season to do the work that can take a franchise years, shedding lottery expectations and settling into life as a winning team. They have half a season now to focus on details, to make the incremental improvements that separate the Thunders, Spurs and Heats of the league from the asterisk class. If they can succeed, they just might recapture the attention of a league that seems to have moved on.