Portland Trail Blazers, The Whiteboard

The Whiteboard: Everybody is sleeping on the Portland Trail Blazers

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The two teams leading the NBA in net rating in the calendar year 2019 are pretty obvious picks: the Western Conference-leading Golden State Warriors are in second, and the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks are in first. In third, with a sizable gulf on both sides of them, are the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Blazers, after an ugly run that saw them get outscored across all of their games in both November and December, have been great ever since the year flipped to 2019. Portland is scoring 117.2 points per 100 possessions in 2019, second among all NBA teams, and has beaten opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions in that span.

That’s a healthy scoring advantage, healthier even than Portland’s 16-7 record in those games. The Blazers haven’t lost by more than 10 in the new year, and have absolutely blown out several teams, including real playoff squads like the Utah Jazz and the Warriors.

As always, Damian Lillard has been phenomenal for Portland this season. His per game numbers seem slightly depressed based on the decreased minutes he’s played, but Lillard is still averaging 25.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 1.2 steals in the 35.3 minutes per game he’s seen. Dame continues to be a powerful scoring threat, but it’s his passing that has helped the Trail Blazers of late.

Lillard actually scored more in 2018, although the Blazers were a mediocre 21-16 in games he played and plus 2.7 points per game with him on the floor. While Dame’s scoring went down from 26.8 points per game to 24.3, his assists per game rose from 5.8 to 7.6. Most importantly, Portland has killed teams with him on the floor in 2019, outscoring them by an average of 10.5 points per game.

CJ McCollum, Lillard’s backcourt buddy, has also scored slightly less and assisted slightly more since January 1. It’s the Blazers’ supporting cast, made up of players like Jusuf Nurkic (14.5 points per game to 16.9 since New Years) and Jake Layman (5.0 points per game in 2018, 11.8 in 2019), plus the newly added Enes Kanter, who is putting up 14.3 points per game.

As good as Lillard and McCollum are, they are not in the highest, most elite tier of players. That means the more they can involve their teammates, the better. Portland still isn’t anybody’s title favorite, but this newer brand of basketball has made the Portland Trail Blazers much better this year.

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