PORTLAND, Ore. — The Trail Blazers have won eight in a row and face a huge test Friday when they welcome the defending champion Warriors to the Moda Center. It's time to check in on the Blazers with another edition of 3-on-3, a weekly KGW feature.
This week's questions focus on whether the Blazers are the fifth-best team in the NBA, Damian Lillard moving into the MVP conversation and predictions for the next two games.
1. True or false? The Blazers are the fifth-best team in the NBA.
Jared: The Blazers have the fifth-best record in the NBA right now, but because the standings are packed so tightly (the Cavaliers and Pelicans are tied in the loss column with the Blazers), record alone isn’t enough to settle the question. Let’s delve into some statistical analysis. Since Dec. 23, the Blazers are tied with the Pelicans for the fourth-best record in the NBA (22-10). However, during that same 32-game stretch, the Blazers rank 11th in offensive and defensive efficiency and 12th in net rating. Not a Top-5 team. If you shorten the calendar, it starts to looks better. Over the past month, the Blazers are 9-1, the fourth-best record in the NBA, and their net rating improves to sixth overall on the strength of the NBA’s second-ranked defense. How about during Portland’s eight-game winning streak? Their net rating jumps up to fifth overall, again behind the strength of their defense, which still ranks second in the league during the streak. Over the past 8-10 games, Portland has been the fifth-best team in the league, at least. But a month is still too small a sample size. So for now, I’m going to answer false to this question.
Orlando: What a time to be a Blazers fan. The race to the finish is unlike any other people can remember. Outside of the top two teams in both conferences, it’s a free-for-all ranking teams after that. The Blazers' rise in the standings still have many confused or unwilling to believe it, but the record is legit. They’ve been one of the best in the league when it comes to beating teams with sub-.500 records. This is something that separates a mediocre team from a good team. They’re also closing out games against teams like the Warriors, Jazz, Timberwolves and Thunder. Sure, they’ve caught some breaks along the way with opponents missing star players but that’s part of the game. It’s a “what have you done for me lately” game and the Blazers have taken it to another level since the all-star break and it’s happening on one of the toughest-rated schedules in the NBA. You can make the case for the Cavs, Wizards, Pelicans etc., but right now, the Blazers get the nod. If Portland isn’t the fifth-best team in the league, it is right there. The answer is true, but just like the standings, this answer changes game by game.
Nate: This is a tough one but even though the Blazers are playing great, I'm going to say false. They are close but right now, there are five teams I'd pick to beat them if they played today. The first four are pretty obvious (Rockets, Warriors, Raptors, and Celtics) but I also think the Pelicans are a better team right now than the Blazers. They have simply been unstoppable offensively since the injury to DeMarcus Cousins. They're averaging 125 points per game during their 10-game winning streak and in a matchup against the Blazers, I think Anthony Davis would ultimately be the difference maker. With that said, due to Davis' history and recent nagging injuries, I think the Pelicans have a greater chance of falling off by the end of the season than the Blazers. But for the time being, I give the Pelicans the nod and would rank the Blazers as the sixth best team in the NBA right now. Cleveland could always jump back into the mix by the end of the season as well.
2. If the vote for NBA MVP happened today, where would Damian Lillard finish?
Orlando: National media outside the Pacific Time Zone is getting a taste of what Damian Lillard can do thanks to recent games against the Warriors and Lakers broadcasted on TNT. The problem is, the Blazers vs. Suns isn’t going to keep voters on the East Coast awake past midnight to witness "Lillard Time." He’s gotta have big nights against upcoming opponents like the Warriors, Cavs, Rockets, etc., where Lillard outperforms other MVP candidates on those squads. He has to go out and steal those votes. I think if it ended today, he finishes outside the Top 5 behind Harden, LeBron, Curry, Durant, Davis, and maybe even DeRozan.
Nate: I think he would finish fifth in the MVP voting if it happened today. Nationally, I think voters would rank James Harden, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant and LeBron James ahead of Lillard. I think they'd put Lillard ahead of Stephen Curry now because of the Blazers' hot streak. If I had an MVP vote, I'd pick him third with only Harden and Davis in front of him. To me, Lillard has done something Durant and James haven't done for their teams this year. He's elevated the Blazers to a level they haven't reached in years, and never reached before with this group of players. Harden and Davis have done the same for their teams. James has been the only glue that has kept the Cavaliers together this year but they're currently the third seed, which is a disappointment compared to preseason expectations. And Durant has been great, but the Warriors have four All-Stars on their team so it's difficult to judge the impact he's had on his team's success. Regardless, this is quite a swing for Lillard. A month ago, the debate was should he be an All-Star? Now, we're talking about MVP consideration.
Jared: If the vote happened today, I think James Harden, on the strength of the Rockets' record and great individual statistics, would garner all or most of the first-place votes. Anthony Davis would probably finish second. His performance since DeMarcus Cousins went down, both on an individual level and in the way he's carried the Pelicans to a better-than-expected record, would resonate with voters. Damian Lillard's stats aren't as good as Davis’ numbers, and he hasn't had to play the second half of the season without the second-best player on his team, but he's also put up eye-popping statistics while carrying his team to unexpected heights. He’s getting so much national attention right now, I think he'd end up with the third-most votes. Something to consider is voters may have Warriors and Cavaliers fatigue, which could help both Davis and Lillard. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are deserving of MVP consideration, but they'll probably take some votes from each other. There is a train of thought among NBA pundits that the Warriors are underachieving this season, which could also cost them some votes. And though a lot of voters consider LeBron James the best player in the NBA, he may be penalized for the Cavaliers' dysfunction and underwhelming record this season.
3. Prediction time! The Blazers host the Warriors on Friday and the Heat on Monday. Which games do the Blazers win and which do they lose?
- Nate: 44-21
- Jared: 44-21
- Orlando: 42-23
Nate: For the first time since the All-Star break, I’m going to pick the Blazers to lose. It is a home-to-road back-to-back for the Warriors but I think they'll be eager to play the Blazers again after losing to them just before the All-Star break. I think the perception of the Blazers is changing throughout the NBA and the Warriors don't want to give Portland any confidence that if the two teams faced off in the playoffs, Portland could compete with them. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson shot a combined 12 of 32 last game (6 of 17 from beyond the arc). I don't see them both struggling to knock down shots again. Portland played their best game of the season last matchup and I don't think they'll put together that effort again. But I do think the Blazers bounce back and knock off a Heat team that is 9-14 in their last 23 games.
Jared: I'm picking the Blazers. I know all the reasons to pick the Warriors. Golden State will be motivated after Portland beat them in their last meeting. The Warriors have 11 more wins than Portland. Their point differential is +8.6. The Blazers' is +2.2. The Blazers are good, but Golden State is elite. I should probably pick Golden State. I really should. But here are some reasons to pick the Blazers. Portland will be rested, playing their first game since Tuesday. The Warriors will be playing the second game of a back-to-back following a late Thursday night game against the Spurs. The game is at the Moda Center, where Portland has won 14 of their past 15 games. And finally, Portland has been beating a lot of good teams lately. In their past 11 games, the Blazers have beat the Warriors, Jazz, Timberwolves, Thunder (whether OKC is a good team is debatable) and Lakers (it's too late for their playoff hopes, but the Lakers are a good team now). Plus, I'm finding it harder and harder to pick against Damian Lillard in anything. It's a risky pick, but I'm going with the Blazers. I also think Portland will beat the Heat. Miami has been slumping lately. Give the Blazers another win.
Orlando: As tempting as it is to pick the Blazers over the Warriors, I won’t do it. The streak ends where it started, versus Golden State. I can’t see the Blazers losing back-to-back games at home, considering how well they’ve played at the Moda Center the past couple of months, and Miami has been a below-average team on the road. Portland bounces back for the “W” and goes 1-1 this week.
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WHAT IS 3-ON-3 BLAZERS?
Every Thursday, three members of the KGW sports team will answer three questions about the Blazers. You can join the conversation on Facebook during a live chat with our panel every Thursday afternoon at 3. Can't join us on Thursday? Not a problem. You can listen later on the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast.
MEET OUR PANELISTS
- Orlando Sanchez is the sports anchor and reporter for KGW News, Sports Sunday and Friday Night Flights. Orlando has covered multiple NBA Finals, NCAA Basketball Tournaments and World Series.
- Jared Cowley is a digital media producer who writes about the Blazers and other topics for KGW.com. Before he came to KGW, Jared wrote about the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors as a sports editor at two daily newspapers.
- Nate Hanson is a digital producer who contributes to KGW.com’s coverage of the Blazers, Ducks, Beavers and high school sports.
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