The Portland Trail Blazers are a good basketball team.
That's not an opinion: With 20 games left to play in the season, the Blazers have the ninth-best record in the NBA. They are, objectively, a solidly above-average team right now.
Their high-powered offense scores 116.2 points per 100 possessions, according to nba.com. Superstar point guard Damian Lillard deserves a lion's share of the credit, averaging 29.1 points per game and winning countless contests with improbable clutch buckets despite drawing double or triple teams on a nightly basis.
Toss in CJ McCollum's continued brilliance, a recent trade for Raptors guard Norman Powell, and Jusuf Nurkic's return from injury, and it's no surprise the Blazers are in the top third of the standings.
But here's the catch: The mood in Rip City is sour.
The 31-21 record feels like an overachievement compared to the actual on-court product that Lillard and Co. have produced. As the season enters its defining stretch, most Portland fans expect the Blazers to be escorted out of the playoffs like a New Seasons customer who refuses to wear a mask.
Since Lillard and head coach Terry Stotts joined the franchise in 2012, the Blazers have made the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons but have been sent home in perfunctory four- or five-game series by (deep breath) the Spurs, Grizzlies, Warriors (three times!), Pelicans and Lakers.
With that kind of track record, the Portland faithful can be forgiven for a bit of wariness. Is there any reason to believe the outcome will be different this year?
There's a simple reason that doubts about this year's team are likely justified: The Blazers do not play defense.
For all their success scoring the ball—the Blazers are one of several teams vying to break the record for the most efficient offense in NBA history—Portland's defense has been equally abysmal. They surrender 116.1 points per 100 possessions. Only the perpetually moribund Kings give up points at a higher rate.
The team's default script for winning games this year boils down to hitting enough shots to keep the game close in the final minutes despite putting up as much resistance as a broken turnstile on defense, then turning to Lillard's sheer force of will to break their opponents in the last five minutes.
This is very exciting to watch! The problem with this game plan is, historically, it has not been predictive of playoff success. Overall, the Blazers have a neutral scoring differential, suggesting they are playing like a .500 team that ekes out a few extra wins through Lillard's MCU-esque superheroism.
Even more ominous, they are 11-12 in games decided by 10 or more points—in the past decade a single team, one of LeBron James' Cavaliers squads, has made the conference finals with a sub-.500 record in those contests.
The bottom line: Teams that struggle to consistently blow out their opponents have not consistently won games in the playoffs.
The contender/pretender dualism of the Blazers' season was driven home over the past week. In three games against other top-level teams—the Bucks, Clippers and Jazz—the Blazers lost by an average of 18 points. The only time in those three games they looked vaguely competitive was the first two quarters of the Jazz game.
Three blowout losses this late in the season carry disastrous symbolism for a team that billed itself as a Western Conference finals candidate, and a possible championship contender, in December.
Worse, there is no clear path toward improving the defense from among-the-worst to below-average-but-passable. Nurkic's return and the recent signing of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson may improve things slightly, but it's unlikely they will singlehandedly fix what ails the team.
The roster is littered with defensive sieves, including Enes Kanter, Anfernee Simons, and Carmelo Anthony. (Melo, in particular, makes at least one editor of this newspaper irrationally angry by closing out on 3-point shooters with the urgency of a man strolling through a tulip festival.) Combine that with a reliance on the undersized Lillard and McCollum—who can hustle all they like, but are still very small dudes by NBA standards—and it's no surprise that coach Stotts has struggled to find any five-man combination with defensive synergy.
In addition to the lack of defensive skill, the Blazers often to appear to have accepted defeat on the defensive end. After he was acquired for Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood, Powell's defensive intensity stood out as a stark contrast to many of his new teammates. Lillard seemed to tacitly acknowledge the culture problem recently, telling The Athletic's Jason Quick that the Blazers needed to "look in the mirror."
In short, the franchise under Stotts and president of basketball operations Neil Olshey has made a choice, for several years, to sacrifice defense for offense. In the modern, hyperefficient NBA, where everybody scores at will, this isn't an awful bet, but the Blazers have pushed it to the breaking point.
They will continue to score enough points to win games: Lillard and his teammates are simply too good to fall out of the playoff picture. But without significant course correction, the Blazers will struggle to rise above their current position as the ninth-best team in the NBA. A respectable place to be? Sure. But remember: Only eight teams win a playoff series.
If the Blazers are on a collision course for another playoff ass-kicking by an elite Western Conference foe, it will likely be a sign that more than a "look in the mirror" is needed if the franchise truly wants to compete for a title before Lillard's career is over. Remember, he'll be turning 31 this summer.
And that's really why fans are crabby. At a certain point—and, be honest, you passed this point a year ago—the question looms: Is this as good as a team piloted by Olshey, Stotts and Lillard will ever be? Is there a path beyond solidly above average for these Blazers? They only have about two months left to fix the defense and quiet the whispers.