2018 NBA Playoffs Preview: Portland Trail Blazers vs New Orleans Pelicans, SWOT Analysis & Prediction
In some sense, both of these teams weren't supposed to be here. At some point of this 2017-18 regular season, both these teams weren't expected to finish as high as they have.
For the Portland Trail Blazers, 'being one piece away' is all they heard and although they didn't necessarily get that this offseason, they've improved by huge leaps and bounds as compared to their 8th seed finish last season. If it wasn't for a mini-slump of four straight losses towards the end, they would have cruised to a 3rd seed finish and their first 50-win season since LaMarcus Aldridge left. Either way, by defeating on the Utah Jazz in their season finale, they locked up the 3rd seed (49-33) anyway but they fell just one win short of 50.
The New Orleans Pelicans' experiment to field two big men was working out quite well this season (27-21) before DeMarcus Cousins went down with an injured left Achilles. But was that a blessing in disguise? The injury unlocked MVP candidate Anthony Davis, who went on a furious run to carry the Pelicans to a 21-13, which in turn ensured the team makes it to their second postseason in the Davis era despite a very competitive Western Conference.
Portland Trail Blazers
Historically since Aldridge departed in 2015, the Blazers (top 11 last two seasons) have not needed help on offense with the likes of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Their defense was a concern, however, and once again their guard duo was under the spotlight. Everybody speculated that one of the two had to go, given how undersized they are but this season the Blazers have built a great defensive scheme nonetheless.
The 2017-18 season was the first one where the team didn't need to make any major adjustment to their roster since the summer of 2015 when they basically lost four of their five starters. In the 2015-16 season, it was a brand-new team. The following season, they had to reconfigure their schemes slightly in the end with the Jusuf Nurkic-Mason Plumlee trade with the Denver Nuggets. This year, there was none of that, and so with a set roster, they've gone from being a bottom 10 defense the last two years to being ranked 8th in defensive efficiency.
They rank fifth in defensive rebounds and defensive rebound percentage. That helps them control every way their opponents are going to score - opposition points off turnovers (6th), opposition fastbreak points (10th), opposition points in the paint (3rd) and opposition second-chance points (9th).
It's been all about defense this year to the point that their offense has slipped slightly (top 11 last two years to 16th), which is fine when you have two dependable guys who can turn it up when it matters - the Playoffs.
New Orleans Pelicans
Having Anthony Davis is the team's biggest strength. Nine times of the 10, the team with the best player in a series is favored to win it and Davis certainly swings the tide in their favor with respect to this.
His MVP-worthy season - 28.1 points (2nd), 11.1 rebounds (5th), 2.6 blocks (leads the league), 2.3 assists - has led the Pelicans to a more than respectable 6th seed. Every team advantage that the Pelicans have nurtured heading into the Playoffs is built around Davis' talent and capabilities.
Looking at the numbers, there's no doubt about the fact that Cousins' injury is a blessing in disguise. That coupled with the trade for Nikola Mirotic with the Chicago Bulls has seen this franchise take off since late January. Since Cousins' injury, they've grown into a more matured defensive outfit, holding the fifth-best defensive efficiency in the period.
While their offensive efficiency is ranked 17th in the same period, their offense has generally been good and didn't necessarily need fixing. For the entire season, the team ranked comfortably at the top of the league in major categories - points averaged (111.7 - 3rd best), assists (26.8 - 3rd-best) and field goal percentage (48.3% - 2nd-best).