Indiana Pacers v Portland Trail Blazers

Bill Simmons: Why Isn’t Portland A Serious Finals Contender?

Following Portland’s 106-102 victory over the Pacers Monday night, ESPN/Grantland’s Bill Simmons tweeted the following …

So it’s no surprise Simmons started off his podcast yesterday with Grantland’s Zach Lowe asking the question: Why isn’t Portland a serious Finals contender. Lowe gives his reasons why he doesn’t put the Trail Blazers in that category, but Simmons goes on to say he thinks he’d rank the Trail Blazers behind only the Spurs and Oklahoma City right now in the West. Simmons has been bullish on the Trail Blazers this season, but that’s some high praise nonetheless.

Simmons and Lowe discuss the Trail Blazers playoff prospects and Simmons once again throws out the idea of a Robin Lopez for Omer Asik trade while also calling LaMarcus Aldridge “one of the few post-up players we have left” and Damian Lillard “fearless.” You can listen to the BS Report here, though I’ve also transcribed the segment in which they discuss the Trail Blazers, which you can read below …

Bill Simmons: I’m going to phrase the question this way: Why isn’t Portland a serious Finals contender?

Zach Lowe: Um, because their defense is like 22nd or 23rd in points allowed per possession and I think there’s just a general skepticism that they can build a good enough defense to really do that kind of serious damage in the playoffs. That’s the simple answer. They’re a great offensive team, they’re well coached, they’re not deep but they’re not shallow. They’re a fun team, I just don’t think, when the chips are down, they’re going to be able to defend.

Bill Simmons:Steve Kerr when he was on the podcast, I think last week we had him or two weeks ago, he was talking about he judges all the possible Finals teams by can they get multiple stops in a row in a game because that’s what needs to happen in the Finals. I know what the stats say but just watching (Blazers vs. Pacers), the eye test of it, it really seemed like (Portland) could go toe-to-toe. I’ve always liked the way this Portland team shaped out. I liked it before the season because they have some size, they have the point guard who can create shots and do some stuff and they have the two shooters. Both Batum, who has been overrated defensively, he’s playing a little better this year, and Wes Matthews, who has been really good this year, both can at least give the Paul George’s and LeBron’s, make them work for their shots. When you just look at that five, because really, it comes down to the starting five’s in crunch time, all that stuff, that five, what is the weak link to you?

Zach Lowe:Again, it’s going to be defense. That lineup can score. They can be an okay defensive lineup; the last time I checked their five-man data, which I’ll do again now, they were around league average, maybe a little bit worse, which isn’t a disaster. And they’re playing, as I wrote last week, they’re playing a new system, a refined system that sort of imitates what Indiana and Chicago do, and it’s working well. They don’t foul, they’re giving up the right kinds of shots, midrange jumpers mostly, they’re defending the three well. I just don’t think there’s enough, sort of top-level defensive talent there. I think Wes Matthews is probably the best defensive player of that group and everyone else is just like kind of okay. Can their system overcome just okay defensive talent?

Bill Simmons:I thought you were going to say the weak link was Robin Lopez, who, I like the way he’s playing. But if you’re talking about, okay, how can this team get better, there’s a pretty obvious trade sitting there and the pieces would involve Lopez and Omer Asik. I mean, we could figure out 40 variations of how that trade would work, but Portland has some assets. They have Lopez, who is an expiring contract, I think, or you can get out of it this year and next year he makes $6 million. Asik makes $8.3 (million), Portland has some other stuff they can throw in the trade, they have a first-round pick, which is something Houston wants to get back for Asik. Let’s say the trade was Lopez, Meyers Leonard and a No. 1 pick for Asik, I mean whatever. Now you put Asik in there instead of Lopez, does that change how you feel about this team?

Zach Lowe:Well, they owe their pick to Charlotte.

Bill Simmons:Oh, I forgot about that. So it could be a future pick.

Zach Lowe:Well, and the way the protections work, they can’t trade a future pick right now because it’s Top-12 protected, which means Charlotte will probably get it. But the way the protections work is that the sort of, the Stepien Rule works as if that trade, since it’s uncertain when that pick is going to be conveyed, it sort of conveyed every season in the future until it actually can be conveyed. So they don’t have a pick to trade. But I agree with you, that’s what makes them interesting. They’re better than they expected. Not even the most optimistic guy within that organization ever imaged they would be 15-3. This was like a gravy year for them. We want to make the playoffs, we think we’re going to be good, we think we can get 45, 46 wins while developing young talent, while having cap space set up for two years from now. If we make the playoffs, that’s awesome.

They never thought they’d be 15-3 and sometimes when teams get to that point they sort of re-think they’re approach. And I agree with you, they are one of the two or three most sort of intriguing Asik destinations because Asik is better than Robin Lopez, he’d be by far the best defender in their starting lineup, he gives them a rim-protector. All the weaknesses we’re talking about, he addresses. Will they think about taking that kind of step? Again, he makes $15 million next season, his cap hit is only $8.3 (million). That $15 million is, you know, nothing for Paul Allen. That’s like a fifth of a yacht or something. It’s going to dissuade some teams. But I agree with you, they might be the most interesting Asik destination.

Bill Simmons:Robin Lopez and C.J. McCollum for Asik is an interesting trade. I just thought of that one.

Zach Lowe:I think that’s the other thing. I think if you talked to Neil Olshey, my guess is he would say something like “This would be a different conversation if McCollum were playing, if the league could see what he’s capable of on the NBA level.” He’s the asset that swings that deal because, I don’t know, you saw this report, I’m sure, that Houston is asking for two first-round picks. I have no idea if that’s true; I haven’t talked to the Houston people in a while. Robin Lopez is not getting it done as a centerpiece of an Asik deal.

Bill Simmons:No, they’d have to throw in some sort of big ass asset.

What impressed me last night — and this is the reason that I thought Portland was going to make the playoffs, I didn’t think they’d be this good — they went toe-to-toe with Indiana in that game and, the bottom line is, when you get in a game like that and it’s the last five minutes and you’re going possession versus possession, they have two guys who can score, not only against anybody, but were scoring against Indiana, which is about as hard of a team to score against in the league right now. Aldridge is one of the few post-up players we have left in the league and he’s playing as well as he’s ever played. Lillard is fearless and it’s the best thing about him. It remains to be seen what he’s going to be like in multiple playoff series, but at the very least, for a second-year player, he’s got the kind of attitude and skills that you’d want. And the inside-out game, the two shooters spotting up, I just liked what I saw because I thought Indiana was playing really hard, Indiana is a very, very, very good team, they wanted to win the game, Paul George is playing excellent and Portland kind of held them off. They also have a great home court advantage. Just when people talk about the West, they keep throwing the Clippers in there. I don’t see the Clipper thing at all. They keep throwing Minnesota. Finally the Minnesota thing as died off a little bit. Houston, I’m not seeing. I think Portland has a good a chance of anybody not named San Antonio to get there.

(Ed. note: Simmons and Lowe discuss the Clippers here, which I didn’t bother transcribing)

Zach Lowe:I agree that there’s no difference between the Blazers and the Clippers now. And when you talk about the Blazers, and I think the Clippers will end up better, when you talk about the Blazers you also talk about the Clippers and Houston is probably better than we think they are because when they lose it’s so ugly. They’re solid. Memphis is in trouble, Minnesota is in trouble and sudden you look at the Blazers you’re like, they could ascend up a level in the West versus what we thought — and by the way I just checked, their starting lineup is just about league average defensively, so better than their overall team. That’s solid.

Bill Simmons:As you said earlier, C.J. McCollum is gonna help.

Oklahoma City is obviously in the mix. If I had to rank the West teams right now, I would do San Antonio 1A and Oklahoma City 1B and I think I’d have Portland three. I think I’d have Portland ahead of Houston.

So what do you think? Are you ready, as Simmons is, to consider the Trail Blazers a Finals contender, or are you more of a Zach Lowe, who still seems reluctant to put Portland in that upper-echelon?

One thing is for sure: If they’re able to beat the Thunder tonight, people other than Simmons are going to start wonder if the Trail Blazers should be penciled into the upper half of the Western Conference playoff table.