NBA / Dec 20, 2013 / 3:45 pm

Which Team Has Been The Bigger Surprise: Portland Or Phoenix?

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers teammates

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers teammates (David Richard/USA TODAY Sports)

If we ask this question again in May, the answer might be lopsided. Portland is fighting for a top seed in the West, and possible homecourt advantage, where their crazed fans have pushed them out to a 10-2 record. They have two likely All-Stars and at 22-5, are a sure bet to make the playoffs. And yet they might not be the Western Conference’s biggest surprise so far.

The Phoenix Suns were supposed to tank this season, to draw more Ls than even ping-pong balls, and to fill up their bench with suits. Instead, courtesy of a ferocious two-point guard lineup, they’re sitting at 14-10, which gives them a better overall record than Golden State, Memphis, the Lakers, and anyone in the East not named Miami or Indiana.

One team has bigger names. The other has smaller expectations. But which squad has been more surprising? We argue. You decide.

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PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek and Portland coach Terry Stotts have both taken teams that were at the bottom of the barrel last season and turned them into legitimate playoff contenders. The coaches have surprised everyone and are probably fighting for Coach of the Year honors with the vast improvements to once lottery-bound teams. Eric Bledsoe is one of my favorite players in the league and is proving that his breakout season with the Clippers was no fluke, to the tune of 19.2 points and 6.4 assists this season. Both teams have made significant improvements this season which have shocked anyone following the NBA, but which has surprised us more?

Last season, the Portland Trail Blazers were a mere 33-49 and finished 11th in the Western Conference. As one can imagine, the expectations in Portland weren’t too high this season, especially without any major free agent additions — the biggest signing this offseason was Robin Lopez. Maybe they would fight for a seventh or eighth seed in the West. The Blazers weren’t fighting for a big name free agent; Portland was determined to become successful with the team they developed mainly through the draft. It’s working.

This season, the Blazers already have 22 wins in only two months of action. That might say it all when comparing Portland to a Phoenix Suns team that finished with eight less wins than Portland last season (25-57) and is currently 14-10. Portland is second in the Western Conference to the Oklahoma City Thunder with a record of 22-5, while the Suns are in seventh place at 14-10.

Have the Suns surprised us? Without a doubt. But, there’s a major difference. The Suns have surprised us to become a fringe playoff team, whereas the Blazers have shocked the world by uprising into NBA Finals competitors. Everyone has been waiting for the Blazers to cool off, but they keep winning.

No disrespect to Phoenix, they look like a good team. However, they aren’t Portland. Last season, the Blazers weren’t even scoring 100 points per game (97.5 PPG, 15th in the NBA). This season, they have somehow increased their scoring by over 10 points, scoring 108.3 PPG, which is first in the NBA. Let’s also mention that the Blazers are the best three-point shooting team in the league at 41 percent. Lillard, Matthews and Batum are all shooting 40 percent or better from the three-point line. Becoming the best three-point shooting team, especially in a league where Klay Thompson and Steph Curry play together, is serious business. The Blazers are explosive to the rim, but all of their explosive players can also step back and knock down a trey ball with the best of them.

The craziest thing is they became a better team without the addition of any major players. Sure, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Robin Lopez have joined the team, but the core of the Blazers hasn’t changed. Damian Lillard is still there, along with LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews. This team has exploded to become one of the best in the NBA by taking their skills to the next level — Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge look like the best 1-2 punch in the Association. The Blazers are fast, explosive, and a proverbial schedule nightmare.

Damian Lillard is averaging 21.3 points and 5.9 assists (2.2 turnovers), while consistently looking like a dark horse MVP candidate. Don’t be surprised if Lillard enters the top point guard conversation before the season is over. The biggest improvement in Lillard’s game is his ability to perform in the clutch. Currently, Lillard leads the NBA in clutch points (per Nba.com/stats), scoring 55 points in the final five minutes of games this season. Lillard has been on FIRE his past two games, scoring 36 points in each (he has four 30-point performances this season). Lillard is also becoming one of the better long-ball shooters in the league, giving guys like Steph Curry a run for their money. He’s shooting 41 percent from the field and 43 percent from deep this season. Every game Lillard steps on the court, he looks more and more like a player ready to win a title.

But LaMarcus Aldridge has made the biggest leap in ability. For many years, Aldridge was considered one of the best PFs in the league, yet now, he’s considered No. 1 by many. Aldridge is scoring 23.3 points and grabbing 11.1 rebounds this season (a career-high in both categories). Plus, he’s one of only four players to average 20 and 10 this season (Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and DeMarcus Cousins).

Besides Aldridge, the Blazers frontcourt has been bolstered by the addition of veteran Robin Lopez. Lopez might not bring the offensive repertoire that his brother Brook does, but he is a monster at cleaning up the boards, something the Blazers needed desperately. Lopez is scoring 9.3 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. He’s grabbing 4.2 contested rebounds per game, while also grabbing four offensive boards per game. Lopez is getting the dirty work done, an essential component to a championship caliber team.

The Blazers have also surprised us all by having a long slate of quality victories. The Blazers haven’t gone 22-5 by beating lottery-bound teams, although they have taken care of just about everyone they’re supposed to. To date, the Blazers have victories over the Spurs (115-105 victory), Warriors (113-101 victory), Pacers (106-102 victory), Thunder (111-104 victory) and the Rockets (111-104 victory). The Blazers are winning these marquee games by an average of eight points, showing that they are no fluke. while the Suns have lost to the Thunder, Heat, Spurs (twice) and have beaten up on lower-end teams like the Jazz, Magic and Raptors. The Suns might be an improved team, but they just don’t have the quality victories that the Blazers have right now.

Both of these teams have surprised the world. Phoenix was supposed to be fighting for Wiggins, Parker or Randle, not playing for playoff position in a stacked Western Conference, while Portland looked destined to be a middle-of-the-pack team. The LaMarcus Aldridge trade rumors were swirling this offseason and Damian Lillard was due for a sophomore slump, right? Surprise, surprise, the Blazers are one of the best teams in the NBA.

Both teams have shocked me, but the edge goes to Portland. Aldridge might win every Western Conference Player of the Week award at the rate he’s going (three already this season) and Damian Lillard is just a killer. With the way things are going, both Lillard and Aldridge might be contending for an MVP this season as their team starts to take the steps to compete for a championship. No one expected either of these teams to be where they are two months into the season. But the Blazers have made the climb to one of the best teams in the NBA, making them the biggest shocker in the league.
-DREW CORRIGAN

Hit page 2 to read the Phoenix argument…

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