POWER RANKINGS » Wins Alone Not Enough In Week 16

by Casey Holdahl
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It's getting to the point where creating a new post for the weekly Power Rankings release is starting to feel a bit unnecessary.

After all, the Trail Blazers have been hovering between 9th and 11th for at least the last month, mostly due to their ability to beat the teams they should and relative inability to best the teams above or near them in the standings. So even though they've won five of their last six, there's little to no movement in the Week 16 Power Rankings, as three of those wins came against teams with losing records and one of them versus a team missing their best player (and in one case, both). And the one game last week versus a good team with their full compliment of players, the Milwaukee Bucks, was a blowout loss. So until they managed to best some of the better teams, they're unlikely to move up in either the Western Conference standings nor the Power Rankings. 

But they'll have an opportunity to change their narrative this week with road games versus the Clippers and Jazz before returning home to face the Pistons and Heat, two of the teams they beat on their last road trip (in related opinions, Saturday/Sunday back-to-backs should be outlawed until fans return to arenas), and if they're able to go at least 3-1, which would by definition include a "good win," they just might break the standings/rankings stalemate. 

On to this week's Power Rankings...

• The panel of voters at ESPN has the Trail Blazers at No. 9 this week, same as last week (and for the last few weeks if memory serves)...

With CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic back, plus the acquisition of Norman Powell, the Blazers seem to be rolling. They've won five of six and just stomped the Thunder by 48 on Saturday. But there's some context: Those five wins were against rebuilding teams. In their past three games against playoff teams (Brooklyn, Dallas and Milwaukee), the Blazers lost by an average of 20.6 points. With games against the Clippers and Jazz this week, the Blazers have a chance to measure their retooled roster.

The folks at ESPN have the Trail Blazers behind the Lakers at No. 8 and ahead of the Mavericks at No. 10. 

• John Schuhmann at NBA.com has the Trail Blazers at No. 9 this week, one spot better than last week...

Pace: 98.8 (20) OffRtg: 116.3 (6) DefRtg: 115.9 (29) NetRtg: +0.5 (15)

It’s too early to judge the new Blazers at this point. Their new starting lineup has allowed just 98.4 points per 100 possessions in its 55 minutes, but that’s skewed by just 14 points on 32 possessions from the very shorthanded Thunder on Saturday. One night earlier, the Blazers’ starters were outscored by 17 points by the Bucks in less than 15 minutes. But there’s progress in that late-night Dame Time was not required against Detroit and Oklahoma City, the Blazers’ first two double-digit wins since March 1 and just the seventh and eighth times this season that they’ve held their opponent under 105 points per 100 possessions.

Maybe just as important is that Robert Covington’s remarkable shooting continued into April. He had shot 32% from 3-point range through February, but is 53-for-105 (50.5%) from beyond the arc since March 1. The Blazers need Covington on the floor to be at their best defensively and, if he continues to make shots, opposing defenses will continue to pay for sending extra defenders at Damian Lillard.

With the loss to the Bucks on Friday, the Blazers have lost the last six games they’ve played (and are 3-9) against the eight teams with better records than they have. They’ll play two of those teams on the road on Tuesday and Thursday.

Schuhmann has the Trail Blazers behind the Mavericks -- a team that, by a quick count, is 4-10 this season versus teams above them in the Western Conference standings -- at No. 8 and ahead of the Grizzlies at No. 10. 

• Colin Ward-Henninger has the Trail Blazers at No. 9 this week, one spot worse than last week...

The Blazers walloped the Pistons and Thunder this week, but could do nothing to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo in Friday's loss to the Bucks. Finally relatively healthy, Portland has now won five of six games with Damian Lillard leading the way. He averaged 27 points and seven assists on 13-of-24 3-point shooting this week, while CJ McCollum added 20.7 points per game on 46 percent 3-point shooting.

Ward-Henninger has the Trail Blazers behind the Mavericks at No. 8 and ahead of the Lakers at No. 10. 

• Mo Dakhil at Bleacher Report has the Trail Blazers at No. 9 this week, unchanged from last week...

The Blazers' four-game winning streak came to an end against the Bucks. They rebounded nicely with an easy win over the Thunder, which was welcomed in Rip City since there have not been many easy victories this season.

Of the Blazers' 30 wins this season, 16 have come with a three-point differential with three minutes left. It helps that Damian Lillard is on Portland's side. Those close games are when Lillard turns into a superhero. He is shooting 61.3 percent and has yet to miss a free throw during "Dame Time."

Portland is two games out of the third seed in the West with big games coming up against the Jazz and Clippers this week. With the Blazers getting healthy at the right time, they might begin to ascend in the standings.

Dakhil has the Trail Blazers behind the Mavericks at No. 8 and ahead of the Lakers at No. 10. 

• Corey Rausch at Hoop Habit breaks the streak by putting the Trail Blazers at No. 8 this week, one spot better than last week...

Possibly the most interesting trend in the entire league is the way the Portland Trail Blazers have been able to maintain a winning record while struggling across the board. Portland has a negative net rating, worse than the New Orleans Pelicans and the Indiana Pacers. The only team in the league with a worse defensive rating is the Sacramento Kings. Luckily for the Blazers, the Kings are the only thing keeping the Blazers out of the historically bad conversation.

So how do the Blazers remain one of the best teams in the league? Damian Lillard of course. Dame Time has become a meme but it is far more than that. Lillard is tied in the league in fourth-quarter scoring at 7.8 points per game. He is shooting 39.3 percent on 3.1 3-point attempts per game. He is also hitting 95.2 percent of his free throws in the fourth.

It is hard to argue against this being sustainable at this point. Lillard was even better in March, averaging 8.2 fourth-quarter points per game on shooting splits of .406/.356/1.00. As the Blazers get healthier and even more talented (bringing in Norman Powell) the reliance on Lillard could lessen. However, for the Blazers to have a chance to knock off the rest of the West they may have to rely on even more Dame Time.

Rausch has the Trail Blazers behind the Mavericks at No. 7 and ahead of the Lakers at No. 9. 

• Zach Harper at The Athletic has Portland at No. 10 this week, one spot worse than last week...

Does Portland have the most potent bench unit of the West? Even before Zach Collins gets back into the mix (if that happens), the Portland Trail Blazers look pretty damn deep with their rotation. Other teams like Denver, Utah and a healthy Clippers team will have their hats in the ring for this honor, but looking at the Blazers, they just have so many weapons coming off the bench. Norman Powell is starting right now, but having Carmelo Anthony, Enes Kanter, Derrick Jones Jr. and Anfernee Simons gives them so much firepower. Melo is a big-time scorer in small doses. Kanter can score inside. Jones is a perfect Swiss Army knife. Simons has shown great potential in the limited minutes Damian Lillard doesn’t play. If Collins comes back, Powell might move to the bench. Then it will really just be a ton of scoring and production off the bench for Terry Stotts.

Harper has the Trail Blazers behind the Heat, a team two games over .500, at No. 9 and ahead of the Lakers at No. 11. 

• Finally, infrequent Power Ranker Kevin O'Connor at The Ringer also has the Trail Blazers at No. 9, five spots better than his last attempt at trolling Blazers fans...

I shared this stat two weeks ago in an episode of The Void and find it alarming that it still remains true: Only five players have ever averaged over 20 points while attempting under 11 percent of their shots at the rim. McCollum has a chance to become the sixth, according to Basketball-Reference. Dirk Nowitzki and Allan Houston did it twice. D’Angelo Russell, Glenn Robinson, and Stephen Curry all did it once.

McCollum admitted earlier in the season that he’s still regaining his explosiveness after suffering a back injury last year. At some point, it would be great to see him get to the basket more often so it can be a consistent, easier source of offense. But he’s also made a point to take more 3s instead of deep 2s, and that’s leading to the most efficient scoring season of his career. The Blazers are winning despite not being able to stop anybody. McCollum’s play is one of the reasons.

O'Connor has the Trail Blazers behind the 76ers at No. 8 and ahead of the Knicks at No. 10. 

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