by Peter Sampson
With the Portland Trail Blazers set to return from the All-Star break on Friday, the team currently sits on the outside of the NBA’s Western Conference playoff picture, four full games behind the Memphis Grizzlies. It would be easy to call this a lost season for Portland, and maybe it is. But, whether it’s good or bad, the Trail Blazers will make the playoffs this season.
That’s not to say that they deserve to get there, but strength of schedule is a thing. It’s why Utah has started slow before erupting late each of the last two seasons, and it’s going to give Portland a little help going forward.
The Trail Blazers have the 6th easiest schedule in the NBA from this week forward, with a cumulative win percentage of .467. Portland has the luxury of facing the Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks, Minnesota Timberwolves (TWICE), and Charlotte Hornets over the next 26 games. Compare this to Memphis – the Grizzlies have the SINGLE MOST DIFFICULT SCHEDULE IN THE NBA GOING FORWARD. We’re talking a win percentage of .554. It’s going to be difficult for a young Grizzlies team that is still learning how to win to go up against the gauntlet of quality playoff teams every night down the stretch.
Of course, Portland has another major advantage as well; the pending return of big men Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic. Both have been ramping up their practice intensity and, though Nurkic had a mild setback with a strained calf, you’d have to anticpate both players making their returns relatively shortly; especially with this week’s transfers of Moses Brown and Jaylen Hoard back to the G-League.
It’s no surprise that Collins and Nurkic would provide the Trail Blazers a jolt in the arm on both ends of the court, but especially on defense, where the team has yet again struggled, despite Hassan Whiteside’s highlight blocks. Nurkic also is an elite screener in the pick-and-roll game, freeing up Damian Lillard for open looks – something he’s struggled to get within 30 feet this season.
Speaking of Lillard, he’s possibly the biggest reason why the Trail Blazers will make the playoffs this season; because he’ll will it into existence. We’ve seen it over and over again, basically every season since LaMarcus Aldridge skipped town. Portland starts slow, and then Damian Lillard pushes the team into the postseason. Lillard is an elite player. Possibly the best point guard in the game with Steph Curry sidelined for Golden State. It would be foolish to deny that he can get it done yet again.
But, it would also be foolish if Portland made the postseason. Portland can only hope for the eighth seed, and if they obtain it, then what? Get absolutely boat raced by the Lakers? I remember when the Trail Blazers fought back to reach the eighth seed a few years back. They ended up getting crushed by the Golden State Warriors. Curry had a record-setting 17 point overtime performance in one of those games.
Back then, I saw the value in losing. The Trail Blazers were a young team. They needed to taste the postseason. To get a little experience under their belts and learn what it takes to win in the playoffs.
Their’s just no need for any of that this year. Not with a team that features veterans Lillard, Carmelo Anthony, and Trevor Ariza.
No, the real value from this season lies in the acquisition of ping pong balls. The Trail Blazers need another wing player next season; possibly a starter if Ariza isn’t back, maybe a backup if he is. The best way to get a high-value player that you can afford is in the lottery. If I’m the Trail Blazers, I’m telling Lillard that in order to preserve his strained groin, he’s got to play fewer than 30 minutes a night. I’m looking to see what Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons can give me. I’m looking to next year.
But, the Trail Blazers won’t do that. Neil Olshey won’t do that after hyping this team all summer. Chris McGowan won’t do that, and forfeit two home playoff games worth of revenue. Terry Stotts won’t do that because his sole job is to win games. And Damian Lillard won’t do it because he’s a stone-cold killer.
So yes, the Trail Blazers will claw their way into the playoffs this season.
What a shame.
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