The Portland Trail Blazers started their season 10-3. Rip City was riding high. Then a string of losses across November and December sent fans into a tailspin, cutting through an atmosphere of doubt. Who is this team, and where are they going? More importantly, who are they really?
The answer is somewhere in between. The Blazers head into the All-Star break with a record of 34-23, good enough for fourth place in the West ... and that feels about right.
As we look ahead to the second half of the NBA season, Blazers fans are wondering whether this team is good enough to push through last season’s playoff failure. The way things are shaping up for Portland right now, they would likely face stiff competition in the first round as a middle playoff seed.
Before we get to all that, let's talk about the coming spring. The Blazers have a middling remaining strength of schedule (SOS) according to Tankathon.com, but 16 of Portland's final 25 games are on the road. How SOS is calculated varies, and road games are usually part of what’s factored, but that belies the fact that Portland isn’t that good on the road. The Moda Center is a true home court advantage, and it doesn't help the Blazers play seven straight games on the road when they return from All-Star Weekend on Feb. 21.
Now for the good stuff. Portland has both the 10th best point differential and offensive rating, and has earned those marks despite players like CJ McCollum and Maurice Harkless struggling for most of the season. The Blazers haven't felt as eye-popping to a lot of fans, but statistically they have been solid and it’s shown in their record. Most accurately, it slots them exactly where any reasonable person would put this team.
Pending injuries, thanks to the play of Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic (as well as Portland's impressive bench) I wouldn't slot them any lower than sixth place in the West. I also don't expect either of those guys to fall off in the regular season, and their continued good play could mean a strong close to the year and homecourt advantage in the playoffs for the Blazers.
So, about those playoffs.
Yes, Neil Olshey has added some depth to Portland’s bench in Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter. They are two excellent, low-risk players that bolster an already deep rotation for Portland. The bench has been the strength of this team all season long, and depending on what’s asked of them, both Hood and Kanter can be useful in the postseason.
The Blazers have a couple of questions that need answered before we can trust them, and it’ll take until the end of April until we get them. Nurkic has been an absolute beast, a surprising constant after inking a major deal this summer. But Nurkic has dropped off in the past, and being able to play the way he has come the postseason is still up in the air.
I have some reservations about how Nurkic has played, particularly on offense as a passer. More often than not, Nurkic passes to a vertical cutter without consideration and without actually making a read, fitting the ball through a tiny window. Once an opposing coaching staff analyzes his game, it could spell trouble for the way the Blazers have run the offense through him this year. If teams can gameplan for Nurkic always going for the backcut bounce pass across the lane, it’ll make him easier to neutralize.
Portland could also run into some issues with its star guards. The pitch for Evan Turner a couple of seasons ago was as a release valve for McCollum and Lillard on offense. That never fully came true, especially when Portland failed to provide enough shooting on the wing in lieu of Turner’s own 3-point stroke. But it was at least something Portland could at least try in seasons past, and it’s not clear if that’s the case this year.
McCollum and Lillard are now tied to each other on the starting unit, which could mean that teams employ a similar strategy to the one used before Turner's arrival. We don't know yet because nobody has asked Terry Stotts about his playoff rotation — it would be presumptuous at this point — but it begs real consideration at this juncture.
Teams have focused on those two players as a means to beat the Blazers in the postseason, and 2019 is unlikely to be different. Will Stotts alter his rotation to punish teams trying to blitz McCollum and Lillard? Or will he stay with a more platoon-style lineup?
It’s probable that Hood and even Jake Layman could play the biggest factor when it comes to Portland’s biggest playoff weakness. Hood is shooting 37 percent and Layman is shooting 36 percent from 3-point range. Both have the ability to play as the second wing on the floor with either star, which could spell success for the Blazers.
Portland’s last big playoff success came in 2016 when Harkless, then the wing 3-point shooter, stepped in and made shots off passes to the edges of the floor. The Blazers missed that last year. With Al-Farouq Aminu shooting well for average, but often streaky on a weekly basis, Hood and Layman could spell playoff success as role models for Portland.
Does that mean this team is ready to win in the postseason? How the sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans mentally affects the Blazers is the largest off-court factor. The fortitude of leadership and roster continuity might push you in one direction. Years or decades of being a Blazers fan might sway you in the other.
Quietly, this Trail Blazers team is shaping up to be one of the deepest Portland has seen since LaMarcus Aldridge’s final season in Multnomah County. The Blazers have become deeper, and for those of us who didn’t swing too far one way or the other with this squad, things are looking good. I wouldn’t bet on them, because I’m not that kind of guy, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Portland galvanized after integrating their new players and made some serious noise in the postseason.
Whether they’re deep enough to push themselves to the second round is what Olshey — and fans — are hoping for come spring.