What do you expect this season to be? Is there a chance at 8th seed in the playoffs, or are we looking at another lottery year?
Sure, the Blazers could make the playoffs this year. National folks are talking about the Western Conference being "tough" and "loaded" but mostly they're talking the top six. Absent catastrophe, you expect the Thunder, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Grizzlies, and Warriors to make the post-season easily. Most of those teams are approaching parity with each other. Dogfights between them in the playoffs could be epic.
The Blazers are probably battling the Nuggets, Mavericks, Pelicans, and Timberwolves for the final two spots. If Kobe Bryant returns to the Lakers early in the season then count them in as well. That's 5-6 teams going for two spots. Judge the chances accordingly.
From what I observe, folks make two common mistakes when prognosticating this kind of thing:
1. They exaggerate trends to an extreme level. If a really good team gets marginally worse, as the Nuggets likely have by losing Andre Iguodala, they're painted as really worse and dismissed.
2. They assume the worst case scenario (e.g. "What if somebody gets injured?" or "Those guards only play offense!") when evaluating other teams while assuming the best case for their own. What happens if any non-Meyers-Leonard big gets injured for Portland, for instance? And how much defense do Portland's guards play?
If you balance out those things and make the potential playing field level, Portland has some serious competition for the post-season. Chris Lucia will be covering teams in-depth during this year's season preview, but a casual look shows almost any of the half-dozen potential lower-tier playoff teams in the West could grab a spot.
The Denver Nuggets lost Iguodala but they're still deep. They play 11 guys, all talented enough to play minutes for Portland, all except Evan Fournier well-seasoned. They won't win 57 again but they're not going to be easy to beat either. They haven't fallen as far as people think.
The Dallas Mavericks are not quite as deep as the Nuggets but they have plenty of good players: Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, Dirk Nowitzki, and a bunch of big-man depth. Again they're experienced. Defense will probably be an issue but that's also true of the Blazers. Chemistry could be a problem with that many new players but again Portland has to look in the mirror on that one too.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are more of a mixed bag. They've got frontcourt talent in Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin as a backcourt scorer, and Ricky Rubio passing and defending. Outside of Corey Brewer and maybe J.J. Barea their bench is more speculative...could be surprisingly good or a non-factor. Piecing it all together will be a challenge.
The New Orleans Pelicans are young and evolving...neither of which really recommend themselves as playoff-worthy factors. But they now have Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, and Tyreke Evans in the same lineup plus Anthony Davis defending down low. Most of last year's starters will shift to the bench this year to make room for new and previously-injured players. If both Davis and Ryan Anderson play power forward throughout the year then center remains an issue. (Side note: an Anderson-Omer Asik trade would make sense for both parties.) Plenty of things have to go right for New Orleans to emerge from the crowd but it's no more impossible for them than it is for the Blazers.
Everything for the Los Angeles Lakers depends on Bryant's return. Without him they're a bunch of old guys with no bench. But with him you can't count them out. Correction: you can't count them out of this group. They're nowhere near any kind of title run, but Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, and Bryant could still push a team enough above .500 to stay in the race for the 7-8 spots.
Where the Blazers fit into this crowd depends on your angle of view. I think it's safe to say that they don't stand out above the bunch. Neither do they fall below it. Each of these teams' supporters, projecting perfect health and chemistry for their squad, will claim that their team will rise to the top. Under those conditions they're probably correct, as all of these teams face serious questions. But nobody gets perfect health or chemistry. So it's a matter of hoping more bad stuff happens to the other guy than happens to you...often true of low-level playoff teams.
A couple take-away points:
1. The Blazers can make the playoffs this season, but that's heading towards the optimal end of the probability curve. It's not the baseline expectation. If they just have an average season with an average amount of ups and downs they'll probably end up in the middle of this pack, not at the top of it.
2. Whether they make the playoffs or not, you still have to round up quite a bit to get to "good". You have to round up their chances to make a playoff berth likely. You have to round up their talent and depth to put them clearly above these other teams. You have to round up a 7th or 8th seed to make it comparable to the better teams in the conference.
Really solid, good teams don't have to round so much. Hope and the foibles of other teams don't provide the crux of their playoff aspirations. They look at the schedule and start ticking off the game they're going to win instead of the games they could win. Playoffs or no, the Blazers aren't there yet.
Back to the original question: Do the Blazers have a chance at the playoffs? Yes. Do they have a chance to be a lottery team again? Yes. They even have a chance at neither happening, as they owe their first-round pick to Charlotte if it's below the 12th position in the draft order. Finishing 13th or 14th would leave Portland with no post-season and no pick. We'll have to wait for the season to figure out which one of those eventualities is most likely. Right now the jumble is too big to sort out.
If I had to guess, I'd say the Blazers weren't likely to finish first or second among these six teams and thus would not make the post-season. But who knows? Stranger things have happened.