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Portland's Seeding Possibilities

With a new dawn breaking for the Portland Trail Blazers, seeing Greg Oden’s sunny face peeking over the horizon, one of the hot questions of the moment is, “What kind of playoff seed could the Blazers earn this year, providing they even make it?”


I will pre-warn you, the only fair way I can see to discuss these things is to try my best to take off the “fan” hat and look at the Blazers as I would any other team.  If these same players were wearing Clippers uniforms what would we think?  That’s what we should think when they’re wearing ours too.  I understand that this is not 100% possible, since I am a devoted fan, so I tend to take my best, most unbiased guess and then shave even a little more off it to compensate.  It certainly would be possible, maybe more uplifting, to take a rosier view, but at some point that becomes an exercise in auto-eroticism and thus terribly uninteresting to anyone but the author and folks who already think like him.  I’m not into that…at least not in public.


People on the other end of the spectrum will no doubt chime in with, “How can you begin to speculate about the playoffs when the team hasn’t been there in five years, is celebrating the arrival of three key rookies, and hasn’t played a game yet this season?”  To them I say, “Look in the sky.  If you see clouds, there’s a decent chance it could rain.  You can say it hasn’t yet, but I’m bringing my umbrella just in case.”  You could point to the growth of the team in recent years, Brandon Roy’s All-Star season, Lamarcus Aldridge’s continuing development, Greg Oden’s long shadow, the 41-41 record…the list goes on.  But one the most indicative signs is simply that you’re reading this.  One cardinal rule has held true throughout Blazer history:  you never hear about the Blazers until they’re good.  When did the nation first become aware of Clyde Drexler and company, who turned out to be one of the best teams of their era?  Not until they hit the ’89-’90 Finals.  When did you first start paying attention to Rasheed Wallace?  Not until the Blazers got to the Western Conference Finals against San Antonio in ’99.  This team is completely anonymous--the anti-publicity vortex.  But guess who is on the “must-see” and “here they come” list of most every national pundit out there?  If the Blazers are getting noticed, something is happening.  And the fact that they’re getting noticed this early, before anything has gone down on the court, ought to tell you that something interesting--obviously interesting--is brewing in Portland.  With apologies to their fan bases, you’re not reading this kind of stuff about the Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte Bobcats, or Memphis Grizzlies.  So spare us the “Oh my gosh, how can you SAY that, you typical fan?!?” speech.  Typical fans aren’t the only ones saying it.


On to the question at hand:  How high can the Blazers rise in the seeding?


Anyone who doesn’t have a screw loose would have to say that the L*kers, Hornets, and Spurs are among the top favorites in the West.  I know people are speculating about the Spurs’ age and health and we’ll get to that when we do the individual team previews.  For now let’s remember that people have been speculating about the Spurs’ decline for years.  They still win a ring in every odd-numbered season.  Their “decline” may mean that’s not as likely this year, but the idea that it would take them out of a top four seed in the West seems unfounded.  There’s no reasonable way to predict the Blazers would finish ahead of any of these three teams.


The next echelon, which may actually meld with the top, consists of very good teams (or at least potentially very good) who still have to prove that they’re among the elite.  The Rockets and Jazz fit neatly into this category.  Houston has battled injuries in the past and will have a chemistry puzzle to solve adding Ron Artest.  Their talent alone makes them formidable and their defense could be all-universe.  Utah lost no significant players from last year’s 54-win team.  Though there are rumblings about the long-term future of these players they still fit nearly seamlessly together.  If the Blazers were to pass either of these teams it’s a safe bet it would be because of their internal collapse as much as anything Portland did.  That’s not safe to bank on.  All five top seeds in the West are probably filled.


At this point we find the former-contenders who could be slipping:  Phoenix and Dallas.  The Suns snagged Robin Lopez in the draft but didn’t change their team materially.  They did win 55 last year and you’d never count a team with Steve Nash at the helm out of the playoffs but their relative position will depend as much on Shaq’s motivation and integration as it does upon any of their long-term players.  Last year Shaq looked like a Winnebago grill stuck on an Alfa Romeo.  Unless there’s a turn-around Phoenix will fall into the “good, not great” category.  Dallas still has a ton of talent, starting with Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard and ranging through names like Terry, Stackhouse, and Kidd.  A lot of that talent is aging.  The team was always kind of a fragile fit and their loss to Miami in the NBA Finals appears to have cracked the seams.  Last year’s Harris-for-Kidd deal smacked of desperation and the team will have to coalesce better than it did in the wake of that trade if it is to find the 50-win plateau again.


This is where the Blazers can examine legitimate possibilities.  There are a couple of “ifs” here.  The most obvious is, “IF the Blazers are very good.”  Very good is a relative term, compared to how the team has played.  The gap between 41 wins and 50 has traditionally been wider than 9 games.  41 wins is the hallmark of mediocrity.  50 wins has long been the barometer for good teams.  There’s a possibility if the players remain healthy and the team comes together extremely quickly that the Blazers could get into the upper 40’s, maybe even the low 50’s at the most hopeful edge, putting them within shouting distance of these two traditional powerhouses.  That brings up the second “if”:  “IF those other teams struggle.”  There’s good reason to think that both Phoenix and Dallas are more vulnerable than they have been in years.  There’s also ample reason to respect their achievements. 


It seems reasonable to speculate that one of these teams could fall.  It’s possible to speculate that the Blazers could ascend to their height.  Both happening at the same time is less likely.  Speculating that both teams will fall while the Blazers also rise to the 50-win mark probably goes too far.  If that did happen, it would be dancing in the streets time, but we’re trying to keep it real here.  This, then, defines the upper limit of what the Blazers could reasonably (as opposed to wishfully) hope for:  one of those teams slips and the Blazers play very well, leaving Portland in the seventh spot.  It’s possible that both Phoenix and Dallas stay above the 50-win mark this year and Portland doesn’t, meaning a good season would net the 8th spot.


The last teams to be considered are those with decent track records who either slipped last season or are in flux because of off-season occurrences.  Right now this group includes Golden State and Denver but it’s worthy to note that Portland itself would fall under this category if anything happened to Greg Oden or if Brandon Roy’s recovery went slower than speculated.  The Warriors struggled mightily last season.  They also had considerable turnover in the off-season, losing Baron Davis and picking up Corey Magette.  The biggest question plaguing them is the condition of Monta Ellis’ ankle.  With him on the floor, adding in Magette, Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, and Andris Biedrins, they always have a puncher’s chance of winning the fight.  Without him they’re fielding a lot of B to B+ level talent against a stacked Western Conference.  The situation is similar in Denver with Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony.  The loss of Marcus Camby may hurt more than they realize but they can always try to outscore you.  Either of these teams could be good but neither seems poised to make a jump in the standings.  The chances that they could fall are greater than the chances that they will rise.  Nevertheless both finished ahead of Portland in the standings last year, so the Blazers will have to rise significantly in order to overtake them if they remain even.  Fortunately Portland is in the best position to gain ground among these three teams.


Using the same common sense we applied to Phoenix and Dallas, it’s possible that one of these two turmoil teams could recover enough to stay ahead of Portland, though it might be by the slimmest of margins.  It seems improbable that both will make the playoffs this year.  This defines the lower end of the expectations for the Blazers.  Should one of these teams edge Portland out along with either Phoenix or Dallas, Portland would find the 8th spot.  If Phoenix and Dallas plus one of these teams stayed ahead, it’s the infamous #9 seed and no playoffs.  Unless disaster befalls the Blazers it’s hard to imagine all four of the borderline teams posting better records than Portland.


The one saving grace in the West is that none of the teams who finished behind Portland last year have much chance of reaching the playoffs.  Sacramento is not a team on the rise.  The Clippers were hamstrung by the departure of Elton Brand and getting Baron Davis is a consolation prize.  Everybody else is so far down the well that a fleet of backhoes couldn’t get them out this year.


With the four teams finishing in the 6th-9th positions in the West last year in flux it probably won’t take 50 wins to make the playoffs again.  It’s certainly possible that 50 wins will only get you the 7th seed, however.  Even 47-48 wins may mean a fight in the last weeks of the season to grab a spot.  Given those parameters a finish between 7th-9th in the West is a reasonable range for the Blazers with 7th or 8th being the clear targets and 9th being a disappointment.  Any finish higher than that should be viewed as spectacular.  Any finish lower would be quite poor.


--Dave (