It's been said many a time that the NBA season is a marathon and not a sprint - but regardless of the race's length, it never hurts to start from the front of the pack.
The Trail Blazers, who have won zero division titles outright since 1999, were blessed this year to begin the season in prime position. Last year, they were a good team but a mere also-ran in the Northwest Division race behind the Oklahoma City Thunder, but a couple of untimely injuries to star players put OKC in a bad spot in 2014-15.
Without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the early going, the Thunder struggled mightily. After a 112-104 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Dec. 2, the Thunder were 5-13 to start the season, one of the worst records in the league, and the Blazers were trending in the opposite direction. After beating the Nuggets in Denver on Dec. 2, Portland was 14-4.
That nine-game lead would come to define the entire season for both teams. With all their guys healthy, the Thunder are a force to be reckoned with - especially now, with the recent additions of Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler and D.J. Augustin. But making up a nine-game deficit against a strong playoff team will always be a Herculean task, and the Thunder have spent the whole season behind, playing catch-up. If they can't climb out of that deep hole they've been buried in, the Blazers will be division champions for the first time since the Clinton presidency.
While the Thunder are gaining a little bit, the Blazers are definitely still in control of their own destiny - at this writing the lead sits at five and a half games overall and six in the loss column, with PDX at 37-19 and OKC at 32-26. Still, it's difficult to say the race is over when we haven't even turned the page on February yet. It's worth taking a moment to assess where this race stands - and also, why it matters.
The state of the Northwest
While the Blazers' lead remains fairly considerable heading into the final month and a half of the season, a division title is far from a foregone conclusion. Six games is a nice edge, but the Blazers tonight face an OKC team that's won eight of their last nine games and nine of their last 11. Lose to the Thunder tonight, and that lead becomes just five losses. Then things get real interesting.
Consider the following:
- The Blazers have a far more difficult schedule than the Thunder the rest of the way. According to the Strength of Schedule index compiled by basketball-reference, OKC has played the ninth-hardest schedule in the Western Conference so far this season, while Portland ranks 14th - only Golden State has had a softer slate so far. That will balance out between now and mid-April.
- The Thunder have already finished playing Golden State four times this season. Portland still has to play the Warriors twice; they also have two left with Dallas and Los Angeles. The Spurs are the only West playoff team the Blazers don't see the rest of the way; the other six are still looming at least once.
- Of Portland's last 26 games, 15 will be on the road. OKC only has 10 more away contests the rest of the way.
- Of those last 26, 20 will be against Western Conference teams. OKC only has 16.
- In terms of head-to-head matchups with OKC, Portland still has two left, and those count double. Lose them both, and a six-game lead quickly turns into four. In addition to facing the Thunder tonight, the Blazers also have to do battle with OKC (in OKC!) on April 13. Even if Kevin Durant isn't totally healthy, the Thunder are still a brutal matchup for the Blazers home or away - Serge Ibaka has the length and athleticism to give LaMarcus Aldridge fits, and you just know Russell Westbrook will bring his best game on both ends against Damian Lillard. Plus the supporting cast around the Thunder's stars has the athleticism to switch everything defensively and take away Portland's options, and they can all hit open shots too.
Add it all up, and what do you get? The Blazers are still favorites to win the division crown (obviously), but it's also far from a done deal. If the Thunder manage to rattle off something ridiculous like 19-5 in their last 24, including two wins over Portland, and the Blazers meanwhile are battling a difficult schedule... it could be close. That's all I'm saying.
The value of the division
Now. We've established that the race for the Northwest Division crown will be competitive, but can we zoom out and ask more of a big-picture question? To wit - why does this matter?
It's a fair question to ask, certainly. The Blazers and Thunder are both a slam dunk to make the playoffs, and having an invite to the dance is all that really matters. You often hear players say that "they don't hang banners for division titles," which is a valid point.
On the other hand...
It's a pride thing. In Portland, the Blazers are all we have, and a division championship is something to take pride in. Years from now, we might look back and think of it as a stepping stone - "division champion" is another stop along the way to "conference champion" and then "NBA champion." First things first. You crawl, walk and then run. Rip City certainly has enough love in its heart to celebrate each step.
It's also more than that. On a practical level, a division championship is useful for the Blazers as they begin to think about a potential playoff run. According to NBA rules, all division champions are guaranteed a top-four seed in the conference playoffs - even if they have fewer wins than the fourth-winningest team, they're bumped up to the No. 4 spot. (The last time this rule was necessary was 2012, when the Celtics won fewer games than the Hawks but were technically named the No. 4 seed in their 4-5 matchup with Atlanta.)
This could make a real difference. Consider the current standings - the Blazers at this moment are only one game ahead of the Clippers, who sit sixth place in the West. A bad weekend is all it takes to drop Portland to the No. 6 spot. Without a division title in hand, a seed that low could be disastrous. If the Clips and Thunder were both to pass Portland, we'd be talking about a No. 7 seed and a first-round meeting with the Grizzlies, who have been absolutely ridiculous at 16-4 in their last 20 games. No thank you.
The alternative is simple: win the division. That guarantees you a No. 4 spot at worse, which means no first-round meeting with one of the top three seeds. Golden State, Memphis and likely Houston can wait. Instead the Blazers can look forward to playing someone from the West's lower rung like the Clips, Mavs, Spurs or Thunder. While all of those teams are formidable, they all have issues with health and/or continuity that make them a tad more beatable than the top three squads. Even the Spurs, last spring's second-round thumping notwithstanding, would be preferable to one of those 1-2-3 seeds. The West might be sardine-packed with talent, but the elite teams really are a cut above the rest. The goal here is to stay out of that 6-7-8 danger zone at all costs.
All of the above should be taken with a grain of salt. It is, after all, still February. There's no reason to overreact too much to every last scintilla of movement in the standings. But as March approaches, and the playoffs linger not too much farther off, it is time to start thinking. This stretch run is important, and Northwest Division glory is not something the Blazers can take for granted. What follows from here will be a grind, and it starts tonight with OKC.