In the unlikely event that they didn't already know, the Trail Blazers have gotten a pretty good refresher course lately on just how cruel and unforgiving life in the NBA can be.
As recently as three or four weeks ago, the Blazers were riding high among the very best teams in the NBA, boasting a 30-8 record on Jan. 11 and staking a legitimate claim to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. They were practically right there with Golden State and Atlanta among the league's elites.
Since then, the wheels haven't come off entirely, but they've certainly wobbled a little - even when you include this week's back-to-back victories, Portland has still come up short in 8 of its last 12 games, slipping from second in the West into what's now a dogfight for the 4-5-6 spots.
No doubt, this is alarming. Optimistic residents of Rip City were hoping that the Blazers would linger among the cream of the NBA crop for the entire season, and now it appears they'll have to work really hard in the coming weeks just to re-enter that conversation. For now, the Blazers look like essentially the same team they were last season - a solid competitor in the West, a sure playoff team, but still a rung below the very top.
There's been a lot of good analysis already of what precisely has gone wrong for the Blazers. It's a combination of a few little things here and there - poor spacing on one play, ineffective pick-setting on the next, some shooting struggles from both inside the paint and beyond the arc. Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard have been especially cold. On the defensive side of the ball, the recent injuries to Portland's frontcourt guys (LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Joel Freeland) certainly haven't helped. Opposing players have gotten much easier looks at the basket than they were accustomed to earlier this season.
So... yeah. A lot has gone wrong for the Blazers over this recent stretch. There's reason to pause and rethink things a little bit. But for a litany of reasons, I don't think it's "panic time" in Portland yet by a long shot. Without further ado, your top five reasons not to freak out about this team:
1. It's a make-miss league, and variance happens.
A lot of NBA coachspeak cliches are vapid and pointless and lame, but whenever I hear it said that "it's a make-miss league," I can't help but nod my head in agreement. Look - at the end of the day, the game of basketball consists of throwing a tiny ball at a tiny hoop from far away, over and over again. Random chance is going to happen. Some nights the shots fall more than others. To quote "Bull Durham," sometimes you win and sometimes you lose and sometimes it rains.
Here's a quick statistical breakdown of the Blazers' performance in their last 12 games, with all numbers courtesy of the NBA's media site:
|Off. Rating||Def. Rating
|2014-15 season (34-16)||104.7||99.6||1.62||50.3%||50.3%|
|Last 12 games (4-8)||101.2||102.6||1.56||48.3%||47.8%|
Overall this season, the Blazers have outscored their opponents by an average of about 5 points per 100 possessions; during this stretch, they're down a point and a half. That seems like a big swing, but it's really the result of a small handful of incremental changes - the Blazers have simply had slightly more turnovers, slightly fewer rebounds and they've missed a few shots. It's not that hard to shoot 2.5 percentage points worse from the floor. The Blazers have averaged 86.4 shot attempts per game this season, so we're basically talking two extra misses per night. Two misses can be the difference in a close game, and indeed many of the Blazers' losses have been close - they've dropped contests recently by 1, 4, 5, 5, 6, 6 and 7 points.
My point is, these things even out. The season is long, and eventually the best teams rise to the top. The Blazers might not be the very best in the West this season, but they're certainly in the "best-ish" conversation, and a few close losses aren't about to change that. The Blazers are fine.
2. A swoon was predictable. Strength of schedule is a thing.
The Blazers' recent losing stretch is tough to stomach, but it's forgivable when you consider the opposition. The losses since mid-January include one each against the Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Suns, Cavaliers and Hawks. There's absolutely no shame in those, especially when your guys are dinged up a bit (more on that later).
While the Blazers did start the season 30-8, they benefited from an incredibly soft schedule during that stretch, and it came back to bite them in January. And here's the rub: It's not about to get any easier. According to strength-of-schedule data compiled by basketball-reference, Portland has had the 21st-hardest opponents in the league so far, which is an extraordinarily low ranking considering the competition in the West. In the conference, only Golden State and Dallas have had it easier.
The Blazers have a road back-to-back against Dallas and Houston next week. After the All-Star break, they get Memphis, San Antonio and OKC. To begin March, it's the Clippers and Mavs again. The schedule gets brutal, and a few losses are definitely going to come of that. Rather than cry over spilled milk later, we can concede now that frankly, the schedule is just gonna suck sometimes. That's OK. Some competitive contests now will only turn Portland into a more battle-tested squad come April.
3. Long-term health is more important than winning.
With a team that has a championship-caliber ceiling the way Portland does this season, it's important to maintain perspective. The Blazers are going to be in the playoffs this spring, no doubt. Their ultimate goal is to be the best team possible come postseason, so they can make a legitimate run at the Larry O'Brien Trophy. That being the case, isn't it more important that the Blazers get themselves right long-term than freak out over every single game now?
The Blazers are still working out some kinks, physically. Nicolas Batum is playing with a bad wrist. LaMarcus Aldridge is forgoing surgery on a torn thumb ligament, and it's still too early to say whether that's a wise decision. Robin Lopez just got back from a fractured hand. Joel Freeland is still out with a strained shoulder. With all these guys working through injuries, the product on the floor isn't going to be perfect every night. The players are still feeling themselves out, exploring the limits of what they can do physically. Their teammates are still getting accustomed to playing with them. A few lapses are to be expected.
And they're to be tolerated, too. Because if everyone can figure themselves out in time for a solid showing in April and May, all else will be forgiven. Eyes on the real prize here, people.
4. Standings-watching in February is a dangerous game.
All it takes is a cursory look, every now and then, to know that the Western Conference standings are a crazy roller coaster. A few weeks ago, the Blazers were in second place in the conference, behind only Golden State. At the lowest low of their losing skid, they were in fifth place, dangerously near slipping to sixth. When they woke up yesterday morning, they were tied for fourth. After they won last night and the Clippers lost, they had sole possession of fourth. If those results had flip-flopped, the Blazers would have been fifth place, only percentage points clear of sixth.
Long story short: I just said a lot of numbers.
There's only one thing you can take away from all of this standings talk, and that's that things are hectic in February. The West is very, very deep with competitive teams, and those teams are going to continue leapfrogging each other back and forth for another two-plus months. Until the finish line is in sight, is there any real point in watching the table obsessively? In fact, it might be necessary to take a step back, just to stay sane. Let's focus on process rather than percentage points and loss columns.
5. What's in a playoff seed, anyway?
Taking that previous point even one step further - it's silly to obsess over the Blazers' position in the Western Conference standings, because we can't even be sure that advancing higher is better. Seeding in the West this year is going to be bonkers. The Oklahoma City Thunder, who are quite possibly the most talented team in the whole damn league when healthy, have a good chance to finish at No. 8 in the conference this year. The San Antonio Spurs, who thoroughly dominated the 2014 postseason from start to finish, might be seventh.
Say the Blazers pull it all together these next couple months, bury L.A. and Memphis and end up with the No. 2 seed in the West. Then what? Their reward is the Spurs, who shellacked them in five games last spring. They might be better off slipping to the three or four, where their seed would be ostensibly "weaker" but the competition could - arguably - be softer.
In this conference, all eight teams that make the postseason are guaranteed an incredibly tough first-round series. The primary purpose of these next two months of the season, at least on paper, is for teams to joust for position in the playoffs, but in the West it's hard to say whether positioning even matters. In the end, the conference will be decided by health, matchups, timing and luck no matter what.
So for the Blazers, then, what's the outlook in February? Simple - just focus on fixing their bodies, fixing their minds and fine-tuning their game. Eventually, the results will fall into place.