All right, it's time for a little tough love.
I say this not to be mean, Portland, but rather to be honest because sometimes, that's what you need. The Blazers may have earned the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference and won a round in the playoffs last year, and while that result was surprising and exhilarating, it was also a bit deceiving. The Blazers were not the ordinary "get the No. 5 and win a round" playoff team.
It's nothing new for the No. 5 seed in the West to upset the No. 4. In fact, in the last five years, the lower-seeded team is 5-0 in that matchup - a fairly unbelievable stat, but I swear it's true, I double-checked it. But usually when that happens, it's because the fifth-seeded team is a veteran group with a deep reservoir of playoff experience. It's a team with a winning pedigree and legit staying power. The four No. 5 teams who won playoff series in 2012 through '15 - the Clippers, Grizzlies, Blazers (with LaMarcus Aldridge and company) and Spurs - all fit that description. The Blazers, however, were a weird No. 5. At 44 wins, they had the worst won-lost record of any West team to finish that high in over a decade. With their experience, they were obvious Davids in a postseason field full of Goliaths. They deserve credit for advancing as far as they did, obviously, but that doesn't mean we can't acknowledge luck was a factor. We all know that Clippers series goes a little differently with a healthy Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
Moreover, the fact that Portland scooped up that No. 5 seed in the first place can be chalked up as a minor miracle. A lot of things had to go right for the 44-win Blazers to sneak into that spot - Dallas had to underperform for most of the season, Houston had to succumb to the simmering James Harden/Dwight Howard tension and three contenders - Memphis, Utah and New Orleans - had to turn into freakin' MASH units by season's end. The Blazers were good, but No. 5 good? It's tough to give them that.
It's hard to remember things this way, given how the Blazers' spring turned out. Once the Clippers' injuries happened and the Blazers got hot at the right time, the postseason was a bona fide success. We all quickly forgot about the circumstances of how the Blazers got where they did - all that matters is that they did.
A quick reality check reveals that the Blazers last season were basically just a .500 team. In fact, they spent much of the year below that mark - after starting the season 1-0, the 2015-16 Blazers didn't get back above water until after the All-Star break, when a win over Golden State brought them to 28-27. Should this year's team be any better, given that their two best players were already mighty close to their primes and Neil Olshey didn't do that much to upgrade the roster? It's hard to say. It's possible that last year's 44-game winner is, well, this year's 44-game winner too.
So is that good enough to capture the No. 5 seed again in 2017? That depends. How does the competition around them look? Are there still injuries derailing key West rivals? Are there underperforming teams the Blazers can beat out? What's the difference between the landscape a year ago and the one now?
Just six weeks into the season, it's hard to reach any definitive answers about who's who in the West, but I think a general structure for this year's standings is starting to take shape.
I think the best way to explain the West this year is to divide it into five tiers. Within the tiers, the standings could shake out any which way, but there appear to be definite strata of the good, the bad and the ugly defining themselves. Here's how I see the conference shaking out, as of right now:
There's really no doubt where to begin this list; really the only question is whether to limit the West's elite class to three teams or one. The Golden State Warriors are obviously the class of the conference. There was a tiny bit of doubt about this during the opening weeks, but the Warriors have normalized nicely - Kevin Durant has continued dominating, Klay Thompson has started to hit the 3-point shot after a slow start and Zaza Pachulia has begun to show some signs of life defensively. There really aren't many weak links to point to. After winning 73 games last year, Golden State has ripped off 23 of 27 to start this season, meaning they're on pace for... 70. True dominance never stops.
While the Warriors are comfortably seated atop the conference, they didn't always have that throne - the Los Angeles Clippers began the season 14-2 and boasted the league's best defense for a hot minute. They've slipped a little bit, but at fourth in defensive efficiency and fifth in offense, they're the only team in the NBA that's top-five on both ends. With an improved bench, a clean bill of health and a reinvigorated Chris Paul, this might be the best Clippers team we've seen yet. Also, Paul has a very good case for his first MVP.
The San Antonio Spurs are obviously still great without Tim Duncan, but casual observers might be surprised to discover why. After Kawhi Leonard, who are the next best players on this Spurs team? According to the advanced stats, like ESPN's RPM metric, the best answers are Patty Mills and Dewayne Dedmon - the two guys who back up aging veterans Tony Parker and Pau Gasol. This is a funky Spurs team. It's deep, but with a lot of guys you've barely heard of, and it's more offense-heavy than most Gregg Popovich squads have been historically. Despite all the change they've been through, the Spurs are still a leading contender to threaten Golden State out West.
The three teams above are the real heavyweights - the three true "It wouldn't totally shock me if they made the Finals" teams. The Houston Rockets are good, but they belong in the next tier. They might be a threat to the Clips or Spurs in a seven-game series, but they're a cut below them in quality. Mike D'Antoni's Rockets are exactly as advertised - an offensive juggernaut of a team that plays just enough defense to survive against most weaker opponents. The Rockets are third in the NBA in points per possession and No. 17 in points allowed. James Harden's averages of 27.6 points, 11.8 assists and 7.8 rebounds are absolutely bonkers, and they're not empty stats, either. Harden is fueling the offensive machine, and the Rockets are rolling to a likely top-four seed.
Then again, the Rockets might have to worry about the Utah Jazz, if the latter could ever get all the way healthy enough to challenge them. We've been waiting for Utah to have a fully healthy season for a while now, and sadly 2016-17 might not be it. Derrick Favors has already missed 14 games, Gordon Hayward seven and George Hill has been out 15 and counting with a sprained toe that's still got him sidelined. It's amazing that Utah is third in defense and eighth in offense despite all that. It's a testament to their depth and Quin Snyder's coaching. Also, Rudy Gobert is a freakin' monster.
Speaking of monsters, there's really no analog in all of basketball history for what Russell Westbrook is doing right now for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Westbrook has 12 triple-doubles right now in just 26 games played; there are 13 NBA teams that don't even have 12 wins. On Thanksgiving, the Thunder were 8-8; six wins and six Westbrook triple-doubles later, the Thunder were 14-8. The deceptive thing is that the Thunder are actually a defensive team, ranking ninth in defensive rating this season and No. 18 in offense - but still. The show Russ is putting on is unbelievable. He alone could easily drag these guys to fifth or sixth place in the West.
Russ' dominance is great, but it's no surprise. The most surprising story in the West might be the Memphis Grizzlies, who have dealt with a ghastly amount of injuries and the aging of numerous key players, yet they've still managed to go 8-1 in the last nine games and solidify their status as a legit playoff team. Mike Conley is out, Zach Randolph plays limited minutes off the bench, Tony Allen is a fossil and none of it seems to matter. The Grizzlies beat the Cavaliers on Wednesday with Allen, JaMychal Green, Andrew Harrison and Troy Williams starting next to Marc Gasol. David Fizdale might be the coach of the year, you guys. This is impressive stuff.
I swear this isn't any kind of homerism or Portland exceptionalism or what have you, but I think the Portland Trail Blazers deserve a category of their own. There's really no one in the West like them. The Blazers right now appear way too good for the lottery, but also way too bad to be a serious threat in the playoffs. There are seven teams in the West clearly better than them, and seven clearly worse. Unless the defense gets itself together or someone on the Blazer bench gives them a major jolt, we're unlikely to see anything change.
That means the Blazers may well be bound for a No. 8 seed and ... a playoff rematch with Golden State in April.
Everyone from this point on is a notch below the Blazers, at the very least. Portland is a pretty significant favorite to nab a playoff spot this year; everyone in this category is a long-ish shot, needing something to break their way. I reckon the Denver Nuggets are at the top of that group. There's nothing exceptional about the Nuggets, but they have a solid group of professional basketball players and they're not going to collapse altogether. They're solid, they play hard, they're deep and they're well-coached. Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler are healthy and having great seasons, the young bigs are interesting and Emmanuel Mudiay is ... well, getting there. This team will hang around, and if an injury happens in the tiers above them, they could pounce.
That's less likely for the Minnesota Timberwolves, despite the fact that they boast elite young talent and a top-10 offense. The Wolves' fundamental stats look pretty good, but thanks to a few close losses early in the season, they're just too far behind the 8-ball to really be competitive this season. At 7-18 now, they've got too much ground to make up. And honestly? That's fine. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are all still just 21 years old. If you look at the list of 21-year-olds who have led NBA teams to real success, like in all of history, there's basically only one name on it, and it's Magic Johnson. Let's all be patient. The Wolves will pan out when they're ready.
...which is more than anyone can say of the Sacramento Kings, who are still trying to nab their first playoff berth since "Scary Movie 4" was in theatres (that's 2006, for those non-film buffs in our midst). It's hard to believe this is DeMarcus Cousins' seventh year in the NBA. The Kings have had seven years to build something cohesive around him, and they just haven't done it. This year's team has shown little bits of promise here and there - Rudy Gay's had a solid season, for example - but it just hasn't been enough. The Kings are bad. Again. They're 9-16, showing no signs of improvement, and you have to wonder if this is the year for Sacramento to move on from Boogie at the trade deadline.
At this point, we're getting down to the teams with realistically zero shot at making the playoffs, and it brings me no joy to put the Los Angeles Lakers at the top of this list. OK, I lied - it brings me a little joy. The Lakers started out the season looking promising, with a record of 10-10 in their first 20 games, putting them in the mix for a playoff spot. We knew it wouldn't last. Their point differential was shaky, their 3-point shooting was streaky and, well, c'mon. It's the Lakers. Recently, they've begun looking like the Lakers again. After eight straight losses, they're at 10-18. They're out of it.
Also out of it are the New Orleans Pelicans, who got a brief jolt last month from the return of Jrue Holiday, but it wasn't nearly enough to turn around a season that had already started 2-10. There just isn't enough talent on this team beyond Anthony Davis and Holiday. Tim Frazier, whom the Blazers literally couldn't fit on their roster 10 months ago, has started 23 games in New Orleans. E'Twaun Moore has started 18. This lineup is AD, Jrue and D-Leaguers. Too bad, for his sake, that AD is stuck there for another half-decade.
Meanwhile, a team that won't have its star for much longer is the Dallas Mavericks, who might be witnessing the end of a legendary career for 38-year-old Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk has played just five games this year, and he's still on the mend from a strained Achilles that's bothered him all year. With the Mavs at 6-19, long gone from playoff contention, it's unclear why Dallas would even want him back. At best, this is a lost season for the Mavs; at worst, we're witnessing the downfall of a once-great franchise. It's tough to say whether Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews are good enough to lead this team into the next era.
At least the Mavs had an era. It's hard to say what's going on with the Phoenix Suns, who are 8-17 and near the bottom of the NBA in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Devin Booker is a promising young guard - he's got "next CJ McCollum" written all over him. Eric Bledsoe has had a solid year too. But on the whole, this Phoenix team just doesn't make sense - there's a bunch of talent that's too old, too young or just doesn't fit. This is a weird mishmash of players, and it's going nowhere fast.
Overall, if you're the Blazers, you can't feel that bad about where you stand. You're not a Western Conference elite, but you're pretty clearly one of the eight best teams out there, which means you get a puncher's chance in April. For the moment, it looks like little more than that. We'll see, though. A lot can change in the next four months.
Blazer’s Edge Night 2017
Want to assist us in sending 2,000+ underprivileged Portland-area kids to a Trail Blazers game this spring? Check out Blazer’s Edge Night 2017 for information on how to get involved, and help spread the word!