If you were to travel back in time four months and ask me what I expected to be writing in this space on Friday, Feb. 19, my answer would not have had anything to do with the 2015-16 Trail Blazers' playoff chances. No chance. Not in a million years. I doubt I'm alone in this - you probably didn't expect to be reading such a piece, either. A playoff run wasn't really on the radar for this team, this season. We were at peace with that.
And yet, with eight weeks to go in the regular season, here we are - the Blazers are 27-27, they're tied for seventh in the Western Conference and they're very much in the mix for a postseason berth this year. No one expected this, but such is life. Sometimes the unexpected happens, and you roll with it.
Since we're here, we might as well pose the question - what are the Blazers' chances of actually holding onto that No. 7 position for the rest of this season? Is this Portland squad actually a playoff team, or is this merely a flash in the pan that will correct itself between now and mid-April?
It's a tough question to answer because the difference between seventh place and ninth is so razor-thin. The Blazers might be 27-27 at the break, but they open the second half against the Warriors tonight, and a loss would drop them to the same 27-28 record as No. 9 Houston. The Rockets, meanwhile, open against Phoenix. A flip-flop in the standings could be just hours away.
But that's just a momentary snapshot of the standings. Temporarily seizing a top-eight spot on Feb. 19 is no more important than holding one a day earlier - ultimately, no one really remembers who snuck into playoff position in mid-February. What really matters is how the standings fall into place in the long run. For that, it helps to step back, take a deep breath and give the playoff picture a good, unbiased look.
It's also nice to look at some pretty numbers.
Thanks to ESPN's advanced stats, we have some pertinent ones. Ben Alamar, the NBA guru over at ESPN Stats and Info, maintains a stat called Basketball Power Index (BPI) that he uses to measure the quality of each NBA team on a level deeper than mere wins and losses. He takes a team's offensive and defensive metrics, then adjusts them for a wide range of factors including strength of schedule, home court, days of rest in between games and more. Then, using each team's BPI and the difficulty of the remaining games on their schedules, you can simulate the rest of the season thousands of times to determine a team's expected won/lost record and its chances of making the playoffs.
Here's what you get for the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth best teams in the West this season:
Right off the bat, we see some good news and some bad. The bad news is obvious - the stats say the Blazers will finish last in this group! Despite being in seventh place right now, Portland is expected to slip to ninth by the end of the season, missing the playoffs by one measly game. The good news? The Blazers' chances are still over 50 percent. They're the team most likely to miss out from this group, but at the same time, they've got better than a coin flip's chance to get in. It's kind of like the converse of how Donald Trump is only expected to win 31.7 percent of the vote in South Carolina tomorrow, according to FiveThirtyEight, yet he's still a heavy favorite to win the Republican primary. When the field is wide open, a small plurality of the vote is all it takes. The Blazers are the Donald Trump of missing the playoffs.
Hold on. That sounded wrong. Let's start over.
The bottom line is that three of the above four teams, barring something really weird happening in Sacramento/Denver/New Orleans, are getting in. Those are good odds. Even if the Blazers are statistically the worst of the four, they're still in good shape because all it takes is for one team above them to falter. The Blazers are underdogs right now, but they're just waiting on one injury, one bad shooting streak or one locker room chemistry issue.
So what should we watch for over these next eight weeks? Who's got a chink in their armor that might allow the Blazers to sneak in? Ultimately, what factors will dictate the outcome of this playoff race?
Let's break it down team by team.
What's working for them: We can start with the obvious here - the Mavs have the lead. They're currently 1.5 games up on the Blazers and Jazz for sixth place in the West, and every little edge matters as we approach the end of the season. But aside from that, the Mavs also just have a stable core of veteran guys who know how to handle a pressure-packed playoff race. Against all odds, the Mavs have built one of the most stable starting fives in the NBA this season out of Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki and Zaza Pachulia.
Deron is motivated and playing well. Wes is still healthy and doing his thing, as is Parsons. Dirk is still Dirk, firing 38 percent from 3 and grabbing his usual 6-7 rebounds a night. Pachulia has been one of the more underratedly great players in the league this season. He does everything well - screening, diving to the rim on pick-and-rolls, protecting the rim, defending in space against even the toughest matchups. He's the perfect complement to Dirk, making everyone in Dallas forget how close they came to nabbing DeAndre Jordan.
The Mavs aren't exceptional at anything - they're on pace for the playoffs despite being No. 17 in the NBA in offense and No. 17 in defense, which is hard to do. But they're chugging along, and their schedule the rest of the way is manageable, with 16 of their last 27 games (59.3 percent) against top-9 teams in the East or West. Their first eight games after the break, starting tonight: Orlando, Philly, OKC, Denver, Minnesota, Orlando again, Sacramento, Denver again. Yikes. If they go 6-2 over that stretch, which is entirely possible, the race for No. 6 could be over.
What's working against them: Their depth isn't the greatest. That starting five has been pretty solid this year, but their seventh, eighth and ninth guys on the roster leave a bit to be desired. If (heaven forbid) Dirk should miss a week or two with an injury, their fallback option is probably Charlie Villanueva. If they lose Parsons, they've got a bench mob of guards (Raymond Felton, Devin Harris, J.J. Barea) and they've done well going small, but that might be tough to sustain in certain matchups. The Mavs right now are a winning team, but a vulnerable one. They look like a safe bet right now to hold onto that No. 6, but things can change.
What's working for them: Their health and their schedule both. The Jazz were a 26-26 team prior to the All-Star break, but look beyond their overall record - they're not exactly a typical .500 team. A lot of those losses came without either Rudy Gobert or Derrick Favors up front. Rookie big man Trey Lyles is a nice player, but asking him to start 29 games this year as a 20-year-old is a lot. The Jazz have had both their starting bigs back for nine games, and over that stretch they're 7-2 with a defensive rating of 98.0 points per 100 possessions, fourth-best in the NBA.
The Jazz' performance last season pointed to big things up ahead. They had a stretch last spring where they averaged 94.8 points allowed per 100 over 29 games, which meant they were one of the best defensive teams in the history of the game. A lot of people (myself included) predicted they'd continue that greatness in 2015-16, but injuries (Gobert's knee, Favors' back) got in the way of that. Now that both guys are back, the Jazz are no longer a .500 team. They're a defensive juggernaut that should be really tough to beat every single night.
Their schedule is also the easiest of these four teams, with only 17 of their final 30 (56.7 percent) coming against conference top-9 opponents.
What's working against them: You just never know when it comes to injuries. Back pain is always a threat to come back, even with a youngster like Favors, and Gobert's sprained MCL appears healed, but there's little room for error with a shot-blocking center who relies on quickness and leaping ability. The Jazz have to be sure they stay healthy.
You also wonder about the offense. Utah was fourth in the NBA in defense over that pre-ASG stretch, but No. 12 in O. There are some nights when Gordon Hayward's jumper is falling, and some when Favors is just a straight-up beast; when neither happens, the Jazz can struggle to score efficiently. If they go in a rut for a week or two, they could be vulnerable.
What's working for them: On a good day, the Rockets show who they really are - the most talented of the four teams on this list by a good margin. James Harden was the MVP runner-up last year; Dwight Howard also finished second in 2011. The Rockets are deep with capable guys at every position. Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer, Clint Capela, Marcus Thornton - these are all very useful role players capable of starting on many teams. The Rockets were a trendy pick back in October not just to return to the West playoffs, but maybe even to win the Finals. It's because on paper, they're star-studded and devastatingly deep.
Even though the Rockets have underperformed this season, they still have a more potent lineup than almost anyone. Harden's averaging 28 points per game. Howard's giving them 14 and 12. Ariza, Beverley and Jason Terry are all shooting 36-plus percent from 3 on a lot of attempts. We're two-thirds of the way through the season and the results have been lackluster, but you still can't shake this feeling that soon enough, the Rockets will snap out of it and emerge as a clear playoff team.
What's working against them: Three things - chemistry, defense and the schedule. We've heard plenty this season (most notably from Terry) about how the personalities in that Houston locker room haven't gelled. You'd think they could fix that problem by mid-February, but that still doesn't appear to have happened. No one - not Harden, not Howard, not interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff - appears willing to grab the reins and fix the situation.
Defensively, the Rockets are still a mess. Howard remains a decent rim protector, but there are just too many lapses elsewhere on the floor. The Rockets closed their pre-All-Star portion of the season 2-6 with a defensive rating of 110.9 in eight games, fourth-worst in the league over that stretch. It won't get any easier from here, as the Rockets play 18 of their final 27 games (66.7 percent) against playoff contenders.
Portland Trail Blazers
What's working for them: Do you believe in momentum? Because if you do, it's the No. 1 thing the Blazers have going for them. This Portland team started the season 15-24 and has gone 12-3 since then to return to .500; if the team that shows up the rest of the way is the same one that's dominated the last 15 games, we could be in business.
It's not just Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum who have led the way for Portland lately. Gerald Henderson is averaging 13.8 points and 5 rebounds per game in February. Allen Crabbe is contributing 11.5 points a night despite a recent 3-point shooting slump. Moe Harkless has turned into a useful bench player. Ed Davis has improved defensively. It takes a full rotation of eight to 10 guys to sustain a playoff-caliber team for a complete season, and amazingly, the Blazers are looking like they might have one. This group appears deep, healthy, well-coached and motivated to fight for a postseason berth.
What's working against them: Let's put it this way - youth can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it's great that the Blazers are so invigorated by this playoff opportunity and are gutting out wins. On the other hand, how confident are you that they can continue this run? Playing at this level for a full 82 games is difficult, and not many of the youngsters in this group have proven they can do it. McCollum's career high in games played is 62; Crabbe's is 51. Noah Vonleh's? Don't ask. Is this group ready to finish the season strong in its first year together? It's asking a lot.
The Blazers' schedule the rest of the way is tough. Of their final 28 games, 18 are against playoff squads; that's 64.3 percent, almost as high as Houston's. They still have three more meetings with Golden State (including tonight) and two with Oklahoma City. This group has been fighting for its life since New Year's, when it became apparent that they'd need an epic winning streak to get back into playoff contention. How much longer can they continue that fight?
It makes sense to trust the numbers on this one - despite a nice standing in the West pecking order right now, the Blazers remain slight underdogs to sneak into the postseason. Stay tuned, though. A lot can - and probably will - happen to the four teams in this race between now and April. The Blazers still have a lot to fight for.
Blazer's Edge Night
We've already donated over 1400 tickets so underprivileged children and youth can see the Portland Trail Blazers face the Sacramento Kings on March 28th. We're trying to get that number to 2000. We give them directly to schools, coaches, counselors, and others who work with kids in need. It makes a huge difference! Can you help out with a ticket or two?
Donating is easy. Just click here and use the promo code:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.
You can send 2 kids for less than $20. You can send 10 kids for $100. The investment pays more dividends than you can dream of.