With 24 games left in the Portland Trail Blazers’ season, the team currently sits 10 games below .500, equidistant between a first-round KO at the hands of the Golden State Warriors and 12th place in the NBA’s Western Conference. While fully acknowledging the positives and negatives to either side of the “tank vs. playoff push” argument, it stands to reason that Portland has had no actual shot of doing anything of significance this season for quite some time.
But with games to still be played through the second week of April, how can fans find joy in the actual on-court product for the rest of the season?
The key, of course, is to manage expectations. If you’re going to get mad every time the Blazers fall to a playoff caliber team or cough one up in the fourth quarter, you’re going to (continue to) have a bad time. Personally, I’ve had to temper my expectations several time throughout the year. Asking, “Why the slow start?” only makes sense for so long before it becomes, “Why are they underachieving this season?” or, ultimately, “How bad is this team, actually?”
Along with those changes, I’ve had to adjust what brings me enjoyment each game. Two seasons ago, in the last year of the LaMarcus Aldridge/Wesley Matthews/Nic Batum era, I needed wins, pure and simple. Last year was such a surprise that everything on top of a .500 record felt like gravy to me. At this point, we’re all forced to look beyond win-loss column in order to find something to talk about with this team. Here are my big three:
Even if it’s not at the top, I’m pretty sure that this one is high on everyone’s list right about now. When Portland traded Mason Plumlee to Denver earlier this month, Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey managed to move a player the team had no logical reason to pay this summer for a big, young prospect in Nurkic.
Plumlee did an excellent job maximizing his talent during his nearly two-year stint in Portland and did some things quite well, but I’m super intrigued by what Nurkic can potentially bring to this roster in terms of post scoring, rebounding, and defense. He doesn’t excel at any of those things yet but, watching the three games he’s played as a Blazer, the tools are all there.
If nothing else, I’m excited about the prospect of watching Nurkic get the opportunity to play 25-30 minutes a night and work his way through all of his mistakes—an opportunity not afforded to him in Denver. Nurkic wasn’t totally blameless in that situation, but one thing that’s not his fault is Nikola Jokic breaking out and looking like the next great big man in the league. Young players need time and often need to know that they aren’t going to get jerked out of the game when they make a mistake; just look at Moe Harkless in prior years, for example.
Sink or Swim, Leonard and Vonleh
Speaking of young players who need time, one benefit of being a non-playoff team is that there is no real danger of playing your unproven youngsters big minutes. They get a chance to develop, your team gets a few more ping-pong balls in June, and everyone wins. Portland tried this last year with Noah Vonleh early, starting him 54 games before it was clear the Blazers were a playoff team. Once the team inserted Harkless into the lineup, both he and the team took off and fans had one of the more memorable seasons in recent memory.
With little at stake this year, Portland has gone back to Vonleh in the starting lineup, and Meyers Leonard—with the trade of Plumlee and utter disappearance of Ed Davis this season—has an opportunity to sink or swim on the court with Vonleh. I wrote a piece on Leonard’s struggles last month and the comments section was incredibly active on two fronts—with Leonard’s defenders saying that he has rarely received consistent minutes and detractors pointing out that he has had four-and-a-half years to develop.
This is the perfect opportunity for both players to work through their mistakes and essentially “put up or shut up.” It wouldn’t be a fair expectation to expect either player to develop into a major weapon in these last 24 games, but the opportunity for any hint of upward movement is there for the taking. I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do with it, given steady minutes.
Get Yours, Cool Breeze
Allen Crabbe has shot a career high both from the floor and from the 3-point line and yet has still managed to be a disappointment this season in the eyes of many. I don’t even mean that in relation to his contract and what the team is paying for 10 points per game (just in terms of a borderline knockdown shooter not being aggressive enough to exert his will on the game). With Evan Turner out of the lineup for at least a few more weeks—and I maintain that the team may shut him down to maximize those lottery chances—Crabbe has an opportunity to step up in a big time way, but only shows flashes.
A.C. tends to rely on others to set him up too often and, when playing guards like CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard who aren’t shy about letting it fly, if you’re not going to be aggressive in crunch time, you’re not going to get the ball. Crabbe, a 43 percent 3-point shooter this season, has taken six total 3-pointers in the last four games—a span of 113 minutes played. Whether that’s systemic, him not looking for his own shot, or a combination of both, Crabbe has seven weeks left to make a bigger dent in the offense. With the team likely playing out the string, I’d like to see if he’s capable of doing so.
What will you be watching for over the next 24 games?