As the current NBA season makes the turn down the stretch run of games, the varying paths available to the Trail Blazers start to tighten from the broad possibilities of opening night this past October, to the pinhole-sized narrowness of April 12, 2017. Between now and the end of the regular season, Portland has 23 games remaining on their schedule, and with each respective win or loss the possibilities tighten.
With that in mind I’ve received the same basic question in multiple forms but it boils down to, “What do you look forward to now that so much is up in the air for the Blazers’ future?”
This sounds like a grand opportunity to explore the paths left for Portland over the final six weeks of play, and what better way than to put it out there in a classic, “make your own adventure” format? While there could be myriad possibilities, what follows are, in my estimate, the three most likely paths forward. There’s obviously a slight difference here from your favorite stories of yesteryear; we’re more than halfway through the this year and as much as you may want to, we can’t go back and pick the path that ends in a championship parade down the streets of Portland. That’s cheating. Also, this is more non-fiction than sci-fi/fantasy.
So, no matter what path you take here’s the starting point: Portland is 24-35, with 23 games remaining on the schedule. Evan Turner is still injured and Festus Ezeli is not magically suiting up for Portland. The starting lineup consists of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Noah Vonleh, and Jusuf Nurkic. Essentially, things are as they are post-game action after the loss to the Detroit Pistons.
Alternate Reality One
The Trail Blazers, stinging from their most recent defeat, head home to the more friendly confines of the Moda Center. With a day off, they have a chance to work Jusuf Nurkic into the playbook on both sides of the floor a bit more. The game-plan is in place to suffocate the paint as the Oklahoma City Thunder come into town, much like they did in their first meeting, and limit the effectiveness of everyone not named Russell Westbrook.
Portland comes out and plays inspired basketball from the opening tip. If this game were any earlier in the season it would ring of “turning the corner,” as the Blazers outplay the Thunder in nearly every facet of the game. However, the Blazers can’t let those platitudes set in. Instead, they buckle down and take it at face value, a win at home against a division opponent that has weaknesses. But they build on this victory, knowing that there’s only a handful of games left, and it springboards them forward with the Brooklyn Nets coming into town. Stringing together back-to-back victories and a bit of swagger, the Blazers head out on a short two-game trip, visiting the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Thunder.
Portland comes away victorious against the young Timberwolves, but drops the rematch in OKC. However, after going 3-1 over four games, the Blazers start to feel like they can make the push. They glance at the calendar and see that the Denver Nuggets in the same timespan have gone 1-3 and are dangerously close to falling too far behind the Blazers to keep pace. Portland can sense there’s blood in the water. The inexperience Nuggets don’t know how to close the season. Portland has been here before and all hands are now on deck; it’s a race to the finish line.
Sensing the turning tide, the Blazers tighten their rotations, keeping Lillard and McCollum’s minutes above 35 per game, hoping to get every last bit of scoring potential out of the dynamic duo. Portland gets into a groove, winning the winnable games that have been there all season. Down go the Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans, and the Miami Heat. Over the next 16 games Portland goes 11-5 before meeting up with the Nuggets on March 28th.
Sitting at 35-39, this game proves to be the straw that breaks the young Nuggets’ back. Portland claws their way through the slog of the season, outlasting Denver to the final days. Evan Turner has returned from injury a week ahead of schedule and Portland is as healthy as they’ve been down the stretch run. However, the Blazers return to their earlier form and only manage to go 2-6 through the final eight games, finishing 37-45. While four games under .500, it’s good enough to secure the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western Conference.
Stumbling into the playoffs against the Golden State Warriors, Portland gets embarrassed in both opening road games in Oakland. They save face with a victory in Game three before succumbing in five on the return to the Bay. The Blazers finish outside the 2017 NBA Draft lottery and end up with the No. 16 pick (their own), the No. 22 pick (from Memphis), and the No. 28 pick (from Cleveland) in the draft.
Portland falls short of the lofty goal of 50+ wins set before the season, they fail to capture the magic of last year, and they fall out of the draft lottery chasing a playoff berth and opening-round exit to the eventual champion Warriors. Portland misses on drafting a top prospect, but has the chance to add young talent to their roster by combining two of their first-round picks to move into the late-lottery. The Blazers gear up for the 2017-18 season with a slightly different core, and adjusted expectations with room for hope but a lot of questions still surrounding the direction of the franchise.
Alternate Reality Two
The Blazers come home after a 1-2 road trip, which was really a “Dame-Time” explosion away from an embarrassing 0-3 outing where they were badly outplayed for long stretches. The same cliches ring hollow during postgame comments, the only difference now is no one is clinging to each and every word. Each loss weighs heavier for fans and players alike.
President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey said after acquiring Jusuf Nurkic that the team was excited for the draft pick that came along with him in the trade. This becomes more than a token change in how he is projecting the team for the rest of the season, and instead an organizational shift for the remaining games on the schedule. Olshey and the Blazers’ coaching staff begin making noticeable changes in the operation and the language of the team. While the starting lineup remains the same, the first player off the bench is no longer Allen Crabbe or Meyers Leonard. Instead it’s Shabazz Napier.
The Blazers announce that while things seem to be progressing nicely, Evan Turner still isn’t ready to return to full-contact drills and his return is pushed back two more weeks. Things continue as they have all season with the Blazers falling behind early, making a spirited comeback, only to be outdone by terrible defense down the stretch. While during the meat of the season they may have stolen a game here on there with a valiant effort or star-turn by Lillard or McCollum, the compactness of the closing games prove too much.
With 15 games between March 2 and March 28, including four back-to-backs and no more than two days off between any games, the workload for Lillard and McCollum is just too much. Lillard struggles mightily as his nagging ankle injuries slow down his explosive scoring output. Sensing the season has totally slipped away, the Blazers announce that Lillard will be sitting out the next few games and they’ll monitor his status with a chance to return before the end of the year.
Napier slides into the starting role, Pat Connaughton works into the rotation, as does Jake Layman. The Blazers are unable to keep pace without their leading scorer and playmaker, Nurkic is unable to fill a Plumlee sized playmaking void, and the burden of leading man and playmaker extraordinaire proves to be too much for McCollum night-in, night-out as the Blazers struggle down the stretch to put together consecutive quarters, let alone consecutive games.
The losses pile up quick, and the games become less about the outcome and more about the development of the younger players. The Denver Nuggets secure the eighth and final playoff spot as the Blazers race to the bottom of the standings, going 6-17 through the final 23 games and finishing 30-52.
Portland finishes tied for the fifth-worst record in the league and through a series of tiebreakers can end up at No. 4, 5 or 6 before the lottery balls drop. The difference in each is 15.6 percent, 11.9 percent, and 8.8 percent when it comes to securing the top pick in the draft but even the sixth overall pick has a 29.1 percent chance of landing in the top-3 once the drawing has been made.
Heading into what most consider to be a very good NBA Draft—particularly loaded in the top-5—the Blazers secure a a most-desired placement with the potential to add a dynamic piece to their core. They also have the No. 22 and 30 picks in the draft courtesy of the Grizzlies and the eventual champion Cavaliers, respectively. What the Blazers lack in cap space they make up for in young assets, giving themselves a chance to rebuild on the fly heading into the 2017-18 NBA season.
Alternate Reality Three
Fresh off another sub-par road trip, Portland comes home to face the Thunder. True to form, Portland plays terrifically in the opening half, stymying the Thunder at every turn as McCollum, Lillard and company lead an offensive clinic. The second half starts and everything Portland took, they give away. The Thunder claw back into the game only to watch Allen Crabbe catch fire on his way to 17 second-half points, leading the Blazers to an enjoyable but unexpected victory.
Riding high from their exploits against the Thunder, the Blazers come out flat against the visiting Brooklyn Nets. Uninspired play on both sides of the floor lead to a game that should never have been close in the first place. Nurkic and Brook Lopez battle all evening long, but the veteran Lopez outduels the Bosnian Beast as the Nets win for only the tenth time all season.
This back and forth play that has plagued Portland continues with the ebb and flow of the remaining games. The compressed schedule that March brings only compounds issues, making their play seem even more erratic. Games are won and lost in single quarters as tired legs and tired minds lead to mistakes from both Portland and their opponents. The season series is on the line against the Nuggets, Pelicans, Timberwolves, Thunder, Jazz, Suns, and Spurs to close out the season. While the Thunder, Jazz, and Spurs are too far out and the Suns too far behind, the Nuggets, Pelicans, and Timberwolves are all within 3.5 games of each other. Each team has the opportunity to seize its own destiny and the eighth seed if they can take control.
The Blazers haven’t been able to take control through nearly 60 games this year and they aren’t about to start now. They bounce around, winning and losing much as they have through the season. There are highlights and lowlights alike, a new career high for Maurice Harkless in a Blazers victory, another 30-point loss to a Western Conference contender against Houston, with a smattering of highlight reel performances from players up and down the roster.
There’s plenty of good and bad to take in, but ultimately the season ends on a flat note with neither the playoffs nor a high lottery pick in hand. Finishing with 35 wins and the No. 15 pick in the draft, the Blazers are stuck in the middle.
The Blazers find themselves in NBA purgatory, not bad enough to secure a top-flight lottery pick and the talent that comes along with, but also not good enough to push for the seventh or eighth seed and a chance at a first-round historic upset, or the proverbial playoff experience as they are lead to slaughter by an NBA Finals contender.
Portland heads into the draft with the No. 15, 20, and 29 picks and discussions begin to kick up around everyone not named Lillard or McCollum. With offers few and far between, the Blazers start entertaining the thought of moving McCollum heading into the 2017-18 NBA season. What was once heresy to even think becomes the question on everyone’s mind: how much longer will this current team last?
Is any of this guaranteed? Of course not. It’s only an exercise of what the future could hold based on the thoughts and analysis of sorted NBA analysts and experts. The great part about this is that the Blazers still have to actually write the ending to this season. So if you’re still not sure of what to watch for down the stretch, that’s probably a great place to start.