The end of January brings with it a change of seasons in the 2017-18 NBA calendar. The All-Star game participants are known, the trade deadline will be here before we know it, and we’re starting see some clarity between playoff contenders and pretenders.
The bottom half of the Western Conference playoff picture is still tight, and the Portland Trail Blazers currently sit in seventh place; two games out of fifth, one-and-a-half games out of the playoffs altogether. If the Blazers are going to make a successful push into a more secure seeding, the next 30 days will be critical. Fortunately for them, they have a real chance to move up in the standings.
The most important factor - the one actually in their control - is that they’ve been playing some pretty good basketball of late. The Blazers are 8-4 in their last 12, with three of those losses coming at the hands of the Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans, and Minnesota Timberwolves; teams that are a combined 93-55 on the year.
Portland’s offense has finally started clicking while their defense has been adequate...not to the level that we saw early in the season, but still enough to get it done most nights. This has had a lot to do with Damian Lillard reaching another gear. In the nine games since he returned from his calf injury, he is averaging 27 points and seven assists while shooting a scorching 51 percent from the floor. But it’s not just Lillard; the team has been moving the ball much more effectively. On the season, Portland averages 19 assists per game, dead last in the NBA. Over their last 12 games, they’re averaging nearly 23 assists, which would rank 13th.
Hopefully Portland’s improved offense isn’t a mirage and the team is actually playing sustainable basketball, because the door to the fifth seed is wide open right now. Much has been made about how easy the Blazers’ schedule was over the first 18 games of the season, and how they failed to fully capitalize and get off to a fast start. The next 30 days are another chance for the Blazers to make a move. In that span, they only play three teams that are more than one game over .500; the Toronto Raptors, the Boston Celtics, and the Golden State Warriors. The rest of the schedule in that span offers a reprieve. Aside from the Los Angeles Clippers tomorrow, who are currently 25-24, all eight of Portland’s other opponents are under .500.
Not only do the Blazers have a very real opportunity to continue their winning ways through most of February, but the two teams currently ahead of them in the standings both suffered devastating injuries to key personnel. DeMarcus Cousins of the New Orleans Pelicans and Andrew Roberson of the Oklahoma City Thunder are both done for the season. Cousins’ impact on New Orleans is obvious, but many fans don’t understand how important Roberson is to the Thunder, who have won eight in a row. Here’s a stat that might help clear things up: with Andre Roberson on the court, the Thunder have a defensive rating of 99.6. That number would rank best in the NBA. With him off the court, the rating jumps to 111.2, which would rank dead last.
Of course, no one ever hopes for injuries. But with those key players out for both teams, there is a real likelihood that the Pelicans are done and, barring a major defensive surge or trade near the deadline, Oklahoma City will struggle to handle teams that have more than one perimeter threat. Paul George can only defend one player at a time; Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Terrance Ferguson aren’t exactly stoppers.
While the Blazers are still an incomplete team, and will still face a difficult stretch in March, they have a real path to eclipse both the Pelicans and the Thunder and entrench themselves in the fifth seed, possibly fighting it out with Minnesota for home court advantage. If the team’s recent run of solid play was nothing more than a hot stretch of play, then this is all wishful thinking, but the possibility is there. The door may be open, but it’s still up to the team to walk through it.