Despite the fact that the Portland Trail Blazers have just over a quarter of their regular season games remaining, the All-Star break is generally recognized as the symbolic half-way point of an NBA season. Today we preview what to watch for in the remaining 24 games of the 2017-18 regular season. Heading into Friday’s match-up against the Utah Jazz, the Blazers have a record of 32-26, and are currently tied with the Denver Nuggets for the sixth best record in the Western Conference. A lot can happen in the next couple of months that could have a significant effect on the future of the franchise, here are a few story lines to watch:
The Playoff Race
The Western Conference playoff race is fully underway, and looks primed for a photo finish. While the Rockets and Warriors have separated themselves as the top two teams, the next eight teams in the standings are separated by just 4.5 games. The current fifth through tenth seeded teams are separated by a mere 2.5 games. In other words, eight teams are fighting for six playoff spots, leaving little margin for error. Considering that the last two playoff teams will almost certainly be facing the Warriors or Rockets in the first round, an extremely difficult prospect, the scramble will be intense.
The Trail Blazers are right in the middle of things. Of the 24 games remaining, 10 are against the seven other teams they are currently jockeying for positioning with. Because the teams are so close in the standings, these head-to-head games will be crucial for Portland in the event of a tiebreaker. (Current tiebreaker procedures are listed here.)
The Blazers still have a chance to win the season head-to-head match-up with the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers, and can at least tie the other contending teams. Here is a breakdown of Portland’s head-to-head match-up with each of the teams within earshot of each other, complete with games against each other remaining and the distance separating the two in the current standings:
Vs. SAS: 1-1, 1 left, SAS +2.5
Vs. MIN: 2-1 MIN, 1 left, MIN +2.5
Vs. OKC: 2-0 POR, 2 left, OKC +.5
Vs. DEN: 2-1 DEN, 1 left, EVEN
Vs. NOP: 2-1 NOP, 1 left, POR +.5
Vs. LAC: 1-1, 2 left, POR +1
Vs. UTA: 2-0 UTA, 2 left, POR +2
It’s worth noting that the Blazers could do themselves a huge favor by winning the Northwest Division, guaranteeing the edge in any tie-breaker among divisional foes, as well as securing at least the fourth seed in the playoffs. With all five Northwest Division teams within fighting distance of the playoffs, that’ll be a tall order.
The Blazers will have some additional assets for the playoff push. They signed Brandon Rush to a 10-day contract yesterday. Rush joins a pair of two-way players who will likely see action at some point over the next two months. Wade Baldwin IV has actually been on the active roster for the last couple of weeks, but has yet to see any game action to this point. Fellow two-way player, CJ Wilcox, recently made his season debut with the G-League’s Santa Cruz Warriors and potentially could be called up before the season is over.
While it is unlikely that any of these players will make significant contributions on the court this season, given Portland’s financial restrictions heading into next season, performing well in limited minutes (or even in practice) could potentially earn them a spot on the roster going forward. Neither Rush, Baldwin or Wilcox would cost very much next season, and their presence could be a mutually beneficial opportunity—serving as an audition for the players while also a close look for the Blazers at potential cost-efficient players for next season.
Aside from the playoff race, several Portland players have a stake in the second half individually, particularly upcoming free agents Jusuf Nurkic, Shabazz Napier, Ed Davis and Pat Connaughton. Even players under contract for next season, like McCollum or Lillard could be moved in the off-season, as has been rumored in the recent months. If the team has a disastrous finish and misses the playoffs, there is certainly a possibility they could try to revamp the roster and make significant changes. A strong finish and a decent playoff seed could lead the team’s front office to opt to keep the team together. A so-so finish could really complicate matters.
Perhaps no player will be under more scrutiny over the next couple of months than Nurkic. His play and level of consistency down the stretch should ultimately decide if the Blazers opt to re-sign him or let him go via free agency this summer. While the core of Lillard-McCollum-Nurkic has been intriguing, it has also been inconsistent, and its days could be numbered, depending on how the season ends.
In the coming weeks, the now-cloudy playoff picture should start to become a little more clear, perhaps with it the direction of the franchise. This is a crucial stretch for the Blazers and their players. With many games remaining against the very teams they are competing against for playoff positioning, the team controls its own destiny. Buckle up, we should be in for an exciting second half of the season, with potentially major ramifications moving forward.