The Portland Trail Blazers currently sit squarely in the middle of the scrum currently taking place in the Western Conference playoff race. They are tied for 5th in the conference with a 34-26 record, which is pretty good. However, the closeness in records of the teams in competition for the postseason means that the Blazers are only two games behind the 3rd seeded Timberwolves—and only two ahead of the 9th seeded Clippers. One bad stretch could doom any of these teams to the lottery, while a hot streak could secure a playoff spot by mid-March. Which direction are the Blazers more likely to head in?
Net Rating is generally regarded as one of the best ways to judge a team’s actual level of play, especially on a large sample size. Here, the Blazers don’t fare particularly well. They have a Net Rating on the season of 1.0, which is tied for 14th in the NBA. Not bad, but that actually places them 6th out of the 8 teams fighting for the six lower playoff spots in the Western Conference, tied with the Pelicans and ahead of only the Nuggets (0.2). By this metric, the two best teams (by far) are the Spurs and Wolves, with net ratings of 3.3 and 3.2 respectively.
Breaking down the net rating into its components (offensive and defensive) does the Blazers a bit better. That’s because while both sides of the ball are important to any successful NBA team, defense has been proven to be slightly more helpful in maintaining a consistent NBA record. That is, teams that are good defensively have better odds to be competitive on a game to game basis than those with strong offenses. The Blazers are 9th in the NBA with a 104.5 defensive rating, which places them 4th among the Western Conference playoff hopefuls. By this standard, the Wolves and Nuggets, both boasting bottom seven defenses, might be in trouble.
Injuries are another interesting factor. The Blazers have, by and large, avoided injuries this season. Of the top nine players in their rotation (by minutes per game), the player with the most missed games this season is Al Farouq Aminu with 13. CJ McCollum has missed just one contest, Jusuf Nurkic three, and Damian Lillard seven. Compare that to the other teams the Blazers are fighting with in the West: Kawhi Leonard has missed most of the season for the Spurs, Jimmy Butler is going to miss at least a month for the Wolves, Paul Millsap has been on the bench for the Nuggets, and the list just keeps going. There are two ways to look at the injuries. The “bad” interpretation is that the Blazers have been lucky so far while their rivals have not, and that they therefore might fall behind as the other teams get healthy (or that they are due for injuries). The positive spin is that the Blazers are simply a healthier team than the others, and are more likely to remain so down the stretch, thereby giving them a huge advantage over their opponents.
The strength of the remaining schedules for each team will obviously play a huge role in which team is able to claim one of those spots. And this is probably the area that is worst for the Blazers. They have a SOS of 0.543 for the remainder of the season (their opponents averaged have a 0.543 winning percentage), second highest of the eight would-be playoff teams. Only the Spurs have a higher SOS (0.555), and a couple of the teams (Denver, Utah) have much, much easier schedules the rest of the way. If anything bodes ill for the Blazers, it might be the difficulty of their schedule down the stretch compared to the other teams in their way.
Finally, what about tiebreakers for getting into the playoffs/seeding? The first step is looking at the Blazers’ head to head records against the other teams. The Blazers’ picture is complicated and completely unresolved: not a single series against any of the seven teams in the playoff race with them has been decided yet. The Blazers are currently losing the season series to Utah, New Orleans, Denver and Minnesota 1-2, tied with San Antonio and the Clippers 1-1, and winning against Oklahoma City 2-0. They therefore have a chance to tie the first four teams and beat the latter three. After head to head, the tiebreakers fall by division record. Here, the Blazers don’t fare as well, as they possess the third worst division record (5-6) and are way behind both the Clippers (11-3) and Wolves (9-2). If, somehow, those first two tiebreaks aren’t enough to decide the outcome, seeding then falls to conference record. The Blazers, at 21-15, have the second best in-conference record thus far, which is a nice little bonus, but probably won’t matter in the end.
Overall, the Blazers appear to be in a solid place. They rarely lead the pack amongst their direct competition, but they also aren’t lagging in any metric either. If they keep playing the consistent basketball they have most of the season, it seems fairly likely that they will make the playoffs.