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Uncertainty Plagues Western Conference Playoff Race

Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Sharp looks at the Western Conference playoff contenders in what he deems the “year of stress”.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

While the Western Conference playoff race will no doubt provide for an exciting stretch run of the NBA season, it could very well just be fool’s gold. It is hard to imagine a team other than the Warriors and Rockets advancing to the conference finals, and many of the teams contending face uncertain futures after that, especially the Portland Trail Blazers. Sport’s Illustrated’s Andrew Sharp recently chronicled the conundrum.

Of the Blazers, Sharp writes:

In Portland, Damian Lillard has been incredible over the past two months. He’s averaging close to 30 per game since January 1st, he’s dominating fourth quarters on a nightly basis, and he’s injected himself into the MVP race just as he’s saved this Blazers season. One reason to worry: Portland is living this timeline for the third year in a row. It’s the season where the Blazers start the year looking unremarkable, they falter halfway through, people begin to worry, and then Lillard puts them on his back and plays so well that everyone forgets what they were worried about. At some point reality will set in. Lillard is playing at an MVP level in the middle of his prime, but he doesn’t have enough help to compete with elite teams. Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, and Moe Harkless are not moving the needle. So even as Portland charges up the West—currently in third place—it would surprise no one if they lost in the first round.

The Blazers are hardly alone. Teams like the Thunder, Nuggets, Pelicans and Timberwolves also face uncertainty in the near future. With so little room for error in keeping up with the Joneses, one mistake could come back to haunt a franchise for years to come. As Sharp writes:

It takes multiple stars to even have a prayer against superteams, but for any team that loads up with stars in today’s cap environment, the margin for error becomes incredibly thin. One bad contract, one bad injury, and suddenly the future looks a lot more complicated. Teams like the Pelicans and Blazers took their risks a few years ago. Others saw KD’s Warriors and took more risks this summer. The approach worked in Houston. Everywhere else, the results have been mixed, and hard questions will begin as soon as this summer.

This is not to say that the Trail Blazers and company are destined to be doomed for mediocrity for years to come. The upper echelon teams have made it extremely difficult for other contenders to keep pace with them, but it is not impossible. The Blazers are showing right now that they are capable of playing with the best, if all goes right. Perhaps the best thing for fans to do is simply enjoy the moment, and let the cards fall where they may.