The Portland Trail Blazers have played excellent basketball for several months now. They have a record of 24-7 since mid-January, putting their overall record at 46-28 — the third-best record in the Western Conference and the fifth best in the NBA. The Blazers’ surprising success this season has people wondering if Portland is, in fact, a top-five team or not.
Marc Stein of The New York Times tackled this question in a recent newsletter (you can sign up for his newsletters here). A reader asked him, “Do you think the Blazers are a top-five team in the league and how much of an impact do you think they’ll make in the playoffs?” Stein admits that it is a deceptively tough question:
On one hand, Portland has rightfully jumped into the top five of virtually everyone’s rankings out there on the strength of its 16-3 run since Feb. 5 The defense has picked up, Damian Lillard is on a mission and the West’s No. 3 seed is the Blazers’ to lose over the final 15 days of the regular season.
On the other hand, though, I’m going to have to risk the angry looks surely coming my way on my next visit to the Pine Street Market or Jake’s Famous Crawfish, because I don’t think I can bring myself to include the Blazers if you ask me to draw up a list of the top five teams with the best chance to win it all.
He goes on to list Golden State, Houston, Toronto, and Cleveland as the most likely title contenders with Boston a slight tier below because of their injury issues. Stein doesn’t have Portland next on his list, though:
I also can’t seem to bring myself to back off of my seasonlong contention that Oklahoma City, for all its flaws, has the highest ceiling in the West outside of the Warriors or the Rockets, harsh as that might be on the Blazers after they just completed a 4-0 season sweep of the Thunder.
Blazers fans may not like that assessment, but Stein concludes by acknowledging that it’s up to Portland to prove him wrong:
The good news for you and all the other Blazermaniacs out there: You only have to wait 18 more days for the playoffs to arrive to see whether this team can start to punish me for such disrespectful declarations.
Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Blazers Coach Terry Stotts — those three stalwarts continue to be underrated somehow. But as always with this incarnation of the Blazers, much will depend on the play of Jusuf Nurkic. When Nurkic is plugged in and producing at the level we’ve seen in March (14.6 points and 10.3 rebounds in just 24.3 minutes per game), Portland is a different team.
What do you think of Stein’s analysis? Will you give him angry looks when he visits Portland or is that a fair assessment?
You can sign up to get his NBA Newsletter here.