Despite an up-and-down season that culminated in a first round sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans, the Portland Trail Blazers managed to finish the year as Northwest Division champions. It means a whole heck of a lot less than it used to now that the NBA has changed their playoff seeding rules. It was still a nice achievement; albeit one that doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality of Portland’s capability to compete for a Conference title.
Can fans realistically expect a repeat in the 2018-19 season? It’s going to be tough, because the rest of the Northwest Division had a lot of things working against them last season. At least a couple of them are going to bounce back from their bad luck.
Every other team in Portland’s division dealt with significant injuries last season. The Utah Jazz played without Rudy Gobert for 25 games with a sprained knee. The Oklahoma City Thunder lost Andre Roberson, arguably the best perimeter defender in the league, for 43 games. The Minnesota Timberwolves had to play the stretch run of the season without Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets lost All-Star Paul Millsap to a broken hand that kept him out of action for more than 40 games.
Despite all of the adversity, the entire division ended up being separated by only three games. Yes, the Blazers took home the crown, but they also managed to be the healthiest team by far. That’s not to disparage the achievement itself. Injuries happen, and you can only play who’s on the schedule. But, barring major moves within the division, a repeat performance probably isn’t a realistic expectation.
Though there are whispers that Karl Anthony Towns isn’t entirely happy in Minnesota, they’re still a team with two All-NBA third-teamers. Anthony-Towns and Wiggins are still showing improvement while Butler is in the middle of his prime right now.
Denver is a bit more of a question mark. They’re expected to extend Nikola Jokic this offseason, which puts free agent Will Barton’s odds of resigning with the team in doubt. But Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and a full season of the Millsap/Jokic front court pairing is a solid core.
Oklahoma City is probably the biggest question mark in the division. Obviously there are no guarantees that Paul George will be returning to pair up with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. Should he decide to take his talents to, oh I don’t know, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Thunder are going to have a massive hole at small forward. Couple that with Roberson’s uncertain lateral quickness following knee surgery and Melo’s rapid decline and you’ve got a lot of uncertainty in Loud City. Obviously Westbrook is Westbrook, and Steven Adams is solid, but there may be too many holes to plug.
Then there’s the Utah Jazz. Rudy Gobert heads up one of the best defenses in the league. Donovan Mitchell is a superstar in the making. Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio, and Derrick Favors are solid role players. I don’t see them falling off, and depending on how much better Mitchell can get from year one to year two, they could be flat out scary next season.
Portland is in the mix with all of these teams, but they don’t really have a clear path to separate themselves from the pack. Barring a massive amount of internal growth, next year’s iteration of the Blazers is likely to be largely the same group that we watched this past season.
Of course, there is still the draft, free agency, and the “trade season” to look forward to this summer. Portland could make a major upgrade, but it’s not likely.
Fortunately for the Blazers, there is little shine, outside of bragging rights, for claiming a division title. Still, it was a pleasant surprise that they finished last season on top. It was a nice bright spot for fans before everything went sour in April. And it’s probably not going to happen again next season.
Will you miss the division win if the Blazes don’t get it? Do you even care about divisions anymore? What kind of odds do you give them to pull off the repeat? Let us know in the comments!