The Portland Trail Blazers stand in clearer relief right now than at any time since 2014. Their offense is powerful, their rebounding superb. Defense remains spotty, but their bench depth helps cover it. They can shoot the three even when they can’t defend it. None of this comes as a surprise to anyone who’s watched them over the past couple months. Is that a good thing or a bad thing, though? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I just wrote a deleted a very long email in which I explained all the ways that this team has broken my heart once I’ve opened up to the possibility that we might be good.
Blazers are playing high quality basketball and winning games in encouraging ways. I don’t think there’s an argument that we’re any better than the 6th best team in the league right now but after that I don’t think we’re any worse than 50/50 against the competition.
All of that is to ask: can I get excited about this team again?
Yes! Depends on what you’re getting excited about, though.
I’ve been excited since Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter came on board because finally, the Blazers have been solidified. They’re now deep enough to perpetuate their style of play for 48 minutes, talented enough for that style to make a difference. That doesn’t mean they’re title-worthy. (Anything can happen, but that road is long and the odds even longer.) Rather, they’ve reached a place where they really are who you see in front of you. There’s no ephemeral “third seed” designation that’s actually 1.5 games ahead of the eighth seed. The team won’t be depending on injuries to the opponent to make it to the second round. Nor will they likely get swept by surprise in the first. Their wins and their losses are more legitimate and understandable than they have been at any time over the past three years.
Right now the Blazers sit fifth in the Western Conference. They could go down to sixth. (I doubt that will happen.) They’re capable of rising as high as third without too much imagination stretching. That’s a wholly appropriate range for them...a middle-conference playoffs seed, ranking in the bottom half of the upper third of the league. Nobody gave that to them or fell below them to boost them up. The designations are real.
Leaping the gap between their current spot at the league’s elite will be difficult. Oklahoma City has their number. Utah is a coin flip. There’s no guarantee Portland could take the Rockets in a seven-game series. As we saw last night, even a rested Clippers team could give them trouble. The Blazers will need to overcome some of these obstacles before facing an inevitable showdown with Golden State. The Warriors appear more vulnerable this year than they have in recent memory, but they still outclass the Blazers significantly.
If you compare the Blazers to where they were, they look good. If the metric for such teams is 10, Portland’s gone from around a 6.5 to an 8, maybe an 8.5. That’s something to get excited about. It’ll make a difference down the stretch, hopefully in the first round of the playoffs also. When Portland’s 8.5 meets Oklahoma City’s 9.5 or Utah’s 7.5, the battles will be furious and exciting.
Both gains and excitement will fall into perspective when any of these mid-tier teams come up against the 93 of Golden State. In the microcosm, Portland has made significant progress. In the macro view, they’re about as far away from a title as they were before. They’d still need luck and/or injuries to get there.
For Portland to make the Big Move, Golden State will need to falter somewhere. If that happens, the Blazes have as good of a chance as anyone. But that could also have been said about opponents of the 1990’s Bulls or the 2000’s Spurs. “If only” doesn’t win NBA championships very often.
You can and should get excited about who the Blazers are right now. This is as real as it gets. That’s a combination of relief and referendum, but in the balance, it a good place for the team to be.
Keep those questions coming to firstname.lastname@example.org!