Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers are not going to admit the playoffs are out of reach until the team is mathematically eliminated. Despite multiple poor showings, Lillard’s past week has made it apparent the the team is not ready to pack it in for the season. Record of 20-27 be damned.
Unfortunately, the Blazers face an uphill battle to actually qualify for the playoffs. Here are their chances, according to three major sources:
- Fivethirtyeight: 29 percent, 38 wins
- ESPN BPI: 34.1 percent, 37 wins
- Basketball Reference: 25 percent, 36.5 wins
Never tell me the odds, indeed. So what needs to happen to beat the odds? Let’s dig in.
Win the winnable games. And then some.
Reverse those six games and Portland is above .500 and in the driver’s seat for the final playoff seed. And we haven’t even talked about other presumable shoulda-won games (vs. Suns, vs. pre-Zion Pelicans).
Now for the bad news; eight of the next 13 games are against teams with records of 29-17 or better. The Blazers need to win all five games against sub-.500 teams in that stretch (Spurs, Grizzlies, Pelicans x 2, Pistons) or pick up an upset or two just to match the 25-35 record of the disappointing 2016-17 team after 60 games.
All of this is to say that the margin of error is zero. I hate to overuse the phrase “must-win game” before the all-star break, but that’s where we are at. The Blazers cannot afford a single loss when circumstances are in their favor, plus they’ll need to pick up some wins against better teams. That’s the reality of trying to significantly improve upon a projection of 37ish victories after botching multiple winnable games with only 43 percent of the season remaining.
Lillard needs to keep playing like an MVP
The ship has sailed on the Blazers ever playing solid defense this season. Blame the scheme, blame the effort, blame the personnel — it doesn’t matter. Portland’s going to have to lock their flamethrower on the Rick Dalton/Leo DiCaprio setting on a nightly basis to win games.
That starts and ends with Damian Lillard. The entire offense, outside of Melo’s mid-range game, is designed around him by necessity. If he has a lull or, god forbid, tweaks an ankle the Blazers can kiss the playoffs goodbye.
Make the trade
Jusuf Nurkic is set to return after the all-star break, hopefully, meaning the Blazers have about five games between the trade deadline and Nurkic’s return. With reinforcements on the way at center, turning Hassan Whiteside into another usable rotation player at a different position to help fortify the bench will bolster Portland’s playoff hopes. If nothing else, the team’s on-court chemistry has looked more Jesse Pinkman than Walter White this season — maybe trading Whiteside can improve that element, as well. Desperate times call for desperate experiments.
Get some luck
Even if all of the above happen, there are some good teams around the Blazers in the standings. Notably the Pelicans core has started to gel, the Grizzlies are overachieving, and the Spurs have the talent to make a playoff run. Portland would benefit greatly from one or more of those teams throwing in the towel in favor of a tank.
The Blazers face an uphill struggle if they hope to make the playoffs. Every winnable game has become a must-win and even if everything breaks right they may need a conference rival to experience some bad luck to sneak into the postseason.