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NBA’s Return Offers More Than a Playoffs Push for the Blazers

The Trail Blazers have an opportunity to turn the Orlando-based restart into a true summer league.

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NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers have quite a hill to climb in order to qualify for the playoffs in the NBA’s adjusted season format. In the span of eight games, they need to either steal the eighth spot from the Memphis Grizzlies and beat the ninth seed once in two tries OR remain in ninth and beat the eight seed (likely Memphis) twice in a row. Although using winning percentages as a tiebreaker benefits the Blazers, they need to win most of their games AND win whatever play-in series. Now they’ll have to do that without Trevor Ariza, their only player capable of guarding big wings.

Ariza announced his decision to not partake in the bubble on Monday. Although the Blazers’ frontcourt is no longer desolate with Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic back in the fold, the wing rotation needs attention. In addition to Ariza’s absence, Rodney Hood will not play in Orlando due to an Achilles tear from December.

However, let’s say Portland reaches the postseason by playing impressive basketball with Collins and Nurkic back on the floor. It’s certainly not impossible. In this scenario, they would almost definitely face the Lakers in the first round.

Even with healthy big men to defend LA’s intimidating front court, that’s an incredibly hard series for the Blazers to survive. LeBron James doesn’t seem capable of losing any playoff matchup prior to the Finals, and we all know what Anthony Davis can do as a pick and roll defender to stymy Portland’s go-to offense.

This is pessimistic. Everyone envisions their team winning the championship against all odds. If the season played out normally and the pandemic didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be writing a column about everything stacked against the Blazers. But given the circumstances of how this season will be completed—at least one month away from family, potential exposure to a virus we know little about, and more—I think evaluating the team-specific risk versus reward is imperative.

What does that mean for fans? It means not getting upset if any other players follow in Ariza’s footsteps and opt out of going to Orlando. (June 24 was the original deadline to do so, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that July 1 is perceived as the hard deadline among franchises.) I didn’t see any negative comments on Twitter when Ariza’s news broke, which further supports what this fanbase represents.

What does it mean for the team? Obviously, the guys who travel to Orlando are going to play their heart out. No professional basketball player steps on the floor and doesn’t let their competitiveness take over. But if any more players back out, or Portland’s early games result in losses, the organization should change its goals for Orlando. The Blazers play Memphis the first game, with obvious implications for closing the gap on the eighth seed at stake. They then play the Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets.

Collins and Nurkic need practice to shake off all the rust. If they go to Orlando, give them as much run as the team doctors approve of to prepare for next season. Then, let the younger players vying for bigger roles in the near future acquire some high-level experience. Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr. and Nassir Little would benefit from competing against playoff-level competition with no pressure influencing their decisions.

We all want basketball to return. I’ve voluntarily re-watched Blazers games from this season just to enjoy the hardwood action again. But Ariza’s decision to opt out of the Orlando bubble changes how Portland should approach their time there. Depending on decisions from other players as well as the result of the first couple games, Orlando’s restart might blossom into an opportunity for the Blazers’ developmental players—a true summer league. Yes, missing the postseason would be a disappointment. But utilizing the window to strengthen the organization’s future is a plan fans should be at peace with.