I’m guessing most people are clicking on this article and expecting another discussion about the importance of Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic to the Trail Blazers playoff chances.
Here’s a curveball: I’d be careful with that assumption. Nurkic hasn’t played in over a year, Collins’s rehab was interrupted at a crucial point, and players from the other 21 teams have also had time to heal. Zach and Nurk might swing some games for the Blazers, but it’s equally possible that Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke coming back at full strength boosts the Grizzlies.
Instead, I’d argue that the utterly bizarre circumstances of the 2019-20 season might give the Blazers an unexpected advantage. Under normal circumstances, low-seed playoff teams have almost no hope for sustained success in the playoffs. Only two teams from the 4 through 8 seeds have ever won a championship (1969 Celtics, 1995 Rockets). It’s well established that there are fewer upsets in the NBA playoffs than in the MLB, NFL, and NHL.
In short, a 7 or 8 seed has virtually no realistic path to a championship and probably needs some serious luck to even win a series. Not a pretty picture for the Blazers who will struggle just to beat out the Grizzlies, Pelicans, and Kings for that 8 seed.
Fortunately for the Blazers, however, we’ve entered chaos mode. Any deviation from normal scenarios MIGHT give a lower seed the extra boost they need to defy typical playoff odds.
Early Season Play
Nearly five months will have passed between games by the time the NBA restarts the regular season. Players functionally have had an entire offseason. Any good (degenerate?) gambler knows that early season NBA games are particularly friendly to bettors who know what they’re doing — the tl;dr is that the teams are still adjusting to new roster alignments and haven’t fully worked themselves into shape yet so the outcomes are more uncertain, which helps the sharks of the world.
For the most part, rosters aren’t changing but some of the early season uncertainty around solidifying rotations, playing into shape, and scouting opponents will likely carry over into this season. If the Blazers can generate more stability than their opponents, it may give them a leg up, especially in the very short regular season.
Homecourt advantage in the playoffs will, presumably, be nullified by the mostly fan-less neutral site format in Orlando. Even if the league pumps in artificial boos and jeers for the de facto road team, it won’t change the fact that everyone is sleeping in similar hotels and not hopping on multiple flights a week.
For the Blazers, this means that the disadvantages associated with traveling during the playoffs will be neutralized. As a lower seed this can only help.
Anyone remember the 2016 Blazers/Clippers playoff series? The Clippers jumped out to an easy 2-0 lead and looked ready to cruise to an easy series win. Then the injury bug bit — but this bug was some kind of unimaginable Australian monstrosity. The Clippers lost Chris Paul midway through game three and then announced Blake Griffin was done for the season before game four. The Blazers cruised.
Given the totally unprecedented circumstances of resting for five months mostly without access to trainers/facilities, returning to play in the middle of the summer, and playing games with a (presumably) reduced staff, it’s impossible to guess how injuries will play out this summer. Assuming variability helps lower seeds, this uncertainty could create unexpected circumstances that the Blazers can leverage to success.