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Lowe Relegates Blazers to Western Conference Play-In

ESPN’s pundit likes the Blazers, but can’t place them among the West’s top teams.

NBA: Preseason-Golden State Warriors at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Despite being generally bullish on the Blazers compared to most pundits, ESPN columnist Zach Lowe has ranked Portland’s favorite team among the also-rans in the race for the 2022 NBA Playoffs. In his annual column sorting all 30 NBA teams into tiers [subscription required], Lowe puts the Blazers among a group of five fighting for three middle-bracket seeds in the crowded Western Conference. He judges three of those more fit than Portland, leaving the Blazers scrambling into the play-in tournament.

Lowe’s Western Conference is compact this year. The Eastern Conference has two teams in their own tiers: the returning NBA Champion Milwaukee Bucks and the presumed more-elite-than-thou Brooklyn Nets. Nobody in the West qualifies for such honors. Instead Lowe lists the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, and Utah Jazz as “above the play-in fray” in the West, not specifying order.

Under that trio, Lowe lumps the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, and Dallas Mavericks with the Blazers in a tier he calls “The West morass”. None of these teams are good enough to challenge, but none can be dismissed entirely.

Lowe gets more granular with the grouping, tabbing the Mavericks as favorites, and possible Finals contenders, depending on the work of new Head Coach Jason Kidd. He also cites MVP center Nikola Jokic as a justification for favoring the Nuggets. The track record and talent ceiling of the Warriors earns them special mention as well.

That leaves the Clippers and the Blazers duking it out in the play-in tourney from the 7th and 8th spots, a take that Lowe admits he does “not feel great about”.

Of the Blazers, he says:

Portland’s top six are awesome. Their starting five represented one of the league’s best lineups: plus-13.5 per 100 possessions. That group somehow outscored Denver in the first round by 47 points in 112 minutes — in a series Portland lost!

After the obligatory mention of Portland’s horrible defense last season, Lowe continues:

Portland could easily snag a top-four seed, but I’m nervous about their depth beyond Nance. Zeller is fine, but I’d rather play Nance at backup center. Going that route requires productive minutes from Portland’s cadre of unproven and proven-to-not-be-that-good reserve wings: Anfernee Simons, getting run as backup point guard; Tony Snell; Ben McLemore; and perhaps Nassir Little sliding between forward spots.

Snell and McLemore bring shooting, but not much else on offense. (Snell is a solid defender.) Portland might have to play the Robert Covington/Nance/Nurkic combination, which should be stingy on defense but maybe creaky on offense.

This team could be really good, but also more susceptible than most to injury. If they struggle early, does the Damian Lillard situation get funky?

Of course, the prolific columnist has more to say about the Blazers and the rest of the league. If you have ESPN’s NBA Insider subscription, you can read the monster, behemoth article here.