We are just ahead of Game 6 between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Denver Nuggets in their best-of-seven playoffs series. The game tips at 5:00 PM, Pacific tonight on TNT. With the Blazers down 2-3, plenty of people are writing in and asking what adjustments they can make to stave off elimination.
We did adjustment/analysis posts before the first five games of this series, but honestly speaking, the late games of any series are more about energy, effort, and will executing the established game plan than technical changes. The Blazers played the way they wanted to play for most of Games 3, 4, and 5. They had lulls in certain quarters, but their approach was basically sound. They adjusted and fine-tuned through the earliest games in this series. Now they just have to go out and do it.
That to-do list includes:
- Bring energy and don’t dig a 20-point hole
- Keep Nikola Jokic on the edges of the floor
- Run lots of screen action to get mismatches and make Denver work on defense
- Jusuf Nurkic has to stay out of foul trouble and on the floor
- Make open shots, especially if you’re in the supporting cast
If the Blazers manage those things, they have a good chance of sending the series back to Denver. If they don’t, they’re going... correction... staying home.
The problem is, that’s not very fun analysis. Also, we all need a distraction while we nervously await tip-off. So... we’re going to do something different today. I’m going to channel my inner Charles Barkley and make wacky predictions about the series, the team, and the future.
You may recall that Barkley bets approximately 0.01% of his annual income on the Blazers to win the NBA Finals each year, routinely looking silly when they crash and burn. But he’s onto something. You don’t gain attention—or big bucks—making safe bets. The trick is to predict something outlandish that people will remember, then call attention to the 1 time in 100 you turn out to be right. Voila! Instant genius.
In that spirit, here are Dave’s Wacky Predictions for the Blazers, circa June, 2021. In another year or two, we can look back and see how brilliant I was.
Prediction #1: The Blazers are going to the Western Conference Finals
You heard me. You all think that the soul-crushing Game 5 defeat spells the end of the series, and maybe the Damian Lillard Era, for the Blazers. Ye of little faith.
On the Dave and Dia podcast (dropping today), I said that it’s possible the Blazers get down big and mail in the defeat in Game 6, but I only saw a modest chance of that happening. I think it’s more likely that they win by a small margin, setting up Game 7 in Denver on Saturday.
Game 7’s are always coin flips. Outside of homecourt advantage, there’s no favorite. We’ve all seen what the homecourt means this year. If they get there, the Blazers have a decent chance of winning that decisive game. And hey, if you give Damian Lillard a chance, he’s going to take it.
Meanwhile the Los Angeles Lakers are disintegrating before our eyes. It looks like the Phoenix Suns are in position to oust them. That sets up a potential Portland-Phoenix second round. Chris Paul is hurting. Without him, the Suns are young. The Lakers haven’t been able to take advantage, but Portland will. A series win against Phoenix will put Portland into the Conference Finals.
Unfortunately, that’s where the Blazers are bound to hit their glass ceiling. The Utah Jazz will likely come out of the top side of the bracket. Utah does everything Portland does, just better. Running a veteran, eight-man rotation, the Blazers will be fatigued at that point. A 1-4 series will sent Portland packing, leaving open the perpetual question: Was this season good, or just “Portland Good”?
Prediction #2: Terry Stotts will become the new head coach of the Boston Celtics
If you thought making the Conference Finals would be enough to save Terry Stotts’ job in Portland, think again. The Powers That Be will see the playoffs run as a replay of 2019, when Portland rode the lucky side of the bracket to the third round before getting dismissed by the Golden State Warriors.
As widely predicted, Stotts will lose his seat in Portland. But newly-promoted basketball exec Brad Stevens will call him up on the red—excuse me, green—phone and tap him to lead the Celtics.
Stotts and Stevens have plenty of parallels. Stevens will see in Stotts someone who can coach in similar style as he without being overbearing or obstinate. Terry will find a happy offensive home in Boston while Stevens makes incremental moves around him. It’ll be a natural, comfortable match.
Prediction #3: Neil Olshey will not be fired
Sorry Blazers fans, the guy who comped you tickets to the franchise roller coaster is keeping his position. A reasonably strong playoffs performance is only part of it. Olshey has time left on his contract and Those In Charge will not want to spend extra money paying, then replacing him. Nor will they want wholesale changes to sweep the franchise just yet.
There’s a method to that madness. A couple of NBA Expansion Franchise Fees later and... well, see Prediction #7 below.
Prediction #4: CJ McCollum will be back
The hottest speculative player move for the Blazers won’t happen. The backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will remain intact for another season. Olshey staying on board will guarantee that. Plus the Blazers will find out that CJ’s value on the open market doesn’t exceed his value to the team. He produces stats, he looks good doing it, and he brings stability to the lineup. They’re not going to swing for the fences then end up with a foul tip when they have a perfectly serviceable RBI double in hand.
Prediction #5: Norman Powell will move on
Blazers fans have dreams of a Lillard-McCollum-Norman Powell scoring trio ruling the courts in 2021-22 and beyond. That’s not going to happen.
Portland will balk at giving Powell a huge, long-term deal...even more so since the cost for the guard trio will exceed $90 million in Year 1, drifting above $100 million by Year 3.
Powell will look at the situation and decide he’s neither a small forward nor a third-chair fiddler. Shots, dollars, and prestige in New York (or the allure of returning to Toronto) will prove too much for the Blazers to match.
Prediction #6: If Portland’s new coach isn’t David Vanterpool, Alvin Gentry will take the job
David Vanterpool will be a serious candidate to replace Stotts. He has the chops and history with the team. But let’s assume that the Blazers hesitate for a moment, as they’re theoretically trying to win a title and a first-time coach isn’t the most obvious way to go about it. Meanwhile Vanterpool receives an attractive offer from an even better team and heads there without accepting Portland’s offer.
Left in the rain holding their checkbook, the Blazers will briefly consider Nate McMillan, but then pass. The next coach on their list will take the job. That will be Alvin Gentry. He has experience on the court and sideline, relational ability, and (as they’ll trumpet at his introductory press conference) a winning playoffs record in both Phoenix and New Orleans. They’ll talk themselves and their players into the move. Gentry will jump at the chance.
Unfortunately, it’ll turn out poorly. Vanterpool will excel in his new position with an Eastern Conference team while Gentry struggles to keep the Blazers treading water.
Prediction #7: The team will go up for sale after next season
Remember those NBA expansion fees we mentioned back in Point #3? After they’re safely pocketed for teams headed for Seattle and The Bronx, Jody Allen and Vulcan, Inc. will look to sell the Blazers. Up to that point, they’ll want to keep the team mostly intact, offering prospective owners a buffet of options: trying to build around the veterans, trading away assets for an immediate restart and cash savings, or letting contracts expire naturally into a slower rebuild.
2022 will be a perfect time for the team to go on the market, as McCollum and Lillard will be the only players under significant contracts. CJ will have two years left on his deal, Lillard three. Either could be moved or retained under those circumstances.
Prediction #8: Damian Lillard will eventually demand a trade, but he won’t be the first one
All protestations aside, Damian Lillard will eventually want out of Portland. Even though the ultimate effect of Game 5 of this 2021 Blazers-Nuggets series will prove small, its symbolism will endure. Dame can win in the Rose City, but he can’t win it all.
Though rumblings will begin this summer, Olshey and company will convince Lillard to stay another year. After that, whispers will increase, coinciding with the sale of the team.
Whether or not Lillard actually moves—and for what—remains to be seen. Superstar trades are tricky. But Portland will have practice dealing with such demands because another major player will have made his trade demands plain in the prior year: Jusuf Nurkic.
Nurkic will make $12 million, non-guaranteed in 2021-22, the last ebb of a compromise contract signed three years prior. The Blazers will be happy paying him that relatively-paltry amount, but they won’t want to extend him to major money with his injury history and the team’s future in flux. This will not make Nurk happy. He’ll anticipate the writing on the wall, speculating that the Blazers won’t want to keep him at all beyond his current contract. He’ll ask for a trade to a team that wants him, who will exercise Bird Rights and spend big bucks to retain him. The Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets will be interested.
There are my eight wacky predictions. Which are your favorites and which do you think are most likely to come true? As you’re waiting for Game 6, trying to “La La La” your way past a potential end to the season, feel free to make some wacky predictions of your own in the comments! Maybe we can get Sir Charles to take some of our action.