The Portland Trail Blazers have an uphill battle to climb as the 2022-23 NBA season commences. Their strength of their schedule to start the season is daunting. Many of their early matchups will prove what Rip City is made of.
Positive Residual prognosticates the Blazers to have the ninth most challenging strength of schedule league wide, factoring in variables such as games played in high or low altitude and rest. Here’s a breakdown the different sections of the 2023 campaign.
The Blazers start out with an easy takeoff from the runway: a season opener against the Sacramento Kings, who finished 30-52 last year as the 12th seed in the Western Conference. Adding Domantas Sabonis and retooling their rotational pieces makes the Kings more formidable, but Portland will look to prosper against the underachieving franchise.
After game one, turbulence ensues. They face the Phoenix Suns, LA Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat, and Memphis Grizzlies in four of their next five games. Three of these teams – the Suns, Heat, and Grizzlies – finished top two in their respective conferences last year. And the Lakers and Nuggets flaunt much talent on paper.
Four of those five games will be at the Moda Center. This stretch will be a reality check for Portland, as well as a barometer for their success – or lack thereof – to follow. Reason being? Not only will it pit them against a mixture of Championship and playoff contenders, and test how ready they are, it will also prove how well they can defend home court. Why?
Right after this stretch, they face the same Suns and Heat teams again – the Suns in back to back games – kicking off a six game road trip. A brief break against a Charlotte Hornets team which has been struggling in the preseason, and now without Lamelo Ball to start the 2023 campaign, introduces them to further obstruction in their line of sight.
The Dallas Mavericks held teams to the fewest 3-pointers made per game in 2021-22. They were the only team to contain opponents to under 11 made distance field goals, at 10.9 makes per game. This may be a thorn in the side of “Logo Lillard” and the 13th best 3-point shooting team in that department last year, achieved without many of their main horses.
Lastly, they will see a San Antonio Spurs team which will be tanking for the number one overall seed in the 2023 NBA Draft, before a formidable test against the revamped Brooklyn Nets. Both of these games will be played at home.
All in all, 11 of their first 15 games will be against playoff teams from a season prior, and 6 of which will be against teams who made the conference finals or better.
John Shuhmann of NBA.com reported:
On the other end of the spectrum, the Blazers (for the second year in a row) have the toughest first 20 games according to last year’s numbers and the second toughest using FanDuel over-unders. Their first 20 include five games against the Suns (x 3) and Heat (x 2), and they’ll play 12 of those 20 on the road.
Here are the five toughest first-20 schedules, taking cumulative opponent winning percentage (using FanDuel over-unders), location and rest into account.
- Spurs: .552, 10 home, 10 road, 2 rest-advantage, 4 rest-disadvantage
- Blazers: .526, 8 home, 12 road, 2 rest-advantage, 1 rest-disadvantage
- Jazz: .528, 8 home, 12 road, 1 rest-advantage, 3 rest-disadvantage
- Cavs: .527, 9 home, 11 road, 1 rest-advantage, 2 rest-disadvantage
- Thunder: .541, 10 home, 10 road, 4 rest-advantage, 2 rest-disadvantage
Holiday Season Tests
Heading into Christmas weekend, the Blazers will be fresh off of another six game road stead. Fortunately for them, four of these six games come against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, and Spurs. Facing much of the same recycled opponents from the first month or so of the season may prove to work to the Blazers’ advantage, after the proverbial feeling out rounds are past.
The Rockets allowed the most points per game last year, and led the league in turnovers, so a high octane, west coast offense like Portland projects to run them off the floor. The Thunder will be without Chet Holmgren for the entirety of the season, so Portland can hide their paper thin center depth chart behind high usage from Jusuf Nurkic – and expected high efficiency.
Between Christmas and New Years day, Rip City will host the Hornets again, as well as the Detroit Pistons. With the additions of young talent the likes of Jaden Ivy, Jalen Duren, and Marvin Bagley III, the Motor City reckons to improve upon a 23-59 lottery-worthy season in 2022. Therefore, this unsung matchup will prove if Portland can keep their foot on the necks of precocious teams looking to make life hell for opposing squads sleeping on them.
Their greatest trial however, comes on December 30th, 2022, when they take on the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
A great touchstone of the season, a matchup against the Splash Brothers-led ball club will do exactly what it will advertise. It’ll show Portland just how far, or close, they are to being back in the championship mix. It’ll expose every little hole they have in their offense and defense.
The Warriors will test Damian Lillard, making Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant prove themselves as potential second options. They will run the pick and roll with Jusuf Nurkic’s matchup into the ground. They will test head coach Chauncey Billups, to see just how well he can mix and match his lineups to thwart the historic onslaughts Golden State is capable of.
After all, coach Billups did say this at Trail Blazers Media Day just recently:
I want to be the type of team that nobody really wants to play against. And to be that team, offensively you have to share the ball. You’ve got to be less predictable at times. Defensively, you gotta just really get after it, and you’ve got to have a lot of grit when you play. And you’ve got to be able to compete every time you’re out there when you play. Nobody likes playing against teams like that.
A matchup with the Warriors will put these wishes to the test.
When Teams Hit Their Stride
Between games 50 and 65 of the season is where most teams start to really gel. Portland enters game 50 off of a fresh six game home front. They face the Chicago Bulls on February 4th. The Bulls are a great matchup for the Blazers. Both teams are striving for a top play-in seed, and potentially earn a 6th seed in each conference. They are relatively evenly-matched teams – both bottom 10 in defensive rating in 2022, with their fair share of difficulties in winning by large margins.
Portland then moves on to battle the Milwaukee Bucks, before their second face-off against the Warriors. What proceeds is a stretch of seven of 10 games played against non-playoff opponents from a year prior.
Ample opportunities will be given to Portland to rack up key wins, and get their guys clicking on all cylinders. It would be wise for coach Billups to play his starters heavy minutes during this stretch, in close or decided games, to boost confidence and morale amongst the team, and give them just enough workout to be ready for a final 17 or so game stretch of rest.
The Blazers will want to be in good position—better than the 9th-11th spots in the order—coming down the stretch of the regular season. Their schedule is mixed for the most part, until the final five games, where they’ll see the Grizzlies and Warriors again – fun – and the Los Angeles Clippers in their penultimate game.
The Clippers welcome back Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to the mix this year, and figure to be a top five defense and offense next year. The Blazers’ backcourt will have their hands full with the embarrassment of riches that the Clippers have defensively on the wing.
The Trailblazers have 14 back to back games this season, on par for the league average of 13.5 from season’s past. While they have rest days, other teams have it better in this category.
Portland will need to make it through a tribulation-filled start to the season and conquer as many opponents by holiday season to offset any losses to potential championship contenders. Most importantly, they must run the table during the meshing part of the season, in order to not have to look over their shoulder at who’s challenging them for final playoff or play-in spots come April.