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Reviewing the Trail Blazers Season at the All-Star Break

We look backwards to preseason hopes and forwards to off-season aspirations.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA All-Star Break is upon us. At the beginning of the season, SBNation, in conjunction with Sportsbook partner DraftKings, had each NBA team site anticipate the year ahead, explaining best- and worst-case scenarios, making win total predictions, and the like. As the league takes a hiatus for the February classic, we’re revisiting those predictions and discussing how the season has met, or diverged from, them. It’s a good chance to assess how the year has gone so far and to remember what seemed possible just five months ago.

Preseason predictions are in italics, with current commentary following.

Best-Case Scenario

Everything clicks and the Blazers recapture some of that 2019, playing over their heads magic that strikes every four years or so. If Larry Nance, Jr. can help on defense, if Jusuf Nurkic can stay healthy and focused, if Norman Powell can score big, the Blazers have a potent Top 7. As long as they don’t have to dig deep into their bench, they can win.

Well, that didn’t work. The only “clicking” heard from the top of Portland’s roster this year came from the turnstile to the medical facility. Damian Lillard was the most significant casualty, but CJ McCollum, Nance, Jr., Cody Zeller, and Nassir Little all spent extended time in street clothes.

The Blazers have been digging deep into their minimum-salary bench since the season started. They’ve found modest surprises. Dennis Smith, Jr., Greg Brown III, and Ben McLemore have provided excitement at different intervals. But Jusuf Nurkic and Anfernee Simons have been the only top rotation players present and accounted for this year. They’ve done well—brilliantly, compared to expectations—but it hasn’t been enough.

Worst-Case Scenario

The sum of the parts is just the sum of the parts, and some of them are mismatched. Injuries plague the frontcourt, the backcourt can’t improve defensively, and fractured focus in a new system derails Portland early. Dame Lillard would still score 30, but the results wouldn’t rise to his level, leading to another mediocre season.

Except for the part about Lillard still scoring 30, this is pretty much what the Blazers experienced in the first half of the season.

In the brief, two-week stretch in which they were all healthy, the Blazers still didn’t win. They started the season an anemic 5-7 before the roster started falling apart. The players never had a chance to gel. Nurkic was their best bet at creating continuity, but he didn’t touch the ball much when all the guards were around. His teammates didn’t help him much on defense either.

Though Nurkic’s fortunes rose, the team nosedived. After Lillard went down...and McCollum...and Nance, Jr....and Powell...and Little... they didn’t have a chance. The Blazers started the season featuring seven key players. After the second week or so, they were lucky to field seven players period.

Portland didn’t win when they were healthy. They won even less when they weren’t. This roster had reached a dead end.

What Are You Most Excited For?

The Blazers should look good for stretches and great in certain games. They’ll also struggle with continuity. They don’t have a backstop deep in the bench and they don’t have an experienced coaching staff. Variable play could limit the effect of their upper-rotation talent, leaving them in a middle playoff seed, looking at a first- or second-round exit.

As long as the opponent is mediocre-to-terrible, the Blazers do look good for stretches. They’ve have trouble playing against any team that has the talent and knowhow to solve them. They don’t have options. They don’t have reserves. They either surprise the opponent and squeak out a win or they get devoured. Excitement has now been limited to isolated stretches, plus the occasional victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

Trade deadline moves took away the potential for more...at least this season. McCollum, Powell, Nance, Jr., Zeller, and Robert Covington are gone. The Blazers will develop players like Josh Hart and Justise Winslow, gauging whether they can play alongside Simons and Nurkic now, or in the future. Development and energy will replace victories as the currency of the realm. It’s still exciting, just in a different way.

The team’s current four-game win streak, though not reversing the narrative, at least shows promise of brighter days ahead. It’s not just the personnel; it’s the style. Portland has adopted a more defensively-intense, quick-tempo approach...appropriate, since they don’t pose the same halfcourt threat they once did with Lillard and McCollum in the lineup. It’s a breath of fresh air, a sign that maybe they’re not stuck in the way things have always been,

Win Prediction

The best, semi-optimistic preseason guess was 48. Blazers aren’t going to win that much. They’re not even going to win 40. Standing at 25-34 with 23 games remaining, they’ll now be aiming for a win total in the mid-30’s.

They will continue to factor into the Western Conference Play-In Tournament conversation. On the other hand, they’ll be able to retain their 2022 first-round pick if they don’t make the playoffs. Otherwise they’ll have to move it to the Chicago Bulls, a legacy of the trade that brought them Nance, Jr.

At this point, making the play-in for morale, but not the playoffs (thus retaining the pick), might be the best thing to happen to the franchise.

But hey, the Blazers are +100000 to emerge as conference champions and the same +100000 to win it all, so if you’d like to go all-in on the revival, $20 on the biggest Cinderella story in history would net you a big return.

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