The Portland Trail Blazers enter the 2022-23 season with designs on contention thanks to a revitalized Damian Lillard, some interesting new pieces and internal growth. But in order to compete in late April, the franchise will have to battle through the highs and lows of an 82-game season.
The Blazers schedule was released ten days ago. It only took about 30 seconds to realize the first two months of the season were going to be the most challenging. Tough news for a roster introducing guys who either barely played last season or arrived from different franchises.
The Western Conference
The Blazers will be battling half a dozen teams with similar talent levels and ambitions on this season. Last week we talked Western Conference tiers. We concluded the Blazers will be locked in battle with the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings as the inevitable other-team watching takes place in early April.
The Oregon franchise needs to find ways to put itself ahead of the pack, taking care of all the games it can win during the challenging first third of the season.
The first two months
In the 65 days between the Blazers’ first tussle with the Sacramento Kings and their Christmas Eve meeting with the Denver Nuggets, Portland plays 33 games — more than one game every second night.
During this two-month stretch, the Blazers are faced with six back-to-backs and completing almost half of their road games (20), including two daunting six-game trips — one spanning eight nights and another spread out over nine.
They also play 19 games against Playoff teams from last season, plus one against what might be next season’s Western Conference favorite Los Angeles Clippers, which just missed out last season because of an inopportune Paul George COVID diagnosis.
Considering the early degree of difficulty, what kind of Christmas Day record would still set up the Blazers up for a strong run over the final two thirds of the season?
To be clear, the below list is nothing more than a gut instinct reaction based on three factors; the opponent, whether the Blazers are deep into a road trip and whether the contest is at home or on the road.
Oct 19 @ Sacramento Kings - Win
Oct 21 vs Phoenix Suns - Loss
Oct 23 @ Los Angeles Lakers - Win
Oct 24 vs Denver Nuggets - Loss
Oct 26 vs Miami Heat - Win
Oct 28 vs Houston Rockets - Win
Nov 2 vs Memphis Grizzlies - Win
Nov 4 @ Phoenix Suns - Loss
Nov 5 @ Phoenix Suns - Loss
Nov 7 @ Miami Heat - Loss
Nov 9 @ Charlotte Hornets - Win
Nov 10 @ New Orleans Pelicans - Loss
Nov 12 @ Dallas Mavericks - Loss
Nov 15 vs San Antonio Spurs - Win
Nov 17 vs Brooklyn Nets - Win
Nov 19 vs Utah Jazz - Win
Nov 21 @ Milwaukee Bucks - Loss
Nov 23 @ Cleveland Cavaliers - Loss
Nov 25 @ New York Knicks - Win
Nov 27 @ Brooklyn Nets - Loss
Nov 29 vs Los Angeles Clippers - Loss
Nov 30 @ Los Angeles Lakers - Loss
Dec 3 @ Utah Jazz - Win
Dec 4 vs Indiana Pacers - Win
Dec 8 vs Denver Nuggets - Win
Dec 10 vs Minnesota Timberwolves - Loss
Dec 12 vs Minnesota Timberwolves - Win
Dec 14 @ San Antonio Spurs - Win
Dec 16 @ Dallas Mavericks - Loss
Dec 17 @ Houston Rockets - Win
Dec 19 @ Oklahoma City Thunder - Win
Dec 21 @ Oklahoma City Thunder - Loss
Dec 23 @ Denver Nuggets - Loss
In this scenario, the Blazers tuck into their Christmas dinner carrying a 17-16 record, knowing full well the hardest part of the schedule is behind them. Sure it hasn’t gone all to plan but the franchise finished with eight of 13 home wins and nine of 20 victories on the road.
While there were pleasant surprises against the Miami Heat on October 26, Memphis Grizzlies on November 2 and Denver Nuggets on December 8, the Blazers embarrassingly dropped its December 21 encounter against the lowly Oklahoma City Thunder — who we learnt this week will be without number 2 pick Chet Holmgren.
What happens if they start slow?
If the Blazers are, say, 13-20, 14-19 or 15-18 by Christmas, they should still have some hope given the light-ish schedule on the back end of the season, but they’ll be fighting with fellow middle of the road Western Conference teams to stay out of the Play-In situation. Winning early games gives them a chance of at least finishing with a winning record north of 45.
The pressure is on.
Over the remaining 49 games, the Blazers hit the road only 21 times in 107 nights. They battle through one more six-game trip and another four-game trip with only five back-to-backs. They spend large parts of January, February and March at the Moda Center. The roster also enjoys a particularly luxurious All Star Break, not stepping onto a court for nine straight days as they nurse whatever ailments they maybe carrying.
Every season, there are a bunch of teams playing contending teams as they strive for playoff contention through March and April. Sure, the Blazers play the Wolves, Grizzlies, Clippers and Warriors in four of their last five games. But if Portland can make the most of the easy run they’ve got before them in March — and it’s pretty good — that last week will matter a hell of a lot less when it comes to playoff positioning.
I guess the moral to this story is that if the Blazers take care of the limited games they’re expected to win in the early days of the season, they can set themselves up for some breathing room in the standings in 2023. If the Blazers go into Christmas, three or four games below 500, they will be fighting for every single win as the calendar turns to March and April.
A good start not only means this group is meshing well, it’ll also counter the fact that they are going to lose games in November and December. It’s unavoidable given the caliber of opponent they’ll have in front of them.
If they’re above 500 when Santa Claus pays his little visit, we should all feel pretty good about where this team is heading.