The Portland Trail Blazers are nearing the midpoint of their 2022-23 NBA season, a year that was supposed to be about redemption and new-found hope. And it has been! Until it hasn’t. Amid scoring records, highlight-reel dunks, and last-second buzzer-beaters, Portland has amassed a distressingly mundane record. That’s causing consternation for some fans, desiring more clarity. This provides the topic for today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
Who are the Blazers really? I’m having a hard time figuring out where we are and where we’re going. I look at the highlights and think this is the best team ever. With games like Detroit the whole game is a highlight and I feel good. So why aren’t we winning more?
Thanks for your help figuring it out!
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Or millions, really.
Part of me wants to say the Blazers are a good team. They can hardly avoid it, given this roster.
As I was watching the Pistons game the other night, the camera caught Gary Payton II talking with Josh Hart on the bench, long after the outcome was in doubt. The two were laughing, animated. The camaraderie struck me, but so did the fact that these are, in essence, the 5th and 8th men for this team. And they are GOOD players. I’d trust either with any assignment needed short of defending a center. The Blazers having them in middle-rotation positions is pretty remarkable.
Hopping up to the top, we find Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons, as powerful (and in Simons’ case, promising) a backcourt duo as you’ll find in the NBA. Jerami Grant is playing the best basketball of his career, looking like a potential All-Star. Jusuf Nurkic isn’t consistent, but like Hart, he’d have more to give if he were featured more.
It’s hard to fault Portland’s bench either. Justise Winslow does a little bit of everything for them, including defense. Drew Eubanks is efficient, Jabari Walker energetic, Keon Johnson athletic and just beginning to grow. Nassir Little could be a prized piece if he stays healthy. They lack huge names, but they bring heart and growth potential.
Other than an imbalance towards smaller players, there’s not much to dislike about this roster. And even that is more about the construction than the actual players. This team feels solid, talented, and potentially explosive (in the good way). It’s the best squad the Blazers have had since 2014.
And yet you look up and the Blazers are 19-17, 7th in the Western Conference. Yes, the entire West is bunched up this season, but that’s like saying your whole class was slow when trying out for the 100-meter dash. That doesn’t mean you were somehow magically fast. It means that none of you are making it to the next level. It’s an excuse, not an aspiration. A great team would rise above the mess. Portland isn’t.
The Blazers’ issues this year look distressingly familiar: lack of defense, occasional lackadaisical play, over-reliance on Lillard and/or the starters. Injuries are a new quirk. They do matter. Portland’s been playing with the middle of their roster cut out, particularly the defensive parts. It’s easy to imagine Winslow and Little helping. It’s harder to imagine them turning around a season.
On paper, this is a good team, or at least has potential. On the floor, they look mediocre. Once again, the Blazers have left us in a position to ask which is real: the promise and occasional flashes of brilliance or the longer-term results?
I have to remind myself often: if you have to ask the question, you already know.
As I’ve said all season, we need to be patient with the squad. The moving parts will take time to settle in. Even under the best of conditions, we probably weren’t going to know everything about them until the end of February, at least, when they came back from the All-Star break and started battling for playoffs position in earnest. Given the injuries they’ve suffered, we might not know fully even then. If I had a choice, I’d give them until midway through next season, give or take a move to add size in the frontcourt. We won’t really know this roster until they know each other subconsciously and can act without thinking or questioning.
Unfortunately, they don’t have that luxury. As we also point out repeatedly, Grant’s contract is expiring and he’s due for a big raise. Hart will likely enter free agency as well. The front office could make an argument to keep both starting forwards, but only if the team excels. If they’re going to be middle-of-the-pack, the Blazers can’t spend like they’re contending.
It’s a frustrating situation, not one I envy the team for. They’re going to need to place high-dollar bets based on incomplete information, turning the oven to a specific temperature without knowing if they’re cooking fish or fowl. You can hear Gordon Ramsay inhaling as we speak.
In the meantime, here’s what we know. The Blazers are good, often exciting, and easy to root for, but going by their actual record and play, they’re not special. You can’t distinguish them from the eight other teams at the top of the Western Conference standings, and at least seven in the Eastern Conference as well...unless it’s distinguishing them negatively, as in, “They’re no Boston.”
Portland’s performances may be in flux, but the actual judgment of, “Good, but not remarkable,” is pretty sure at this point. If the Blazers ripped off 10 straight wins, they’d hold a 29-17 record. The Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies would need to go 5-4 and 6-4, respectively, to achieve the same thing. And that’s with Portland playing perfectly.
The big dream is that the West is so wide open this year that literally anybody who makes the playoffs will have a chance to emerge victorious into the NBA Finals. That’s not likely to happen. The best teams will differentiate themselves before the season ends. But even if it did, “We have a chance, at least,” is a mantra that the other nine teams in the playoffs and play-in could claim as well. Randomness is not achievement, nor is it a sufficient platform to build hopes on even for a year, let alone for the next five.
The Blazers are showing us who they are relative to other NBA teams. I’m just not sure the answer is sufficient for us, or them. We’re going to find out over the next four months, but if the heartache of not achieving the ultimate goal trumps the heartache of having to move good players in order to get a better chance, both they and we will need to live with that.
Thanks for the question! You can send yours to firstname.lastname@example.org.