The Portland Trail Blazers have reached the NBA All-Star Break with a 28-30 record, dangling just below the Play-In Tournament positions in the Western Conference. With 58 games and the 2023 NBA Trade Deadline in the rear-view mirror—give or take a hangover from the trade of Gary Payton II to the Golden State Warriors—it’s time to start looking ahead to the close of the season and the summer ahead.
We’re going to start by looking at the remainder of the season. Tomorrow, we’ll look ahead to what’s ahead in July.
Can the Blazers Make the Playoffs?
Owning the 11th spot in the conference is not encouraging for any franchise looking to make a postseason splash. The relatively flat standings in the West this year lift the gloom a bit. Parity has left nine teams within three losses of each other. The Phoenix Suns sit in 4th with a 32-27 record, only 3.5 games ahead of the Blazers.
All season long, people have been waiting for a turn of fortune to lift the Blazers—and their lower-bracket brethren—skyward. “Portland’s only a couple losses out of [insert desirable seed here]” has been a rallying cry.
It holds water. One good streak could make the Blazers look much better than they currently do. The sheer number of teams involved will make that proposition increasingly unlikely as the season closes, however.
Making up 3.5 games on a given opponent with 24 games remaining is easy to envision. That could happen in one-third that many contests. But taking the fourth seed doesn’t just require passing the now fully Kevin Durant-ed and operational Suns, but passing every other team between Portland and Phoenix in the standings: seven more, if you count the 29-loss Oklahoma City Thunder. Winning on a given night and having all of those teams lose simultaneously is a much rarer prospect than gaining a game on any given one of them.
If the Blazers hope to rise above the Play-In Tournament, they’ll need to begin their upward run as soon as possible. That means winning in droves, not letting their loss total climb much above the current 30, while hoping that over a period of weeks, those other teams start leaking losses little by little.
There’s almost no chance the Blazers jump way up in the standings in a short amount of time. If they don’t move soon, the dwindling amount of remaining games will make a significant rise statistically improbable.
Can the Blazers Succeed in the Playoffs?
Portland was already mediocre compared to the rest of the conference before the trade deadline. Moving veterans Josh Hart and Gary Payton II for young prospects is not likely to strengthen their position.
Behind Lillard, the offense is soaring. As long as he’s playing at an all-world level, they have a chance to win any given game. The NBA playoffs don’t run on chances, however. Opponents scheme to take the ball away from superstars. When there’s only one, they usually succeed. Lillard’s teammates have all had moments, but there’s no indication that, individually or collectively, they could lift the team above a high-quality opponent in a seven-game series.
Great defense provides relief from the pressure, allowing a team to win even when they’re not playing their best. Portland’s defense isn’t great. It’s horrible, among the league’s worst. They have no safety net, little or no floor upon which to stand as they mount their attack. They simply have to score like hotcakes and hope the opponent falters. On a given Monday night in winter, that approach can work. In the crucible of April and May, facing the best teams in the league, there’s no chance of sustained success.
Portland might ascend to the playoffs bracket outright or fight their way in via the tournament, but—based on their play so far—the likelihood of them winning even a series is small. The odds against winning four, or even three, are astronomical.
Do the Blazers Want to Make the Playoffs?
This has become an increasingly-vocalized question as the Blazers have slipped in the standings. The tantalizing pull of ping-pong balls—and presumed first-overall pick Victor Wembanyama—is acting like a siren song on Portland’s populace.
Despite that, the Blazers, themselves, seem fully committed to making a run at the postseason.
This could be smoke-and-mirrors. Most public statements from the team emanate from Head Coach Chauncey Billups and franchise superstar Damian Lillard. Both are committed to winning, Lillard by nature and Billups by nature of his position. We do not know what conversations are happening in the upper reaches of the franchise.
That said, General Manager Joe Cronin has publicly stated that the plan is to build a winning team around Lillard. He’s not wavered from that stance. Semantically, we could underline the verb “build” to argue for a lottery pick, but odds are that Cronin and Lillard would both prefer to emphasize winning as soon as possible. That includes the remainder of this season.
At this point, it looks like chances of any serious tanking are slim, particularly since a third of the league has had a serious head start on Portland in that department. The increased odds of winning the lottery at the seeds the Blazers could realistically reach don’t offset the morale hit.
If the Blazers were to engineer a tank, now would be the time to do it. Starting center Jusuf Nurkic is injured. Power forward Jerami Grant is out with a concussion. Anfernee Simons just rolled his ankle. The Blazers traded away Hart at the deadline. That leaves only Lillard standing among their former starting five.
All the current injuries will probably be addressed by the end of the nine-day gap the Blazers have at the All-Star break. If they had designs on the lottery, though, returning those players slowly (or not at all) would be an obvious lever to get the job done. If they attempt that, it should be obvious immediately.
Portland may have other incentives to keep playing, however. They owe a conditional first-round pick to the Chicago Bulls. If that pick does not convey to Chicago, it gums up Portland’s future trade possibilities using other first-rounders. This hampered them somewhat at the deadline and it’ll continue to haunt them going forward.
Unless they reach Top 4 pick status, the Blazers might be better off conveying that pick this season instead of waiting. That means either making the playoffs or renegotiating the restrictions on the pick so it would pass to Chicago even if it’s in the low lottery this year. Portland may not see much value difference between the 13th-14th picks if they miss the playoffs and the 16th-17th if they make it. If they’re on the hook to give up the latter, they might decide to give up the former, should that come to pass. If the Blazers want Chicago to take it either way, that can be arranged once the final draft positions are known, provided the Bulls are willing.
Though it is—and will likely continue to be—a hot topic, the question of tanking or not may be moot unless the Blazers get the right lottery bounces for an ultra-high pick.
Tomorrow: What lies ahead in the summer.