As is often the case, the night-to-night hunt for seeding in the Western Conference postseason race will be among the most entertaining subplots of the 2022-23 season.
At its current state, only eight games separate the No. 2 seed from the No. 13. In considering each team’s Playoff aspirations, Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes wasn’t particularly bullish on the Portland Trail Blazers’ chances, categorizing them as a team that should have a “high panic meter” over the season’s final two months.
Joined by the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves, the Blazers — currently sitting at 28-31 and in the No. 12 seed — were viewed as a team whose long-term outlook could be severely impacted by this year’s jostling for position. As Hughes notes, a failure this season could again call into question Damian Lillard’s undying loyalty with the front office. He also examines how that could have a ripple effect in further portions of the roster as well:
Jerami Grant is due to hit free agency this summer, and the team already has $86.6 million committed to Lillard, Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkić next season. Avenues to improvement are few, especially with prized rookie Shaedon Sharpe at least a year or two away from making a real impact. If Portland falls short of the play-in or even if it makes it and fails to advance, a season designed to give Lillard a shot at contending will have been a clear failure.
From there, everything could be on the table, from a Lillard trade to a complete overhaul of the rest of the roster.
It also certainly doesn’t help that the Blazers aren’t at full strength coming out of the All-Star break, with Jusuf Nurkic (calf) and Anfernee Simons (ankle) on the mend, and Damian Lillard and Jerami Grant missing the first game of that frame for precautionary reasons with the travel issues against Sacramento.
With 23 games left, the Blazers have the 16th-hardest schedule, with a potentially-pivotal early-March six-game road trip in the Eastern Conference, a grueling stretch that sees them play four of their final five on the road, and right before that, a five-game homestand.
In short, every game figures to be critical. As it stands today, the Blazers are one game back of the No. 10 spot — which would guarantee them a spot in the Western Conference Play-In Tournament, two games back of the No. 7, ensuring they’d only need to win one game in said tournament and three backs back of the No. 6, which would help them avoid the Play-In and earn rest altogether.
The next opportunity to make progress on that task comes on Feb. 26, a Sunday night duel against the Houston Rockets.