The Portland Trail Blazers aren’t world beaters. They sit 26-26 in a muddled middle Western Conference, a couple of games off home court advantage and a couple from the 13th seed.
This season has been as unpredictable as they come — the opening stanza became the most pleasant of surprises with the Blazers winning in impressive fashion. In December and January the tables turned, as franchise and fan base were slammed back to reality with the team plummeting below the 10th seed.
In recent weeks, the Blazers have staged a mini-resurgence, winning five of their past six games, including yesterday’s stunning come-from-behind win against the Washington Wizards.
This renaissance comes at an interesting time for General Manager Joe Cronin who has five days before the NBA trade deadline to make real improvements.
Outside the franchise, opinions of impartial watchers and pundits have been just as divided as the Blazers’ play.
Some have called for the team to add pieces and improve, while others have suggested Cronin sell high on veterans, pushing the team back down the standings for a second consecutive year in the lottery.
Sure, wins gives the franchise a chance at (some might say limited) playoff glory, while so-called tanking delivers better assets and more development of the roster’s young talent.
Today, I’m going to argue the former. Despite their current predicament, it’s in this team’s best interests to look up.
The Blazers almost certainly want their first round pick to convey to the Chicago Bulls sooner than later.
Unfortunately, Neil Olshey hamstrung the franchise’s chest of assets a couple of years ago. And no, I’m not criticizing sending out a lottery-protected first-round pick for Larry Nance Jr. The ridiculous protections connected to the pick would see the Portland’s first rounders compromised by hypothetical playoff misses over the next five years.
Sure, you’d expect the Blazers to make a return to the playoffs by 2028, but the nature of the deal means until they do, Cronin is restricted when dealing future first rounders until the team returns to the postseason.
Making the playoffs this season means the team regains full control of their first rounders, presenting more enticing packages to other franchises in the process.
The real tanking teams will start throwing games, if they haven’t already.
Don’t be fooled, the Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder (we think), Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons will lean into losing.
Portland’s the season series against the Pacers and Hornets are already done, but there are still seven games left against those remaining six teams, who are expected to not-so-covertly gift opponents wins as they jostle for lottery placing.
Conservatively, assuming the Blazers win five of those seven games, they’re already above 30 wins. Going on previous years, this puts them in the mid-to-late lottery and out of the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.
Sure, 2023 is considered by many as one of the better draft classes in recent history, but I’m not sure a projected 9th, 10th or 11th pick will be enough to turn Cronin’s head.
To give more perspective, in mid February last year (2021-22 season), the Blazers were 25-34. They lost 21 of their last 23 games to finish with a 27-55 record. That’s only one more win than they currently have. Last season’s team only finished with the sixth-worst record, which yielded them the seventh pick.
The Blazers still need to figure out what they’ve got.
This season was labelled an evaluation year by Cronin. I’ll just put this here, for those who have yet to see/hear it.
“You know, we’re trying to build, this isn’t a win-now roster as far as, we haven’t pushed in all of our chips yet. We weren’t signing players based on position over talent. We’ve been choosing talent over need, basically throughout this whole process.”
“We knew there’d be some positional redundancies and some positional holes and we’re OK working through that because we’re trying to build our talent base, trying to build this culture we’ve been talking about. And also we haven’t pushed all of our chips in as far as, we haven’t made a big move yet, like using future draft capital or anything like that.”
“And this comes with a lot of discussion with Damian about trust in where we’re heading and trust in what Chauncey and I are telling him. We are building, we do want to win, much sooner than later and to do so we’re going to have to develop some of these guys that are going to have to help us hopefully sooner than later. But there are certain 19-year-olds who won’t be ready until they’re 23, at which point, where are we?”
Last season it was nigh-on impossible to evaluate what the Blazers had, given the large contingent of non-NBA-level talent representing the team.
Another 30 games this season fielding actual NBA players will solidify how and what this team is, revealing where changes need to be made. And just like the players, every game Chauncey Billups coaches with NBA-level talent is essential experience for the sophomore head man.
There is room to improve this roster.
Cronin said it above — the Blazers haven’t pushed all their chips in yet. Despite what some pundits might tell you, this team has more assets than it did 12 months ago and trades are serious possibilities.
Portland’s future first rounders are somewhat compromised, but they have contracts and interesting young players including Keon Johnson, Jabari Walker, and Trendon Watford. The veteran contracts of Josh Hart and Jusuf Nurkic might be able to yield something at this Thursday’s trade deadline.
If Cronin feels bold enough to remove the protections on this year’s pick, gifting the Bulls the picks regardless of where the Blazers finish, they have real draft compensation that other teams would almost certainly be interested in.
Damian Lillard won’t be shut down for another season.
Losing half of the 2021-22 season to get his abdominal issue right was fine, but I challenge anyone to try and tell Damian Lillard to sit the final 30-odd games of this season when he’s healthy. It’s not happening. The way he’s been playing of late, Lillard might be able to drag this team to the playoffs just on his own back.
The middle of the Western Conference is incredibly close.
The Blazers currently sit 10th in the Western Conference, but they’re 1.5 games behind the fourth seed, 3.5 games behind the third seed and equal in the loss column with the fifth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers.
With the number of games the Blazers have remaining against potential tanking teams, they have opportunities to at the very least stay within range of that coveted sixth-place position. That’s enough of a target to shoot for.
They could very likely be in the lottery even if they keep trying to win.
For the exact same reason, there’s also every chance the Blazers win as many games as they can and still miss out on the playoffs. The west is close enough that 42-43 wins might still leave the Blazers in the bottom half of the Play-In with limited opportunity to make the postseason.
If that happens, the Blazers still have a chance at the same low-lottery talent without tanking.
The Blazers are stuck in a less-than-ideal spot, but it doesn’t mean they should sit their veterans and lose as many games as they can. Portland tanked last season and came out of it with Shaedon Sharpe. He has the potential to be absolutely anything in this league, three months out from his 20th birthday. That’s reward enough.
Another young talent isn’t helping this team get to the promised land in 2023-24 or 2024-25. The only way is up, not back. Portland needs to win, not just to make the playoffs, but to also free up draft assets and capitalize on the health and fitness of Damian Lillard.