The Portland Trail Blazers are almost certain to find themselves outside the 2023 NBA Playoffs picture when the regular season comes to a close in just over two weeks.
After riding unforeseen highs at the beginning of the season, the franchise has sunk — through injury, an imperfect roster and lack of depth — down the league-wide standings.
But while the current play isn’t particularly pretty, young Blazers are getting burn and the franchise looks to the off-season with a decent draft pick and real avenues for improvement.
Sure, the active players will do their best to win, but injuries, fictional or not, are now making it difficult for Chauncey Billups’ team to stay competitive.
Honestly, it’s probably for the best. Anyone who has seen just a few seconds of Victor Wembanyama playing roundball should be drooling at the impact the French center might have on their team.
The Blazers are in no way favorites to secure the number one pick, which will assuredly be used on the 7’5 phenom. But there still appears to be real talent through the early lottery with Scoot Henderson, Brandon Miller, the Thompsons and Jarace Walker up for grabs. That’s if the Blazers decide to use their pick.
That’s right. Few would be surprised if General Manager Joe Cronin moves the pick on draft night, bringing back an elite talent to share the court with Damian Lillard.
Combining this year’s pick with a collection of future firsts and players could be enough to deliver the co-star Lillard has needed since LaMarcus Aldridge took his talents to south Texas. As we speak, the team sits 32-41 with the league’s sixth-worst record, battling three Eastern Conference teams for the fifth worst position.
How are the Blazers still in line for such high lottery odds?
The 2022-23 season has been marked by distinct change to what the league has seen over the past decade. In the seven seasons between 2012 and 2019, the best odds to the top picks required much worse records, as seen below:
Teams eager to score the fifth-worst record during this previous era would have to finish with a record of around 27-55. Any team carrying the 32 wins the Blazers currently tally would be in line for the ninth or 10th worst record.
But why? Well, it’s abundantly clear the disparity between the good and bad teams has closed. This season, there won’t be a 70-plus win Golden State Warriors team. There might not even be a 60-plus win team, with the Milwaukee Bucks the only franchise with a chance, still needing victories from seven of their remaining nine games to pass 59.
Like every year, 2022-23 features a group of teams likely to finish with wins in the teens and low 20s: the Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Charlotte Hornets. But unlike previous years, teams 15 through 26 are currently separated by a ridiculous six games.
Combined with changes implemented in 2019 allowing lottery teams a more even chance to jump into the top four, Wembanyama is also a more realistic possibility for more teams than he might have once been.
Nine games remaining
The Blazers have nine games remaining, five at home and four on the road. Seven of those games are against teams currently in the Play-In picture or better with five in the top six.
Those five games include two against the Sacramento Kings (home), Memphis Grizzlies (road), Los Angeles Clippers (road) and the Golden State Warriors (home), with the schedule considered the 14th hardest league wide.
If yesterday’s loss to the Bulls is any indicator, Lillard may have already decided it’s time to shut down for the season. And with the likes of Anfernee Simons, Jerami Grant and Jusuf Nurkic potentially continuing to sit, the team won’t have to worry about winning.
Another key advantage for the Blazers jostling is that the three teams mentioned above— Orlando Magic, Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers — are all still close to the East Play-In picture.
Obviously, a multitude of factors influence the Blazers’ final draft position.
With most NBA teams facing fewer than 10 regular season games, each contest involving the Blazers, Magic, Wizards and Pacers becomes high-stakes. If draft position is the priority, the Blazers want these teams winning as many games as possible.
The Magic, which currently hold the fifth worst record, have the 11th-hardest schedule remaining, including a game with fellow combatant Washington Wizards and lowly Detroit Pistons. Orlando also faces tough matchups against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Brooklyn Nets, Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat.
The Wizards, currently holding the seventh poorest record at 33-41, have the 12th hardest schedule with winnable games against the Houston Rockets, Magic, Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors. But also face the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Heat.
The Pacers also own a 33-41 record and have the 13th hardest end of the season with winnable bouts against the Pistons and Hawks. However, have tough games against the Bucks, Cavaliers, Knicks and Dallas Mavericks.
Chance at a top pick
While the chances of the Blazers earning the top pick aren’t particularly high, their odds aren’t unrealistic.
If we take the fifth-through-eighth worst records we get the below:
The eighth worst record has a 6.00 percent chance at the first selection. The seventh worst record has a 7.50 percent chance. The sixth worst record has a 9.00 percent chance, the fifth worst 10.50 percent.
If the Blazers manage to drop below the Magic in the standings, they will have a more than 10 percent chance at top pick and, worst-case scenario, pick no lower than ninth.
In previous years, the Blazers’ current 32 wins would have been lucky to get them in the draft’s top 10 and minuscule shot at this draft’s heavy hitters. However, this season, the NBA’s “haves” and “have nots” are a lot closer than they have been in the past, giving teams with mediocre records a chance at a franchise changing talent.
For Portland fans, this season has been genuinely disappointing. The disappointment was probably exacerbated by the roaring start the team got off to, boosting expectations for a franchise that ultimately reverted to the mean after mid November.
A high draft pick lands this team another elite young player or an enticing trade piece that brings back a player that works alongside Damian Lillard and Jerami Grant, especially if the latter is brought back in free agency.
Most Blazers fans will be hoping for heavy minutes doled out to Shaedon Sharpe and Jabari Walker, not only to give the young talents run, but to also ensure good draft positioning.
I can’t speak on behalf of the Magic, Wizards and Pacers and whether they prefer the high lottery or the Play-In, but the Blazers have a real chance to bring back an asset that could vault them forward into next season.