As the Portland Trail Blazers continue to slip in the standings, fans are questioning the fate of the season. Once upon a time, the Blazers looked like they might make noise in the West. Now, that noise appears to be, “Pfffffftttttt.”
With the NBA lottery drawing only two months ahead and presumed generational superstar Victor Wembanyama the tantalizing prize for winning it, folks are starting to question whether Portland should want to win anymore. That’s the subject of this Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I’ll cut to the chase here: With a bottom-10 record and just 20 games to go, should we still be aiming for a playoff spot? We’ve been in this position (i.e. far from being a true contender / fixated on Dame’s win-now timeline) for most of the last decade. And we’ve seen this specific story - of being a fringe playoff team that makes a late-season run to slip in at the last-minute - play out time-and-again. It doesn’t end well. There’s little reason to believe getting the 7th or 8th seed would go any better this year than it has previously. One might think we’d throw in the towel, but I don’t hear anyone talking seriously about tanking. So what are we doing? Or what should we be doing?
I mean, you’re assuming there’s a choice. If I have a cold, do I sniffle and cough or go about my day? Likely both.
That’s exactly where the Blazers are. They don’t want to tank. They’re not trying to tank (as far as we know, at least not yet). But they’re going to tank by default because they just don’t have the horses to get it done.
We had clues about this earlier. The Blazers opened the 2023 calendar year with a win at home against the Detroit Pistons. It was their second victory in three tries following a disappointing three-game losing streak. The feeling was that maybe, just maybe, this would be a bounce-back that set them in the right direction again.
With that hope, Portland took a 19-17 record into a trio of games on the road. They fought hard and earned fairly-narrow losses to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Indiana Pacers. That hurt, but they were still ticking.
The trip finished up in Toronto against the Raptors. Though the 117-105 final score didn’t look so bad, the Blazers got housed. Toronto wrapped them up in a package and mailed them back to the States with bulk postage. It was the first time all season that Portland dipped under .500.
The moment in itself was trivial, more symbolic than determinant. Still, when the cameras caught Portland’s main players coming off the court following the loss, their faces were studied grimaces, eyes all but vacant. It looked for all the world like they knew...this was the moment they figured out that this team just wasn’t that good.
We got a second huge sign at the NBA Trade Deadline when Portland exchanged proven veterans Josh Hart and Gary Payton II for younger prospects and picks. Hart’s contract and Payton’s injuries provided ample justification, but the fact remains: the Blazers traded the present for the future rather than acquiring more present. They might reverse course in the summer by bundling all those prospects and picks for a big swing at “now”, but that’s not going to change the course of the next six weeks.
And this week, we got the final requiem. According to Jason Quick of The Athletic [subscription required], last Saturday Damian Lillard delivered a simple, urgent message to his teammates: “It has to happen now.”
Lillard followed his plea with a record-setting, historical 71-point performance against the Houston Rockets on Sunday night. The Blazers won that game 131-114.
Two days later, the team traveled south to face the Golden State Warriors. The defending champs were not going to let Lillard repeat the feat. The sealed him up as tightly as possible, limiting him to “just” 25 points. Portland’s superstar needed the help he had so urgently called for, a little backup to show he didn’t have to rip the fabric of the universe every night to earn his team a victory.
He got nothing. The closest help was Jerami Grant, who scored 24. He shot 5-17, 1-8 from the arc in doing so.
Debate here is superfluous. This team isn’t good enough to tank. They’re just losing.
I suppose that could change if enough players come back from injury, but even the full lineup wasn’t setting the world on fire earlier in the season. At this point, the Blazers rising to relevance in this year’s playoffs race is nearly unimaginable.
We’ll have to see how they manage injuries from this point forward. Obviously whether Lillard plays or not is the big sign, although I’m guessing he will. But he can’t do it alone and the Blazers just aren’t equipped to do enough around him to make a difference.
If that’s not convincing enough, here’s the last epitaph on the tank train: it’s too late to get on board.
If Portland dropped every game remaining on their schedule, they’d finish with 53 losses. Four teams—the Charlotte Hornets, San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Pistons, and Houston Rockets—already have 45 or more. There’s no way the Blazers catch them. That means the best (or worst) they can finish is in fifth place in the lottery odds. To do that, they’d have to exceed four other teams in suckiness: the Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, and Orlando Magic.
Passing teams going down the standings is just as hard, in its own way, as passing teams going up. The more teams between you and your goal, the harder it is. Switching places with one opponent simply requires you to lose or win while they have the opposite outcome. Leapfrogging four teams requires you to lose or win while all of them have the opposite outcome.
This happens naturally over the course of the season because of the large number of games played. It’s enough to average more victories or losses over time than the teams you’re trying to leapfrog. But as the total games drift towards 15 or 10 remaining, you literally need all those other teams to go the opposite direction you’re trying to go, all on the same night or two. That doesn’t happen often.
If the Blazers committed to losing every one of their games, they might be able to get all the way to fifth-worst. That’s a big ask, and hard to do. More likely, they’re going to end up halfway, in the sixth or seventh spot, no matter how much they try.
Right now, with the record they have, the Blazers would have a 5.3% chance of winning the first overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. If they go up one spot it’s 7.5%. Gaining two spots would make it 9.0%. The max they could get, practically, would be 10.5% in that fifth position.
Looking at it one way, they’re doubling their chances by losing every game. Looking at it from an overall view, though, there’s 90% chance that they don’t get the first-overall pick even under the best of tanking circumstances. If they can’t gain the best possible position, they’re throwing the whole rest of their season in embarrassing fashion just to earn two more percentage points trying to get to a selection spot they probably won’t reach anyway.
That’s why you’re going to see the Blazers keep playing for a while, at least. Towards the end they may pull Lillard just on principle, but I don’t see them throwing in a towel that they weren’t really holding in the first place. Lillard’s career-stamping season will be the peg they hang their hat on. They’ll ride that as long as it lasts, then they’ll work at building around him as June and July approach.
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