The Portland Trail Blazers are a month and a week away from the end of the 2022-23 regular season, and perhaps the start of the 2023 NBA Playoffs. With a couple of recent victories under their belt and a game against the Boston Celtics looming, one reader is wondering if there’s any way this signals the long-awaited turn-around Blazers fans have been waiting for. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
After a couple of wins on this road trip maybe we can pull off a miracle against Boston too? Do you think if we do and if Nurk comes back that we’re finally on the right track? I like Reddish and Thybulle! We’re not that far out of playoff spots and right in the play in tournament race. I’m finally optimistic that behind Dame we’re going to make a run in the late season. We’ve done this lots of times before, are you feeling it yet?
Naw, that’s probably fool’s gold. Let’s set aside quality of opponent in those two victories for a minute. The Magic and Pistons are leading the 2022-23 tank-a-thon, right alongside San Antonio and Houston. Ignore that.
The Blazers gave up 50% shooting, 23 fast break points, and 58 points in the paint to the Magic. They also committed 17 turnovers. They didn’t shoot well from the arc, depending on volume to make up for lack of accuracy. The one thing they did reasonably well was rebound. They earned a 9-6 advantage on the offensive glass, 46-38 overall. Despite those things, they earned victory by a margin of three.
They doubled that margin of victory in Detroit. They also did a better job on defense, particularly at the arc, where they allowed only 31.3%. Shooting 45.5% from the floor themselves gave a significant boost. The 15-point margin they earned on threes reflected their own accustomed shooting prowess and the Pistons’ lack of same (21st in the league).
The Blazers needed that margin to overcome a 22-1 deficit in fast break buckets, giving up 56 points in the paint, and losing the rebounding battle this time 52-38.
That pretty much describes this year’s team. It’s like the dam with 52 holes in it. Every time they rush to plug one, another one opens up again.
As I’ve said in several recaps, allowing fast break points is mind-boggling to me. I know that the guards are the first players back on the break and Damian Lillard isn’t going to be a defensive stalwart there. I also understand that the only way Portland gets any offensive rebounds is to swarm the glass en masse, hoping that numbers will give them an edge. But defensive rebounds are more critical. I’d rather see them give up the extra offensive looks to shut off the flow of transition scoring for the opponent.
A question keeps reverberating in my mind. The Blazers gave up all-around veteran talent to get younger, more athletic, and eventually to craft a more mobile defense. If young athletes aren’t getting back on defense, what’s the point of being young and athletic in the first place?
Aside from Lillard’s historic scoring, it feels like the Blazers are falling prey to their potential weaknesses far more than they’re capitalizing on potential strengths. That’s worrisome. They’re compensating for it the way they have the past few seasons: ride Dame and hope to shoot enough threes to make up for anything he can’t cover. Even in the modern, perimeter-focused NBA, that’s not going to work for long.
Getting center Jusuf Nurkic back should help on several fronts. But frankly, time is running out. If Portland won every game left on the schedule, they’d still only finish with 48 wins. They’ve not shown anything close to that capacity.
The Blazers currently stand tied with the Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Pelicans, and Oklahoma City Thunder with 34 losses. Those four teams are in a bunch around the 9th and 10th positions in the Western Conference, the final Play-In Tournament spots. The Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers are just ahead with 33 losses, the Utah Jazz just behind with 35. Roughly half of those teams should make the Play-In.
Portland may end up in that upper half, but the weaknesses they’re showing against the absolute worst teams in the league are bound to catch up to them when they have to play the best. The most optimistic scenario has the Blazers making, then emerging from, that mini-tourney to earn a 7th or 8th seed.
The Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, and Memphis Grizzlies aren’t exactly the most dominating trio of front-runners the conference has ever seen, but you know what? All of them have faced, or are facing, problematic situations just as the Blazers have. All of them have emerged at the top of the standings, not near the bottom. That tells you all you need to know.
You can never say never in sports. I supposed there’s some miracle story out there where Portland puts up a much more successful performance than their track record indicates. Until that happens, there’s no reason to think they’re particularly advantaged over any of their opponents, nor on the road to becoming so.
Enjoy the heck out of Dame. Enjoy the wins that do come. That’s going to be the story of the season.
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