Three Questions for the Portland Trail Blazers
Thursday, February 19, 2015
Heading into Friday night’s game at Utah, Portland’s 36-17 record is tied for third in the Western Conference with Houston, just a game ahead of Dallas,1 1-2 games ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers and two games ahead of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.
And with 29 games left in the regular season, Portland is in first place in the Northwest Division, eight games ahead of Oklahoma City.
Looking at the remainder of the Trail Blazers’ schedule, they can be reasonably expected to go 19-10--meaning Portland would stay in first place in the Northwest and guarantee itself a top-four seed and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. While there’s no danger of Portland falling out of first place and a top-four seed, it’s also unlikely the Trail Blazers could catch higher-seeded Golden State or Memphis—and given that every Western Conference playoff matchup is tough, moving up is not worth caring much about.
And that returns us to the three questions set out at the start of the regular season:
1. Is the bench stronger? Yes. The Trail Blazers – thanks in large part to newly acquired veterans such as center Chris Kaman and guard Steve Blake plus flashes of contributions from younger players like guard C.J. McCollum and center Meyers Leonard -- rank 17th out of 30 teams in efficiency so far this season at -0.9. Fantastic? No. But a significant improvement from last year when Portland’s bench finished the season 27th in efficiency at -8.4. Seventeenth is good enough as long as starters LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, Damian Lillard and Wes Matthews remain healthy and bench grinder Joel Freeland returns successfully from his right shoulder injury.
3. In the back half of the season when teams begin rounding into playoff shape, can the Trail Blazers do better than the 3-7 record they compiled last season after Jan. 1 against the four teams most likely to be roadblocks to Portland reaching the Western Conference Finals – Golden State, San Antonio, the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City? With a caveat, not good so far. Since Jan. 1, Portland has gone 1-4 against potential Western Conference playoff opponents, though Portland had lost Lopez because of injury for those games. Portland will learn very quickly after the break how they compare against its possible conference postseason opponents, facing five potential conference playoff foes in their six games after Friday’s against Utah.
That stretch should provide an early indication if this Trail Blazers team meets up to the ultimate measure of success in 2014-15—improving on their playoff performance from 2013-14 when Portland made it to the second round for the first time since 2000. As we wrote four months ago, success this season will only be defined as continued progress into the Western Conference Finals.
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