Should the Portland Trail Blazers Try to Make the Playoffs This Year?
This past summer seemed to mark a clear and obvious reset for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Over the last two seasons -- since the Blazers traded for Robin Lopez in July of 2013 -- their starting lineup of Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Lopez had spent more time on the floor together than any other combination of players in the entire Association, racking up 2,002 minutes played as a unit over that span.
Over this past offseason, though, the band effectively broke up. Batum was traded to the Charlotte Hornets, Aldridge signed with the San Antonio Spurs, Matthews accepted an offer from the Dallas Mavericks, and Lopez (along with last season's trade deadline acquisition, Arron Afflalo) took his talents to the Big Apple to play for the Knicks.
All that was left standing was Lillard and a bunch of youngsters and low-key signings. At the time, we projected them as the 11 seed in the Western Conference, and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who honestly believed that Portland would be a playoff team this year during preseason prediction time.
Fast-forward to now, just a little over a week away from All-Star Weekend, and Portland is actually holding onto the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with a record of 24-26. They've won five straight games and nine of their last 11, and the resulting .818 Win-Loss Percentage over that span is tied with San Antonio and Memphis for the fourth-best in the league during that time, trailing only Toronto (.900), Oklahoma City (.857), and Golden State (.833).
It looks like the rebuild is coming together a little bit ahead of schedule. Do the Trail Blazers actually stand a chance of making the playoffs this year? Should that even be their goal?
Blazing Trail Blazers
Portland has a record of 9-2 in their last 11 games, with an average point differential of 6.9, the sixth-highest mark in the NBA over that span. They have the league's 6th-best Offensive Rating of 108.7 during that period, the 10th-ranked Defensive Rating at 102.7, and the 7th-best Net Rating at 6.0. Their 52.2% Effective Field Goal Percentage (weighted twos and threes) over that 11-game span is the seventh-best mark in the Association, while their 52.5% Rebound Percentage is third.
These are all numbers and rankings that would've made plenty of sense over any 11-game stretch during the last two seasons, but it's a little surprising coming from a team whose most-used starting lineup this season has featured Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, and Mason Plumlee.
Apart from Lillard, the other four only had 51 starts between them in 2014-15, and 45 of those were Mason Plumlee for the Brooklyn Nets. McCollum's three starts were the only ones to come in a Trail Blazers uniform to boot.
Yes, only one of those nine wins came against a team over .500, but quality wins against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Utah Jazz (their direct competition for the 8 seed and against whom they now have a 2-1 record with a chance of winning the season series on February 21st), and even the recently effective Sacramento Kings should not be so quickly discredited. Sure, one of their two losses was to the 7-41 Philadelphia 76ers, but everyone loses one of those games every now and again.
A big part of the Blazers' success -- not only for this recent hot stretch, but for the whole season -- has been the exceptional play of the backcourt duo of Lillard and McCollum.
Lillard putting up career numbers as now the clear number one option in Portland was essentially expected, but McCollum more or less replicating his stat line has been an added bonus that not many saw coming.
Neither made the All-Star game or is in the running for MVP, but Lillard was perhaps the biggest All-Star snub out there and McCollum is a leading candidate for the Most Improved Player Award after averaging just 6.8 points and 1.0 assist in 15.7 minutes per game last year.
Together, they form what is arguably one of the best backcourt duos in the Association. In terms of scoring alone, they're second only to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in combined points scored per game for a starting backcourt:
|Rank||Backcourt Duo||Team||Points Per Game|
|1||Stephen Curry + Klay Thompson||GSW||51.3|
|2||Damian Lillard + C.J. McCollum||POR||44.9|
|3||Kyle Lowry + DeMar DeRozan||TOR||44.0|
So, are the Portland Trail Blazers really a playoff team, or are they just going through an unexpected hot streak during a soft part of their schedule?
According to our metrics, the Blazers currently have a 49.4% chance of making the playoffs, the ninth-highest odds in the Western Conference, trailing closely behind the Utah Jazz at 52.6%, and a fair bit behind the Houston Rockets at 77.0%. Ultimately, that last spot should come down to the 22-25 Jazz and the 24-26 Blazers. For what it's worth, Utah has a team nERD of 51.6, which is a fair bit better than Portland's 46.7.
If you're not familiar with our Team nERD metric, it's a ranking on a scale from 0-100, with 50 as the league average. It is meant to be predictive of a team's ultimate winning percentage. In other words, Utah's current nERD of 51.6 suggests that they are playing like a team that would have an ultimate winning percentage of .516 (for an approximate record of 42-40), while the Blazers' nERD of 46.7 suggests they'd have one of .467 (or a record of 38-44).
The Jazz might have the upper hand when it comes to our projections, but there's still plenty of time and things are certainly close enough that either team could ultimately make the postseason. The Jazz are decidedly at the stage in their development that they want to make the playoffs, but are the Blazers?
One would think that the teardown this past summer signaled a rebuilding plan in Portland, but Blazers general manager Neil Olshey has contested all along that he thinks this core can win now, develop together, and grow into a contender in a more organic way than chasing lottery balls.
If you consider what making the postseason for the first time did for the young cores of the Golden State Warriors in 2013 (when they beat the higher-seeded Nuggets) or the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2010 (when they pushed the top-seeded and eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to six games as the 8 seed), then maybe it would be better for the Blazers to add some playoff experience to their young core (the fourth-youngest in the NBA with an average age of 24.2). Especially since the alternative is shaping up to be simply getting a few lottery balls as one of the best teams not to make the postseason, resulting in a snowball's chance in hell at the top pick in this year's draft and -- more likely -- a slightly higher pick than they would've had if they had just made the postseason as the 8 seed.
The Blazers might be proof that the slow rebuild isn't always the best option.