At the start of the NBA season, sports analysts make predictions about the 30 teams and what will happen in the 82 games they are all guaranteed to play.
This year, most predicted the Portland Trail Blazers would likely make the playoffs, probably through earning one of the three lowest seeds.
Halfway through the season the Blazers are on track track to do just that.
Placing the Blazers in the lower half of the playoff picture predictions is definitely not a bold move. Portland has made playoffs five years in a row yet they have only finished in the top four in standings once, last year, when they went on to be swept by the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round.
Why are the Blazers so predictable? The answer was easy in previous years: they were always missing a piece. In the Lillard/McCollum era of the Blazers, Portland has struggled to build around their star players. Injuries, lengthy and expensive contracts, and Portland’s small market have all hurt their ability to create a well rounded, championship contender roster.
This season is different. Portland seems to be fixing problems that have plagued them in recent years. While consistency continues to be a work in progress, as of late starting center Jusuf Nurkic has been putting on impressive performance after impressive performance, recently becoming the first player in NBA history to tally at least 20 points and 20 rebounds, along with at least 5 assists, steals and blocks in a single game.
Portland’s bench has shown more productivity than they have in recent years. Seth Curry is shooting nearly 50% from beyond the arc. Evan Turner, despite getting too trigger happy with his shot from time to time, has been a strong leader for the bench, frequently leading the five on the floor when the starters are out. The bench as a whole has been providing crucial numbers when the team needs it most. In Portland’s most recent game, Lillard and McCollum combined for a mere 34 points while the bench combined for 49.
Portland is a better team than they were last year. Although they managed to earn the third seed going into the 2018 postseason, injuries around the league allowed Portland to make a dramatic climb up the standings last spring.
If the playoffs started today, Portland would earn the seventh seed in the Western Conference with a 24-17 record. If that record were doubled to represent the end of the season, they finish 48-34, an almost identical to the 49-33 record that earned them the third seed last year.
Although Portland has resolved some issues, both the successes and mishaps of other teams have resulted in the Blazers still floating around in the lower half of the playoff picture.
For starters, several teams who have long struggled are going through revival seasons in the West. The Denver Nuggets are having one of the best seasons in franchise history, currently sitting at the top of Western Conference standings. In Los Angeles, the arrival of LeBron James has helped push the Lakers toward what should end up being their first above .500 season since 2013. Even the long dormant Sacramento Kings are looking better than they have in a decade, currently just a couple of games behind the eighth seed in the West.
On the other hand, teams who have long dominated the West are no longer in control. The Golden State Warriors, despite being ranked second in the West, are only three games ahead of the seventh placed Blazers. After a slow start, the Houston Rockets are surging through the rankings, but still rank fifth in standings.
The Blazers are not in a bad position halfway through the season. While they are in the lower end of the playoff picture, they have at least a four game advantage over any teams outside the top eight seeds.
The biggest challenge for Portland in the next 41 games appears to be their inner division matchups. Portland has nine remaining games against teams within the Northwest Division. Through the first half of the season they have gone 2-5 against the Northwest, their only wins both coming against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
While nine games may not seem like much, it is about a quarter of their remaining season. With teams so close in standings, a winning record against the Northwest could be the decider in Portland reaching the postseason.