It was 45 games into the 2015-16 NBA season. The Portland Trail Blazers had recently come off a shocking road loss to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, but they were able to close out an east-coast road trip with a win. A loss two nights later to the Atlanta Hawks brought the team to 19-26—our 45-game mark.
Three nights later, the Los Angeles Lakers came to town. And everything changed.
Flash forward one year, and the Blazers are two games removed from a loss to the lowly Sixers—the 45th game of the campaign. One night later, they closed out an east-coast road trip with a victory, bringing their record to 19-27.
And wouldn’t you know it, those same Lakers are back in town for Portland’s next outing Wednesday night.
One year prior, that late-January contest against L.A. proved to be a jumping off point for the Trail Blazers. The team was 20-26 at the time (half a game better than where it sits today), but a win over the Lakers sparked an improbable stretch where it won 11 of its next 12.
This season, the Blazers are hoping for similar results. An unfortunate December stretch saw them drop 10 of 11 games, and while they’ve gone 6-7 since, sub-.500 basketball after a stretch like that makes it impossible for anyone to take you seriously in a tight playoff race.
Looking ahead, there are reasons for optimism. Portland is a young enough team that it’s always going to believe it has a chance. Damian Lillard, the roster’s clear-cut leader, is just 26 years old. And the team as a whole is the fourth-youngest squad in the league, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Youth can also be a killer, however, when it comes to playoff hopefuls. We’ve heard players speaking about heart and effort this season…two topics that should never be concerns to any franchise looking to compete at a high level.
But the good thing about young rosters is that they grow. Meyers Leonard can certainly play better, and showed signs of doing just that with his 17-point outing against Boston. Allen Crabbe hasn’t lived up to his new contract, but he’s increased his points-per-game average every month of the season.
There’s also the fact that this group is healthy following stretches where Damian Lillard and Al-Farouq Aminu were sidelined. Aminu is often forgotten by Blazers fans as a crucial contributor considering his quiet demeanor and defense-oriented playing style. But take a look at the numbers with and without him, and you realize that having him in the starting lineup is essential for success.
What this really comes down to is defense and consistency. According to NBA.com, Portland currently sits at 27th in terms of defensive efficiency. But that number skyrockets 20 spots to seventh since Aminu returned on Dec. 21.
So with the Lakers up next and the season’s second half well underway, the time is now to turn things around. Wednesday’s contest will be a celebration of the 1977 championship team’s 40th anniversary, so maybe the environment alone will be enough to spark a second-half surge from this squad.
Last year at this time, Kobe Bryant made his final appearance to the Moda Center, wearing a plaid suit in honor of the late Dr. Jack Ramsey—Portland’s head coach during it’s ‘77 title run.
Only time will tell what the immediate future holds, but one thing is certain: Fans can no longer use the excuse that this team was in the same spot a year ago and eventually turned things around.
That justification for this season’s struggles never felt right to begin with. Now it’s officially a thing of the past.