The Portland Trail Blazers are currently the number four team in the West with a record of 34-23, they soundly beat the defending champion Golden State Warriors in their last game before the all-star break, and have a great shot at making their mark in the playoffs for the first time in Damian Lillard’s career. With 25 games left, how do they pull this off? By winning two games or more in the second round of the playoffs, something this team hasn’t accomplished since 2001. But at this point we’ll take not being swept out of the first round for three consecutive years.
Here to help them is veteran center Enes Kanter, who was cut by the Knicks last week and signed with Portland despite offers from other contenders (see what I did there?). Portland tried to sign Kanter as a restricted free agent way back in 2015 (when he and current OKC center Steven Adams formed the Stache Bros frontcourt duo), but the Thunder paid to keep him and the two sides went in opposite directions. Then he wound up in New York, and was seemingly playing well there before the Knicks lost their minds, traded away unicorn Kristaps Porziņģis, cut Kanter after they couldn’t find a trade partner for him, and hit a giant red reset button on their young team. This is less than two years after they traded for Kanter in order to dump Carmelo Anthony.
So it’s four years and a lot of miles later but Kanter is finally here! So what does that mean for Portland and their shot to contend for a title? To answer those questions and more, we locked Fireside Sports co-hosts Bryant Knox (BK) and Casey Mabbott (CM) in a windowless room without any phones or tablets (but gave them the Wi-Fi password, we are not complete barbarians…) and threw a piece of paper and a dull pencil in the middle of the room and what follows is the result.
Without further ado, here is this week’s lightning round!
1. The Portland Trail Blazers are currently #4 in the West, and ready to go on their trademark post all-star break rampage through the month of March. What seed do you see them finishing at?
BK: I have the Blazers finishing fifth. Realistically, a drop to sixth could happen as well if both the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz have strong ends to their seasons. I don’t see the San Antonio Spurs having that same chance, but conversely, I don’t see Portland leapfrogging the Oklahoma City Thunder for the third spot, either. Although Utah has gone 14-5 since an underwhelming 18-20 start, the Rockets seem most primed to rise in the standings assuming James Harden’s hot streak continues as Clint Capela comes back healthy. All that results in Rip City vs. Clutch City in Round 1, with Houston having home-court advantage.
CM: Here’s the thing – in the last couple of years, this team goes nuts in March, typically hits a skid in April, and limps into the playoffs while everyone else is heating up. Then they run in to trouble trying to keep up when the games matter more than ever and their opponents are fresher. If they would give me a vote (and they won’t), I would argue that they should try to save some energy and fight for a seed anywhere #7 and above so that they don’t get stuck with the Warriors in the first round. After that, I really do like their chances to compete with any other team in the west in a seven game series. Houston and OKC could be tough, but I can see a series going Portland’s way. Against the Warriors, they would have to become the first team in the West since 2013 to beat Golden State in a playoff series, not odds I like very much.
2. GM Neil Olshey signed center Enes Kanter last week, and that news was mostly swallowed up by the MJ-Harden-Westbrook story right before the All-Star break. What do you expect from Kanter, and will he be a good fit alongside Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, and Meyers Leonard? And which front court player would you assign to grow the best mustache to form the new and improved Stache Bros?
BK: At this point, I think we know what Enes Kanter brings to the table—we’re not going to get a lot of surprises. We’re going to see a lot of rebounding, some atrocious defense, a whole lot of s–t talking, and some toughness at the rim even if he’s not necessarily defending the cup. As far as fitting next to Meyers Leonard, that won’t be a concern—this move signifies the end of The Hammer’s chances of having a spot in the playoff rotation. It’s a sad day for a guy who was finally playing decent basketball and had actually earned the minutes he’d received, but it’s necessary if Portland wants to advance in the postseason. (Don’t feel bad for him, though. He’s the next Stache Bro in training, I can feel it.) Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins are a different story. Kanter won’t play alongside Nurk—or at least he shouldn’t; the floor-spacing would be problematic at best. But alongside Collins—a big who can force the defense to the perimeter—the fit should be a fun experiment. Collins has proved he can play some defense and provide toughness (just ask Klay Thompson), while Kanter can handle any low-post offense and blue collar work on the glass.
CM: I think we all know what this means – twin towers coming to PDX in 2019. This will likely signal the beginning of Collins getting starter minutes alongside Nurkic, and Al-Faraq Aminu as the first forward off the bench, or a fill in starter when Rodney Hood and/or Moe Harkless can’t defend the opponent’s most gifted wing player. A reserve unit of Seth Curry, Evan Turner, Moe Harkless, Aminu, and Kanter would be some high quality depth, and add some fresh legs to the rotation. Aminu already has a stache, so if they do this new rotation right, problem already solved!
3. Damian Lillard struggled with the three point contest, but put on a show in the West’s win over the East in Sunday’s All-Star game. How do you think he lines up with other elite players?
BK: Lillard is up there. LeBron James has famously said he wants to play alongside Dame, but one of his quotes that gained less traction in the national media was in response to a question about people around the league underrating Lillard. Paraphrasing, The King said that he doesn’t feel Lillard is underrated because true basketball minds (a category James says is tough to come by) understand what he brings to the table and appreciate his game just fine. Logo Lillard proved yet again during Sunday’s All-Star Game that he does, in fact, have the respect of his peers. If you didn’t see the way Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Durant and the rest of the Team LeBron bench went nuts as Dame took over the third quarter, go check it out now. Lillard is a knock-down shooter, clutch performer and all-around star in a league that requires such stardom to compete.
CM: I think he has lined up well with elite players for a while now, and that’s no secret. What is telling is that most other elite players think he needs a change of scenery to win a title. And maybe that would be best for Portland, let Lillard go somewhere that has a great supporting cast, win a title or two, then come back home and win one here when the pressure is off. Most fans will tell you that they don’t care if Lillard ever wins one, they love him to death anyway. But never getting to the pinnacle of your profession because others were holding you back? That has to suck, and I wonder how much longer he can put up with this average supporting cast. The meetings with Paul Allen before his passing make me concerned that he knows he isn’t going to get a legitimate shot here, and playing with the other elite players for a day can’t make that feeling go away.
4. For all of the talk about how great Portland’s back court is, CJ McCollum is never mentioned as an all-star. Short of injuries to other superstars, do you see a year where both Lillard and McCollum could be playing in the all-star game?
BK: I just don’t see it. If CJ ever makes an All-Star team it’s going to be because he’s a No. 1 option on a moderately competitive team out East after the Blazers traded him away to a franchise looking to ditch a disgruntled star. As long as Dame and CJ share a backcourt, the former will garner all the attention. It would take a multi-year championship run to get the league and its fans to recognize McCollum as an All-Star with Portland, and quite frankly, that’s what it might take for the same folks to vote Dame—a four-time All-Star—in as a starter.
CM: I wish I could see it but his game is so one-sided and very one-sided at that. He is an elite scorer, but other than that he doesn’t really contribute much. If he were the main ball handler on a bad team he might get more attention (and assists) but as of right now, he is a shooter and not much else – hard to imagine him getting enough love from the fans for that. If he were in a larger market he might, but as a sidekick in Portland, he’s not going to get enough fan votes and there are plenty of more balanced players (like Lillard) that need support from coaches to get in as a reserve. I don’t see a way that both wind up as all-stars so long as they wear the same uniform the other 82 games.
5. Knowing that the Warriors are still at full-strength until this summer, how far do you see Portland going in the playoffs?
BK: As long as the Warriors are at full strength, there’s not a team in the conference that will win more than two rounds. It just ain’t happenin. The OKC Thunder have maybe the third-best player in the league this season in Paul George, the Rockets have likely the second-best in James Harden and the Denver Nuggets…well, nothing but respect for what they’re doing but I need to see it in the postseason before I can believe it. … But back to the actual question: Portland has a good chance to win a series this year. Nurkic is looking like a more consistent third piece of the triumvirate the team has needed the last two years and guys like Kanter and Collins can have more of an impact that any frontcourt depth the team has displayed in recent memory. If you believe the Blazers can get past any team not named the Warriors, which I do, that puts their ceiling as the Western Conference Finals. Nothing will be easy, of course, as my own prediction from above has them needing to beat The James Hardens in Round 1 on the road. But even if they do get past some stiff competition early, they—like everyone else—would bend the knee to the Warriors, who just aren’t ready to give up their throne just yet.
CM: I can see them winning their way out of the first round, but I would be lying if I said they could make it out of the second round. As long as they draw any other team but the Warriors for the first two rounds I think they can compete, but there is so much that has to go right for them to even win one series that I don’t see them winning two, but this could be the first year in the Lillard era that they win at least six games in the playoffs. Again, it will take a lot of things lining up their way, but other than the Warriors I don’t see a team that I don’t think Portland can compete with in a best of seven series. If they draw the Jazz or Rockets in round two it could be goodnight, but virtually any other team and they probably advance to the conference finals, also for the first time since 2000. It’s a lot to ask in a year where every team in the top 6 is absolutely loaded, but weirder things have happened before.