The Portland Trail Blazers are in a dogfight with the Western Conference’s third- and fourth-tier teams to catch the No. 8 Denver Nuggets. They took a step forward in their playoff pursuit Tuesday night thanks to C.J. McCollum’s heroics in a 114-113 win over the Dallas Mavericks, but it came at the cost of losing Evan Turner for the foreseeable future
With 7:43 remaining in the third quarter, Turner, fighting through a Harrison Barnes screen, fractured the third metacarpal in his right hand, according to Trail Blazers PR. It was a play subtle enough to go unnoticed by most watching, but it’s effect will linger, as Rotowire’s Jeff Stotts noted:
Lopez missed 23 games following his 3rd & 4th metacarpal fractures.
— Jeff Stotts (@RotowireATC) February 8, 2017
Make no mistake about it: This is a big deal. Despite Turner being known more for his $70 million contract than his production on the court, the swingman was seemingly coming into his own. He’d joined the starting lineup, the ball was more regularly finding twine and, although the year-long numbers are still atrocious, his plus/minus stats of late were respectable.
With Turner now out recovering, there are questions surrounding Portland’s starting five. Head coach Terry Stotts could replace Turner with former starter Mo Harkless while continuing to utilize Al-Farouq Aminu as a stretch 4. This gives the team its most athletic lineup, but it likely requires more run for the inexperienced Shabazz Napier considering McCollum and Damian Lillard need occasional relief of their ball-dominating duties.
There’s also the more traditional option of starting Aminu at the 3 and a legitimate big man at power forward. In today’s modern day of pace and space, that seems almost unheard of. But if Portland is preparing to play in April, getting players such as Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh reps would help determine who’s deserving of minutes when it matters most late in the year.
NBA Western Conference Standings As Of Games Played On Feb. 8
|1. Golden State Warriors||43||8||—|
|2. San Antonio Spurs||39||12||4|
|3. Houston Rockets||38||17||7|
|4. Utah Jazz||33||19||10.5|
|5. LA Clippers||31||21||12.5|
|6. Memphis Grizzlies||32||22||12.5|
|7. Oklahoma City Thunder||30||23||14|
|8. Denver Nuggets||23||28||20|
|9. Portland Trail Blazers||23||30||21|
|10. Sacramento Kings||20||30||23.5|
|11. Dallas Mavericks||20||32||23.5|
|12. New Orleans Pelicans||20||32||23.5|
|13. Minnesota Timberwolves||19||33||24.5|
|14. Los Angeles Lakers||18||36||26.5|
|15. Phoenix Suns||16||36||27.5|
With Turner out, you miss the forward’s ability to run an offense, as well as his improving two-way presence. However, his positive impact on the court has been a fairly new development. Replacing that is possible—exceeding it is almost likely.
Establishing the rotation is what’s crucial. As you see from the standings above, it’s not just the Blazers within spitting distance of the eighth seed. The Mavericks, Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans are all just 1.5 games behind Rip City at this point in the process.
The Blazers are subjectively the most talented group of the bunch, but if reintegrating Turner late in the year comes with hiccups, talent isn’t going to win out.
Audio: Evan Turner discusses breaking his right hand in Tuesday night’s win in Dallas https://t.co/CF6ZNjLaOb
— Casey Holdahl (@CHold) February 8, 2017
The fact that we’re having this discussion about simply making the playoffs 53 contests into the season is disappointing for fans in Portland. Following a 2015-16 campaign that saw the Blazers exceed all expectations and make it to the second round, this was supposed to be the year when the Pacific Northwest’s lone team competed for home-court advantage.
Entering Tuesday’s game, Basketball-Reference.com had the Blazers projected as the No. 9 seed out West when the year ends. With 30 games remaining (at the time), the site gave Portland a 30.9 percent shot at making the playoffs, sandwiching it between the No. 10 projected Mavericks (10.9 percent) and the No. 7 projected Denver Nuggets (49.4 percent).
Following the win, ESPN.com gave the Blazers a brighter outlook with a 44.1 percent chance of making the postseason and ultimately landing the eighth seed at 37-45.
As odd as it is to see a team sneaking into the West playoffs with that kind of record, gone are the days of all eight seeds boasting 50 or more wins. The top-heavy structure of the modern-day conference made sure to put a halt to that with more teams pushing 60-plus, if not 70-plus victories.
Which begs the question: Does Portland (or anybody for that matter) even want the eighth seed? In a year where the draft class is touted as having multiple difference-makers throughout the lottery, would it be better to tank try different lineups and target new rotations with the distant future in mind?
That’s another topic in and of itself, but it’s a question worth asking. Both Basketball-Reference and ESPN make it clear that seeds 1 through 7 are a mere lock, even if the order is not. That means, Portland (not to mention Dallas, Denver, Sacramento and New Orleans) is fighting for a chance to play the role of the Golden State Warriors’ sacrificial lamb.
Although a spot in the lottery might be the true prize in this fight, no coach and no roster will be caught dead losing games with eventual playoff experience on the line.
Portland is no exception to that rule, even if the road just got tougher without Turner.