*ESPN 30 For 30 Voice*
What if I told you, they weren’t the greatest. That they failed to make a splash. That they weren’t supposed to be here.
What if I told you, a fringe playoff team was about to ditch the fringe status. That they were going to compete for home-court advantage.
What if I told you, the stars have aligned, and the Portland Trail Blazers are a lock to make the postseason.
What if I told you, this is the new reality in Rip City.
The 2017-18 NBA season hasn’t lacked storylines. Kyrie Irving is becoming his own man with the Boston Celtics. Kevin Durant is creating more enemies in OKC. LeBron James is…well, still the best player on the planet, but no longer bulletproof when it comes to the wrath of a whistle-ready referee.
Tucked away in the Pacific Northwest, however, there’s a storyline brewing that’s evaded the spotlight. The Portland Trail Blazers look like a playoff team, and not one that’s going to scrape and claw its way to becoming a Golden State Warriors Round 1 play thing.
How did we get here? For starters, Portland (13-8) is one of the biggest surprises the league has to offer on the defensive end. Through 21 games (just over 25 percent of the year), the team is posting the third-highest Defensive Rating in the league, as well as the top Defensive Effective Field-Goal Percentage.
As Dwight Jaynes penned for NBCSports.com, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team make a one-season defensive improvement — with no coaching change and no real difference in personnel — the way Portland has this year. It’s ridiculous how much better they are.”
There’s also the fact that the Blazers have twice as many wins as losses (8-4) in their own conference—a conference that was supposed to go 11 deep as far as legitimate playoff hopefuls were concerned.
But let’s zoom in on that point a bit further. Yes, Portland has played well. And yes, having a legitimate Big Three for a full campaign helps. The truth, though, is that the team’s current fourth-place standing has a lot to do with what’s happening within the conference.
The Utah Jazz, for example, despite losing Gordon Hayward over the summer, were still considered a top-eight squad entering the year. They’re now without their most impactful player in Rudy Gobert for an extended time thanks to injury.
Then there’s the LA Clippers. Like Utah, many expected they’d still be in the playoff hunt sans Chris Paul considering they added depth. But also like the Jazz, they’re without their franchise fixture, Blake Griffin, thanks to an MCL sprain that occurred Monday night.
(DeAndre Jordan was already rumored as trade fodder before Griffin went down, meaning the tank job is officially in full swing.)
As for other fringe playoff squads, the Denver Nuggets, who got better this summer with the addition of Paul Millsap, are now facing an uphill battle thanks to the injury subtraction of, well, Paul Millsap. The Minnesota Timberwolves, who some thought might jump all the way up to the fourth seed, can’t play a lick of defense and currently sit a full game behind the Blazers. The Oklahoma City Thunder, everybody’s favorite new superteam, hasn’t jelled the way they were supposed to and occupy ninth place at 8-11. And the Memphis Grizzlies have all but imploded before our eyes with the firing of second-year head coach David Fizdale and the trade rumors surrounding Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.
At this point in the season, ESPN’s BPI Playoff Odds give the Blazers a 91.5 percent chance at making the postseason. The 10,000 simulations gave them an average record of 46-36.
Basketball Reference’s Playoff Probability Report gives the team an almost identical projected record at 46.4-35.6, but its postseason odds improve to 94.8 percent.
(Note that ESPN has the Blazers fourth out West, while Basketball Reference has them third.)
To be clear, we shouldn’t discredit anything the Blazers have done this season. They have the fourth-best SRS in the Western Conference (a metric designed to measure teams based on average point differential and strength of schedule), and they’re doing things on the defensive end that few—if any—believed they could.
But the Wild Wild West is more chaotic than competitive at the moment. Squads we thought might push Portland out of the postseason are shorthanded or underachieving, and that’s only helping the team establish itself as one of the better squads in the conference.
For the record: The Blazers should have no qualms kicking foes while they’re down. As uncool as it is to root for or celebrate injuries, the reality is that they happen and it does a franchise no good to be magnanimous during an opponent’s arduous road to recovery.
So for as much recognition as Portland deserves on the court as of late, it can also thank its lucky stars for the way the early season has played out. After all, no one has ever taken pity on the Blazers when they were down and out.
Now it’s time to return the favor.
*All stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com, and are current entering games on Wednesday, Nov. 29.