Earlier this week, Portland Trail Blazers superstar point guard Damian Lillard went on the record stating he did not see the point participating in meaningless games if the NBA were to return and not give Portland and other playoff bubble teams an actual shot at the postseason.
I’ll tell you right now: Lillard has a fair point, and I happen to agree with him.
With how weird and sports-free the last two months have been, I’d be more than frustrated if Portland was not given a fair shake when the league finally returns.
I’ve personally suggested the league should give all 30 teams a chance at the title by seeding teams based on their most recent records, and by placing the worst four teams into two play-in games, and then holding a 28-team tournament. We would in essence get back March Madness and the NBA in one swift move by Adam Silver. I’m not aware if he’s spoken on the subject or not, but given that the NBA is a money-first-fans-second type of enterprise, let’s just assume they prefer the more traditional playoff format (with more games and therefore more money grabs), and move on.
So back to what the NBA might actually do. If the league goes ahead with one of the options they are currently reviewing—asking each team to reach 70 games to conclude the regular season—it would give 29-37 Portland just 4 games to make up the 3.5 games they sit behind #8 seeded Memphis, who are currently at 32-33. Memphis would have five games to secure the final seed in the west, while Portland would have four games to sneak in. While not mathematically impossible, it’s not exactly realistic, either. In order for Portland to get in, they would need to go 4-0 and hope that Memphis goes 1-4 or worse over the same stretch—and Portland absolutely has to win their first game to make it work, but we’ll get into that later on.
When the league suspended the season in March, Portland still had 16 games remaining to cover a four-game gap. So you can understand Lillard’s frustration if the league decides to cut his team’s opportunity back to a quarter of what they had previously—without adjusting the lead Memphis has.
Now what if they adjusted the records to make the gap in the standings more realistic with the shortened season? They won’t, but that would be more fair to Portland, even if it is adding more stress to Memphis. But we’re not worried about Memphis’ stress levels—the Grizzlies don’t play here. Let the folks in Memphis worry about them; we’re worrying about Portland in Portland.
In the same conversation, Lillard made it clear he’d gladly participate if the league gives teams on the bubble a shot to make the playoffs, even if it’s a play-in tournament. He’s confident his team would make the cut, and rightfully so. Portland is slated to get center Jusuf Nurkic and forward/center Zach Collins back, and they would complement a struggling second unit as they get back to game shape.
Game shape is an interesting idea at the moment. Are we certain any players are in game shape? This could be a lot like preseason without offseason training. With Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside in the starting PF and C slots, respectively, Portland could be a dark-horse contender if it can figure out how to make its suddenly high-quality depth frightening for the rest of the league.
You might ask yourself why Lillard is confident enough in his team to make a run at the postseason with a healthy lineup for the first time since last March but doesn’t see the point in returning if he only gets a few games. Really, it’s about making it fair to all teams involved, not just those who have clinched spots or are on the verge. Now if the league goes forward with its 70-game cutoff and Portland still makes it? This is all just noise, but the truth is we shouldn’t ask any players to leave their homes, fly from one corner of the nation to the other, live in a complex away from the their families, and play in fan-free games with the knowledge that they can’t drop one game or their season is over—while not asking the same of the any other teams. Say they lose the first game, do they even bother rolling out a quality lineup for the next three, or do they just let their younger guys get some minutes? I would strongly argue there’s no point in any starter being on the floor in such a scenario. But if they win the first one, I would vote they need to give it their all until they are officially eliminated.
Let’s say Portland is asked to play the next four games on their schedule. It would start with a game against Memphis and remember, if Memphis beats Portland in the initial game, that’s it—season over. If Portland manages to get past Memphis in the first game and win out while Memphis wins just one or fewer games the rest of the way, Portland is behind the Grizzlies in the conference overall, so Memphis would hold the tiebreaker should it come down to that. Both teams have four games in conference coming up, so if Portland manages to win all of those while Memphis loses all but one (against Milwaukee) they would steal the tiebreaker and in essence the playoff spot.
But that’s still a lot of pressure. So you can see why Lillard is frustrated; he has to put his team on the court more than three months (NBA is seeking a late-July/early-August start) after they were last together, and ask them to shake off the rust immediately in order to go all out in a win or go home game four times in a row while other teams get breathing room. And even if Lillard gets the team past the first one and the other three, if Memphis wins just one game against a conference opponent, that’s also it for Portland.
Would you want to gamble your entire season on such long odds—and maybe even your health—going into next season? I know I wouldn’t. And I certainly wouldn’t ask Lillard to.
Now there are discussions about adding practices and perhaps even a mini training camp to this, but before you tell me that will help the teams get back on the same page, let me say this: no it won’t. These teams are going to be very rusty no matter how many practices or camps you allow. They won’t have faced a legitimate opponent in months. That’s not going to look good on the screen; you might want sports back, but I can promise you this isn’t going to look good, not immediately. And it definitely won’t sit well if Portland just happens to be the more rusty looking team in its first game back and it costs the season in this condensed format.
So why not turn those remaining few games into an actual play-in tournament, while letting the teams already eliminated stay home? At least in that scenario, every team involved would have exactly the same amount on the line—win or go home.
It’s essentially a compromise between March Madness and the NBA Playoffs. Bubble teams would play either single-elimination or a shortened series to advance to the actual playoffs where they would compete in best-of-seven series. If the Blazers have to win their first game back to even have a shot at more, it makes sense to open the field up to other teams and give them the same odds—and more importantly, the same pressure.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be entertaining as long as Portland is in the mix. If The Trail Blazers are not given a legitimate chance to advance, I don’t know that I’ll be keeping an eye on things, and if I’m not watching, I have a hard time saying Lillard or any other starter should have to play. I’m honestly having a difficult enough time not placing an asterisk on this season’s eventual champion, even if that is Portland, and that’s before I know what exactly the postseason format will be.
If they find a fair way to include as many teams as possible and give them all a fair shot, I might just consider this postseason legitimate. It’s all up to Adam Silver to figure it out, and let’s hope his final answer involves giving Portland and Lillard the shot they deserve.