The Portland Trail Blazers have had a very good year by most measures. Sitting at fourth in the West currently, you’d think they’re in a steady spot. Normally, they would be.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing normal about this year’s Western Conference.
After an exciting game against the Denver Nuggets that went down to a missed Damian Lillard three, Portland is four back of the West-leading Nuggs, one game back of the third-place Oklahoma City Thunder, and a mere three games ahead of the No. 9 Utah Jazz. Yeah, the Blazers are fourth, yet they are closer to being out of the playoffs than they are to the top seed. Yeesh.
And we haven’t yet mentioned that San Antonio, Houston, and the L.A. Clippers are all tied five-through-seven one game behind Portland, and the eighth-place Los Angeles Lakers are still missing the best basketball player on the planet.
The standings have been bunched up like this all season; for a number of reasons for each team, no one has been able to separate themselves from the pack. This is actually a good thing for the Blazers, since they’ve played one of the toughest schedules in the NBA so far and are now in a position to fatten up on the dregs and lower-ranked playoff hopefuls.
The Blazers need to take as many games before the All-Star Break as they can. They head out on a massive seven-game road trip after the break, and though most of those games are against Eastern teams, that’s a hellacious roadie.
With a good mix of weaker teams and fellow playoff competitors with flaws on their slate, Portland has a chance to create some real space in the standings before hitting the break, then the road.
How they perform during this stretch is probably going to decide their season.
At least we don’t have to see Assertive, Ass-Kicking Nikola Jokic again until early April. Thank God.
All games are available on AM 620 Rip City Radio.
Monday, Jan. 14: @ the Sacramento Kings, 7:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: Such an exciting young team. The Kings have been running and gunning this season, and their young guards—Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox—have been great for them. Hield is averaging 20 points a game on 44 percent three-point shooting, while Fox is averaging 18 and eight assists. Hield also has 1.2 offensive rebounds per game; it’s weird for a guard to have that many offensive boards. I guess he’s just catching a large number of long caroms off the rim.
The promise of this team is evident in their tough play against the top teams in the West. Even though they’ve lost each game, their play against the Blazers, Lakers, Warriors, and Nuggets two weeks ago was stellar. They carried it over to the following week, beating up on Eastern Conference cupcakes. The Kangz are learning how to win.
At 22-21, Sacramento has a winning record this late in the season for the first time in 13 years. They’re still only 10th in the West, and they lack the experience and consistency to make a sustained run at a playoff spot this year. Streaks have defined their season; they follow up a four-game winning streak with four losses in a row, then they win three out of four and proceed to drop their next three. The volatility in their results is typical of a young team, and will likely keep them out of the playoffs.
Still, it’s been a wild and much-needed fun ride for their poor fans. There is hope…as long as Vlade Divac and Vivek Ranadive don’t cuck it up.
Matchup to Watch: Buddy Hield vs. CJ McCollum. If Hield is scorching the nets from long range, McCollum has achieved mastery of the midrange. It’s 2019 vs. 1999, threes vs. twos.
Prediction: It took an epic Blazers comeback and an ice-cold Kings choke job to even force overtime the last time Portland was in this building. I’m still drinking the Kangz Kool-Aid, bud. Blazers take an L.
Wednesday, Jan. 16: vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers, 7:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: This is what the Cavaliers turned into after LeBron James left:
Kevin Love, their $120 million power forward that didn’t win a thing before he was dealt to Cleveland, was re-signed under the grossly mistaken impression that he’d be the best player on a playoff team despite being on the wrong side of 30 and beat up with injuries. He’s been out with a toe injury, but honestly, Love would only take the Cavs from the worst record in the league to the second-worst record in the league.
They finally traded Kyle Korver, they have a bunch of Utah Jazz rejects on their roster, Larry Nance Jr. and John Henson are both hurt, JR Smith has been exiled from the team, and rookie point guard Collin Sexton is struggling to play with a veteran roster that’s been spoon-fed and hard carried by a basketball god for four years.
And the rotten cherry on the top of this triple-decker s*** sundae? This is the first year that the NBA Draft Lottery odds have flattened, meaning that even if the Cavs finished with the worst record, they wouldn’t have a 25 percent chance at landing the top pick. They, and Nos. 2 and 3 in the order, would have a mere 14 percent chance at picking the latest franchise savior.
So, to sum up:
Matchup to Watch: Tristan Thompson vs. Jusuf Nurkic. At least Thompson is still grinding. He’s posting up waaaaaay too much for a guy whose offensive skill set is basically “dunk” and that’s it, but bless his heart for trying.
Maybe the Cavs can find a taker for Thompson. It would be some delicious irony if he was traded to the Lakers, even if JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler are holding down the big man fort.
Prediction: Blazers dump some kerosene on that fire and take a W.
Friday, Jan. 18: vs. the New Orleans Pelicans, 7:30 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: So, my editor and I are friendly enough to go get some drinks every now and then. We talk shop while downing brewskis and bar food, and good times are had.
We went out to a newish place in Lents last Saturday, and while discussing NBA stuffs, he pointed out that the biggest on-court story is James Harden rolling and smoking the entire league…and the biggest off-court story is the storm swirling around Anthony Davis. And I believe the Davis stuff isn’t going to stop until he’s traded. When, not if.
AD has 1 ½ years left on his contract, and the Pelicans—despite obliterating the Blazers in last year’s playoffs and providing as competitive a gentleman’s sweep against Golden State as they could—have underwhelmed throughout Davis’ career, no matter his stupefying individual talent.
As New Orleans languishes in 12th in the West at 20-23, the talk about trading Davis now is only getting louder. Averaging 29-13 with 51 percent field-goal shooting, 2.6 blocks per game, and 1.7 steals, Davis is having his best season ever. Setting career highs in PER, Box Plus-Minus, Win Shares per 48 Minutes, Rebound Percentage, Free-Throw Rate, Assist Percentage, and points, rebounds, assists and steals per game, it’s clear that he’s doing everything he can to carry them. And it’s not mattering.
Some people compare Davis’ situation to the mid-2000s Minnesota Timberwolves teams that Kevin Garnett anchored. Davis is similar to Garnett, but the teams, times, and situations are not so even. The Wolves surrounded Garnett with some truly awful players; Davis’ current top three teammates (Jrue Holiday, Julius Randle, and Nikola Mirotic) are all better than anyone KG played with in Minnesota with the possible exception of Portland native Terrell Brandon.
The NBA was weak enough in the mid-2000s to let Garnett carry his dung heap of a team to the Western Conference Finals in 2004; the NBA in 2019 is so stacked with talent, no one-man show is ever going to do more than maybe make the playoffs, even if that show is a genuine freak like AD. And the situations of the franchises themselves are different—despite the lack of success and Glen Taylor being a prototypical crappy owner, the Wolves are still solvent, while New Orleans is on such shaky ground, there’s scuttlebutt that Seattle could poach the team and house them in their new NHL arena.
If there’s a knock on Davis, it’s that he doesn’t make his teammates better. He keeps talking about how HE has to play a perfect game to give his team a chance to win, yet he’s trying too hard to make one-on-one plays and not trusting Holiday or Mirotic to make a shot. And there’s no way in hell that Kevin Garnett would EVER let his team be 25th in Defensive Rating, yet Davis’ teams have mostly been below-average defensively despite fielding a purported Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
It seems like Davis needs to play with someone better than he is in order to win in the NBA. Trouble is, there’s only three or four guys that can claim to be on his level. Two play in Golden State, one is in Milwaukee (and they can’t afford him or trade for him), and the top guy overall happens to also be linked with Klutch Sports…Davis’ new agency.
It seems like Anthony Davis is going to crawl to LeBron in order to learn how to win. It’s only a question of how much Los Angeles is going to give up for him—and if a surprise team will sneak in with a good offer, like the Thunder did with Paul George and the Raptors did with Kawhi Leonard.
Matchup to Watch: Anthony Davis vs. the field. He’s still prodigiously good at basketball.
Prediction: Blazers pick up a win.
Trail Blazers’ Record Last Week: 3-1
Trail Blazers’ Record Overall: 26-18
Jared’s Picks Last Week: 4-0 (as per usual)
Jared’s Picks Overall: 24-20