The NBA Bubble Has A Dark-Horse Contender – The Portland Trail Blazers

Your Portland Trail Blazers are in Orlando, Florida for the foreseeable future – until the evening of August 14th at the minimum. The team is currently living and practicing at the Disney/ESPN Wide World of Sports complex – the NBA’s temporary home while they try to close out the 2019-20 season. 

Portland is there along with 21 other teams, 12 of which have already clinched a playoff spot. The Trail Blazers are among 10 teams vying for the open four spots and among seven Western Conference groups fighting for the 7th and 8th seeds. Each of the 22 teams (including those who have already clinched) will play a new eight-game schedule, and the eight teams in each conference with the best records will move on to the postseason. 

In the playoffs, there is one fun twist: If the team in the #9 spot is within 4 games at the end of their 8 games, they will enter a play-in tournament to decide the #8 seed. If the #9 seed finishes more than four games back, that’s it – season over. 

Before we get ahead of ourselves, here is what the standings look like today:

Western Conference 

LA Lakers 49-14 (clinched berth)

LA Clippers 44-20 (clinched berth)

Denver Nuggets 43-22 (clinched berth)

Utah Jazz 41-23 (clinched berth)

Oklahoma City Thunder 40-24 (clinched berth)

Houston Rockets 40-24 (clinched berth)

Dallas Mavericks 40-27 

Memphis Grizzlies 32-33

Portland Trail Blazers 29-37

New Orleans Pelicans 28-36

Sacramento Kings 28-36

San Antonio Spurs 27-36

Phoenix Suns 26-39

Eastern Conference 

Milwaukee Bucks 53-12 (clinched berth)

Toronto Raptors 46-18 (clinched berth)

Boston Celtics 43-21 (clinched berth)

Miami Heat 41-24 (clinched berth)

Indiana Pacers 39-26 (clinched berth)

Philadelphia 39-26 76ers (clinched berth)

Brooklyn Nets 30-34

Orlando Magic 30-35

Washington Wizards 24-40 

In the East, you’ll have Brooklyn and Orlando both spotted a two-game lead over Washington while trying to secure the final two spots. If either of them manage to let Washington climb within 4 games, they will be stuck in a play-in tournament. None of these teams are very strong, so don’t be surprised if any of the three make it at this point. 

Out West, things are much more complicated. Like the East, there are just two spots left, but there is a logjam of teams looking for one of the spots. Insead of three teams trying for two spots, you have seven teams trying to secure one of the two spots left. Dallas is in the most enviable position of any team yet to clinch, as they already have 40 wins. They could go winless over their next eight games and still make it as a play-in team. That’s their worst-case scenario. If they can win just one game, they should be locked in. After that, it’s a mess. 

Memphis has a 4-game lead over Portland, so as it stands today, Portland is already a play-in team, they just need to keep pace. But it’s not like Portland can afford to only look ahead to what Memphis is up to. The Pelicans and Kings are both just one game behind Portland and the Spurs are just two games back; the Suns are still in the picture sitting three games back as well. With eight games left, every team will have a realistic shot. 

The Spurs will be down LaMarcus Aldridge for the rest of the way (surgery), and New Orleans star Zion Williamson is tending to a family matter and may miss the start of the eight-game season, but he could make it back in time to take his team on a run. There is also the curious case of DeMarcus Cousins, who has yet to decide if he will join a team and compete this season. And any team that decides to take a look at Cousins will have to decide if trying to work off the rust on their players while implementing a new player is in their best interests on such a short timetable. Cousins has undeniable talent, but it might be in his and the remaining teams’ interests to move on. 

Portland has their own situation to concern themselves with. After spending most of the year trying to fill their roster, they suddenly have a wealth of talent and depth, except at small forward. Trevor Ariza has his own family matter to tend to and will not be participating in the end of the regular season or the playoffs. With Rodney Hood already on IR, that leaves the team shorthanded at the three. Carmelo Anthony is in Orlando and appears to be in excellent shape, and the team will have the services of Nassir Little, as well as Mario Hezonja. Anthony is expected to play the bulk of the minutes, so as long as he stays healthy, Little and Hezonja will only need to worry about helping out the reserve unit. 

At guard, power forward, and center, Portland may be the deepest team in the league. Superstar Damian Lillard has had four months to catch his breath after taking Portland on a showdown with the league following the All-Star break, and star shooting guard CJ McCollum carried this team late in the series against Denver last season but has had his share of struggles this year. If they can find a way to consistently get prime CJ at the same time as prime Dame while getting solid points from the rest of the rotation, this team could be downright scary. 

At power forward, Zach Collins will return from a brutal shoulder injury, star center Jusuf Nurkic is playing for the first time after sustaining a leg injury in March of 2019, and star center Hassan Whiteside is healthy as ever, ready to be a double-double machine. This is arguably the most quality depth Portland has had since the 1990s, and we know how stacked those teams were. 

The only way this team could possibly be any better is if Ariza could make it, but we need to understand where he’s coming from. He was forced to choose between a few basketball games or having a relationship with his kid. I would hope if forced to choose between the two, we would all make the same choice he did. Sports are fun, but you have to be a parent first and I’m glad that’s what he is doing. 

So Portland gets eight games with a loaded roster to stick within four of Memphis, or better – overtake them. If you thought last year’s playoff roster was a lot fun (and it was), then get ready for this team. They are finally at the point where they can only beat themselves. 

Lillard turned 30 this week, and we can’t help but wonder how many prime years he might have left. He may have been thinking along those lines while thanking his teammates for helping him celebrate in what can only be described as surreal given the circumstances, as he made a comment to them on what they should do for the upcoming games – “let’s not waste our time.” 

Lillard has always wanted to win, but you get the idea from his on-court demeanor and how hard he pushes himself regardless of the opponent – he really wants to win now. This team finally has all the talent it needs to get the job done, and now it just needs to make it count. The Blazers get a couple of scrimmages starting next week, and after that, their season is back on, with their first game against Memphis.

After that, they’ll have seven games to make it all count, and the opponents will be Boston, Houston, Denver, LA Clippers, 76ers, Dallas, and one final game against Brooklyn. 

If they can find their way into the 8 seed, they will finish a journey that won’t be remembered exactly as miraculous just for making the playoffs, but if they can fight their way in and make a run after that? That’s the stuff legends are made of. 

Logo Lillard is a fun name, but Legendary Lillard? Let’s see that version of our favorite player. 

There’s never been a bad time for Lillard to be legendary. But I sure would love to see “Lillard Time” in the NBA Finals. He deserves it, the city deserves it, and the fans who have stuck by him and the team absolutely deserve it. 

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About Casey Mabbott 228 Articles
Casey Mabbott is a writer and podcast host born and raised in West Philadelphia where he spent most of his days on the basketball court perfecting his million dollar jumpshot. Wait, no, that’s all wrong. Casey has spent his entire life here in the Pacific NorthWest other than his one year stint as mayor of Hill Valley in an alternate reality 1985. He’s never been to Philadelphia, and his closest friends will tell you that his jumpshot is the farthest thing from being worth a million bucks. Casey enjoys all sports and covering them with written words or spoken rants. He has made an art of movie references, and is a devout follower of 80's movies and music. I don't know why you would to, but you can probably find him on the street corner waiting for the trolley to take him to the stadium or his favorite pub, where he will be telling people the answers to questions they don’t remember asking. And it only goes downhill from there if he drinks. He’s a real treat.