Well dear readers, we are just days away from the final full month of the season, and your Portland Trail Blazers are right in the heart of the playoff race with a hold on the number four seed in the west.
With just over a quarter of their season remaining, your intrepid Trail Blazers are on the right path to hopefully being spotted in the second round of the playoffs, and even more hopefully – beyond the second round, a destination we have not seen them in for 19 years and counting.
What is scary to write and even scarier to say out loud, is that if you were born in 1992 and later, you have never seen the Blazers beyond the Conference Finals. And if you were born in the year 2000 and later, you have never seen them get out of the second round. Y2K man, that stuff is real. Real, real weird.
So with more questions than ever about the fate of our fearless hometown beloved basketball team, what can we expect from them the rest of the way, and was the Enes Kanter deal the right deal?
Without further ado, here is this week’s lightning round, featuring Fireside Sports co-hosts Bryant Knox (BK) and Casey Mabbott (CM)
1. It’s a very small sample size, but Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter (Nurk and Turk to their adoring fans) are producing the same scoring output as Dame and CJ. If the front court can keep up with the back court, do you see them going on a deep playoff run?
BK – First and foremost, Enes Kanter has pumped some energy into the Trail Blazers’ roster. That may be a bonus most times of the season, but during the post-All-Star stretch, it’s crucial, and for that we owe both Kanter and Neil Olshey some kudos. But on the court, I’ve seen a mix of a lot I like and a lot I don’t like. For starters, these two can never be on the court at the same time without risking the lumbering frontcourt falling behind. They’d never keep up with the backcourt in that scenario. The good news, though, is that you’re always going to have a strong rebounder and finisher at the rim at all times who can also be a secondary or tertiary scorer on any possession. Nurk and Turk’s abilities to shoot efficiently is also great news. Of course, Kanter’s porous defense is less than excellent considering Zach Collins had been showing downright fierceness on the less glamorous end before the former’s arrival. Although I don’t think Kanter automatically makes the Blazers a Western Conference contender, there are certain postseason matchups where he’s going to be a big commodity off the bench. That alone could be worth a series win if he plays team ball along the way.
CM – Yes it is a small sample size, but the general rule is, one of something is chance/luck, two is a coincidence, and three is a trend/pattern. So by the rules of the universe, they are on a trend. If they can keep this going tonight in Boston and beyond, man this could get really interesting. We’ve seen some great moments from Portland’s front court in the past, and two years ago this is when Nurkic made his mark on the NBA before being sidelined for most of the playoffs. Hopefully, Portland can get even more impact out of their newest twin towers, without having to play them at the same time when possible. Kanter has proven to be a very durable and reliable low post player over the course of his career, and seems to be at his best when he is not asked to start, so this may be the ideal situation for both Turk and the city of Portland. It may not stay this way, but then again, why not? With the atrocious defense this team is capable of, scoring opportunities can only increase.
2. The Blazers are 3-0 out of the all-star break, averaging 122 points, and allowing just 108. All three wins have come against eastern conference opponents, do you think they can keep it going against the elite teams in the West?
BK – The Blazers are in an interesting position here. They only play three more games all season against guaranteed Western Conference playoff opponents, and on top of that, they only play four contests against fringe West hopefuls. (For math folks, that means more than two-thirds of their remaining games are against either Eastern Conference teams or lottery-bound squads out West.) So to be frank, I’m not putting a lot of stock in any of their wins the rest of the way—including the three we’ve seen coming out of the break. Here’s the thing, though: This isn’t to say we can’t feel good about what we’re seeing on the court. After all, you know what you call the worst team in the NBA, right? An NBA team. The Blazers are racking up wins…against NBA teams. Portland may not have a true litmus test the rest of the way—a home-and-home with the Denver Nuggets, aside—but crisp, clean, team basketball is always a good thing. If this team chooses to play its best as the playoffs are approaching, that’s a good thing regardless of who is on the schedule.
CM – They don’t play another team from the West until Tuesday, so it could be a while until we know for sure. But that game kicks off a six game series against teams in the West, so we will get a sample size twice the size of the one we are putting under the microscope now, and will have more than ten games to look at which could help either side of the argument. They have fared pretty well against teams out West so far this year, so I don’t see why their latest squad couldn’t, but you just never know until you see it. The numbers they are producing right now are very impressive, and I will be very happy for them if they can produce the same quality wins against teams that know them very well and play them multiple times each season.
3. After all of the fan chatter about who to trade and who to avoid and which member of the roster could be dealt for a superstar, is it possible that Enes Kanter was the missing piece this team needed all along?
BK – Ehhhh. I know they say the game slows down in the playoffs, and traditionally, they are right, but this is 2019. The basketball is fast, the threes are long, and quite frankly “fast” and “thress” might not be in Kanter’s vocabulary. I think he matches up well with certain opposing second units, and as mentioned above, that could be worth a series win in the right situation. But it’s a rare day and age when a non-All-Star on his fourth team in five years earns “missing link” status. I’d consider this move more paying with house money considering his dirt-cheap contract rather than expecting him to be the savior.
CM – Why the hell not? If Maurice Lucas was the missing link to the 1977 Trail Blazers (and a mostly healthy Bill Walton), then Kanter could be the box-out-bruiser this team needed coming off the bench. He’s probably closer to the bruised and beat up Walton the 1986 Celtics signed, but just because they were one of the most celebrated collections of talent ever doesn’t mean this year’s team can’t take the league by storm with their new backup center. It happens all the time, frankly I’m tired of hearing this story over and over where a player that has been on four teams in six years finally leads a team to the promised land. Tell me something new, for crying out loud.
4. Portland is currently 37-23, and holding the 4th seed in the West. With 22 games remaining, do you think they can meet or exceed their record of 49-33 they had last year?
BK – I do, actually. I could see this team reaching 50 wins with the schedule it has ahead. What might honestly trip them up, though, isn’t just the back-to-back showdowns against the Nuggets, but the subsequent games to close out the year against the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings. Both of those franchises are desperate for a return to the postseason, and both are holding onto hope despite ESPN currently giving them a 3.1 and 14.5 percent chances to qualify, respectively. Those teams, if still in the hunt, will have a whole lot more on the line than the Blazers in the penultimate and final contests of the year. They could be the ultimate trap games.
CM – I’d say 50-50. It won’t take a ton of luck to win 12 games or more out of your next 22, but it will take a lot of high quality basketball against good opponents. I’d be more concerned with what their seed is than what their record is, if I’m being perfectly honest. The Blazers are currently only six games behind the lead in the West (Golden State), so I would worry more about keeping pace than how many games you have won this year versus last year. Your number one goal should be staying out of the eight seed so you can draw just about any team other than the Warriors for the first round. Don’t worry about 12 wins, don’t worry about the four seed. It’s just like Harland Williams’ character taught us in “There’s Something About Mary” – seven is the magic number.
5. With a bench of Kanter, Zach Collins, Meyers Leonard, Rodney Hood, Evan Turner, Jake Layman, and Seth Curry, is this roster finally deep enough to survive an injury to a starting player?
BK – The Blazers have a reliable second unit, and man is that a relief. I do think that this team is finally built to have a full postseason rotation; that said…let’s hope we don’t have to find out, because I have some concerns. Maurice Harkless has never been someone we notice when he’s playing well, but it’s always painfully clear when he’s absent. Al-Farouq Aminu might be the most irreplaceable player on the team as far as replicating his skill set is concerned. Kanter can give you Nurk’s scoring at the rim, but he makes the Bosnian Beast look like the Stifle Tower on defense. And nobody’s replacing Dame or CJ’s scoring—not even the 2020 MVP ever-improving Jake Layman. So let’s file that under “I BELIEVE IN THE SECOND UNIT!! Buuuut let’s maybe not test it please and thank u.”
CM – It’s definitely the deepest bench they’ve had in a while, and only time will tell if they will have enough depth to match up with the best in the West. Golden State and Houston have some scary depth, but after that just about every team has some big question marks, and it only gets more concerning if a starter goes down for a number of games. I don’t know that Portland can afford to lose anyone other than Al-Faraq Aminu or Moe Harkless out of the starting five and keep going without putting unwanted extra pressure on their starting backcourt, but most of their bench is pretty interchangeable so I don’t see any issues if a reserve gets banged up. The good news is that this is probably the most depth this team has had since 2013, and if not for an unfortunate second round challenge against an absolutely loaded Spurs team, they may have gone farther than any Portland team since 2000. This team may just have the talent, depth, spark, and hunger to go even further.