The weather is clearing up in Portland earlier than usual, great news for someone who loves his gardening (raises hand). The sun starts to shine, the light breezes tantalize with the scent of growth instead of making me grab my collar, the flowers sprout forth with the promise of tasty fruit come summer and fall—it’s a glorious time, spring.
One of the few things I love as much as gardening in the spring is NBA playoff basketball. The question is, are the Portland Trail Blazers going to participate this year?
As of Thursday, the Blazers are 2.5 games back of the free-falling Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference. The New Orleans Pelicans, fresh off two separate beatdowns of the Blazers, are only one game back in the win column, and the San Antonio Spurs, helmed by old friend LaMarcus Aldridge, are two games back in the win column. With the callow Grizzlies getting obliterated on a nightly basis after their front office made a trade centered on their future, there’s a chance for Portland to make yet another playoff appearance.
Memphis’ poor play could be explained by the trade that sent Jae Crowder to Miami in exchange for the injured yet younger Justice Winslow, but there may also be a less-publicized reason for it—Ja Morant is getting tired. The stud rookie point guard has been the engine driving the Grizz all season to their surprising run to playoff contention, averaging 17.5 points per game with almost seven assists thrown in. His careening drives to the rim, and explosive athleticism once he gets there, remind me of a young Kevin Johnson.
Morant may be the Rookie of the Year front-runner (I really hope the national media don’t get struck with a bad case of Recency Bias, and give the ROY to Zion Williamson after he’s played like 40 games), but with injuries to fellow stud Jaren Jackson Jr., super sub and fellow rookie Brandon Clarke, and the trade for the banged-up Winslow, the burden of carrying Memphis to the postseason may be too much for his slight shoulders to bear. Not that anyone’s going to dump on him for it; there will be many, many chances for Mr. Morant to make his mark in the big time, I feel.
The Pelicans, meanwhile, are getting hot at the right time. Williamson has provided a boost to both New Orleans’ playoff prospects and the overall feel of the NBA—I can’t remember the last time the dog days of the Association season were so charged with excitement, and it was all because of this freak of a kid, this absolute UNIT, averaging 23-7 with 58% shooting.
Just like I said about Damian Lillard’s scoring a few weeks back, Zion’s points are always loud—you worry that he’ll pull a Shaq and break the backboard, despite the league’s special precautions taken after Shaquille O’Neal busted a hoop in his youth. Zion’s already bent a rim, for God’s sake. He’s been bending defenses just as easily, helping the Pellies go 8-5 in the 13 games he’s played.
While the Grizzlies and Pelicans have been fueled by their future, the Spurs are finding production from their old heads. DeMar DeRozen and Aldridge have combined to average more than 40 PPG, and although San Antonio’s season has been just as disappointing as the Blazer’s year, it’s through no fault of these two.
The Spurs, honestly, have had the greatest run of luck when it came to superstar players—not your run-of the-mill superstars, mind you, but top-40 all time type of guys. From David Robinson, to Tim Duncan, to Kawhi Leonard (don’t dismiss his chances of getting to that rare air), San Antonio has been spoiled with 30 solid years of tentpole, franchise guys. They’ve supplemented those franchise players with a long list of incredible role players, some of whom (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili) have had Hall-of-Fame-worthy careers of their own.
That all changed the instant Leonard, unsatisfied with the Spurs’ medical treatment (or lack thereof), decided to adopt a mercenary mindset. Now the Spurs feel like they’re on the precipice of major change, with the legendary Gregg Popovich in his seventies, the franchise’s string of playoff appearances in serious jeopardy of being broken, and a fairly dry pipeline of franchise-carrying talent. After he coaches the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team this summer in Tokyo, Pop might think about hanging up the clipboard—though he’s long since earned the right to coach as long as he damn well wants.
Who out of this motley crew will earn the right to be demolished by the presumptive first seed Los Angeles Lakers? My money right now is on the Pelicans. The Spurs have a banged-up Aldridge and youngsters still trying to earn Pop’s trust, and the Grizzlies are hitting the wall like a fly on a windshield.
As for the Blazers? Things might change once Lillard gets back from his groin injury, but after watching them get outplayed by the Indiana Pacers Thursday (and seeing how Williamson just had his way with them last week), I’m not enthusiastic about their chances. It might benefit Portland overall to pick in the lottery this year anyway; their scouting department has done well to secure solid young talent with their lower first-round picks and second rounders. This draft class is said to be weak, but I might want a lottery selection and a summer of healing and work for the Trail Blazers’ roster than a desecration at the hands of the hated Purple and Gold.