Coming off their first conference finals appearance in nearly two decades, the Portland Trail Blazers were looking to capitalize on that run and take the next leap as a perennial contender in the West. But injuries and inconsistency conspired against them from the start. Zach Collins dislocated his shoulder in just the second game of the season, then Rodney Hood went down with an Achilles injury in December.
As much fun as Carmelo Anthony has been in Portland, it was a move borne out of desperation, a morale boost for a team that was barely treading water and for a fan base that was growing increasingly listless. But Melo turned out to be more than just a novelty act. He’s made meaningful, if irregular, contributions and is still capable of dangerous scoring bursts that keep opponents on their toes.
Properly gauging the Hassan Whiteside experiment has proved much more problematic. Despite what his gaudy double-double numbers might indicate, he’s an imperfect fit in Portland. He’s been a reliable and engaged rim protector, but opposing offenses routinely run sets designed to isolate him out on the perimeter and free their shooters for open looks.
The result has been a below-.500 season and an uphill battle for a playoff spot. Things were looking pretty bleak before the season shut down, but now that chaos reigns supreme, they have just about as good a shot as anyone else in the bubble.
Gary Trent Jr.
Fri. 7/31 MEM 4:00 PM
Sun. 8/2 BOS 3:30 PM
Tue. 8/4 HOU 9:00 PM
Thu. 8/6 DEN 8:00 PM
Sat. 8/8 LAC 1:00 PM
Sun. 8/9 PHI 6:30 PM
Tue. 8/11 DAL 5:00 PM
Thu. 8/13 BKN TBD
1. Los Angeles Lakers: 49-14
2. Los Angeles Clippers: 44-20 (5.5)
3. Denver Nuggets: 43-22 (7.0)
4. Utah Jazz: 41-23 (8.5)
5. OKC Thunder: 40-24 (9.5)
6. Houston Rockets: 40-24 (9.5)
7. Dallas Mavericks: 40-27 (11.0)
8. Memphis Grizzlies: 32-33 (18.0)
9. Portland Trail Blazers: 29-37 (21.5)
10. New Orleans Pelicans: 28-36 (21.5)
11. Sacramento Kings: 28-36 (21.5)
12. San Antonio Spurs: 27-36 (22.0)
13. Phoenix Suns: 26-39 (24.0)
WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE?/WHAT TO EXPECT
As Damian Lillard has repeatedly made clear, nothing less than the playoffs will do for this team, and they’re within striking distance of the No. 8 Grizzlies, but a condensed eight-game regular-season slate leaves little-to-no margin for error. But just qualifying for the playoffs obviously isn’t enough for a team that made the conference finals last year. With a more or less healthy roster, it’ll be tempting for them to harbor even loftier goals.
The problem, of course, is that securing the No. 8 spot likely means a showdown with the top-seeded Lakers, and despite what Charles Barkley might have us believe, it’ll be anything but a cakewalk to get past LeBron and company.
By all accounts, it appears both Nurkic and Collins will be in the starting lineup when the Blazers take the court in Orlando. Collins has been out since October, while Nurkic has missed almost a year and a half after fracturing his tibia. Their combined productivity will be the biggest X-factor for the Blazers in Orlando, as the team’s much-maligned frontcourt suddenly gets a gigantic boost in the form of two starters. Rust, of course, will be an issue, particularly for Nurkic, who has not played since suffering a leg fracture in March of 2019.
BIGGEST ON-COURT QUESTION
This is more or less a continuation of above. The question is just how long it will take for them to get their legs back under them. The good news is that, after a more than four-month break, just about everyone else is in the same boat. The pandemic has leveled the playing field for Orlando, and plenty of teams, like the Blazers, that were once considered long-shots to grab a postseason berth, are in prime position to make that happen.