Wins. That’s really what it comes down to. We can endlessly debate roster moves, strategies, individual accomplishment, top-10 lists, etc. But when push comes to shove, the NBA is about one thing: winning. We follow teams because we dream they can bring the championship back to our city. We are happier when they are winning. Player/team/coach legacies are predicated on winning. Unfortunately for us Blazer fans, the team has not cracked a .500 record the past two seasons, and has consequently missed the playoffs.
This is why I immediately perked up when, during a rapid fire interview on ESPN, Damian Lillard was asked how many games he expected the Blazers to win this year (approximately the 0:52 mark). While it was a quick question he couldn’t put much thought in to on the spot, he answered 46 wins. Normally I don’t put much stock in player predictions, but for such a straightforward question, I think we can learn a lot about where Lillard sees the Blazers standing this year.
My first reaction was honestly a bit of surprise at how reasonable the number was. Growing up following sports, it was an all too familiar sight for me to see some big-name athlete promise championships and/or unreasonable win totals before a season. In fairness, you need large-scale confidence to be a professional athlete, but sometimes it was just too much. This obviously wasn’t the case with Lillard – there was no ludicrous promise of 60 wins and a title.
This isn’t to underestimate the prediction, however. Forty-six wins represents a 13-win increase over last season’s 33 win total, a substantial jump. Last year, 46 wins would have been good enough to nab the 7th seed for the Blazers, so it appears as if Lillard is definitely eyeing the playoffs. While a 13-win increase is certainly large, I think the 13-game losing streak to finish last season really skews our perceptions about how bad last season actually was. Without the injuries and missed time that resulted in this streak, it wouldn’t have looked nearly so poor in the record books.
This is in addition to the vastly improved bench that the Blazers will boast this season. The topic has been rehashed ad nauseam, but the improved bench will both offer the Blazers more talent to work with, as long as keeping the starters healthier. Lillard himself, the team’s linchpin, will also be greatly improved. In the same interview, he grades his own expected improvement an 8 on a scale of 1-10.
When the dust of the season finally settles, I think it is certainly possible for the Blazers to fight their way to 46 wins. With all of the aforementioned improvements, it can certainly happen. If it does, the Blazers would most likely make the Western Conference playoffs, despite how loaded with talented teams it is. This is not to say reaching that win total will be easy. It will be a struggle, and as every sports fan knows things rarely go according to plan (cough-Miami-Dallas-2011-cough).
Injuries could still (and probably will) happen. With so many new players, chemistry issues could come into play. The Western Conference could be so good that 46 wins doesn’t cut it in terms of making the playoffs. The team’s defense could still be a huge letdown. We don’t know at this point. We do know now, though, what Lillard expects.