Last season the Portland Trail Blazers finished with the 10th worst record in the NBA (33-49), subsequently receiving the 10th pick in the 2013 NBA draft. They finished the season with a better record than the Timberwolves (31-51), Pistons (29-53), Wizards (29-53), Kings (28-54), Hornets (27-55), Suns (25-57), Cavaliers (24-58), Bobcats (21-61), and Magic (20-62). The Blazers have made vast improvements since then, but they are not alone.
The Timberwolves are now healthy (with the exception of Chase Budinger), the Hornets (now Pelicans) brought in Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans via trade, and the Pistons have a pseudo-star studded starting 5. In fact, the Pistons may have improved more than the Blazers have—at least on paper.
But while the bottom gets better, the top gets worse. The Lakers, Nuggets, Celtics, and Bucks (all playoff teams last season) have sh*t the bed, intentionally or otherwise. The question remains, “how many teams are now better than Portland?”
This is very important because 2014 is being hailed as the deepest draft in 30 years, and everybody wants a piece. The Blazers only have one first round horse in this race and the Charlotte Bobcats are betting on it too. Portland traded their 2014 first round pick to Charlotte in the deal that brought Gerald Wallace to the Rose City in 2011.
However, this pick is top 12 protected, meaning that if the Blazers end up in the lottery again, they may yet get to keep it (in which case it remains top 12 protected for another year, but becomes unprotected in 2016). Ideally the Blazers would give it up in a year that was not absolutely loaded.
Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle, James Young, Andrew Harrison, Glenn Robinson; Each could have supplanted Anthony Bennett as this year’s #1 pick—if eligible. The list of stars goes on to include Aaron Harrison, Aaron Gordon, Wayne Selden, Mitch McGary, and a plethora of high mid-level talent. The Blazers can only finish two spots ahead of last season if they want their piece of the pie.
At this juncture, it’s crystal clear that the Blazers will try to make a playoff push, as will the Pistons, who also owe a pick to Charlotte—top 8 protected. The Bobcats stand to make out like bandits on the success of their business partners. Do you think Portland’s off-season improvements will keep them in the bottom 12? Unlikely.
Portland’s current battle plan is to cut their losses and make it to the post-season, regardless of draft implications (as they should). This squad now has a crazy amount of pressure on them to succeed, because if they do not, the loss counts double. They are too good to fail into their first round pick, so they’d better be good enough to reach the playoffs.
–Back to the teams that are better than Portland. Although there are a great many factors in any NBA season, I will confidently state that the following teams will rank higher than the Blazers at year’s end:
Oklahoma City Thunder
San Antonio Spurs
New York Knicks
Los Angeles Clippers
Golden State Warriors
There will likely be more than that (though here’s hoping there aren’t), but it looks like the Blazers will probably rank between 12th and 20th in a league of 30. The top end of that spectrum means a playoff berth and the bottom end means a draft pick. I find this terribly unnerving.
While I see great potential in the re-tooled Blazer lineup, I am not yet confident that they can escape basketball purgatory. It could be that Lillard and Aldridge lead Portland all the way to a 2nd round playoff exit, but without chemistry with the bolstered bench, there are other hungry teams of similar caliber waiting to take their playoff spot.
This is where that 12-20 spectrum becomes scary. Anywhere outside the top 8 in a stacked Western Conference, but above the bottom 12 in a league with substantial talent gaps will result in missing the playoffs and the draft. The Blazers will have to be either really good or really bad in order for the coming season to mean a whole lot.
Although I’d love a draft pick, I’d rather see Portland in the post-season. It’s time for them to make it happen. Barring multiple serious injuries, the Blazers are too big to benefit from failure, but are they big enough to succeed?