At the end of the 2013-14 regular season, the final standings left the Portland Trail Blazers with the 5th seed in the Western Conference for the NBA playoffs. They finished with an impressive record of 54-28; tied with the Houston Rockets. The Western Conference was so tight that 54 wins put them only eight games behind the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, and only six games ahead of the Phoenix Suns who missed the playoffs entirely.
|1. San Antonio Spurs||62-20|
|2. Oklahoma City Thunder||59-23|
|3. Los Angeles Clippers||57-25|
|4. Houston Rockets||54-28|
|5. Portland Trail Blazers||54-28|
|6. Golden State Warriors||51-31|
|7. Memphis Grizzlies||50-32|
|8. Dallas Mavericks||49-33|
With the free agency additions of Chris Kaman and Steve Blake, the Trail Blazers are supposed to be an even more formidable squad in the upcoming season—especially given the continued improvement of young talents like C.J. McCollum and Thomas Robinson. In all likelihood, they will be, but one aspect of their newfound success has to be realistically considered unsustainable for replication in 2014-15.
Only 12 players in the entire league started all 82 games last year, and four of them played for Portland (a franchise record). No other team had more than one player accomplish this feat. Most of them had none. As Paul George’s gruesome leg injury has recently reminded us, injuries can happen at any time; serious and otherwise. They are a part of the game that the Trail Blazers’ key pieces managed to mostly escape.
Much of this good fortune can be attributed to Portland’s new training staff and their “ounce of prevention” approach to player health, but there are no doctors in a basketball game. What happens to the Trail Blazers if LaMarcus Aldridge injures his hip or his back more seriously? What happens if Damian Lillard misses a few weeks with a high ankle sprain? What happens if Wesley Matthews tears a ligament in his wrist?
The Trail Blazers may have more depth to accommodate injuries than they did last year, but they are still ill-prepared to weather an extended absence from one or more of their stars. For a would-be fringe contender in the Western Conference, a handful of games can be the difference between playing in the post-season and packing up in mid-April.
The killer is that the Trail Blazers were afforded such favorable position last year in part because most of their immediate competitors were dealing with the sort of injuries that should be expected in an 82 game season. The Warriors’ starters played only 44 games together due to a laundry list of ailments, while the Grizzlies and Suns did what they could without Marc Gasol and Eric Bledsoe for months on end.
Probability dictates that the Trail Blazers will join the rest of league in dealing with the occasional injury this season. It is important to remember that injuries do not necessarily equal losses, but the two can be strongly related. So while we are likely to see a higher level of basketball played in Rip City on the whole, we are also likely to see the Trail Blazers drop a few games and, consequently, a few spots in the standings.