The Portland Trail Blazers have not finished first in their division yet this millennium. In fact, they have only taken the top spot in their division four times in the history of the Trail Blazers franchise—1978 (lost in conference semis), 1991 (lost in conference finals), 1992 (lost in NBA finals), and 1999 (lost in conference finals). Historically, winning the Northwest (formerly Pacific) division has preceded some degree of post-season success for Portland. Go figure.
Presently, the Trail Blazers are by no means far from the best in the Northwest. They finished the 2013-14 season in second place, five games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder and 14+ games ahead of everyone else (Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz). Closing the gap on OKC is a tall order, but still more likely to happen than slipping beyond second place.
Realistically, for the Trail Blazers to win the Northwest, their necessary improvement has to align with a coincidental decline in Oklahoma City. It would seem that the Trail Blazers got a head start on this in free agency, adding Chris Kaman and Steve Blake, while the Thunder added Anthony Morrow but lost Caron Butler and defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha.
However; Thunder point guard and 3x All-Star, Russell Westbrook, is supposedly in good health now, after missing 36 games last season. It is difficult to imagine the Thunder putting together a poor showing if their trio of Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka can stay healthy. They have even filled out the depth chart a little through recent drafts (it is OKC, after all), adding soon-to-be sophomore Steven Adams and rookie Mitch McGary at center.
Both teams are loaded in the starting lineup and boast reasonable depth, so it may come down to health and coaching. Even when the Trail Blazers lacked depth last season, they still went 8-5 in games without their best player, LaMarcus Aldridge. Do you think the Thunder would experience the same level of success if Durant missed any significant amount of time? Scott Brooks cannot call ISOs for a player that is not present, and his playbook ends on the page that reads “Give it to Kevin.”
In this regard, I like Portland’s odds a little better. Though they are unlikely to replicate last season where four of five starters played all 82 games, no major pieces are currently battling major problems. A big part of this was their new medical staff, so at least injury prevention should have some carry-over. On OKC’s side, Westbrook is coming off his second knee surgery in one year, and Ibaka is still healing from a ruptured calf muscle. If either experience re-injury or have lingering issues, the ripples will be felt in OKC’s record.
Injuries aside, the Trail Blazers can probably land within five wins of the Thunder again on sheer talent. Aldridge has hit his prime, Damian Lillard is still ascending, and Wesley Matthews / Nicolas Batum are on the edge of exceptional (with Robin Lopez experiencing tremendous growth as well). It is nice to have a “big three” like OKC, but Portland is not hurting with their “big two, biggish three” lineup. There is something to be said for distribution of talent.
Ultimately, the Trail Blazers’ only apparent competitor in the Northwest division is the Thunder this year—which comes as somewhat of a surprise in such a stacked conference—so they know exactly what they are up against. Though OKC is a formidable foe, Portland has a real shot at overtaking them. I would still consider it to be unlikely, but the window is open.