As of March 9, the Portland Trail Blazers are just one game out of a spot in the Western Conference Play-In Tournament and only three back from the conference’s No. 6 seed.
Despite the potential hopes and dreams of a high lottery pick, Portland is in the thick of a postseason race.
For better or worse, the Blazers play-in chances just received a boost after the latest update on New Orleans Pelicans’ oft-injured star Zion Williamson.
Pelicans forward Zion Williamson will be out for at least two more weeks
Per William Guillory and The Athletic, Williamson’s hamstring strain will keep him sidelined for at least a few more weeks. He will be re-evaluated at that point.
The NBA’s regular season ends April 9. Two more weeks would put Zion’s re-evaluation at March 22. It’s within the realm of possibility that New Orleans just decides to sit Williamson for the remainder of the year, given his injury history and the Pelicans current spot in the standings.
NOLA is hanging onto the final West play-in position for dear life but is in the midst of a giant nose dive. The Pels have only won five of their last 22 games and now sit at 32-34 on the year.
Without their best player, and now with the thought of another high draft pick permeating through the organization, New Orleans might begin a precipitous drop out of the play-in picture.
The Utah Jazz were sellers at the trade deadline after a hot start, and now they’ve also been sliding down the standings. The Jazz hovered around the 9-10 spots in the West for weeks, but have now joined the Blazers with a 31-35 record.
The Oklahoma City Thunder just got superstar point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander back from injury. He and breakout rookie Jalen Williams are listed as day-to-day. Load management may come into play here, although it’s not impossible that OKC decides to shoot for a postseason place.
The Los Angeles Lakers are one game ahead of Portland in the standings and have played better since making moves of their own at the trade deadline. However, LeBron James is expected to miss another few weeks, and the recently acquired D’Angelo Russell is dealing with an ankle injury.
The Lakers are 7-4 since the deadline, but with LeBron out, LA’s burden falls on the fragile shoulders of Anthony Davis. AD has been fantastic since James’ injury, however, averaging 33.8 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks. He’s shooting 55.4 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three in that span.
But Davis has already missed one of the five games the Lakers have played sans LeBron, and Austin Reaves is the team’s second-leading scorer during that stretch at 15 ppg. Without the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Los Angeles is basically AD or bust offensively. That’s a dangerous game to play, and LA has already shown it struggles without Davis on the floor.
In summation: As of March 9, five teams are competing for the final two spots in the West’s play-in tournament. It’s fair to expect Utah, and now likely New Orleans, to begin to drop out of the race. That leaves the Lakers, OKC, and Portland.
Presumably, the Lakers will be somewhat inconsistent without LeBron while they depend on Davis, but the team’s strategy will be to win regardless. OKC is a wildcard in terms of its approach to the last month of the regular season.
In order to grab a play-in spot, though, the Blazers will have to finish ahead of only one of those two teams.
Damian Lillard has every intention of continuing to drag Portland toward the playoffs. Jusuf Nurkic is finally back after missing more than a month with a calf injury. If the play-in remains a possibility, Anfernee Simons may get back on the floor at some point in the final four weeks.
Along with Jerami Grant, that would give the Blazers an intact starting lineup.
If Portland makes the play-in and is able to advance to the “real” playoffs, their lottery-protected first-round pick owed to the Chicago Bulls would convey. That would rid the franchise of Neil Olshey’s giant mistake, and the Blazers would be able to dangle future first-round picks in trades once again.
If it doesn’t advance through the play-in, Portland still keeps a lottery pick and would have two first-round selections in this summer’s draft after acquiring the Knicks’ first in the Josh Hart trade.
After Zion’s injury update and the Pelicans’ probable drop off in the West standings, the Blazers might as well take Lillard up on his offer and shoot for the play-in.
If there’s anything the NBA has been painfully forced to learn about Dame, it’s that a do-or-die situation means Playoff Dame Time. Ask Paul George how that can go.