By Gio Gloria
The highly anticipated resumption of the 2019-2020 NBA season has gotten basketball fans excited and rekindled conversations on this season’s wide-open title race. Lost in all the title talk and tales from the NBA bubble are the storylines that may not end with a championship coronation but with legacy-defining moments that catapult players to legendary status.
Sorry Portland Trailblazer fans, but your squad likely won’t win the 2019-2020 NBA title. Even if Damian Lillard goes supernova in every game (and boy would this be fun to watch), CJ McCollum and Carmelo Anthony pull off stellar performances, and the rest of the Trailblazers consistently support their star players, Portland’s postseason outlook is as bleak as the current administration beating UP in a best-of-seven-series of Predict the number of COVID-19 cases in the Philippines.
Having the sixth-toughest schedule among all the bubble teams doesn’t help as well. Should they advance to the play-in with the Memphis Grizzlies, their succeeding potential opponents wouldn’t get any easier as the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, and Utah Jazz all provide their own imposing lineups.
Title aspirations aside, the Blazers have always provided must-see entertainment. Lillard is that one-team star (so far) who isn’t afraid to take the big shots when the lights shine brightest, while McCollum is as smooth as they come both on and off the court. Melo and Hassan Whiteside have seen a resurgence in their careers with Portland, with the former having a few vintage Melo games and the latter providing the rebounding and interior defense sorely missed with both Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins out.
Numbers-wise, the Blazers have been a mixed bag of results. Thanks to Whitside’s 3.1 blocks per game, the Trailblazers are second in the league in blocks, second only to the Lakers. Offensively, they are also tied with the Washington Wizards as the third-best 3-point shooting team in the NBA at 37.2 percent, on the heels of Lillard (39.4 percent) and Gary Trent Jr. (38.8 percent).
However, Portland’s efforts on defense and perimeter shooting have been negated by shoddy work on the boards and subpar perimeter defense. Prior to the suspension of the season, the Blazers were dead last in both offensive rebounding and total rebounds despite having Whiteside, who leads the league with 869 rebounds. Disrupting at the rim is one thing, but finishing the job and securing possession is another matter. As such, it isn’t surprising then that their opponents outscore them by nearly a field goal per game (115.2-113.6). Moreover, Portland is near the bottom in surrendering 3-pointers, finishing 27th in the league in 3-pointers attempted, made, and percentage. On offense, the team is dead last in assists, and it may be due to the playing styles of their stars Lillard, McCollum, and Anthony, all of whom prefer to work primarily in isolation or get their shots off the pick-and-roll.
Fatigue and injuries have also derailed many a-Portland title campaign in the last few years. Whether it was a string of nicks and nacks that contributed to the team’s overall fatigue or something as gruesome as Nurkic’s leg injury, these factored into the odds that were already stacked against the Trailblazers. Lillard has so far avoided any major injury but carrying the weight of Rip City on his shoulders has led to some fatigue and an obvious point of attack for opponent’s defensive gameplans, more so when the other offensive options on the team are injured or misfiring.
Damian Lillard going bonkers will always be a sight to see (and a welcome respite for fantasy teams that have him in their lineup), and this season he is currently averaging career highs in points, assists, and both shot and free throw attempts per game. Lillard also owns two of the top five single-game scoring records this season thanks to his 61 and 60-point outbursts against Golden State and the Brooklyn Nets, respectively. For all his stats, you’d expect that the five-time All Star would be among the Top 10 in usage rate but Lillard barely cracks the Top 20 (29.3 percent).
This means that while Portland runs through Lillard, he isn’t a lone ranger this season. The usage rates of McCollum, Anthony, and Whiteside are all hovering within the 20s, while 10 Blazers average more than 15 minutes a game.
The Trailblazers will really need all hands on deck as they have a Himalayan summit to overcome if they want to get into the playoffs. The Blazers currently stand at 29-37, 3.5 games behind the eighth seed Grizzlies. The New Orleans Pelicans and the Sacramento Kings are also 3.5 games behind Memphis, but in the event of a tie, Portland holds the tiebreaker. The tiebreaker would come in handy considering that all of Portland’s scheduled opponents have better records than them.
With a tough schedule as compared to their peers, Portland will most likely enter the play-in round against the young Memphis squad that will likely go the distance. Going in their favor in this matchup would be the loss of Jae Crowder, who before being traded to the Miami Heat provided the defensive presence needed to lessen the load on Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. Should they advance against the Grizzlies, the Blazers will be slated to face the top West seed Lakers. Although Lillard lit up the Lakers on the first game since Kobe Bryant passed away, Los Angeles leads the season series, 2-1.
The Blazers also haven’t missed the playoffs since 2012, which was Lillard’s rookie year. Should they miss the playoffs this year, it would be a total 180 from their progress last year, when they returned to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000 only to get swept by the Golden State Warriors, who always had their number (well they pretty much had everyone’s number from 2015-2019).
The Blazers will only go as far as Lillard goes. He sets the tone on offense and as the prime playmaker on his team, it’s on him to initiate the ball movement in the squad. A CJ explosion is definitely welcome and a vintage Melo game will make life easier for the four-time All-NBA teamer. But no one enjoys the biggest stage more than Lillard, whose walk-off game-winners have sent the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder home in stunned disbelief.
A title may not be in the cards, but Lillard and the Blazers always provide signature moments come playoff time. While past champions have prided themselves on being stacked, Portland has thrived on being the organic underdog that can shoot their way into the contender conversation. Lillard has a penchant for buzzer beaters, while McCollum proved he could punch above his weight when he led the Game 7 takedown of the Nuggets
Everyone remembers the championships but true fans remember the players, moments, and legacies. Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan have 11 championships between them, but the former’s unparalleled work ethic and the latter’s penchant for big shots are what comes to mind when their names are mentioned. Magic Johnson and LeBron James have won titles themselves, but Johnson’s Game 6 performance as a 20 year old and James’ surgical performance against the Detroit Pistons in 2007 catapulted them to new heights.
While a title will certainly be on the mind of the Trailblazers, best believe that they’ll put their best efforts for what should be an exciting restart to the season. Lillard, McCollum, and even Anthony have had virtuoso performances in the playoffs but the challenge they face now is to come together against teams more established on the basis of longevity. This season, they may not end up with the title but don’t be surprised if Portland adds another defining moment that will remain in the collective minds of NBA fans.