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Portland Trail Blazers’ Playoff Heat Check: January Edition

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

 

The Portland Trail Blazers showed their youth Monday night against the Memphis Grizzlies. They struggled to score, they fell behind ... and then they decided they didn’t care about the deficit by picking up the pace, getting physical and refusing to accept defeat despite trailing by 18 entering the fourth quarter.

The Blazers’ late run, while fun at times, proved futile in the 91-78 home loss. But it also showed that you never know if you’re going to see potential or inexperience on any given night—or any given moment.

Despite the often-frustrating unpredictability with this group, there’s a silver lining: Unpredictable offers far more immediate promise than predictably bad. Just ask the Phoenix Suns of the world, who entered the season a fringe playoff team and have now become one of the biggest dumpster fires in the Association.

Thirty-seven contests into the season, Portland finds itself just two games out of the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. 

Although the playoffs were a pipe dream for the Blazers entering the year, they’re still a part of the conversation with the calendars having flipped to 2016. However, like their youth showed against the Grizzlies, they’re also very much in the running for a (strong) lottery pick.

When looking at Portland’s current standing, a few things come to mind. For starters, the Blazers aren’t as bad as most expected they’d be. This young group spent a portion of the summer getting to know each other on a personal level and training with its star, so it’s not shocking that a few unexpected wins have come its way.

The other reason Portland finds itself where it stands is that the West as a whole has taken a step back. Teams such as the Suns, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans have all regressed, widening the gap between upper- and middle-echelon squads this season.

The question, of course, is: Will the Blazers rise or fall in the standings as the year continues? Entering Tuesday’s contest against the Grizzlies, Basketball-Reference.com had the them projected as the No. 8 seed out West when the year comes to a close. And yes, that’s coming from the site widely considered the mecca of advanced statistics and hoops archives.

With 44 games remaining, Basketball-Reference gave Portland a 47.2 percent shot at making the playoffs, sandwiching it between the No. 7 projected Grizzlies (81.8 percent) and the No. 9 projected Rockets (38.9 percent). Even wilder is the fact that the site (after 7,500 simulations of the rest of the season) had the Trail Blazers making the playoffs with an average record of just 37-45. 

But again, that’s more understandable when you consider that parity out west has diminished this season thanks to the rise and fall of certain franchises, meaning it’s no longer going to take 50 wins just to sneak in.

Portland’s postseason projection will likely shift in the direction of the lottery following the loss to Memphis, but Basketball-Reference shows us that this group has the ability to shock detractors if it can build upon the modest success it’s built so far. Having certain teams such as the Rockets fail to successfully find their grooves will play a big factor as well.

But the real question here for fans is whether or not you actually want the Blazers to finish as a playoff team this season. An eighth seed and inevitable elimination does nothing when it comes to improving a draft pick; however, it does hold value in terms of getting young prospects meaningful experience. 

The debate on whether to tank or go for it all is one we’ll leave for another day, but it’s one that will reside at water coolers around Rip City until the year comes to a close. The Blazers could really go either way between now and April, as both routes have their appeal at this point in the process.

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.

 

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