When the NBA regular season ends six months from now, we’ll have the definitive proof of something even the most prediction-adverse people around the NBA are sure of. In the Western Conference playoffs, there won’t be enough room for everybody.
Club Postseason has a strict capacity of eight — if LeBron James and the Lakes are getting in, that means some team is getting kicked out.
The Trail Blazers, whom the Lakers and James begin their season against Thursday night, are a prime target to be replaced. Their big offseason moves were on the fringes, adding a sweet-shooting Curry (Seth, not Stephen or Dell) and a former lottery pick trying to save his career (Nik Stauskas).
They couldn’t counter-punch with teams adding James, DeMarcus Cousins, Carmelo Anthony or DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Instead, they have to hope that last-year’s first-round pick, center Zack Collins, gets a lot better quickly — with the same going for the team’s other young role players.
It’s a big ask — even if Portland is coming off a season in which the Trail Blazers had the third-best record in a conference with 10 winning teams. And they know it.
“It’s always close in the West, from the 10th spot usually to the sixth spot. It’s always a game or two that separates you. We were the three seed and three games out of ninth place. That’s not going to change,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said Wednesday. “But when it comes down to something so small, it comes down to your mentality and your character and your desire. It’s not a mistake or a fluke that the last few years, every time it’s gotten tight and gotten rough, it’s not a mistake or a fluke that we always come out on top.”
Portland has made the playoffs each of the last five seasons in the deep West.
“We’re always one of those teams that end up in there,” Lillard said. “And, that’s because of our mentality and our toughness. You have some teams, once that happens, they fade down the stretch. We’ve always been one of those teams that will rise up to it. Now, does that mean we’re guaranteed to make the playoffs? No. But, I mean, I think, it’s been enough years of us showing that we rise to it and make it happen where I don’t see why people would look at it and say, ‘The Trail Blazers are going to be the team that gets replaced.’”
If Portland’s not getting out of the way — and no matter how convincing Lillard is, they’re still a candidate – who is?
San Antonio’s playoff streak is now legally old enough to buy a beer, but the Spurs’ backcourt injuries might be too much to overcome. If San Antonio does qualify for a 22nd postseason in a row, it will tie the NBA record held by Philadelphia and Syracuse.
Maybe Minnesota, which could trade Jimmy Butler at any moment, is just too dysfunctional to return.
New Orleans seems like a safe bet to remain in the postseason — the Pelicans are, after all, the team that swept Portland in the first round to help fuel this line of thinking about the Trail Blazers.
We know Denver figures to be in position to make the playoffs after missing them by a whisker last season. And, we know the Lakers have James, a more compelling argument than any team outside of the Warriors and Rockets can offer in its defense of a playoff berth.
“Everyone got better,” Lillard said. “We’re expecting a war — another tough season where every night’s going to count.”
That means Thursday night is going to count. It might end up being the difference. The edge Portland hopes it has is based on a combination of its continuity and experience in this situation.
“Predictions have been off, historically for us,” said C.J. McCollum, Lillard’s backcourt partner. “We’ve won like five more games a season than we’ve been projected to the last five years. So, we look forward to the challenge of protecting home court, showing that we’re more the three-seed team that we showed during the regular season and less of the team that got swept.”
McCollum might be right. The first-round sweep by New Orleans might’ve just been a bad matchup. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to use a four-game sample to undo an 82-game one.
But there’s still a sense, no matter how correct Lillard and McCollum both are about the Trail Blazers past, that those streaks might end this year.
We’ll get an idea of how close LeBron and the Lakers are to barging their way into the playoff mix. He’s too good for them not to get there eventually.