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PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers continue to plant their flag firmly in the ugly middle of the NBA pack. The Blazers are one game over .500 and tied for one of the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference, as close to the fifth spot — a game and a half — as they are to falling to ninth, right outside the playoff picture.
And the schedule keeps getting tougher. After the Hawks visit the Moda Center on Friday, the Blazers' next five opponents are the Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Pelicans and Timberwolves. Those five teams have a combined record of 117-72.
With all that in mind, it's time to check in on the Blazers with another edition of 3-on-3, a weekly KGW feature.
Every Thursday, three members of the KGW sports team will answer three questions about the Blazers. You can join the conversation on Facebook during a live chat with our panel every Thursday afternoon at 3. Can't join us on Thursday? Not a problem. You can listen later on the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast.
This week's questions focus on whether the team is meeting preseason expectations, the performance of the new starting lineup and predictions for the next four games.
If you'd like to submit a question for today's Facebook Live and podcast, email us here. (Story continues below)
Blazers 3-on-3 chat
In today's 3-on-3, the KGW sports team discusses the Blazers' starting lineup, expectations for the season and the tough schedule ahead. Questions? Post them below!Posted by KGW-TV on Thursday, January 4, 2018
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MEET OUR PANELISTS
- Orlando Sanchez is the sports anchor and reporter for KGW News, Sports Sunday and Friday Night Flights. Orlando has covered multiple NBA Finals, NCAA Basketball Tournaments and World Series.
- Jared Cowley is a digital media producer who writes about the Blazers for KGW.com. Before he came to KGW, Jared wrote about the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors as a sports editor at two daily newspapers.
- Nate Hanson is a digital producer who contributes to KGW.com's coverage of the Blazers, Ducks, Beavers and high school sports.
1. The Blazers are 19-18 after 37 games. After 37 games last year, the Blazers were 15-22. How far is the Blazers' current record from your expectations for the season?
Jared: At the start of the season, I picked the Blazers to go 47-35. To be on pace to win 47 games, the Blazers would need a record of 21-16 right now. Considering their schedule has been the second-easiest in the NBA up to this point, I think it's fair to say they're further off the pace than just a couple wins. If they continue to play with the level of inconsistency they've shown this season, they'll struggle to keep their record better than .500 as the schedule intensifies. So far, a few bad losses have made all the difference. The Blazers have four inadmissible defeats, two at home against the Grizzlies (12-26) and Nets (15-23) and two on the road against the Kings (12-25) and Hawks (10-27). If Portland wins those games, they're 23-14 right now and on pace for 51 wins. They'd be just one game behind the Minnesota Timberwolves for fourth place in the West. The narrative about this team would be much different. But the fact that the Blazers lost those four games may tell you everything you need to know about this team. Mediocrity might just be their ceiling.
Orlando: There's the silver lining! The Blazers are four games better than where they were at this point last season, but I expected them to be in much better shape after 37 games. I thought they would take advantage of a softer schedule to start the year and that didn't happen. The early struggles at home didn't help either. They've had close wins slip away and a few losses to sub-.500 teams that makes it feel like a disappointment, even if it's better than the start they had last year. The theme has been consistency. Coach Terry Stotts described it as consistently trying to find it. That's the frustrating part for Rip City. Doesn't 23-14 sound a whole lot better? That's the type of record I expected to see after 37 games, not 19-18.
Nate: They are on pace to do slightly worse than my 46-36 preseason prediction but what I'm seeing is not much different than what I expected to see. I was more optimistic in the preseason was because I thought Jusuf Nurkic would be more efficient on the offensive end. My outlook on this team moving forward now leans more toward pessimism than optimism, in large part because of Nurkic's play. But the inconsistency of the role players was mostly what I expected. And it's one of the reasons the Blazers continue to do what average teams do. The role players will play really well for stretches and the Blazers will play solid for a week or two. Then they'll struggle for a week or two and the team will lose games to less talented teams.
2. It's been 13 games since Evan Turner entered the starting lineup, joining Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic. Barring moves at the deadline or injuries, should this be the Blazers' starting lineup the rest of the season?
Nate: Yes it should, despite as dispiriting as that may sound for Blazers fans. The Blazers' net rating with that group of five is +13. Their offensive production is closer to what we've seen from the Blazers in previous seasons and their defensive rating is at an elite level with that group of five. Obviously a smaller lineup isn't favorable in some matchups against bigger teams, as most recently shown in the Denver loss. But generally speaking this has been their best unit. And although Turner is still a misfit on this roster, he's played his best ball of the season since entering the starting lineup (10 points, shooting 54 percent from the field). And if you took Turner out of the lineup, who would you insert? Napier and Davis are the only two reliable bench players and you need Napier's offensive production off the bench. But the fact that I answered yes to this question justifies why some Blazers fans feel this roster needs to be reconfigured.
Jared: Turner has played well as a starter, averaging 10 points, three rebounds and three assists while shooting 55 percent from the field in 30 minutes per game. So the move seems to be working for him. It seems to be working for the Blazers, too. That five-man lineup with Lillard, McCollum, Turner, Aminu and Nurkic is now the Blazers' most-used 5-man unit this season and has been very good when sharing the court. In 130 minutes together, that unit has a positive net rating of 12.8, scoring 106.2 points allowing 93.4 per 100 possessions, according to nba.com. The record the past 13 games isn't great, but part of that can be explained by a challenging schedule. That Blazers have lost to the Warriors, Rockets, Spurs, Cavaliers, Timberwolves and Nuggets, all good teams, during that stretch. Outside of a puzzling loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Blazers have mostly beaten the teams they should and lost to teams that are better than them during this stretch. The Blazers haven't had a lot of continuity with their lineups so far this season. Maybe some consistency will help this team improve on its current level of mediocrity.
Orlando: It feels like Terry Stotts has settled on a starting lineup recently, but the way the season is going, I won't be surprised to see guys play their way in or out of the starting lineup. Outside of Lillard and McCollum, I don't see anyone being a lock in the starting rotation by the time the end of the season rolls around. I like what Aminu is doing too, Ed Davis is producing and Nurkic has been inconsistent, especially finishing on offense. I think the starting five will change, at some point. Maybe it includes a player that's not even on the Blazers' roster right now?
3. Prediction time! The Blazers play four games between now and the next time we meet. They have two home games, Friday against the Atlanta Hawks (10-27) and Sunday against the San Antonio Spurs (26-13). Then they leave on a four-game road trip, starting with back-to-back games against the Oklahoma City Thunder (21-17) on Tuesday and Houston Rockets (27-9) on Wednesday. Which games do the Blazers win and which do they lose?
- Nate: 25-12
- Orlando: 24-13
- Jared: 23-14
Orlando: This week could test your loyalty if you're a Blazers fan. This team will be asked to play at a higher level and put together some of its best ball of the season. The strength of schedule picks up after a revenge game against last-place Atlanta. I think the Blazers redeem themselves with a win over the Hawks. If I'm realistic about the next three games, they're all losses. Brutal schedule. The Blazers played San Antonio close the first time, but that was without Kawhi Leonard. I'm not betting against the Spurs this time. I expect the game at OKC to be a good one, similar to the four-point win the Blazers picked up two months ago, but I like the Thunder at home. The next night they're in Houston—ouch! This feels like last week's second game of a back-to-back that ended in Cleveland. The NBA isn't doing the Blazers any favors with this one. Blazers run out of gas against the Rockets. This team believes it can get it done, but this is a daunting schedule ahead. They go 1-3 this week.
Nate: The Blazers will go 1-3 over the next four games. With the added production of Lillard, I think the Blazers will get revenge for last week's loss against the Hawks. But I don't see them beating any of the likely Western Conference playoff teams. I think the game they're most likely to win out of those three is Sunday's matchup against the Spurs. The Spurs have been a poor road team this year and will be playing the first of a back-to-back, so some of their key players may sit out. But the Blazers couldn't beat the Spurs without Leonard and Parker, and in the end I don't see them pulling it out. The Thunder have found their rhythm, winning 9 of their last 12 games. And even without James Harden, I don't think the Blazers have the firepower to beat the Rockets.
Jared: I don't see it getting better, not against this schedule. The Blazers aren't beating good teams this season. Against teams with records of .500 or better, Portland is 6-11. Since November 30, they're 1-9. So how could anyone pick them to beat a good team right now? Portland will avenge their loss against the Hawks. I know Atlanta beat them by 15 points just a few days ago, but the Blazers won't lose twice in a row to the worst team in the NBA. Portland will lose to the Spurs, who are effectively integrating Kawhi Leonard back into their rotation and have won seven of 10. They'll also lose to the Thunder, whose early season struggles are a distant memory. They recently had a six-game winning streak and have won 13 of their 18 past games. The Rockets just ended a five-game losing streak and are without James Harden (hamstring) for at least the next two weeks (and possibly up to six). But Houston's starting lineup without Harden – Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela – is still scary. All those 3-pointers! The Blazers are on the road and playing the second of a back-to-back. Give this one to Houston.
If you'd like to submit a Blazers question for our panel to answer during the 3-on-3 podcast, send us an email here.