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PORTLAND, Ore. — In the past 7 days, Portland experienced the highs of a game-winning Damian Lillard 3-pointer against the Lakers, and an impressive win against the Thunder, as well as the low of a frustrating one-point loss to the Grizzlies. 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? No problem! You can listen later on the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast.
This week's questions focus on whether the Blazers are underachieving, what they need to take the next step in their evolution as a team, and predictions for the team's next three games.
LISTEN TO KGW'S 3-ON-3 BLAZERS PODCAST
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 6-5, but according to ESPN’s NBA RPI rankings, which take into consideration strength of schedule, the Blazers’ record right now should be 8-3. Are the Blazers underperforming? Do you think they’re shooting themselves in the foot by not getting off to a stronger start?
Orlando: Could they be 8-3? Sure, but they could also 5-6 or even 4-7 if the ball doesn’t bounce the right way. I don’t think they’re underperforming, but they let some opportunities slip away. The pressure is on to stack wins early in the season, just based on the heavy home schedule. It doesn’t set up the same way it did last season with a favorable schedule down the stretch. Seven of their last 10 games of the season are on the road and many of those games are against teams expected to be in the playoffs.
Nate: I wouldn’t go as far as to say the Blazers are underperforming. I think the teams that end up seeded 4-11 in the Western Conference will be within a handful games of each other all season. I think that group of eight teams (Blazers, Thunder, Timberwolves, Grizzlies, Jazz, Nuggets, Clippers and Pelicans) are evenly matched and these close games will ultimately determine who makes the playoffs. The Blazers have played six games that were decided by five points or less, or went to overtime. That includes each of the last four games. This is how most of the season is going to be for Portland. What’s unfortunate for the Blazers is they’re 2-4 in those six games, including 2-3 against the aforementioned Western Conference playoff contenders. If the Blazers are going to make the postseason, they’ll need to be at least .500 in these close games. The game Blazers fans should look at and wish their team could have back is the Utah loss.
Jared: The RPI expected record of 8-3 sounds about right. In the picks I've made this season, I've picked the Blazers to lose just three games so far. So, whether you’re looking at it through the prism of advanced statistics or just the eyeball test, this team should be better than 6-5. The thing that must be most frustrating for Blazers fans, players and coaches, is the team is so close. If Blake Griffin's 3-pointer at the buzzer misses, if Lillard hits the floater at the end of regulation against Utah, if McCollum's jumper goes down against the Grizzlies, the Blazers are 9-2. But, that’s not how things went, and for that reason, you can’t deny the Blazers are underachieving. Portland needs every win they can get right now, because the schedule is brutal down the stretch. Check out this murderer's row of opponents, starting March 9: Warriors, Heat, Cavaliers, Pistons, at Clippers, Rockets, Celtics, at Thunder, at Pelicans, at Grizzlies, Clippers, Grizzlies, at Mavericks, at Rockets, at Spurs, at Nuggets, Jazz. If the Blazers are still hanging around .500 when they get to that stretch of the season, this team probably won't make the playoffs. They need to build a big cushion now.
2. The Blazers are on pace for 45 wins right now, a four-win improvement over last season. What are the Blazers missing? What do they need to take the next step in their evolution as a team, to move past challenging for one of the last playoff spots in the Western Conference and become an upper-tier playoff contender?
Nate: I picked the Blazers to win 46 games and be the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference so they’re on pace to do what I expected. While a 4-to-5-win improvement is a step in the right direction, it just doesn’t feel like enough. The first 11 games have shown why general manager Neil Olshey was so active in the offseason to bring in another scorer. To me, that’s what the Blazers are missing. Portland has exceeded expectations defensively so far this season, ranking fourth in defensive rating and allowing about 100 points a game. The issue has been the consistency of the offense. When the Blazers get a third scorer in addition to Lillard and McCollum, they win like they did against Oklahoma City and the Lakers. But that hasn’t been a guarantee and Lillard has struggled shooting so far this season. Olshey does a have a $12 million trade exception in his back pocket, and I think it’s just a matter of time before he uses it to bring in another shooter.
Jared: When considering the current roster, the answer is easy. It’s all about Jusuf Nurkic. He was so effective for the Blazers last season, but has vacillated between brilliant and bumbling early this season. When he’s great, the Blazers are great. When looking at what the Blazers need outside of their current roster, I think Portland needs an upgrade at small forward and a scorer off the bench. At small forward, the Blazers should be patient and see if Maurice Harkless can build on last season’s career year. He hasn’t so far, but it’s early. If he doesn’t show improvement by the trade deadline or end of the season, Portland must look for an upgrade. The Blazers also need a scorer off the bench. The Blazers could try to pry Jordan Clarkson away from the Lakers. Clarkson is a good scorer, and even though he’s not an elite defender, he has the size at guard (6-foot-5) to play alongside Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum. The Lakers want to dump salary so they can pursue multiple max-level free agents next summer. Clarkson is the fourth-highest paid player on the team. The Blazers could offer salary relief with their trade exception from the Allen Crabbe trade, or they could offer expiring contracts like Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier.
Orlando: Outside of the usual suspects at the top of the West, the talent is similar. That means games will be close and the Blazers have to find ways to win those games that come down to the final minutes. If they continue to beat the teams they’re supposed to and execute in tight games, they’ll be in a good situation come April. That’s easier said than done, but the pieces are there to move closer to a 5 seed than be a fringe playoff team. Remember, this is still one of the youngest teams in the league. If players like Noah Vonleh, Caleb Swanigan, Pat Connaughton, etc., continue to develop, they’ll move closer to being relevant in a loaded Western Conference.
3. Prediction time! The Blazers play three games between now and next Thursday. They finish off their current six-game homestand with a game Friday against the Brooklyn Nets (4-7), Monday against the Denver Nuggets (6-5) and Wednesday against the Orlando Magic (7-4). Which games do the Blazers win and which do they lose?
SEASON-TO-DATE PREDICTION RECORDS
- Nate: 8-3
- Orlando: 8-3
- Jared: 7-4
Jared: I’m going out on a limb here, but I think the Blazers win all three games and finish their six-game homestand with a 5-1 record. The Nets have lost five of six and can’t stop anyone. Their defense is a train wreck. Allen Crabbe will be motivated in his return to the Moda Center, but that won’t be nearly enough against an angry Blazers team (they’re still mad about that Grizzlies loss). The Nuggets are playing better, winning five of their last seven games. But they’re still playing bad defense and their offense hasn’t been as good as last season. Plus, it’s hard to discount the power of Jusuf Nurkic against his former team. That game should be close and exciting, but I will pick the Blazers to prevail at home. (Tangent: Isn’t Blazers-Nuggets one of Portland’s most intriguing rivalries right now?) The Magic have been a surprising team early this season, but they’ve played poorly on offense lately and will be playing their fourth road game in six nights, the last game of a challenging West Coast road trip. Blazers win.
Orlando: This week is a big opportunity for the Blazers to put together a win streak. I wouldn’t be surprised if they win all three of these games. Brooklyn is trending the wrong way, losing five out of six. I’ll take the Blazers in that one. Get ready for a battle inside against the Nuggets. Will Jusuf Nurkic have another big night against his former team? I like the Blazers' matchup on the perimeter, but I’m going to take the Nuggets to win the game. The Magic sits third in the Eastern Conference standings with a few quality wins against the Cavs and Spurs, but I’m not sold on that team. Gimme the Blazers to beat the Magic. This week Portland goes 2-1.
Nate: I think the Blazers will sweep and go 3-0. I think they’ll win a close, high-scoring game against Brooklyn on Friday night. The Nets score the second-most points of any team in the league and I think Allen Crabbe will play well. He typically shoots well at the Moda Center. But in the end, I think it will be similar to the Lakers game and the Blazers will pull out a win. I’m going to give Portland the nod over Denver. The Nuggets have depth, which may hurt the Blazers without Aminu, but they’ve played a weaker schedule than Portland so far and is also just 6-5 this season. The Magic have been one of the surprises of the NBA so far but they’ll be playing their fourth straight road game in six days against the Blazers and I don’t think they’ll have much left in the tank.
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