PORTLAND, Ore. — Now that the All-Star break is over, the Blazers enter what some consider the toughest part of this season's schedule.
Though the slate of opponents isn't as challenging as the team faced the first half of the season — the Blazers' remaining strength of schedule ranks 17th, according to tankathon.com — the Blazers will be on the road a lot, with 16 of their final 25 games away from the Moda Center.
That includes a challenging seven-game, 13-day road trip that begins Thursday night in Brooklyn. The trip will take the Blazers to Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston, Toronto, Charlotte and Memphis.
By the time the Blazers play their next home game on March 7 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, it will have been 22 days since Portland's last game at the Moda Center.
During this week's podcast, Orlando, Nate and Jared talk about Damian Lillard's claim that he doesn't want to "sell out" for a championship, debate whether the Blazers are set up for another post-All Star break surge, and make predictions for Portland's next four games.
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Listen to the most recent edition of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast:
1. During a recent interview with Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes, Damian Lillard talked about the importance of "not selling out" for a championship. Is his declaration of loyalty any different than those given by countless other players (like LaMarcus Aldridge) who later changed their mind?
Nate: I think Lillard is more committed to staying and winning in Portland than other star players have been. But with that said, if Portland isn’t in a position to compete for a championship by the end of his contract, I wouldn’t be surprised if he leaves. I think what he told Chris Haynes is being a little bit blown out of proportion or misrepresented. He didn’t say he’s never going to leave Portland. He said he wasn’t willing to throw teammates under the bus and sacrifice those relationships to win a championship. It’s nothing different than from what he told The Athletic’s Jason Quick a month ago. In that interview, he made it clear it’s not his job to play general manager. I believe Lillard will give the front office all the chances it can to build a team that can win a title here. But if the Blazers don’t get to that position over the next two seasons, I would expect him to leave. If that was the situation, I don’t think logical Blazers fans would blame him.
Orlando: I buy it 100 percent. I think this is a topic Lillard has thought a lot about. He hasn’t been pressured to talk about it, I think it’s truly how he feels. He loves Portland and what he has here. I like that he said it because he doesn’t have to. My only concern is if this organization stops moving in the right direction and no progress is made over the next couple of years. I think there’s more to a player’s legacy than just championships, but I’ve got to imagine that winning one matters to most players and if he knows he can’t get that in Portland, I wouldn’t be mad if he changed his mind.
Jared: What Lillard said about not wanting to "sell out" for a championship because of his relationships with his teammates got all the headlines, but something else he told Haynes resonated with me more. Lillard talked about recognizing and appreciating what he has in Portland, and knowing that a move elsewhere might not benefit him as much as some think. "You can go somewhere else and you're not guaranteed to win a championship," he told Haynes. Lillard is right. In recent NBA history, the only superstar or star player to win a championship after leaving his original team is Kevin Durant, who joined the Warriors, a team that already had a championship roster. Other stars who've left in free agency or orchestrated trades, like LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul George, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Jimmy Butler, have zero championships with their new teams. Lillard watched Aldridge leave for San Antonio, and then took a call from Aldridge a year later asking Lillard to help him get traded back to Portland. That said, Lillard also told Haynes that he wants to compete for a championship. He was clear about that. The Blazers aren't a championship contender right now, which means they must show progress in the playoffs the next two seasons. If that doesn't happen, and Lillard doesn't believe Portland's front office can put a championship-level roster around him, he might leave Portland when his contract expires at the end of the 2020-21 season, and if it happens that way, no rational Blazers fan would blame him.
2. The past three seasons, the Blazers have played their best basketball after the All-Star break. Do you see another post-All Star surge for the team this season?
Nate: This was a tougher answer for me than I initially expected. The easy answer is no because 16 of Portland’s final 25 games are on the road, and the Blazers are 10-15 on the road this season. The reason I’m not so certain the Blazers will struggle in the second half is because of the recent acquisitions of Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood, and the emergence of Jake Layman. If those three play the way they’re capable of, Portland is undoubtedly a better team than what they were before the All-Star break. So, from that sense, I see Portland playing better than what many fans expect. But I also realize it could take time for head coach Terry Stotts to develop a rotation that will maximize the talent that is now on the team. If that happens, it could be a long 25-game stretch with Blazers fans wondering if their team will make the playoffs. I think the answer will lie somewhere in between. Are they poised for another post-All-Star break surge? No. But I also believe they’ll be better than their 10-15 road record so far this season.
Jared: I think I do. I know the arguments against it. The Blazers, who haven't been very good on the road this season, play 16 of their final 25 games away from Portland. The team has the challenge of weaving two new players into the rotation, which could cause friction in the locker room when other players see their roles reduced. Those are legitimate concerns and this team could falter down the stretch because of them. That wouldn't surprise me. But my trust in Damian Lillard and head coach Terry Stotts holds more weight. Under their leadership, the Blazers have been a team that consistently improves as the season goes on, culminating in their performance level peaking after the All-Star break. Over the past three seasons, Portland's record after the break has been 17-7, 18-8 and 17-11. It's become a trend. This is who the Blazers are. I believe Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood will thrive in Stotts' system. I believe Lillard's leadership will quell any tension in the locker room. I believe the Blazers' talent will translate to more road wins. This is the best team Portland has had since LaMarcus Aldridge left. I'm expecting another post-All Star surge.
Orlando: This has been almost automatic for the Blazers to make a late surge. Will it be as impressive as last year’s 13-game win streak? Or breaking even after entering the All-Star break 10 games below .500? Probably not, but they are going to win more games than they lose, which would be significant. Minimum, that would put them at 47 wins and should be enough to lock up home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Sure, 16 of their final 25 games are on the road — where Portland has been awful, but there are plenty of winnable games. Portland has feasted on bad teams this season and will continue that trend over the final 25 games of the season. Their remaining strength of schedule ranks 17th by Tankathon. At the end of March, they play an eight-game stretch that features seven opponents with losing records. The only team with a winning record during that span of games is Brooklyn at 30-29 and that game is at the Moda Center.
3. The Blazers play four games between now and the next time we meet, all on the road: Tonight at the Nets (30-29), Saturday at the 76ers (37-21), Monday at the Cavaliers (12-46) and Wednesday at the Celtics (37-21). Which games do the Blazers win and which do they lose?
Orlando: The only outcome I feel confident about is a win over the Cavs. The rest are toss-ups. I’ll try to play it safe and say they go 2-2. Wins over the Nets and Cavs, losses to the 76ers (without Embiid) and the Celtics.
Nate: I’m going to say the Blazers go 2-2. The only thing Blazers players have heard over the last week is how they can’t win on the road. I think they’ll come out ready to play against Brooklyn and get the road trip off to a good start. However, I think they stumble at Philadelphia and Boston, who are both great at home. And despite the Blazers’ road struggles, there’s no way I could ever pick Cleveland to beat Portland. Blazers keep afloat in the first half of the road trip.
Jared: I'm picking the Blazers to go 4-0. Hear me out. This is definitely a challenging road trip, but it could be a lot worse. The Blazers are rested at the start of the trip, coming off not just a week-long All-Star break, but they've also played only five games in the past 26 days. Most of the team has already been on the East Coast for days. There are no back-to-back games on this trip. There is no cross-country travel. All of the flights on this trip will be two hours or less. All of that can help the Blazers avoid the usual fatigue of a road trip like this. I'll pick Portland to beat Brooklyn. The Nets lost six of nine before the All-Star break, including blowout losses at home against the Bucks and Bulls. I have the Blazers beating the 76ers, who will be without Joel Embiid. Philadelphia is a mess when Embiid doesn't play. The 76ers are 1-3 in games Embiid hasn't played this season. Their net rating with Embiid on the court this season is +8.2 and it's -4.3 when he's not on the court. On December 30, the Blazers played the 76ers without Embiid and won by 34 points. I'm also going to pick Portland to beat Cleveland, because the Cavaliers have 12 wins and have lost 23 of their past 27 games. And I'm going to make a risky pick here and take the Blazers over the Celtics. This will be the second game of a back-to-back for Boston, which plays the Toronto Raptors on the road on national TV the night before. That's a tough turnaround for Boston, so I'll pick the Blazers.
SEASON PREDICTION RECORDS
- Jared: 30-24
- Nate: 30-24
- Orlando: 30-24
MEET THE 3-ON-3 BLAZERS TEAM
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 and other topics for KGW.com. Jared has written about the Jazz and 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.