After a much-ballyhooed trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2019, many expected the Portland Trail Blazers to take a step back in 2019-20. Terry Stotts’ team wasn’t supposed to open the season with a 5-12 record, though, and the Blazers have been fighting an uphill battle since November as a result. In recent days there have been signs of life in Portland, with Damian Lillard catching fire in an awe-inspiring way to lead the surge.
The Blazers are riding an active, four-game winning streak and, in the last 15 games, Portland is 9-6. That may not seem like much but, in a playoff race that is wide open at the bottom, those gains have been important. In fact, FiveThirtyEight now projects the Blazers as more likely to make the playoffs than not, which is a marked change from various points earlier in the season.
During that 15-game renaissance, the Blazers have been electric on the offensive end, scoring 116.4 points per 100 possessions. The team’s defense has still been shaky but, with Lillard rolling the way that he is, nothing else seems to matter. The All-NBA guard is averaging a robust 48.8 (!) points, 10.2 assists and 7.2 rebounds in the last six games, shooting 55 percent from the floor, 57 percent from three and a blistering 92 percent from the free throw line on nearly 11 attempts per game. That is still a relatively small sample but, since Christmas (19 games), Lillard is putting up 34.7 points and 8.5 assists per game on elite-level efficiency, putting the Blazers on his back at just the right time.
Lillard hasn’t been alone, either, with Hassan Whiteside enjoying the best stretch of his time in Portland. The much maligned center is averaging 17.1 points, 15.3 rebounds and 4.0 blocks per game during Portland’s 15-game game and, during this stretch, the Blazers have a +9.5 net rating when Whiteside plays. Couple that with an insane +14.1 net rating when newcomer Trevor Ariza is on the court, and it suddenly becomes clearer that Portland’s bounce-back isn’t solely driven by Lillard.
The Blazers have a difficult, and pivotal, stretch of the schedule upcoming, with games against the Nuggets, Spurs, Jazz, Heat, Pelicans and Grizzlies before the All-Star break arrives. If Portland can navigate that gauntlet without bottoming out, the team will be in a favorable spot and, even if the Blazers aren’t set up to return to the WCF, disaster could be avoided.
Where do the Blazers land in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s explore the early February space.
1. Milwaukee Bucks (42-7, Last week — 1st)
The Bucks lost a home game this week! That isn’t great for their pursuit of 70 wins but, with a 4.5-game lead on the entire field in February, there wasn’t much of a battle for the top spot again this time.
2. Toronto Raptors (36-14, Last week — 4th)
If not for Milwaukee’s utter dominance this season, Toronto would have a real case for No. 1 this week. The Raptors have an 11-game winning streak and, while their defense is always strong, Nick Nurse’s team has a 118.1 offensive rating in those 11 contests. Toronto isn’t messing around.
3. Los Angeles Lakers (37-11, Last week — 2nd)
The Lakers ran into a buzzsaw with Damian Lillard in the first game after Kobe Bryant’s passing and, considering the vast emotions in play, that isn’t a loss that should be held against Los Angeles. They bounced back with a 16-point road win in Sacramento and, in short, the Lakers still have the best profile in the West so far.
4. L.A. Clippers (35-15, Last week — 3rd)
L.A. also suffered a home loss this week but, given that Kawhi Leonard didn’t play and Paul George appeared for only 19 minutes, it’s not a strong data point. The Clippers have still won 8 of 10 and everyone should feel good about the way Doc Rivers’ team looks at full strength.
5. Boston Celtics (34-15, Last week — 7th)
It was a heck of a week for Boston. The Celtics toppled the Heat on the road, thrashed the Sixers at home, then took care of business on the road in Atlanta without Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart. If they make a move between now and Thursday… look out.
6. Miami Heat (34-15, Last week — 10th)
Miami’s schedule featured a three-day hiatus this week but, when they returned, the Heat made it count. They soundly beat the Magic on the road and, on Monday, Jimmy Butler exploded in a (very) lopsided win over Philadelphia. There are still some questions about the Heat but, when they are clicking, it’s fun.
7. Houston Rockets (31-18, Last week — 11th)
The Rockets haven’t exactly been the picture of consistency this season, and the rumors about a Clint Capela deal could have far-ranging implications. Houston is playing pretty well lately, though, with wins over Denver, Utah, Dallas and New Orleans all within the last two weeks of action.
8. Denver Nuggets (34-16, Last week — 8th)
What a bizarre weekend for the Nuggets. They (soundly) beat the Bucks on the road and that is a landmark win. Then, Denver followed that with a loss to Detroit. I don’t even know.
9. Dallas Mavericks (31-19, Last week — 12th)
Rick Carlisle might be a magician. The Mavs have, so far, withstood the absence of Luka Doncic and they’re right where they need to be after 50 games.
10. Utah Jazz (32-17, Last week — 6th)
The Jazz followed up a 20-3 stretch with four (yes, four) consecutive losses. Obviously, there are highs and lows involved there, and no contending team wants to drop four straight. On the bright side, the four-game skid took place against four quality opponents, with the last three losses away from home. That makes it a bit more excusable.
11. Philadelphia 76ers (31-20, Last week — 5th)
Philadelphia is maddening to watch at times. They are 0-3 on their current road trip, and the journey began with a ghastly loss in Atlanta. The prize for Brett Brown’s team after a brutal week? How about a road game against the Bucks on Thursday night in front of a national audience. Yikes.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder (30-20, Last week — 13th)
The Thunder are 22-8 in the last 30 games. The Thunder have won 7 of 8. The Thunder are very good.
13. Indiana Pacers (31-19, Last week — 9th)
It’s only two games, but Indiana had a tough end to the week. The Pacers just lost back-to-back home games to the Knicks (?!?!) and the Mavericks without Luka Doncic. That puts Nate McMillan’s club 3.5 games out of the No. 4 spot in the East, and that’s a tough margin to overcome in February.
14. Portland Trail Blazers (23-27, Last week — 17th)
It helps to have Damian Lillard on your side, doesn’t it?
15. New Orleans Pelicans (20-30, Last week — 15th)
The Pelicans get the nod over the Grizzlies in this space after blitzing Memphis this week. New Orleans couldn’t keep it going with a road loss in Houston on Super Bowl Sunday, but there is no shame in that. The team’s record isn’t indicative of its current performance level.
16. Memphis Grizzlies (25-25, Last week — 14th)
Memphis is playing great and we should talk about that. The Grizzlies also put on a post-game show with some flames directed to Andre Iguodala on Monday, and fun was had by all.
17. Brooklyn Nets (22-27, Last week — 22nd)
If you want to be critical, it would be easy to point out that Brooklyn is 6-14 in the last 20. That’s ghastly. The Nets have returned to normalcy, though, with four wins in the last six games and that’s good enough for the No. 7 seed in the East.
18. San Antonio Spurs (22-27, Last week — 18th)
If the season started on Thanksgiving, San Antonio would be in the playoffs. They are 16-14 in the last 30 games and the Spurs just feel like a .500 team. Unfortunately, they are still five games under because of a dreadful start.
19. Orlando Magic (22-28, Last week — 19th)
The Magic are likely thankful that the Hornets are in the same division. Orlando hasn’t beaten a team other than Charlotte since Jan. 15, but two wins saved the day for the Magic. They still have a four-game cushion on the field for the No. 8 spot in the East, which offers an indicator of just how dire things are at the bottom of the conference.
20. Sacramento Kings (19-31, Last week — 21st)
After a hideous stretch of basketball, the Kings have returned to competence. Sacramento has won 4 of 6 and they are showing signs. The playoffs are probably a severe long-shot, but the organization can take solace in a strong finish if they can produce one.
21. Washington Wizards (17-32, Last week — 25th)
Somehow, the Wizards rise in the rankings despite a home loss to the Warriors to end the week. That wasn’t a great performance but, to be fair, Washington won the previous two contests and the teams above them faltered. At least the Wizards can really score and Bradley Beal has been unreal of late.
22. Phoenix Suns (20-30, Last week — 16th)
Phoenix is reportedly linked to a pursuit of Luke Kennard and, well, that would be an interesting move. In the meantime, the Suns have dropped three straight and they find themselves in a five-game hole when compared to the No. 8 seed in the West.
23. Chicago Bulls (19-33, Last week — 20th)
There isn’t a ton to take away from this week for Chicago. They lost all three games, but the matchups were against the Pacers, Nets and Raptors on the road. The Bulls aren’t supposed to win those games… and they didn’t.
24. New York Knicks (15-36, Last week — 27th)
Marcus Morris might get traded in the next few days but, in the meantime, he just led the Knicks to back-to-back wins. Beating Cleveland, on the road, isn’t a huge feat, but the Knicks going to Indiana and winning is relatively impressive.
25. Detroit Pistons (18-34, Last week — 23rd)
To be fair to the Pistons, their singular win in the last two weeks came against the Nuggets in impressive fashion. Still, it seems all but assured that Detroit will be selling at the trade deadline, and everyone knows the deal with regard to this particular campaign not being the priority anymore.
26. Golden State Warriors (12-39, Last week — 29th)
Golden State remains quite bad but, hey, they just won two road games in a row. It has to be noted that the wins came against Cleveland and Washington, but they all count.
27. Atlanta Hawks (13-38, Last week — 24th)
There are some signs of life with the Hawks, with a 5-6 record in the last 11 games. There are still nights when Atlanta looks lost, though, and there is so much smoke about the Hawks on the trade market that it seems quite possible that the roster will look different by Friday.
28. Charlotte Hornets (16-34, Last week — 26th)
The full-season record doesn’t look that bad for Charlotte but, after a 6-7 start, it’s gotten pretty ugly. The Hornets are 10-27 with a bottom-three net rating since then, including 11 losses in the last 12 games.
29. Cleveland Cavaliers (13-38, Last week — 28th)
Cleveland should be sending thank-you cards to Minnesota. The Cavs have been dreadful for a few weeks, losing 11 of 12 games, and that includes back-to-back home losses to the Warriors and Knicks to end the week. That is really rough.
30. Minnesota Timberwolves (15-34, Last week — 30th)
The Wolves have lost 12 in a row. The Wolves haven’t won a game with Karl-Anthony Towns in the lineup since the day before Thanksgiving. It’s February. It’s all bad.