Sports

The Blazers and Grizzlies Are Playing for More Than the Play-in

The Trail Blazers have made the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons under head coach Terry Stotts, tied for the NBA’s second-longest streak. They could soon top that list, with the Rockets already eliminated from postseason contention and the Raptors scuffling south of the East’s play-in slots. Only six franchises have a better regular-season winning percentage during that span, with perennial All-NBA candidate Damian Lillard and near-All-Star CJ McCollum leading Portland to six top-10 offenses (including four top-five units), three 50-win seasons, and one trip to the Western Conference finals.

The Grizzlies have missed the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. They’re on their fifth head coach since a conference finals berth nearly a decade ago, under .500 through the past seven seasons, and in the second year of what most expected would be a slow-and-steady rebuild in the wake of Grit ‘n’ Grind. Things have proceeded faster than anticipated under first-time bench boss Taylor Jenkins, though, thanks to the arrival of ascendant point guard Ja Morant, stabilizing contributions from veterans like Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson, and a series of hits in the draft and in trades that have built one of the NBA’s deepest teams.

Portland and Memphis, which will square off Wednesday for the third time in six days, occupy the seventh and eighth seeds in the West; the teams appear to be on a collision course for their second meeting in the NBA’s play-in games. But while just a game and a half separates them in the Western Conference standings, in the life cycle of NBA teams—the sweeping arc of how franchises rise and fall, where they seem headed, and what that might mean for their future—they’re separated by a lot more than that.

The Dame-era Blazers have been consistently competitive, reliably relevant, and, at worst, pretty good. But pretty good is only … y’know … pretty good. Portland has won four playoff series since 2014; it’s also been bounced out in the first round four times and suffered three sweeps, including in that lone conference finals appearance. The Blazers entered last season’s Disney World restart with a sub-.500 record, needing to go 6-2 and withstand Memphis in the inaugural play-in game just to make the playoffs before promptly being drummed out of the bubble by the eventual champion Lakers.

Hopes for a better run this season were running high last month, after president of basketball operations Neil Olshey swung a deal for Norman Powell to boost the already high-octane offense of a Portland team that ended March just a half-game out of fourth place. But a nightmarish April—just 4-10, with two of the three wins coming against the bottom-of-the-standings Thunder and Pistons—has the Blazers facing not only another play-in date with Memphis, but possibly the point of no return.

“It’s really kind of sad, because it feels like this is going to be the end of an era,” longtime Blazers beat reporter Jason Quick said Tuesday on The Athletic NBA Show. “Stotts, Lillard, Olshey—they’ve been together for nine years, and I think everyone can see the writing on the wall that something’s not right, that something’s not working, and no hope, really, that this team can advance.”

The hope that existed rested largely on a bet that Portland could overwhelm opponents with superior backcourt firepower and outlast them on the strength of Lillard’s now customary late-game heroics. While the Blazers’ new-look starting five has largely held up, outscoring opponents by 13.2 points per 100 possessions since the trade deadline, those bets have gone bust of late.

A banged-up Dame, suffering through “the worst year physically” of his career, has worn down and struggled, averaging just 22.2 points per game on 37.5 percent shooting in April. Powell, who was shooting a career-best 44 percent from 3-point range in Toronto this season, has made just 28.6 percent of his triples this month. An already flammable Blazers defense has hemorrhaged points virtually whenever Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter have checked into the frontcourt.

Without Lillard’s unerring accuracy in the closing seconds to save the day—Portland was 21-7 in “clutch” contests through the end of March, scoring a scorching 131.3 points per 100—the Blazers have scored a piddling 105.5 points per 100 in the clutch in April, losing five of six games this month in which the score was within five points in the final five minutes. That includes one-possession defeats to the Celtics, Clippers, Nuggets, and Grizzlies, all in the past two weeks. That regression to the crunch-time mean has revealed some gnarly underlying truths of the Blazers’ season—a 11-21 record against teams that are .500 or better and an even more dismal 4-15 mark against opponents with a top-10 point differential—that suggest the team is, once again, hitting its head on the ceiling that separates pretty good teams from great ones.

Nobody expects the Grizzlies to break through that ceiling yet. Morant’s in just his second season. Frontcourt partner Jaren Jackson Jr. missed the first 56 games of the season rehabilitating after meniscus surgery. Both high-lottery cornerstones are still only 21 years old. Even so, Memphis has looked more formidable against tough competition: an 16-21 record against .500-or-better opponents, 8-16 against those with top-10 point differentials.

The Grizz have had their own close-and-late struggles, falling in overtime to the Knicks and Nuggets recently, and dropping one-possession games to the Jazz and Mavericks (on, of all things, a buzzer-beating 3-point floater by Luka Doncic). On the whole, though, they’ve been in much better form than the Blazers of late, going 9-6 in April with a net rating that’s tied for sixth. That includes a pair of wins last weekend in Portland, during which Morant ran roughshod to the tune of 61 points on 19-for-32 shooting in the victories.

Electric performances like those from Morant, who’s averaging a shade under 21 points, seven assists, and five rebounds per game on .597 true shooting since the trade deadline, give you a glimpse of what Memphis might be capable of as Morant continues to develop—especially given the context in which he’s doing it. A Grizzlies front office led by personnel chief Zach Kleiman seems intent on surrounding their whippet-thin and hiccup-quick lead guard with big, long, tough dudes who can defend—guys like finally healthy power wing Justise Winslow, pugilistic shooting guard Dillon Brooks, and ace sixth man De’Anthony Melton.

Memphis leads the league in steals and sits second in deflections; forces turnovers on just under 15 percent of opponents’ possessions, a near-top-five mark; ranks among the league’s 10 best teams at protecting the rim and preventing corner 3-pointers; and grabs defensive boards at a near-top-10 rate. (Valanciunas deserves some praise there: Memphis has allowed 3.4 fewer points per 100 with him dropping back to plug the lane, and only Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert have hauled in a larger share of opponents’ misses.)

Add it all up, and despite fielding the league’s third-youngest roster and giving heavy minutes to a young point guard graded by multiple metrics as one of the NBA’s worst defenders, the Grizzlies rank 10th in points allowed per possession. If Memphis can marry that defensive stability to the offensive potential of Morant and Jackson (a legit stretch big who shot 39.4 percent from deep on 6.5 attempts per game last season), the possibilities seem limitless.

As the Grizzlies begin to explore those possibilities, the Blazers feel like they’re getting closer to exhausting theirs. With Lillard entering his 30s and on the verge of starting a supermax extension that runs through 2025, Portland doubled down with win-now moves like shipping out a pair of first-round draft picks for Robert Covington and dealing 22-year-old Gary Trent Jr. for the 27-year-old Powell, an unrestricted free-agent-to-be. But between injuries—McCollum and Nurkic have missed a combined 60 games, and hoped-for stretch big Zach Collins hasn’t played a minute this season—and persistent defensive ineptitude, what looked like the deepest team of the Dame-and-CJ era just hasn’t been good enough.

The 2019 Western Conference finals run afforded the Blazers the opportunity to think that they were this close to breaking through. The two years since, though, have suggested that it was an outlier, the exception to what previous years had shown: a team capable of producing near-elite offenses but one rarely ever even approaching defensive decency.

If they can’t drastically change course in the next month to provide more evidence for the “we’re this close” case, it’ll be awfully hard to counter the argument for a more significant change—firing Stotts and/or Olshey, finally considering a McCollum trade, etc.—that would shake the foundation of one of the league’s most stable franchises. Memphis, on the other hand, has its entire rotation under contract for next season with a handful of key contributors on cheap rookie-scale deals. They can bet on internal improvement from the literal dozen of 25-and-under players on their roster. Or, if the right opportunity presents itself, they can consolidate some of that young talent—perhaps with one of the extra first-round picks coming their way from the Mike Conley and Andre Iguodala trades—and swing for the fences. Time, for now, is on the Grizzlies’ side.

It won’t be for long, though, because it never is. Jackson becomes eligible for an extension of his rookie deal this offseason, and more of Memphis’s bright young things will soon follow suit. Time will pass; dreams for the future will be replaced by actual win-loss records and chapters written in history books. Before you know it, the lightness of unlimited possibility will be replaced with the weight of tangible expectations.

To some degree, that weight is a gift—the price you pay for drafting, developing, and playing well enough to be considered a team of consequence. On a long enough timeline, though, it can become a heavy burden to bear. Just ask the Blazers team that the Grizzlies are chasing, a longtime small-market success story that’s now fighting like hell to keep its window ajar, and to keep Memphis’s from opening in earnest.

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