Charles Barkley is always known for having bold predictions on Inside the NBA. Some eventually do come to fruition, while some fade and wilt away as a cold take. One of his most notable takes that he’s stood by is the ceiling for the Portland Trail Blazers. In each of the past two seasons, Barkley picked the Blazers to make the Finals. Of course, that did not happen. However, he is a man of great conviction and tripled down on his support this season. A $100,000 bet that this will be the year they make it there. It may just be for the show on his end. But after seeing how the Blazers fared in the first half of this season, the third time may be the charm. The Trail Blazers are the ultimate dark horse contender.
What Makes the Portland Trail Blazers a Dark Horse?
Portland Trail Blazers: Help is on the Way
The Trail Blazers played 35 games before the All-Star break, sitting as the Wester Conference fifth seed with a 21-14 record. Not the most spectacular record or conference position, but that’s what makes them a dark horse right? Of those 35 games, CJ McCollum has played in just 13. Jusuf Nurkic has appeared in just 12.
With those two absences, the Trail Blazers’ lineup is missing 36.5 combined points per game. Both players went down due to injuries and are currently without a set timetable to return, but they will return. Assuming each is able to be 100 percent by the time the playoffs roll around, getting back two high-level starters will be imperative to help ease the load off of Damian Lillard.
Speaking of Lillard, how’s he been doing this year?
MVP Candidate Damian Lillard
He’s been setting the league on fire. Despite the team’s second and third best player being out for two-thirds of the season, Lillard not only has the Blazers in the hunt for home-court in the first round but has thrust himself into the MVP conversation. Lillard is averaging 29.8 points and 8.0 assists per game. His shooting splits are slightly down from last season, but because of the increased workload he has to carry, and the constant attention he gets from opposing defenses; it’s understandable.
He may not be the leading MVP candidate (that should be Joel Embiid), but Lillard’s leadership and outstanding play have kept the Blazers more than afloat in the grueling Western Conference. His season has been highlighted by multiple game-winning shots and four 40 point games.
The NBA is a star-driven league, and Lillard certainly is a star, but it takes a whole team to come together to reach the NBA Finals. Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic is a solid nucleus, but that hasn’t been enough in years past. What makes this season different? The depth.
Portland Trail Blazers: The Supporting Cast
McCollum is not an easy player to fill in for. However, Gary Trent Jr. has done as good a job as you can ask. Picking up where he left off in the Bubble, Trent is averaging 15.2 points in his interim starting role. When McCollum returns, Trent will be one of the best sixth men in the NBA.
Filling Nurkic’s shoes may also seem like a challenge, but Enes Kanter has done just that and then some. Averaging 11.9 points and 11.9 rebounds in his second stint with Portland, the big man has held it down in the paint. When Nurkic eventually slides back into his starting role Kanter will be one of the best backup bigs in the NBA.
Then there is the array of shooters. Carmelo Anthony can still get hot at any time, averaging just under 14 points per game. Anfernee Simons is shooting over 40 percent from three this season. Rodney Hood has had a disappointing season thus far but has proven in the past to be a bucket off the bench.
The other two consistent starters along with Lillard have been Derrick Jones Jr. and Robert Covington. Jones Jr. has been just ok this season but has picked it up on the defensive end as of late. Speaking of defense, Covington finds himself ranked 10th in steals per game, fourth in deflections, and he’s averaging 2.5 blocks per game over the last 10 contests. Swapping Trevor Ariza for him prior to the beginning of the year appears to have been a good move.
The Second Half of the Season
McCollum and Nurkic both may not return until April. Their health come playoff time is going to make-or-break this season for Portland. Lillard is amazing, and the bench guys have done their part. Those two returning to form though is the key for the Trail Blazers to realize their dark horse status. Portland has underachieved in the playoffs over the past few years, but the West looks wide open as of right now. It’s time for them to win Charles Barkley his money.
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