March marks the final full month of the 2013-14 NBA season, a season that has been chock full of milestones for the Blazers. One such milestone was achieved Saturday evening at the Moda Center when the Blazers beat the visiting Denver Nuggets 102-96. By defeating the Nuggets for the fourth time in as many tries this season, the Blazers completed the season sweep of one of their chief division rivals for the first time since the lockout shortened season of 1998-99.
A season ago, the Denver Nuggets won 57 games. They were the dark horse favorite for the Conference Finals before being unceremoniously bounced from the first round by the Golden State Warriors, the darlings of the 2013 playoffs.
It didn’t take long for things to go south for Denver. A new coach, a new general manager, a laundry list of injuries and one disgruntled veteran point guard, and following the loss handed to them by the Blazers, one of the league’s top teams from last season on the wrong side of leader board for the entire NBA, not just the power-packed Western Conference.
Chalk it up to injuries if you’d like; Denver certainly would like you to. But it’s also an indication of how quickly fortunes can change in the NBA.
And the reality that the best can quickly become the worst in the world’s top professional basketball league is no more obvious than it was with the Blazers’ Monday night opponent.
When the Los Angeles Lakers hit the Rose City on April 10, 2013, not quite one year ago, the Blazers were in the midst of a losing streak of record-setting length for the franchise. Their opponents were clinging for dear life to the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference playoffs. Carried by a performance for the ages from Kobe Bryant, the Lakers avenged their opening night loss—a loss that very well could have signaled the beginning of the end of Steve Nash’s disappointing L.A. tenure—and kept their postseason dreams alive.
If 2013-14 has not been a banner year for the Denver Nuggets; it has been one of nearly historic futility for the Lakers. Recovering from a nightmare season under the thumb of Dwight Howard, the NBA’s most immature superstar, the Lakers have found themselves in the middle of a perfect storm of injuries—to Kobe and Steve Nash primarily but also to lesser known guys like Jordan Farmar—and a criminally under-stocked bench.
By the time the Lakers took the court against the Blazers for their first and only stop-through in Portland last night, they were tied for last place in the Western Conference and only better than a handful of Eastern Conference basement dwellers who have been fighting for the worst record in the league since the season kicked-off.
Though the Lakers could seriously benefit from missing the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons, they aren't one of the teams most NBA fans expect to see languishing on 21 wins nearly 60 games into a season.
And it’s not just shocking to basketball fans.
“It’s crazy man,” Blazers newcomer and nine-year NBA veteran Dorell Wright said Saturday night. “I grew up watching the Lakers. They always had that star power there each and every year.”
Wright admits, though, that like many things, NBA fortunes come and go in waves. Having been around the league for as long as he has, he’s seen it happen to more teams than just the Lakers.
“It’s just a big cycle in this league, you see a lot of teams go like that,” Wright said. “When I was in Miami, right before the last two years I was there, we had the same situation, where we only won 15 games.”
Miami in 2007-08 was two seasons removed from their first NBA championship—of which Wright was a minor participant—and finished dead last in the standings. Injuries to Dwyane Wade and the departure of Shaquille O’Neal propelled the Heat to a season that matched their franchise low in total wins, a mark that was set the first season the city of Miami fielded an NBA team, just as an injured Kobe and a Dwight Howard-sized hole at center has hamstrung the 2013-14 Lakers.
But Laker fans should take heart, just as a team can go from the top of the heap to the bottom of the pile in a single season, so too can fortunes be reversed. Take a look at the Heat now. And all it took was adding the best basketball player in the world.
“You just have to find the right guys to build around, and put the right personnel around the guys that you want to build your team around,” Wright said of remaking a bad team. “It’s part of the NBA, it happens, it just hasn’t happened to the Lakers in awhile.”
But not everybody on the Blazers expected that the no-name Lakers to be a pushover, regardless of what their record might look like. And in light of how the barnstorming style of basketball Laker coach Mike D'Antoni has coaxed out of lower level guys like Kent Bazemore and Wesley Johnson completely blindsided the Blazers on Monday, they might have done themselves a favor by being just a little more prepared.
“They could come in even more dangerous now that they don’t have that big of an expectation now that they’re not winning as much as they usually do," Will Barton said following the Blazers win over the Nuggets. "That gets young guys on their team to step up and play, and there’s nothing like that.”
Barton should know a thing or two about what kind of damage a motivated young player can do when given the chance to run wild on an NBA court. Barton played an integral role in helping kick-start a four-game Blazer winning streak while LaMarcus Aldridge recuperated from a rather mysterious groin injury that was kind of asymptomatic—it’s easier to beef up an injury diagnosis than it is to just say the best power forward in the game needed a day or two off.
“[The Lakers are] a dangerous team because guys want to show that they belong in the league," Barton said, "[and] make impressions on their coaches and their organization. We can’t come in thinking they’re one of the worst teams in the league and we’re just going to blow them out because that’s not how the NBA works.”
He basically predicted exactly how Monday night would go down. Maybe the Blazers did anticipate a blowout of the Lakers, which might explain possibly the most unexpected loss of Portland's season. And probably they should have anticipated a blowout, if only because by next season that opportunity will probably have evaporated.
As undoubtedly as the Lakers missing the playoffs this season is, it’s almost more inevitable that the most historically successful NBA team in Los Angeles won't be at the bottom of the table for long.
“That’s a big market. You don’t have to do too much to get free agents there,” Wright said. “I’m pretty sure [the Lakers] will be back next year.”
Somewhere in Minnesota, Kevin Love’s ears are burning.