Past the mid-way point in the 2015-16 season, the Portland Trail Blazers are 20-26 and just 1.5 games back of the eighth and final place in the Western Conference playoff picture. After four-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge left for San Antonio as a free agent, prompting the Blazers' front office to hit the reset button and build areound 25-year-old point guard Damian Lillard, many expected Portland to flirt with the bottom of the barrel in the West standings.
Though ESPN's FiveThirtyEight CARMELO algorithm projected 36.2 wins and Sports Illustrated used win-shares to calculate a 39-43 record for the Trail Blazers, pundits in the national media predicted as few as 18 wins in Portland (CBS, ForTheWin, ESPN).
Falling in line with the team's "us against everybody" mantra for the season, the preseason predictions continue to fuel Lillard and his teammates even 46 games into the season.
"They fuel us everyday, man," Lillard said of the projections. "I came out at Media Day and said ‘We’re gonna be a lot better than people think.’ As soon as any little thing happened: four-game losing streak, it was like ‘Is this the point where the Blazers this or that?’
"Basically, nobody gave us the chance to do nothing and now that we’re in position [to make the playoffs], it’s like [when is] the next question."
By any means, the season so far hasn't been without struggle for the Blazers. But for valleys like a 25-point loss at Philadelphia and a winless five-game road trip, the peaks of a 29-point rout of Cleveland and an impressive comeback win over Oklahoma City have proven Portland can compete in the Western Conference playoff picture.
The Trail Blazers can further their statement over the next two weeks. Portland hosts five games in the next 10 days, four of which are versus teams with below .500 records, starting with fellow playoff contender Sacramento Tuesday night.
"No question, we look at the standings and we know this is an important game for our playoff run," head coach Terry Stotts said. "When you have a chance to play someone right next to you, it has a big impact on the standings."
Tickets for the Trail Blazers matchup with the Kings, as well as upcoming games versus the Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors, are still available at Trailblazers.com and the Rose Quarter box office.