NBA Playoff Picture: Are the Portland Trail Blazers Playoff- or Lottery-Bound?

Maxwell Ogden@MaxwellOgdenCorrespondent IIIMarch 31, 2012

OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 15:  Raymond Felton #5 of the Portland Trail Blazers celebrates after they defeated the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena on February 15, 2012 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

With just one month remaining in the regular season, it's time to separate the contenders from the pretenders. At the heart of the discussion is one of the most underachieving teams all season: the Portland Trail Blazers.

With key changes, including the firing of Nate McMillan and the claiming of promising forward J.J. Hickson off waivers, the Blazers seem to be poised for a playoff run. With just four games separating Portland and the eighth seed Denver Nuggets, the down-to-the-wire race becomes even more thrilling.

Unfortunately, the Trail Blazers can't seem to get things going.

After Portland started the season at 13-9, led by first-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and forward Gerald Wallace, the expectations were high.

The Blazers were coming off of a season in which they had nearly upset the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks, and despite the loss of Brandon Roy, they made key acquisitions to place them in even greater position for a playoff run.

Since then, the Blazers are 11-19. That gives them a record of 24-28, putting them in position for a lottery pick; not a playoff seeding.

They've also made another key change by trading Gerald Wallace. That's the same Gerald Wallace whom they traded to acquire at last year's trade deadline.

While the Blazers must be thrilled to receive the Nets' protected draft choice, it's hard to imagine that's any consolation for the broken championship dreams of Portland. The only issue with that previous statement is that their dreams are far from broken.

Yet another change was made at the trade deadline for the Portland Trail Blazers when they acquired Jonny Flynn from Houston. In Flynn's first game with the team, he showed the potential to take over the starting point-guard role from the underachieving Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford. Flynn played 25 minutes, scoring 10 points and dishing out five assists.

Could the 23-year-old be the answer in Portland? If not Flynn, how about Hickson?

While the Los Angeles Clippers' got the best of the Trail Blazers last night, sneaking by with a 98-97 win, Hickson nearly lifted the Blazers to victory. In Aldridge's absence, Hickson scored 29 points on 13-of-19 shooting and hauled in 13 rebounds.

Whether this will lead to a turnaround has yet to be seen; the fact is, the increased level of play is not something to overlook. The Trail Blazers are talented enough to beat anyone, have enough star power to go toe-to-toe with the best and, at the end of the day, have nothing to lose.

But everything to gain.