As rough as this season has been at times for the Portland Trail Blazers and their fans, the team currently find itself just 3.5 games out of the No. 8 spot out West.
In a year that was seemingly doomed at the March 15 trade deadline, the Blazers now have the opportunity to finish strong and either make the postseason for the fourth consecutive season or head into the summer with some momentum and money to attract free agents this summer.
With the season's end approximately three weeks away, the Trail Blazers have a handful of things they need to hone in on in order to exit on a good note as they make their way down the stretch of the 2011-12 NBA regular season.
Since Nate McMillan's firing last month, the young guys on the roster have gotten a chance to hit the court and show their stuff in meaningful minutes moving toward the end of the season.
If this team is going to make a push at the playoffs and can somehow squeak in at the bottom of the bracket, they're going to need their depth to shine after losing two starters at the deadline.
If the playoffs prove to be outside the realm of possibility this season, though, displaying the youth will give management a better idea of who will make the cut next season on a roster that is, at this point, very much up in the air.
This year's squad doesn't have the same feeling of depth that Blazers squads of the past have displayed so proudly.
That doesn't mean, though, that the team should steer away from the bench in times of need.
In a season that has certainly seen its rocky points throughout the year, the team can't be afraid moving forward to play the guys on the bench for growth and energy as the season comes to an end this month.
Raymond Felton began the season as poorly as any starting point guard in the entire NBA but has shown drastic improvements as the season has entered its final month before the playoffs.
Whether his 13.2 points, 8.3 assists and 5.0 rebounds over the past 10 games earns him a spot or not on next year's roster is debatable.
He should, however, be looked at, along with youngsters Jonny Flynn and Nolan Smith, as the potential starter—or even reserve—for a team next year that can bring in players through both the draft and free agency.
It's possible next year's starting point guard isn't anywhere to be found on the current roster, but the team should use the rest of the season to make sure of it before diving in and looking for a replacement this summer.
J.J. Hickson was claimed by the Trail Blazers off waivers this season and is looking more and more like he could be sticking around Portland for years to come.
Although there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding next season's roster, testing the chemistry is necessary when deciding whether or not to match incoming offers, as Hickson will be a restricted free agent this summer.
The 6'9" power forward has looked good in both the starter role and the backup spot behind LaMarcus Aldridge, and if he continues to play as well as he has as of late, he could very well find himself in Rip City for the long haul.
If the Trail Blazers are going to make a push at the postseason, they are going to have to get better at finishing close games.
Just 5-12 in games decided by five points or fewer this season, the team has fallen into the trap of late-game isolation basketball and has lost too many close games on failed one-on-one attempts.
An overtime victory against the Dallas Mavericks last week was a perfect example of what can happen when the team gets the ball into the hands of its best player and should be a model of perfect execution for the rest of the season.
The Trail Blazers are 25th in rebounding this year, and trading away Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace didn't exactly help matters on the boards this season.
LaMarcus Aldridge is averaging a career-high 8.1 rebounds per game, but behind him the numbers drop off quite a bit with J.J. Hickson and Joel Przybilla each averaging around five per contest.
If this is a team that truly does want to find itself in the postseason, making the hustle plays is going to have to be a focus, and getting the extra possessions off the glass is the first way to make it happen.
The roster and the coaching staff are the first spots that people want to talk about when thinking of the holes within the Portland Trail Blazers organization.
The general manager spot, however, might be the biggest hole of all.
Although it makes sense to hire a GM in the offseason and start fresh this summer, if the team is going to be ready to make a splash in both free agency and the draft, it never hurts to find a successful candidate sooner rather than later.
Although it's pretty much a given, if the team wants to continue to compete this year, LaMarcus Aldridge has to be the guy who continues to carry the load.
The Blazers have officially entered the Aldridge era in Portland, so the 6'11" power forward is going to need to be the go-to guy regardless of whom the team puts around him moving forward.
If the team is not able to bring in a big-name free agent this summer, Aldridge will be the team's best player for years to come, so getting him—and the rest of the squad—acclimated to his dominance is the best game plan whether the playoffs are within reach or not.
Just watching this team play since the March 15 deadline has been a breath of fresh air for anyone who groaned at the effort half way through the season.
Whether it be the young players off the bench, the guidance of interim head coach Kaleb Canales or a new level of competitive drive inside the locker room, the team has been more exciting to watch and should continue the enthusiasm for the rest of the season.
The March 15 deadline saw Portland part ways with two starters, its head coach and its former No. 1 pick, all in a day that seemingly placed the entire Trail Blazers organization in tank mode for the rest of the season.
Don't tell that to the players, though.
The players in the locker room have indicated they are going to keep playing hard despite the moves at the deadline and that making the playoffs is still the goal this season.
The postseason is just around the corner, and with the Blazers only 3.5 games out of eighth place in the West, the team can make some noise if they can avoid late-season distractions and keep their focus on winning basketball games.