Prior to the NBA hitting pause on the season due to COVID-19 concerns, the Portland Trailblazers’ season looked poised for an early ending. They were 9th in the West when play was halted, 3.5 games behind the 8th seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Portland fans didn’t expect these trying times, not after the team made it to last year’s Western Conference Finals. But the season has been a disaster, and the Blazers can use this respite to do some early soul-searching.
When the Blazers break down their season, they can start by looking at the following:
The Blazers have been ravaged by injuries. Fox Sports lists all the injured Blazers who missed games this season, including Jusuf Nurkić, Zach Collins, CJ McCollum, Hassan WhitesideRodney Hood, and Damian Lillard, whom we ranked as the second best point guard in the NBA. These injuries have prevented Coach Stotts from rolling out a full-strength lineup. Worse, Lillard missed 5 games in February, just as the team were starting to find a rhythm.
The Blazers’ 8-12 start was a bad omen, and the team couldn’t quite reverse their fortunes thereafter. That bad start was, in part, due to injuries to Collins and Nurkić, which left the Blazers with a thin frontcourt to begin the season. Had Portland weathered that early season storm, chances are they’d be closer to the postseason today.
A Regressing Offense and Leaky Defense
Portland, in recent years, have had an elite offense, thanks to the dynamic scoring of Lillard and McCollum, and Coach Stotts’ beautiful motion offense. But that vaunted offense has regressed this season, from 114.7 last year to 113.6 this year. This development has been exacerbated by the Blazers’ still leaky defense (115.2 points per game surrendered, 26th in the NBA). Before, the team’s prolific offense could compensate for their less-than-stout defense. That isn’t happening anymore, so the Blazers are now losing more often.
Not All Negative
Things aren’t all bad for the Blazers. There are actually reasons to be optimistic moving forward:
Dame Is Game
Lillard is the Blazers’ unquestioned leader, and he is getting better. He was chosen for his 5th All-Star Game, with LeBron James drafting him to Team LeBron. Bwin notes that LeBron’s team were heavy on experience, which indicates James’ preference for vets like Lillard. Dame was among this season’s best All-Star Game veterans, along with James, Chris Paul, and James Harden. Unfortunately, Lillard missed last February’s game of stars after suffering a groin injury days before the showcase (resulting to Portland going 1-4 in that stretch). But Lillard has proven himself to be a franchise player, and the Blazers are in good hands.
Another encouraging sign has been the strong play of Carmelo Anthony, himself a many-time All-Star. Melo has rewarded Portland’s faith in him, giving the team a reliable third option behind Lillard and McCollum. Importantly, he is working hard on the other end. He is no longer as big a liability on defense as he was when he played in Oklahoma City and Houston. With a full training camp, Melo might be even better next season.
The Blazers will have to make some hard choices this offseason. Mainly, they’ll have to decide whether they’ll ride out their lethal but undersized Lillard-McCollum backcourt or break it up (by trading McCollum, most likely). They’ll have to choose between Whiteside and Nurkić, too, as it would be near-impossible to keep both given the salary cap restrictions.
All told, the Blazers are in good position to bounce back next season. They are too good of a team not to figure things out, especially with a full training camp. Just give these Blazers time. They’ll blaze a trail back to the postseason.Credit: Ethan Farrell