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The Portland Trail Blazers Mid-Season Review

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Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum excel, Jusuf Nurkic sputters, the trade deadline approaches, and a coach on the hot seat.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers are just over halfway through their NBA season. They carry a 22-21 record. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are shining; the rest of the roster is a stew made of intermittent brilliance and angst. Coach Terry Stotts is as close to the hot seat as he’s been in his Portland tenure, and the 2018 NBA Trade Deadline is looming. Seems like the perfect time for the Portland Trail Blazers mid-season review!

Dave Deckard: OK, Peter, half (-ish) of the season is in the rear-view mirror now. What are your general impressions of the Blazers so far? Are you happy with the year to date? What 1-2 things stick out most to you?

Peter Sampson: Well, they’re not where I hoped they would be, but they’re about what I expected heading into the season. Portland is the ultimate middling team so far this season; good enough to impress for short stretches, but not consistent enough to put it all together night-in and night-out.

My biggest takeaways from the season so far sort of encapsulate that up and down feeling. First, the emergence of Shabazz Napier has been a welcome surprise. This is someone who frankly, was a stretch as a first-round pick a few years ago, and seemed to be nearing his final chance to stick with a franchise when the Blazers took a flyer on him. Shabazz has been a joy to watch and there have been games where he has essentially willed the team to victory. Stunning.

On the flip-side, Moe Harkless’ disappearing act has been a major disappointment. I never expected him to develop into a big time scorer but, with Portland needing any sort of production from the forward positions, the opportunity has been there and Harkless has done little to seize it, a handful of nice games aside. Then of course there were those comments he made regarding his role on the team...

DD: Yup. If one player could be predicted to struggle this season based on exit interview time last year, Moe would have been it. To his credit, he’s put in some good games lately. I empathize with his role zig-zagging back and forth from starter to non-entity. It’s hard to play consistently under those circumstances. Of course, the real solution is to play so well and so hard that you can’t be removed or forgotten.

If we’re talking individual players, Jusuf Nurkic is my surprise, and not necessarily a good one. I didn’t expect him to go full-on Nurk Fever, but Vacuum-Sucking Nurk Icebox is a little too far the other direction. His offense was self-centered, his defensive effort intermittent at best in the early season. Injuries may have played a role there, but approach was also a factor. In a way, he was emblematic of the team as a whole: good on paper, lost in translation somewhere between theoretical potential and actual execution. Like Harkless, he’s picked it up lately, but when is this team going to learn than you can’t take 2.5 months to warm up if you want the season to mean anything? It’s mid-January and already it feels like we’re accumulating excuses—individually and corporately—for what they’re not going to do instead of anticipating what they’re going to achieve.

PS: Your take on Nurkic’s play this season being symbolic is right on the money. Why do you think this group does that? This is the third straight season that Portland has gotten off to a slow start. In each of the prior seasons, they were able to step on the gas late, but with the easy stretch of the schedule behind them, I wonder if the Blazers are going to be able to put it together, or this will be the year that they simply won’t have enough to get it done. When the schedule came out, we all took a look at it and said “12-6 through their first 18 games will be necessary”, but obviously that didn’t happen.

There’s decent talent on this roster and, though even on paper they clearly aren’t going to hang with the Western Conference elite, it still feels like this team is actually less than the sum of their parts. While I don’t blame coach Stotts for the roster he was handed, there has been some buzz regarding his future with the team. Do you think that’s a case of fans feeling that something is inherently flawed with this team, whether they can place what it is or not?

DD: If you’ve listened to anything I’ve said over the past couple of years, you already know this team was flawed at the root and understand the foundation of that flaw...and it’s not Stotts. Firing the coach is an unjust and reactionary step. That won’t stop it from happening. And honestly, just because you shouldn’t fire the coach doesn’t mean that sticking with the coach will improve things. It’s like the engine is rattling hard so you change out the steering wheel and column.

But hey, let’s talk about some of the things that ARE going right. The Blazers are 5th in the league in field goal percentage allowed and in the middle of the pack in three-point percentage allowed. They’ve also moved closer to the middle in free throw attempts allowed. Those are legit stats. Portland no longer stinks defensively! And honestly, they’re easier to watch because of it. You always feel like they have a chance to win a given game instead of being pretty sure that they’re going to find a way to lose it.

PS: That’s true. During the first few weeks of the season, I kept pointing to Portland’s opening night thrashing of the Suns and how it was skewing the defensive numbers, but at this point the defense simply is what it is; the fourth best defensive rating in the league at 105.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. While Lillard and McCollum will always struggle against the pick-and-roll, they’ve made up for it with active hands and getting into passing lanes. It’s been nice to see the Blazers be able to rally from significant deficits by getting stops, as opposed to solely counting on Dame or CJ to go crazy in the fourth quarter.

I’ve also really enjoyed how Portland is hitting the defensive glass this year. Though there has been a bit of slippage, they’re still a a top 10 defensive rebounding team, hauling in 35 a night. Nurkic is a big piece of that, but so is a healthy Ed Davis. Davis and Collins have made for a nice bench big-man pairing over the last month. What have you seen out of those two?

DD: I’m a big Ed Davis guy. I mean, he is what he is. Nobody will mistake him for a new-breed player. But he’s hard-nosed, rebounds, and stays in his three-foot zone without apology. He’s a throwback and I love it. Collins is quite a different player, developing the face-up shot (because his post moves are god awful right now) and blocking shots by traveling through space instead of occupying it. It’s like Davis is a rook and Collins is a knight. Watching the contrast is fun. BUT...that doesn’t mean I depend on either one making a difference long-term. The Blazers would have a hard time justifying a Davis re-signing. Heck, they’ll have a hard time justifying keeping him through the end of the season. But he’s been a bright spot for sure.

That said, the hidden cost of players like Davis and Collins is that the Blazers become even more guard-centric on offense. It’s amazed me to hear people complain about Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum dominating the ball and scoring. Who else is there? At one point even Nurkic wasn’t a reliable option. It’s not like Collins really is Dirk Nowitzki, just waiting for someone to pass it to him. Simply put, I don’t trust many possessions that don’t end with a starting guard shooting. We’re starting to see a little evolution out of other players, but they’re a long way from being a cohesive lineup full of keepers. The first half of the season has reaffirmed that. Even guys like Al-Farouq Aminu, who is having the offensive season of his life, come with so many caveats that the roster list feels like a used car lot.

PS: Aminu has been playing great basketball, but he is who he is and there’s only so much he can do. Fans have got to expect that he’s going to regress to the mean a bit as the season rolls on, and he’s already done that a bit; falling from 47 percent beyond the arc to 40 percent in just a few weeks. Hopefully he doesn’t continue to drop into that 33 percent range that he’s averaged over his career.

It just goes to show how much this team needs another offensive threat outside of Lillard and McCollum who, as you mentioned, are forced to do the heavy lifting on offense. We already mentioned Napier, who’s playing out of his mind, but he’s another ball-dominant guard. The Blazers need some sort of production from the wing, and not a lot of assets ahead of the trade deadline to acquire somebody even if the right player came along.

Portland didn’t replace the threat of Allen Crabbe from beyond the arc (note I said threat, not production), and none of the other forwards are really capable of getting consistent buckets. It’s interesting to look back at that rumored Ryan Anderson/Moe Harkless deal that so many people scorned and wonder if that would have been just the offensive punch that this roster needed, especially with the improved defense that Portland has shown. With the benefit of hindsight, would you do that deal?

DD: In theory, you’re probably in “yes” territory, even though it’s far from the ideal acquisition and I am/was not a huge proponent. The problem with any deal like this is, the Blazers are in gimbal lock with their .500 record and exorbitant salary structure. It’s no longer enough for trades to make sense or make the team marginally better. We have to ask whether any given deal alleviates one of those two conditions, if not both. Any trade that doesn’t get them far above .500 or wipe massive salary off the ledger simply perpetuates the problem. Trading Harkless for Anderson—along with a hundred other proposed deals—doesn’t address either of the two problematic axes. In practice, therefore, the Blazers still have to answer “no” even if the move might technically improve their fortunes. This is the semi-hidden cost of bad moves: they inhibit you from making better ones later.

Before we close, I’ll throw the question back to you in different form. Do you see any mid-season move that alters this team’s fortunes enough to actually pursue?

PS: Only if Olshey can magically upgrade the scoring and 3-point from the forward spot without sacrificing any of the legitimate long-term talent on the roster. Which means that the margin is pretty slim even if the guy you’re targeting is even made available. Mirotic could be that guy. He’s playing out of his mind right now. But how much better does he make you? At what cost? Does he impact the defensive cohesion? Is there a reason he got his face caved in by Bobby Portis and all of his teammates still allegedly sided with Portis? Those are all questions that Portland is going to need to think long and hard about before they pull the trigger.

Even if Mirotic ends up headed somewhere else, which I think is likely, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a minor deal done. In order of most-likely to least-likely Blazer traded, I’ll go Shabazz Napier, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, Meyers Leonard, CJ McCollum, everyone else. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like Davis for a second round pick be the entirety of Portland’s action next month.

DD: Yep. They have to make a deal to get under the tax threshold. It’s as simple as that.

OK, so brass tacks time. Direct questions, short answers. How long do you think Terry Stotts remains as head coach of this team?

PS: I think he’s let go at the end of the year, unless the team makes the second round and legitimately challenges their opponent in that series. It would be the wrong decision, but something’s got to give - and with the pieces that Neil Olshey would like to send out the door being locked up to undesirable contracts, a coaching change is the easiest way to shake things up.

DD: I never felt his job was remotely in jeopardy before this year but now I don’t think it can be saved short of a miracle playoff run. It wouldn’t even stun me that much to see an in-season transition if the team falls apart. That’s not right, but it could be reality. The All-Star break is looming.

PS: If Stotts is shown the door, do you think Olshey is far behind?

DD: They just extended him, in what may end up in retrospect the most boneheaded move of the summer. I can’t imagine his tenure lasting much beyond Stotts’. But that’s a topic for its own post.

Is there any way Damian Lillard ISN’T an All-Star this year? And if he’s overlooked again, where does that fall on the injustice scale?

PS: He has to make it. He’s having another stellar season, and the biggest knocks on Lillard’s eligibility in prior seasons have been his defense and Portland’s record headed in to the All-Star game. This year, his defense has noticeably improved and, despite the feeling that the team has underachieved, they’re above .500 and sitting only a half a game out of 5th place in the Western Conference.

DD: Do you foresee the Blazers as a low playoff seed, mid-playoff seed, or out of the playoffs? And is there any chance they make noise there?

PS: I think as the rest of the Western Conference contenders start to break away, you’re going to see the Blazers hang around the seventh or eight seed. And of course, that means a likely match up with the Warriors or Rockets. While just a few years ago, I would be happy with just making the playoffs, Portland needs to figure out how to get in a position to make that next step.

DD: I agree. I’d say the most likely outcome is low playoff seed and no noise...again. The problem is, in years past that’s been progress. Now it’s stalling and disappointment, plus another year of contract gone for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Last question: You have to describe the Blazers (to this point in the season) in three sentences or less to someone who’s not familiar with them. What do you say?

PS: They will raise your spirits. They will dash your hopes. It’s going to be a bumpy ride without a clear destination in mind.

DD: The Blazers aren’t who you think they are. Whenever you think they’re good, they sink. Just when you think they’re going to be awful, they claw their way back. As always, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.