The Portland Trail Blazers have had an up-and-down season so far. Some of this is due to inconsistent play, some due to what ESPN rates as the second-most difficult strength of schedule to date. Will they see better results in the second half?
There’s no denying that the schedule has been a factor. The Blazers have already played the Toronto Raptors, the Milwaukee Bucks (twice), the Boston Celtics, The Indiana Pacers, the Warriors, the Nuggets, the Clippers a couple times...the list goes on. To close 2018, they have the privilege of playing the Warriors twice and Philadelphia 76ers in the span of four days; no one’s idea of a good time.
But after that the schedule eases up considerably. Even including those three tough games (plus the Utah Jazz on Christmas), the Blazers’ remaining strength of schedule drops to 16th in the league. It’s not as drastic a change as the one the Jazz are facing (most difficult to 28th), but it’s a fairly significant drop.
But does strength of schedule actually mean anything when it comes to this team? Not without more consistency. The Blazers will need to bolster a couple of weak areas in order to capitalize in the second-half.
Portland needs more from their forwards on a night-in, night-out basis. It’s probably unrealistic to expect Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless to average 14 points per game while guarding at an All-Defensive Team level, but not getting bankable production out of the three and the four positions has wreaked havoc on this team at times.
Beyond the obvious indicators (missed shots and turnovers), when Aminu and Harkless struggle badly, the ball stops flowing on offense. When Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum feel like they have to force the issue, sometimes it turns out well; they’re talented with the ball in their hands. But motion tends to stagnate, the quality of shots moves into the realm of questionable, and other guys can get caught floating around aimlessly.
I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen out of Harkless since the beginning of December. The starts aren’t eye-popping by any means - 8.3 points and just under four rebounds a night - but he looks like he’s moving with more bounce on his troublesome knee. He’s also shooting 56 percent over that span. Hopefully he’ll be able to get back to making the hustle plays that were so critical during the second half of last season before his injury.
Aminu is who he is: a streaky shooter that plays good defense and rebounds very well. I don’t love him as a starter due to his offensive output, but hopefully Harkless will pick up some of the slack. Asking for offensive consistency from Aminu is probably like asking your boss for a raise...and a promotion...and his parking spot.
Of course the bench unit isn’t super consistent either. When they show up, Portland tends to do pretty well. When they don’t, it can get ugly fast. It’s largely personnel based. Nik Stauskas is capable of making flashy plays on occasion, but he doesn’t put it together every night. Seth Curry is a great long distance shooter, when he shoots. Meyers Leonard can give you some shooting and rebounding, as long as nothing goes wrong and frustrates him.
There are two ideal types of bench players; microwave-style scorers (think Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford) and steady players that won’t blow a lead while the starters get a breather. The Blazers don’t really have too much of either on their bench. It makes sense to take flyers on castoffs from other teams to pair with your young prospects, but Portland could really benefit from someone...anyone...that can five you eight points a game by ACTUALLY scoring eight points a night, not scoring 14 one game and two the next.
If the Blazers can get these two issues addressed somehow, the opportunity is there to have a nice second half of the season. The Western Conference is bunched up now, but there may be some separation as the year plays out. The Blazers need to take advantage of a softer schedule to ensure they aren’t left in the dust.