The Portland Trail Blazers are taking the 50th Year Anniversary celebration a step too far by playing like the 1970-71 team, which finished last in the division with 29 wins and 53 losses. Through the first month of the season, the Blazers are 7-12 and two games out of the eighth seed in the West.
Losing and criticism have a linear relationship. The primary critiques of Portland have been the stagnant offense and inability to rebound or defend the perimeter. Major and minor injuries to rotation players have exacerbated those issues, but the struggles are more complicated than that.
As a result, division among Blazers fans has formed. There is the anti-Stotts faction fighting the pro-Stotts faction, as well as the pro-tankers fighting the anti-tankers.
Criticism and disappointment are certainly warranted given the start to the season. The organization touting the roster as its deepest ever and proclaiming bold championship aspirations adds to that negativity.
But the minor injuries are starting to fade, and all the new faces are sliding into their appropriate roles. The Blazers are back in the Moda Center for more than a single game and have a relatively easy schedule over the next two weeks.
To build on the recent flickers of positivity — like two consecutive blowout wins — here are five things I like about the Portland Trail Blazers season thus far:
The Blazers structured its offseason moves to provide floor spacing for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Swapping Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless and Evan Turner for Kent Bazemore and Rodney Hood sacrificed size and defense for better shooting.
With capable shooters arming the wing, Portland has shot 3.2 more three-pointers per game than last year. And with the increase in attempts, the success rate has slightly risen from 35.9% to 36.9%, which ranks ninth in the league.
Not just in the name of optimism, that number should improve through the remainder of the season. Outside of Rodney Hood – who is shooting a blistering 50% from three – no other non-sophomore is shooting remarkably better from deep than their career average.
Gary Trent Jr., the Duke single-season record holder for most triples made, has shot well in limited minutes this season too. He connected on a measly 23.8% of his 21 threes as a rookie, but 12 games into his sophomore campaign, he’s made 47.8% of his 23 threes.
Kent Bazemore chase down blocks
Sure, the Blazers struck out on luring LeBron James to the Pacific Northwest. But that doesn’t mean fans don’t get to enjoy emphatic chase down blocks; Bazemore has had fair few this season and boy are they fun to watch.
I don’t need to do any more explaining – the blocks speak for themselves.
Victim #1: Bogdan Bogdanovic
Victim #2: Dejounte Murray
Victim #3: DeAndre’ Bembry
Victim #4: Pascal Siakam
Victim #5: Russell Westbrook (!!)
Victim #6: Abdel Nader
Nassir Little’s rapid improvement
At 19 years old, Nassir Little is as raw a prospect as they get. He has an incredibly high ceiling; the forward was ranked higher than Zion Williamson on NBA draft boards at the start of the 2018-19 NCAA season. The best way to extract that potential is to let him collect as much as experience as possible alongside Portland’s veterans.
Rookies generally don’t play consistent minutes under Terry Stotts. However, Zach Collins’ injury and Tolliver’s struggles paved the way for Little to start. The desperation signing of Carmelo Anthony quickly relegated the rookie back to the bench, but he earned himself a spot in the rotation during those three starts.
What did Little show to gain Stotts favor?
Although the young forward doesn’t shoot the three ball well – yet – he capitalizes on his defender’s help defense by crashing the offensive glass. Opponents have punished the Blazers with second chance points, so it helps for Little to get some of those freebies back.
Although defenses give him no respect on the perimeter, Little is slowly starting to connect on more wide-open triples. In his first three games of more than 20 minutes, he made 2/14 from deep. Since then – five games ranging from 10-22 minutes of floor time – he’s made 3/7. Sometimes less is more.
On the other end, Little has the athleticism to defend all five positions. Like most rookies, he’s foul happy; against the Houston Rockets, he conceded two four-point plays to James Harden. Less fouls, as well as less ball-watching, will come with experience and develop Little into a stud defender on the wing for Portland.
Plays I like
The ball moves as much in the Blazers offense as Whiteside moves in the Blazers defense. Portland ranks last in the league in assists per game. But every once in a while, successive passes will be made, and the ball eventually lands in the hands of someone wide open on the perimeter or at the rim.
Here are three of those eye-candy plays:
Lillard’s defender must always fight over screens because Lillard has in-the-gym range. Plus, the double screen makes it harder for opponents to communicate a switch. This leaves Lillard with a head of steam and only the opposing big man to beat, a task way too easy for the All-NBA point guard. Having a capable shooter in the corner prevents the wing from stepping in front of Lillard, thereby creating an open lane to the hoop. (Bazemore, Hood or Carmelo Anthony would be a safer corner option than Little.)
Defenses focus on Lillard and McCollum almost exclusively. Running McCollum around a screen to free him up on the perimeter will generally lead his defender and the screener’s defender to jump out and prevent the open triple. If the screener – in this case Collins – slips the screen, he has a clear run to the rim.
Lillard and Whiteside ran the same play on the other side of the floor, which distracted their defenders and ensured no one helped on Collins’ slip.
Hood’s positioning on the wing and involvement in the pick and roll between Simons and Whiteside encourages his defender to help on Whiteside’s roll more than if he simply stood in the corner waiting for a kick out. Because the Blazers run so many pick and rolls, that help-defense maneuver by Hood’s defender will happen more times than not, leaving Hood wide open on the perimeter.
The players remain confident
Teams falling short of expectations early in the season usually become more susceptible to internal drama that impacts their on-court performance. Take a look at the Chicago Bulls this year, for example.
The Blazers may be 7-12 in a season they labelled themselves as championship contenders, but the players continue to support one another and remain confident. During post-game interviews and on Twitter, players have reassured angsty fans to sit tight and wait for the team’s usual midseason turnaround.
After the loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Lillard said, “I think our team understands that there are certain things we are not doing well enough to win games. But we really do as a group believe it is going to turn around. So, we are just going to stay with it and keep working towards improving. That’s all we can do.”
The Athletic’s Jason Quick also detailed a story about how three years prior, Lillard yelled at his teammates following a loss to the Rockets and said they “suck.” A similar loss to the Rockets last week didn’t elicit a similar reaction from Lillard.
“If I felt that way again, I would say it again,” Lillard said. “But at that time, it was different than it is now. Like right now, we are competing on defense, making the team miss, but we can’t get the ball. So right now, I’m more like ‘Come on, man. We’ve got to figure this out.’”
The NBA season has more than 75% of its schedule still to go, and the Blazers are only two games out of the eighth spot. Capturing the three seed for the third consecutive year may be out of arm’s reach, but making the playoffs is certainly within reach.
And don’t forget, Collins and Jusuf Nurkic might return in the final months of the season to reinforce the paint and add some grit to a team in desperate need of it.