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Trail Blazers on the Wrong Side of Crucial Issues

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Nine factors would help define Portland’s season this year. Several are not going well.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trail Blazers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Before the Portland Trail Blazers started the 2019-20 season, we ran a list of nine crucial issues they’d face as they attempted to return to the Western Conference Finals and beyond. As we near the quarter-pole of the campaign, let’s take a look back and see how the team is performing in the areas we cited as important (or at least helpful). For each issue, we’ll give a brief explanation and a rating from 0-10.

9. How much can Pau Gasol contribute?

As we all know, Gasol left the Blazers without ever setting foot on the floor in uniform. This left the Blazers with Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja as the next best options. Neither one has performed well in the early going.

Rating: 0

8. Who will hit catch-and-shoot threes?

The Blazers have run a semi-predictable offense over the past few years: let guards create, put a center in the middle, whomever isn’t by the rim or handling the ball gets ready for an open look from distance. Reviews were mixed when Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless received the rock, but at least they knew what to do with it. Seth Curry and most back-up point guard prospered in this scheme.

Portland’s 2019-20 roster is long on offensive talent, short on players willing to fulfill that limited offensive role. If ancillary players aren’t hitting court-spreading shots efficiently, defenses are free to key on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Tolliver was supposed to be one of the saviors of the new-look Blazers. He’s shooting 26.7% on catch-and-shoot threes. Hezonja has done better at 38.1%, but has only 1.2 opportunities per game. The real saviors have been Carmelo Anthony (40.9% on 4.4 attempts per game) and McCollum (42.4% on 3.5 attempts per game). Kent Bazemore (40.0% on 2.6 looks) is doing well and Rodney Hood (56.4% on 2.3 looks) is doing great. Lillard himself is shooting only 22.9% on catch-and-shoot attempts from distance.

Rating: 8 (was going to be lower before ‘Melo showed up)

7. Can the centers stay out of foul trouble?

Long story short, NOBODY can stay out of foul trouble for the Blazers. They’re 27th in the league in personal fouls committed, 30th in free throw attempts given up. With a little rounding for Hassan Whiteside, six players average 4+ fouls per 36 minutes, seven if you count Zach Collins. The issue is hamstringing an already-shaky defense.

Rating: 0

6. Who’s going to defend?

Losing Collins to injury left a hole in Portland’s defense that they have yet to fill. They started the season on the high edge of mediocre on defense. They’ve slipped since.

Portland’s best stat is a 33.6% mark in opponent three-point percentage, good for 6th in the league. They’re also a respectable 10th in overall field goal percentage allowed (44.3%). Yet they’re 21st in overall defensive efficiency.

The Blazers are low-mediocre in points in the paint allowed, middling in fast break points allowed (a traditional strength), and dead last in free throws allowed. Giving up extra points and easy points sinks the Blazers to 25th in the league in points per game allowed at 115.3. Only terrible teams lie below them. More to the point, the Blazers score only 113.9 on average.

The Blazers are 9th in the league for points scored per game; their defense just doesn’t let it matter.

Rating: 2

5. Will Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons fit into bigger roles?

Collins is out for the season. That’s no fault of the Blazers. Simons started out setting the world on fire. He’s faded a bit as defenses have become more aware of him, but he’s still averaging a more-than-respectable 10.7 points in 21.8 minutes, shooting 42.9% from the field and 35.4% from the arc. His turnovers and fouls are good. He’s shown the ability to connect from every range. For a player with his experience coming into the season, this is pretty phenomenal stuff.

Rating: 5 (If Collins were playing, it’d probably be closer to 9 or 10)

4. Do the Blazers have a true starting forward?

Collins was acceptable, occasionally brilliant, but was still unproven when he went down. Pending good performances from Carmelo against good teams, the Blazers still haven’t replaced him at power forward.

Rodney Hood has performed phenomenally on offense as a starting small forward. 53% from the field and 50% from the arc over 17 games is a nice run.

Though Hood has moments, the defense isn’t there at either position. It’s hard to gauge fairly when the defense is falling apart team-wide. It’s kind of a five-man job.

Rating: 6

3. Are fastbreak points finally on the menu this year?

The Blazers are 15th in the league with 13.2 fast break points per game so far this year. That’s light years ahead of their usual bottom-five rate. If not for the defense, the few extra points eked out on the run would be making an outsized difference.

Rating: 7

1 & 2: Will the Blazers execute a mid-season trade? and When will Jusuf Nurkic return?

The biggest two issues of the season have yet to be decided. No news has come on the return of Jusuf Nurkic save that it’ll come after New Year’s. December 15th will open up trade season 2019-20. The only firm conclusions we have on these matters is that, given the aggregate performance in the categories above, these two issues take on even more importance. The Blazers are not going to make it through the year in good shape unless one, or both, turn out well.

Synopsis

The overall lesson here may be that the line between winning and losing in the NBA is narrow. A .368 winning percentage isn’t built on buckets of awfulness. Often it means a couple things are going well, but there’s not enough infrastructure to support them.

In Portland’s case, the “whack-a-mole” approach to their issues has been enough to win against similarly-bad teams, but they come up empty against above-.500 opponents. The Blazers have done enough to be so-so, not enough to consider themselves anywhere close to good.

You don’t really have something in the NBA until you’re certain it can’t be taken away. Injuries and unfamiliarity have taken away some of Portland’s potential. Decent teams have taken care of much of the rest. As a result, the occasional Lillard outburst or three-point barrage have become flotation devices on a sinking ship instead of paths to victory.

We’ll see if the addition of Anthony and more cohesion make the vessel more secure by mid-season.