The first quarter of the Trail Blazers’ season has oscillated between despair and hope. Injuries, cumbersome integration of new players and a daunting schedule have turned Portland’s title aspirations into a battle for a seat at the postseason table.
Saddled with a 9-14 record through 23 games, here are the six things that have defined the first quarter of the 2019-20 season for the Blazers.
Regardless of Jusuf Nurkic’s long recovery and a roster full of fresh faces, the Blazers’ target for the 2019-20 season was focused on a title. That optimism was largely tied to the projected growth of third-year big man Zach Collins. Capable of filling in at both post positions, Collins’ contributions were poised to keep Portland’s record in the green as Nurkic recovered and Hassan Whiteside gained his footing.
Unfortunately for the Blazers, Collins’ breakout season was put on pause when the former Gonzaga standout suffered a shoulder injury in late October. Following his departure, the Blazers went on to drop five out of their next six games. Portland’s interior promptly turned into a welcome mat. In the month of November, directly following Collins’ injury, the Blazers surrendered 51.6 points in the paint per game (only the Wizards and Cavs allowed more points in the paint over that stretch).
Unsurprisingly, the struggles on the interior have reverberated across the entire defense. Prior to Friday’s contest against the Lakers, the Blazers’ defensive rating on the year rested at 111.0, placing Portland in the bottom third of the league.
Rodney Hood’s Achilles injury was the newest cruel entry into the Blazers season. The former Cavs forward exited in the first quarter of Portland’s loss to the Los Angeles and it is unlikely that he will return to the court this season.
Like Collins’ exit, Hood’s absence is devastating when considering how effective he was on offense to start the season. Through 20 contests, Hood was shooting above 50 percent from the field and averaging 11.5 points per game. Barring a trade, Kent Bazemore has big shoes to fill inside the starting lineup.
The Polarizing Play of Whiteside
Judging by the statistical profile outlined above, it is easy to point out that Whiteside’s debut has been a bit rocky. Whiteside, who arrived to Portland carrying a less-than-ideal reputation, has received both positive and negative reviews through the first quarter of the season.
His uneven effort in a nationally-televised matchup against the Clippers garnered harsh criticism from TNT’s crew. On the positive side, a finally-healthy Whiteside set the Portland’s single-game block record with 10 rejections in a victory over the Bulls.
After sitting idle for over a year, Carmelo Anthony hit the ground running after the Blazers desperately turned to his services after a 4-8 start to the season. To almost everyone’s surprise, Melo has turned back the clock in several ways since he started lining up alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Melo’s immediate contributions earned him Western Conference Player of the Week honors to finish out November, marking the first time since 2014 since he claimed one of the NBA’s weekly awards. Prior to Friday’s contest, Melo has produced 16.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.
Along with producing points of his own, Melo’s insertion into the lineup has had a positive impact on his teammates. CJ McCollum has parlayed the attention Melo receives from opponents to an increase in scoring. In the eight games following Melo’s debut, McCollum’s 24.4 scoring average led the Blazers.
Suspect Bench Contributions
The Blazers’ busy offseason has yet to yield consistent positive results, further compounding the aforementioned injury issues. Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver, once presumed to be role players, were jettisoned from the rotation in favor of a NBA exile and a 19-year-old rookie. Between the two veterans, it is tough to decide who had the roughest start. Tolliver, a journeyman stretch four, failed to register a single point through his first three games in a Blazers uniform. Hezonja fared slightly better, but his 36 percent shooting from the field has translated to dwindling playing time.
Individual performances aside, the Blazers’ lack of consistent contributions from players not named Damian Lillard amplified the accumulation of losses. Yes, the Blazers lost to the Nets despite a 60-point performance from Lillard.
Outside of the role players that appeared in he lineup, Pau Gasol’s on-the-court tenure with the Blazers failed to launch. The big fella’s injury recovery continued to stall, leading to his eventual release. Gasol is set to rejoin the Blazers as a member of the coaching staff.
Young Faces in Big Places
Prior to Melo’s surprisingly successful arrival, a trio of youngsters served as the brightest beacon of hope. Anfernee Simons, Skal Labissière and Nassir Little have all provided contributions in meaningful moments. Labissière, a castoff from Sacramento, has flashed the potential that made him a coveted recruit out of high school. Tasked with backup center duties, Labissière displays a soft touch on offense and plays with a consistent energy level.
Little represents the biggest surprise of the trio. The former North Carolina standout endured a draft-day slide the eventually ended with a trip to Portland. The Blazers’ projected depth and Stotts’ reluctance to utilize rookies looked like a recipe for a redshirt rookie year for Little. Due to the hurdles outlined above, Little was thrust into the rotation ahead of schedule. Buoyed by his relentless style, the rookie routinely supplies the Blazers with momentum.
With Hood out, Little should receive another shot at meaningful minutes in the Blazers’ post-Melo rotations.
Prior to Saturday’s slate of games the Trail Blazers sit just outside the Western Conference postseason standings. Each with 10 wins, the Timberwolves and Suns are clinging to the final two playoff spots.
The Blazers return to action on Sunday to host the Thunder.