The NBA all-star break is almost upon us! Let’s take a look at three questions that the Portland Trail Blazers will need to iron out over the last third of the season if they want to avoid another embarrassing first round playoff exit.
How will the rotation shake out?
We used to talk about the PGotF at Blazer’s Edge. The mythical playmaker who would step in next to Brandon Roy and run Portland’s offense competently for the next decade. Instead we got a revolving door of Jarrett Jack, Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless, and Steve Blake (x3).
Somehow, the small forward situation since Nicolas Batum’s departure has been even more dire. I’ve given up hoping for a SFotF and will be happy with a “Jarrett Jack of Small Forwards” at this point.
The fundamental problem is that the Blazers desperately need a 3&D wing but the closest imitation they have is Al-Farouq Aminu and he’s already starting at power forward. That leaves head coach Terry Stotts searching for the least-broken Decepticon to be the leg of his Devastator. So far the jury-rigged starting lineup is still limping.
Evan Turner, Jake Layman, Maurice Harkless, Seth Curry, and now Rodney Hood can all fill in for a bit but they all have limitations that make it difficult to perfectly pair them with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. At this point, the question is whether or not any of those players can be so good at their strengths that it overwhelms the weaknesses and creates an optimal lineup for the Blazers.
Who is going to knock down 3-pointers?
Of the players listed, it’s unlikely that Turner will become a floor spacer, Harkless will become miraculously consistent, or Curry will be able to play even passable defense on bigger forwards.
That leaves the Blazers hoping and praying that Layman or Hood can play well enough to lock down the second forward position. Even if we ignore defense, there’s one question that could determine Portland’s playoff fate: Will Layman or Hood be able to bend defenses from the 3-point line?
Layman is shooting 36 percent on 3s this season and Hood is a career 37 percent shooter. Those numbers are right on the line of making defenders worry. And so far nobody has rushed to step out and challenge Layman on a regular basis:
The other concern: He's shooting 35.4% on 3s for the season and doesn't really create any gravity. Example of the Mavs not caring to run out when he's open on the perimeter: pic.twitter.com/G36eAXLIzx— Eric Griffith (@EricG_NBA) February 11, 2019
Will that change over time? Will teams respect Hood on the perimeter more than Layman or Aminu?
Layman’s cuts and hustle plays have been a shot in the arm for the Blazers — he’s averaging 29 minutes per game over the last seven games, and Hood’s playmaking looks very nice next to Lillard so far, but the importance of those skills pales in comparison to 3-point gravity in the playoffs.
I know I sound like a broken record, but finding another guy who can play passable defense and hit 3-pointers reliably enough to stretch the defense while Lillard/McCollum/Nurkic play together may be the most important question of the season. It’s unclear if hustle and alley-oop dunks can replace that quality, so hopefully Layman and/or Hood can prove over the last third of the season that they should be feared as 3-point shooters.
How will Nurkic manage his foul trouble?
Jusuf Nurkic has committed five or more fouls in five of the last nine games he’s played. Some of this is the result of his role as a backstop for perimeter defenders of (*ahem*) varying skill levels, some is his physical style of play, and some is his penchant to make a bad situation worse by fouling after being beat defensively.
Here’s an example of Nurkic giving up on offensive rebound to LaMarcus Aldridge and then compounding the problem by fouling Aldridge:
That’s the NBA equivalent of charging a fourth $11 cocktail to your maxed-out credit card. A bad decision made unnecessarily worse than you’re going to pay the price for down the road.
Here’s the obvious problem: Unlike the grab bag of wings/forwards discussed above there’s a big dropoff from Nurkic to his backups, either Zach Collins or Meyers Leonard. If Aminu gets into foul trouble Terry Stotts will curse under his breath for a second and then throw Harkless or Turner into the game. No substantial drop-off in the lineup.
But If Nurkic gets into foul trouble we all start doing mental calculus about whether Layman could play smallball center for the next seven minutes.
Nurkic can clean up the silly compounding errors, but he may be stylistically doomed to foul trouble by the roster’s limitations and his own physical play. Managing his fouls will be one of the most important in-game storylines for the rest of the season.
Readers — do you think the Blazers can answer these questions? Let us know in the comments below!