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Trail Blazers’ Injuries are Significant, but They Don’t Explain Everything

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The Blazers would be better if healthy, but some issues run deeper.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Everybody from here to the moon understands that the Portland Trail Blazers have had a tough year with injuries. Jusuf Nurkic has been out since last March. Zach Collins, Rodney Hood, and a host of others followed as the season progressed. Injuries have become a one-stop-shopping explanation for Portland’s losing record this season, and fairly so. But how far does that explanation hold? Where would the Blazers be with good health? Do injuries explain everything significantly wrong with the team? That’s the topic of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

I hear you evaluating our team. Maybe criticizing. I guess there’s reasons, but can we get a mention at least of the injuries? We all know that’s why this season isn’t going well, but you never mention it. Isn’t this Occam’s Razor? The simplest explanation is the right one. If we were not injured nobody would be having these conversations about coaching or anything else.

Hal

You’re right. I haven’t mentioned injuries that much in these Mailbags. (Fair is fair: I’ve never mentioned coaching either.) Health is obviously a huge factor in Portland’s season. The reasons for omission in this space are simple:

  1. We’ve mentioned it in multiple other articles and features.
  2. It’s so obvious that few people actually ask questions about it other than wanting information that nobody has at this time, like, “When is Jusuf Nurkic coming back?”

That said, when an issue like this goes unaddressed, it sits in the corner forming its own mythology. That’s exactly what’s happened here. Let’s demystify the issue a bit.

Injuries are the single biggest factor affecting Portland’s season. Damian Lillard’s all-world performance this year comes in a close second; it’ll actually be remembered far longer than the injury woes will. For now, though, even Lillard hasn’t been able to claw Portland out of the hole that injuries have dug.

While the absolute impact of the injury list is unquestioned, its relative effect remains open to debate.

The Blazers aren’t a winning team. They’re barely a contender for the playoffs, let alone in them. Those conditions are injury-related. It does not necessarily follow that lack of injuries would have propelled Portland into the conference elite.

If we’re going to make an argument like that, we have to level the playing field for all teams involved. It’s terribly easy to say, “Without all these injuries, the Blazers would have a better standing than they do now.” That’s true of every single team in the league. If we’re going to flip a condition for Portland (injured to non-injured) we have to flip the same switch for everyone else too, or we’re talking about relative quality of health, not quality of team. The real test would be, “How good would the Blazers be compared to their opponents if no teams suffered injuries?”

Obviously the Blazers would be better without any injuries. Would they be better than a completely uninjured Golden State Warriors team, with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green playing at full potential? Would they be better than the Los Angeles Clippers with Paul George not suffering from summer shoulder surgery and no need for Kawhi Leonard to load manage? Would they be better than the Los Angeles Lakers with no injuries to Anthony Davis and with DeMarcus Cousins at full strength? How about the Minnesota Timberwolves never losing Karl-Anthony Towns or the Dallas Mavericks having Luca Doncic for all 82 games?

One could easily argue that even a fully-healthy Blazers squad wouldn’t be first or second in the conference, that they’ve already been passed by for those spots without ever reaching them. One could just as easily see them battling for the 4th-6th seeds, still unable to break through to the NBA Finals through the rough Western Conference playoffs scrum.

Nurkic and Zach Collins are clearly the two biggest losses for Portland this season. Somewhere in the playoffs they’d have been called upon to defend Davis and LeBron James. Or Collins and Rodney Hood would have been tasked with stopping Leonard and George. Likely both would have been necessary. Playing better defense and playing defense good enough to turn those series are two different claims.

Speaking of defense...it’s clearly the reason the Blazers are struggling this year. They’re 26th in the league in points allowed, 25th in three-point attempts AND three-point percentage allowed, 26th in fast-break points allowed, and 27th in defensive rebounding percentage. Those are stomach-churning numbers.

Not having their normal front line hurts, obviously. But there’s more to it than that. Defense requires skill and experience, but the Blazers have a fair measure of that, especially in the starting lineup. You don’t have to be Jusuf Nurkic to move your feet, get back on defense, or not allow a dribbler to hit the lane unimpeded. The Blazers aren’t doing that.

Only a few NBA players can defend at an excellent level, but it doesn’t take an incredible amount of skill to not suck completely. The Blazers, collectively and often individually, have sucked completely. That’s not just an injury issue. That’s about commitment, refusal to give up on a play, a game, or a season. Despite protests to the contrary, that commitment has been sporadic.

I was talking to a friend about the season and the team the other day. The injury topic came up and we agreed that it was tragic. We also agreed that there was more in play than meets the eye.

The Blazers do not have a chemistry problem. They’re famously adept when it comes to locker-room cohesiveness and public interactions. The Blazers do have a culture problem, though, and this injury thing has exposed it to the world like a seat rip in your tight-fitting jeans.

If the Blazers can see winning in front of them, they will go get it. Last year’s playoffs run was a good example. They overcame reasonable adversity and succeeded at a reasonably high level. (Before we trumpet “Western Conference Finals” as more than “reasonably high” in the abstract, we should look at Portland’s success once they reached that pinnacle, which was non-existent. Had Portland been on the same side of the bracket as the Golden State Warriors, the Conference Finals would have been out of reach.)

The problem comes when the gap between current status and success becomes unreasonable. The Blazers always have a puncher’s chance because of the Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt. They share that chance with every other talented team. But unless those dice come up big, the Blazers appear to have neither vision nor drive enough to close the gap. With the possible exception of Lillard, they resemble the guy on your flag football team who, perceiving the quarterback overthrew him, pulls up and doesn’t even go after the pass. Most of the time he’s right, but that’s not competitive. Sometimes the overthrow isn’t as far as perceived and that pass could have been caught.

Most of the games the Blazers have lost this year, they would have lost anyway, even had the players on the court moved quicker on defense or kept after defensive plays. Not all of them, though. Their record is as sketchy as it is not just because of injuries, but because they’ve spent way too many plays pulling up short and letting the opponent get shots without even trying to get in their faces. Too many of their games have become predictable, not from talent disparity, but in body language and lateral speed.

Take video of Portland’s defense out of the current crucible and re-run it four years later; nobody is going to call what’s happening out there good. Saying, “We didn’t have a chance to win anyway!” isn’t much of an excuse. How do you know unless you try? And really, 98% of the trying this year has come on offense.

Portland’s culture issue becomes evident in the micro-sense every time the Blazers lose coverage on a defensive play, not because they got picked off skillfully, but because they gave up, stood still, and let it happen. We get macro demonstrations through win-loss totals this year. We’ve seen it before in their inability to adjust in the face of failure in years past.

Here’s the thing: health will get better, but that doesn’t mean the culture will. If you really want to win in the playoffs, especially as an underdog (which the Blazers now seem destined to be, barring a huge trade), you have to face impossible odds, then crumple up the paper they’re written on, and eat it for lunch. If you can’t do that, you’re never going to make it past the Lakers and Clippers of the world. You’ll do what the Blazers have always done: make a go of it as far as they reasonably can, fall to a better (or at least more bull-headed) team, call it success, and then justify why that was the best possible outcome, all things considered. That’s a nice narrative for the team newsletter; it’s not going to win any championships.

At what point do the current injuries become just the next fill-in-the-blank variable in the story? If the Blazers really want the tale to end differently someday, it starts by changing the culture right now through things like...

  • not allowing opponents 15 points per game on the break
  • not allowing opponents to rebound one out of every four of their own misses
  • not allowing the sad-sack Atlanta Hawks—the worst three-point shooting team in the league—to fire away so wide open that they burn you like they were the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets combined.

Injuries to Player A do not keep Player B from busting his behind every moment he’s on the court. Injuries to Players A, B, and C do not force an entire team to stare at each other blankly while opponents run up 100 points by the end of the third period again...and again...and again. At some point those buckets should be earned over the blood, sweat, and souls of the defending team. That’s not even close to happening.

The Blazers will get good—much better—when they’re healthy again. Will they ever be great, though? If so, they’re sure not showing it now. That reality has far greater, and longer, implications than their injury status on a given night this season. It’s possible to credit the injuries fully for sinking what could have been an interesting season while still admitting that the team needs to evolve, otherwise “interesting” is going to be as good as it gets.

Thanks for the question! You can send yours to blazersub@gmail.com anytime you wish!