The 2019-20 NBA season included plenty of ups and downs for the Portland Trail Blazers. After a harsh, 5-12 start to the year, they clawed their way back against tough opponents in January and February, getting within sniffing distance of .500 and the 8th seed in the Western Conference, only to slide back again. The season got interrupted by COVID-19, their roster got healthier, and suddenly the Blazers were the darlings of the season-restart bubble in Orlando, swooping past the Memphis Grizzlies to earn a spot in the playoffs. They flew high with an opening-game win versus the Los Angeles Lakers, then crashed with four straight losses.
Though inconsistency haunted Portland all season long, a few clear trends emerged that typified the year. Here are three of the most significant.
The Blazers started the season without starting center Jusuf Nurkic. Zach Collins suffered a shoulder injury three games into the season. Rodney Hood played just 21 games before tearing his left Achilles tendon, which took him out for the rest of the year. Missing three of their top seven rotation players, the Blazers turned to short-term replacements like Carmelo Anthony, Kent Bazemore, Trevor Ariza, and Hassan Whiteside. Shuffling them in and out of the lineup (and roster) created more instability. Not only did the Blazers fail to find a groove, they failed to find an identity.
The COVID hiatus benefited Portland in this regard. Nurkic and Collins returned to the lineup. But Collins lasted only nine games before falling again. CJ McCollum revealed he was playing with a fractured vertebra and struggled to find his regular-season form. Damian Lillard left the playoffs series with the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 with a knee issue.
Despite carrying playoffs experience from 2019, despite the veteran help, despite fielding one of the most potent backcourts in the NBA, the Blazers never got into gear this year. They were the used car you instantly regret purchasing, never running for more than a few weeks without something else breaking down.
Of all the factors influencing Portland’s performance in 2019-20, injuries had the clearest impact on the season. Nobody knows what the team would have looked like without them. We all saw that they didn’t play very well with them.
Carmelo Anthony was the most prominent of the veterans Portland brought on board to fill gaps this year. He wasn’t the most central figure, though. That honor belongs to Hassan Whiteside, who started 61 games at the five-spot for them.
On the surface, trading Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard for the Miami center was a success. The Blazers got the best version of Whiteside possible. 15.5 points per game ranked as his second-highest scoring season ever. Same with his 13.5 rebounds. Whiteside averaged a career high in offensive rebounds (3.9), a near-career-high in field goal percentage (.621), and led the NBA in blocked shots with 2.9 per game.
And yet the Blazers still ended up 28th in the NBA in Defensive Efficiency. Aside from blocked shots, their best defensive metrics proved mediocre. They finished 28th in Defensive Rebounding Percentage, 29th in Three-Point Percentage Allowed. Whenever their offense wrote a check to pay off the win, it would come back marked “insufficient funds”. The defense had already drained the account.
Through most of the season, Whiteside stood at the center of a maelstrom. How valuable was he, really? Aggregate stats and highlight clips told one story, anecdotal evidence and less-than-highlight-worthy clips another.
In the end, both sides were right. Whiteside filled his starting center role well. In the big picture, it didn’t help that much. Inability to cover the arc and inconsistency on the boards proved far more damaging than the blocked shots could make up for.
Damian Lillard or Bust
The slapdash story of Portland’s season might be summarized in a single line:
When Damian Lillard scored 50, the Blazers were going to win. Short of that, they weren’t a threat.
We’re exaggerating a little. Lillard scored 40 or more 11 times this season. The Blazers went 8-3 in those games. They were 27-36 otherwise.
Lillard came out of his shell years ago, but this year he shed the last vestiges of anonymity with three 50-point and three 60-point performances. Putting that in perspective, Lillard scored more in those six outings than all but five of his teammates scored all season.
Dame dominated the NBA bubble, averaging 37.6 points per game. When he walked into the 2020 NBA Playoffs, he was tabbed a superstar, spoken in the same sentence as LeBron James, mentioned with Steph Curry in legitimate debate over who the best point guard in the NBA is.
As great as Lillard had been prior—with Dame Time and series-ending shots, musical displays and shoe deals—all this was new. Lillard hasn’t just ascended, he’s transcended.
Yet the Blazers needed him to be otherworldly in order to have any chance. That’s not good. Even Lillard isn’t going to put up 40 a night on a regular basis. Nor can he do it in the playoffs, when opponents commit to stopping him at all costs. Ultimately, relying on a deity-level version of Dame won’t be a recipe for success any more than it was for Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City or James Harden in Houston.
In the process of accumulating those gaudy numbers, Lillard led the league in minutes played per game. He finished 5th in total floor time. He’s 30 years old and, unlike fellow minutes-maven Harden, he’s not built like a tank. If Portland needs this much from him, it may not be a matter of whether he’s capable, but whether he can hold up.
It’s hard to know which side of the equation—”YEAH!!!” or “Yeah, but...”—will prevail over the next few seasons.
For the seventh time in eight years (excluding the run to the 2019 Western Conference Finals), the Blazers are left saying, “That was exciting, but it didn’t quite work out the way we wanted.” Lillard has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that the “but...” isn’t his fault. The Blazers still need to prove to him, and everyone around them, that it’s going to change. For all that Lillard has given this franchise, they still haven’t provided him a clear answer to that question. Without it, they better hope he can average 50 for half a season, not just half a week.
We’ll continue to talk about the other factors influencing the season as the next few weeks go by. Then we’ll turn to the sure-to-be-exciting 2020 NBA Draft and trade season. Could the Blazers have a move up their sleeves? Stay with us as we talk it out.