An 8-6 record has left the Portland Trail Blazers in the thick of the NBA’s Western Conference this season. They currently stand fifth, ahead of or equal to everybody except the conference elite. Unfortunately they’re also a tickle and a sneeze away from 12th place. That’s the way the season has gone for most teams so far.
Unsurprisingly, Portland’s first fourteen games have contained plenty of ups and downs. Today I’m going to talk about some of them. In weak imitation of Zach Lowe’s “10 Things I Like (and Don’t Like) About the NBA” column, We already listed five of my favorite things. Now we’re going to cover my five least favorite.
The selections are subjective and personal, which leaves plenty of room for you to argue or add your own. We’ll encourage you to do both after you read these.
My Five Favorite Things About the Trail Blazers Season So Far
Ugh. I don’t even need to explain this, so I’ll be brief.
- The Blazers don’t have anybody but their starting guards signed long-term
- Those starting guards are straddling 30 years of age
- This was supposed to be the season when they finally put it together before they had to let half the roster go for financial reasons
- Serious injuries to Jusuf Nurkic, CJ McCollum, and Zach Collins are making that all but impossible
This story is all too familiar, but still angrifying, to anyone who lived through the Brandon Roy and Greg Oden era, or the LaMarcus Aldridge defection, or basically any part of the Blazers timeline after 1977.
And yes, I made up “angrifying”. We need a new word for it. The old ones just won’t do.
Portland’s starting forwards—Robert Covington and Derrick Jones, Jr.—are playing good defense. Jones, Jr. even made my five favorites list because of it.
That’s not quite enough, though. No matter how good Portland’s offense is (and it’s pretty darn good), they need those same forwards to hit open threes. Otherwise the season becomes slow march towards a throttle-down checkpoint in the postseason, as opponents gang up on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in all-too-familiar fashion.
Watching Covington shoot 30.1% from distance and Jones, Jr. 25.7% is among my least favorite things this year. It’s like having a perfectly good chalkboard, then dragging your nails against it. Covington is so far below his career averages in three-point and field goal percentages that he could yodel into the gap and hear an echo. Jones, Jr. was never a good distance shooter, but he’s still below his normal mark and his overall shooting percentage is abysmal (44% compared to a career average over 50%).
Both forwards need to step it up. It’s not like they’re getting swarmed by defenders will Lillard and McCollum on the floor. With multiple starters out, the issue will become more pressing over the next month.
Not Enough Gary Trent Jr.
No Portland player was poised to take a leap this season more than Gary Trent, Jr. He was Mr. Bubble in 2020, only overshadowed by the stellar play of teammate Lillard. The Blazers need shooting and defense. Trent, Jr. provides both. It seemed like a match made in heaven.
Trent, Jr. is getting more minutes and more shots per game than he averaged overall last year, but he was also working his way into the rotation last season so those averages are skewed. Playing 24.3 minutes per night is healthy, but it still doesn’t seem like enough.
The shooting guard remains steady at the arc, shooting 42.2%. He’s still a fine defender. McCollum’s amazing start to the season may have edged out Trent, Jr. a little, but CJ plays point sometimes too. Plus, McCollum is now injured. All due respect to Rodney Hood, whom I also love, but seeing Trent, Jr. revive his late-season ways would do my heart good and give me more confidence in Portland’s supposed “depth”.
Fast Break Defense
I praised the Blazers for their fast break offense in the last post, but they haven’t sewed it up on the defensive end yet. That’s a problem.
The Blazers are scoring 15.4 points per game on the run this season. That’s well above their historical averages. They’re giving up 15.9 on the break, though, yielding a net -0.5 points in transition. Say what you want about Portland’s predictable halfcourt offense in the past. At least they didn’t let the opponent get easy buckets either. Right now they’re 29th out of 30 teams in fast break points allowed.
The funny thing is, the Blazers are 2nd in the NBA in turnovers committed. They’re middle of the road in offensive rebounding percentage, but not awful. No turnovers and few easy rebounds for the opponent should inhibit fast break opportunities. Instead teams are running like crazy against the Blazers.
Somebody—or, more likely, somebodies—is not getting back. The Blazers need to shore this up if they want to un-suck the defense. Even an improvement to average would yield them a three point per game advantage over their current situation. That would make a significant difference in their overall winning percentage over the course of a season.
The League’s COVID Response
Everyone was skeptical as the NBA entered the Orlando Bubble last summer to finish off the 2019-2020 season. That includes me. I thought resuming play was a huge risk. As it turned out, I was wrong. Bubble execution was near-seamless and we got to enjoy a few months of decent basketball. Everybody won.
That’s clearly not happening in 2020-21, as multiple games are being postponed because of Health and Safety Protocols. This isn’t safe and it isn’t sane. There’s zero chance of keeping players from getting infected. There’s no way to keep players isolated when they’re running down the same 94-foot court together. This is what we feared initially for the Bubble. It’s now reality outside it.
The NBA appears to be good at testing participants. They’re being consistent when reacting to confirmed cases and diligent at tracing. All of those measures come after the fact. They’re not really prevention, let alone airtight security.
I don’t like having games postponed. It’s one of my least favorite things. But even worse is the gut feeling that even when those games resumed, they haven’t really fixed the problem. The league needs to start asking ethical questions, not just practical ones, when it comes to conducting the second half of the season. If they can’t get that far without the virus running rampant, the health of everyone involved is more important than the games.
Those are my five least-favorite things so far. What are yours? Share in the comment section below!