The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2020-21 season hasn’t started like we’d hoped. The team sits 6-7 after 13 games, delivering lackluster performances on the road and acceptable play at the Moda Center.
Damian Lillard has been a shadow of his former self, only recently rekindling some, not all, of the ability we’re used to. If you ask Charles Barkley, Lillard doesn’t look committed or particularly interested in what’s going on. Let’s take that with a grain of salt though — Chuck’s never really had his finger on the Portland pulse.
The defense doesn’t appear to be improved from last season’s league second-worst mantle, at least on the road.
President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey is under investigation and possibly in his last days in the Blazers front office, while President and Chief Executive Officer Chris McGowan yesterday called time on his Portland tenure.
The payroll is on track to exceed the luxury tax, and a real threat to enter repeater tax territory next season. All while the team is under .500 and already a fair way off the west’s prime movers.
Jusuf Nurkic, arguably the team’s second most important player, has stretches of apathy broken up by even shorter streaks of engagement. Nurkic along with Robert Covington and Anfernee Simons are also in contract years. And rookie coach Chauncey Billups is struggling to have his philosophies executed on the court.
From my perspective, there also seems to be a general malaise on the court, an unconvincing connection between the players and what they’re supposed to be doing. For a franchise trying to convince its franchise player to stay beyond next summer, it’s not going so well.
Yes, not everything is bleak. In fact, there are a few things we should be cautiously optimistic about, even if it’s the team winning its first road game against the lowly Houston Rockets yesterday.
Signing that five-year, $90 million contract clearly helped Norman Powell feel at ease in his new-ish surroundings. He’s probably the only starter delivering consistently on both sides of the ball, despite missing multiple games with knee issues and playing out of position. Through 11 games, the Blazers third 6’3 starter is averaging 17.5 points on 45.5 percent three point shooting, 2.7 boards, 1.5 assists and 0.9 steals.
More importantly, Powell does things his fellow guards Lillard and CJ McCollum don’t do, namely finishing explosively at the rim in transition and playing defense. Holding onto Powell was crucial this summer but he can’t be the most consistent starter for this team to contend.
Defense at home
The Blazers have been allowing roughly 102 points at home and 112 points on the road — a pretty stark contrast. Given the team’s second worst defensive ranking last season and few roster changes over the summer, it’d be pretty natural to look at the road average as more indicative of the current situation.
But Billups has repeatedly told us that he will have the Blazers playing better defense — seriously, he has. Consequently, the more optimistic of us might look to the Moda Center defense as the true reflection of what this team will end up being. Regardless of which point of view you choose to take, Billups still has time to ensure the Oregon-exclusive defense become more widely available.
During the Lillard/Olshey era, Blazers teams have traditionally been pretty shallow. Cast your mind back to 2012-13 when you had JJ Hickson starting at center and a bench consisting of Sasha Pavlovic, Luke Babbitt, Jared Jeffries and rookies Will Barton and Meyers Leonard. I could go through each year listing the non-NBA talent warming the pine.
This year, however, you could legitimately argue the Blazers bench is, at times, contributing more than the starters. Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, Larry Nance Jr., Cody Zeller and, to a lesser extent Tony Snell, have not only improved leads but reduced deficits, in some cases, by simply looking more cohesive. It probably helps that Zeller and Nance Jr. play defense and that youthful athleticism and energy has helped keep the scoreboard ticking over on the offensive end.
Nance Jr., Zeller and Snell are smart, experienced bodies well aware of their respective capabilities, rarely venturing outside them.
Little and Simons have developed their young games to the point where they clearly belong in the league, offering skill and energy that allow them to thrive for years to come.
I know we just mentioned the bench, but Little and Simons deserve sections all to themselves. After battling to get on the court and dealing with illness and injury, Little is delivering this season, with 7.5 points on 33.3 percent three point shooting, 5.7 boards, 0.8 blocks and 0.8 steals.
His energy and hustle have frequently ignited stale Blazer lineups struggling for momentum. And if you’re looking for an example of that energy, the below snippet from last night’s game is a decent enough illustration.
Little is what this team has needed for years, a big, strong, athletic wing that can do a little of everything competently and energetically.
Let’s leave the best till last. If Lillard does decide to go, this team could conceivably initially build around Simons. Simons has ticked every box and then some this season, he’s delivering on all the hype that has followed him since 2018.
This year, Simons has increased his points per game from 7.8 to 11.9 on 38 percent three points shooting, while also recording 2.3 rebounds and 2 assists. Despite a couple of underwhelming shooting performances, Simons has still been able to contribute both on the scoreboard and via assists.
During the deepest despair of Lillard’s shooting woes, it was 22-year-old Simons who helped carry the offensive load, able to hit shots when his more experienced starting counterparts struggled.
Funny how three of the five categories relate directly the bench. Imagine having both the starters and reserves playing well at the same time. For years, fans begged and pleaded for an acceptable bench to complement the starters. As soon as it arrives, the starters slump.
Yesterday’s win against the Rockets was not season changing. The fact the Rockets got within 10 points in the last quarter is seriously concerning and not a great sign as this team heads to Denver.
Lillard, McCollum, Powell, Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic need to start performing like they were in the latter part of last season and match the production and enthusiasm the reserves are displaying.
The next few weeks will likely indicate this team’s trajectory over the rest of the season —they will either continue to flounder in the play-in picture or work it out and start ascending.