The Portland Trail Blazers are riding high heading into their game with the New Orleans Pelicans tonight. Despite major injuries, they carry a 17-10 record and stand in the upper half of the NBA’s Western Conference. Damian Lillard is having another MVP-level season, the keystone for Portland’s success. Today Dave Deckard and Dia Miller discuss other, more surprising factors influencing the season so far. What things are you most positively surprised by and which have been most disappointing?
Dia: This has been a season FULL of surprises. I mean, really, has there been anything that has been predictable? Between all that Covid-19 has thrown at the league and all the injuries the Trail Blazers have experienced, it’s been hard to surprise me this season. But you know who managed to pull it off? Anfernee Simons. Color me surprised.
Dave: He’s one of the big ones alright. How do you like that instant-shot three-pointer he’s developed? He’s shooting 41.1% on threes, taking 5.2 attempts per game. For perspective, his three-point shooting percentage is better than his entire field goal percentage was last season. Actually, his three-point percentage is better than his overall field goal percentage this year! He’s only shooting 39.2% on two-point attempts, with a horrific 43.8% finishing rate at the rim. He never draws fouls either. He’s a long way from becoming a complete guard, even offensively. But that marksmanship makes up for a host of sins. He’s not just looking like a real NBA shooter, he’s looking like one of the league’s best.
For me, though, it’s Gary Trent, Jr. We knew he’d step up, but look how far he’s come! What wows you about his game so far?
Dia: Gary has had a really great season so far. He’s gotten more playing time with CJ McCollum being out and I think it’s really done him good. There isn't much that will improve a players game as much or as quickly as major minutes in NBA games. Gary has been getting those minutes regularly and he’s proving that he belongs here. Last season he played an average of 21.8 minutes a game and this season he’s played well over 30 in almost every game since McCollum went down. Gary is proving that he belongs so well, In fact, that I have seen a lot of talk amongst fans that he should be a starter even when the whole team is healthy. He’s averaging 14.9 points a game this season and with the games as close as they’ve been, Portland has needed every one of those points. But really, I’m not surprised by this. He was showing this kind of ability in the bubble last season. This is exactly the Gary I was hoping for and expecting to see.
Dave: Trent, Jr. is my biggest surprise...not that he’s developed or that he’s as good as he is, but how much and how quickly the Blazers have come to rely upon him. He’s not just become a player, but a key piece. That may be behind people saying he should start even when CJ McCollum returns. Obviously that’s not possible, or desirable. But it does show you the latitude the Blazers have with their two main shooting guards now, plus the need to resolve that situation without losing value for either.
The one surprising player we haven’t mentioned is Carmelo Anthony. He’s been up and down, but boy has he been on a roll lately. Has anything about him surprised you?
Dia: The thing that surprised me the most. about Melo this season was that he agreed to come off the bench and has been playing that spot effortlessly. That. can’t be a common thing—for a veteran player of Melo’s ability and accomplishments to be coming off the bench on a small market team. But he has. He’s done it with grace and humility and it’s really good to see. Melo is one of those players that I feel like we really shouldn’t be surprised about. If you go back and look at his stats over the last 4 years, he’s pretty consistent. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about a veteran player. You know what you’re getting. Melo comes out night after night and does what he's supposed to do.
I’m realizing something about myself here, Dave. When. the Blazers do well, I’m not surprised. It’s the unicorns and the rainbows—I expect that the team is going to play well and perform and win. What surprises me is when they don't.
Dave: Which is a natural segue to the other half of the coin: players who have disappointed. 10 days ago, ‘Melo definitely would have have gone in this category. Career-low in field goal percentage, near-career-low in true shooting percentage, shoddy defense. But Carmelo has another gear. When he kicks it in, all bets are off. All of a sudden he becomes an active defender and a deadly scorer.
If Anthony has worked his way off this list, who is on it? I feel like I should leave the field wide open for you, since picking a disappointing player isn’t your instinct. Thoughts?
Dia: I’m disappointed in Harry Giles’ playing time. Does that count? I’m definitely not disappointed in Giles himself, in fact I want o see more. He’s one of those players that I feel like flew under the radar, and when he came to Portland, a lot of Sacramento fans seemed really disappointed. I can see why, because he is really fun to watch. He’s only averaged 11.8 minutes this season and that seems like a crime. Give us what we want. Give us more Giles!
Dave: And why do we need Giles? Because Jusuf Nurkic has been cursed this season. Portland’s third star showed up to the season out of shape, played with all the grace of Fred Flintstone doing ballet, and was just starting to round into form when he got injured. The injury wasn’t his fault, of course. We wish him a speedy and healthy recovery. But the injury can’t disguise his complete lack of fit early in the season.
Hopes were high for the Blazers because they already had a solid lineup, which they augmented with depth in the off-season. If Nurkic isn’t Nurkic, they no longer have a solid lineup to add depth to. That’s one of the differences between the Blazers and the best teams in the league. It won’t be bridged unless Nurk comes through.
To me, when you view this arc fully, it’s clearly the most disappointing story of the season so far.
Dia: I’ll say this— the fact that that’s the most disappointing thing we’ve got means we are in pretty good shape. Nurkic is not out for the season, and we seem to be holding it down in the meantime. He was open with the fact that mentally and emotionally he was struggling with things going on with his family back home in Bosnia and it was clearly throwing him off. But in the midst of that, it seemed like the team couldn’t figure out how to adjust to that. When he got injured, they had to figure out how to function without him, and they’ve managed to stay afloat. I truly believe he will come back and be better than when he went down, and maybe this will all end up being a surprise instead of a disappointment.
Are you on board with Dia? All surprises and few disappointments? What are the least-expected plusses and minuses to the year so far to you? Join the conversation in the comments!