The Portland Trail Blazers are still finding their footing in the wake of of the significant injuries to Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum last month. After being gifted nearly an entire week off immediately after McCollum hit the injured list—thanks to a pair of COVID-related postponements against the Memphis Grizzlies—the team had an up-and-down stretch, highlighted by close games and blown leads.
During this period, we learned three important things that will likely affect how the team fares as they wait to return to full strength.
1. Anfernee Simons has been miscast.
While Portland’s 2020 offseason received generally high marks both locally and nationally, highlighted by the addition of Robert Covington, the seeming lack of a back-up point guard on the roster raised some eyebrows. The Blazers insisted that they had their man already in Simons, the third year professional from Florida’s IMG Academy. In reality, that task generally fell on McCollum, who served as the primary ball handler during the limited instances that Damian Lillard wasn’t on the floor.
With McCollum out, Simons was thrust into the position in earnest. In general, he has provided a big scoring spark off the bench in an increased role, while playing with a confidence that seemed to be lacking for much of last season. Unfortunately, despite the production, his facilitating skills have left much to be desired. Portland’s second unit has been largely stagnant with Ant as floor general, though that isn’t necessarily his fault, as it’s clearly not a natural role for him.
Following a disastrous outing against the San Antonio Spurs, the team’s first game without McCollum in which the second unit featured four players standing around as one tried to score, coach Terry Stotts used the week off to emphasis more off-ball movement with the unit. Things have looked a bit smoother since, but rarely will Simons utilize on-ball screens that his mentor Lillard excels in to help open up the floor. Instead, Ant will usually either look to create his own shot upon bringing the ball up the court, or get the ball to Carmelo Anthony for an isolation play.
He’s shown flashes of his playmaking ability, and could potentially still grow into the role, but Portland is in a situation where they can’t necessarily wait around for that to happen. As the losses mount, the team’s still biggest personnel hole is getting thrust back into the spotlight. It casts a shadow onto Portland’s front office at 1 N Center Court, for not addressing the issue during the offseason.
2. Carmelo Anthony is doing more harm than good.
This isn’t exactly a recent development, but was exacerbated as the veteran’s field goal percentage plummeted last week. Pushed into the starting lineup with further injuries to Covington and Derrick Jones Jr., he was unable to rise to the occasion. Melo’s defensive limitations are well documented, but the real issue has been his lack of offensive efficiency. In addition to not hitting shots, his presence generally disrupts the flow of the offense, as more often than not he is content to force a contested look. If they’re not falling, he becomes a liability at both ends of the court.
Even when starting, his minutes usually coincide with the period that Simons is running the point. This takes one issue and makes it even worse. For a unit already struggling to move the ball and generate open looks, Anthony’s insistence to try and take over the game by himself pours gas on the fire and limits any hope that Simons can eventually develop into a serviceable point guard.
Melo could help that process by acting more as a spot-up shooter, a role he has found some success with this season. Unfortunately, if that change in mentality hasn’t happened consistently to this point, there’s little chance it will anytime soon. As it stands, it’s probably in the best interest of the team to scale back his role.
3. Enes Kanter needs more touches.
The Blazers will need the big man, now in the starting lineup, to help take over the scoring void left with McCollum and Nurkic out. He has proven to be an effective post scorer, and while the team will generally look to get him involved in the offense early, via post-ups or the pick-and-roll, his usage rate typically declines as the game goes on. He thrived against the undersized Chicago Bulls, going for a season high 9-13 shooting, and was a major factor in the win, showing he is capable of a larger role.
Kanter, like Anthony, struggles mightily defensively, so it’s in the best interest of the team to take advantage of his strengths to help make up for the weaknesses. Few big men in the modern game can handle Kanter down low, as his patience, bulk, and touch are a lethal combination. The Blazers can’t count on Lillard bailing them out every game. Along with Gary Trent Jr., he is an obvious candidate to see an increased scoring load and take some pressure off of Dame. Portland needs to do a better job of making him a focal point, primarily in matchups against smaller big men.
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