The second half of arguably the strangest year in NBA history is in full swing, and the Portland Trail Blazers have already experienced numerous ups and downs. But considering everything, things in the first half went pretty well.
The Blazers suffered major injuries to two of their best players in CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, but still managed to somehow put together their best 35-game start of the post-LMA era. The defense has looked like a tire fire in their first three games back, but it’s honestly incredible where they are in the standings.
If there is one thing that the Blazers need to fight in the second half, it’s contentment, and the best way to fight that is by setting expectations. Luckily for the Blazers, I’ve already done it for them. So here is one goal for each Blazers player as we approach the second half.
Damian Lillard: Finish Top 3 in MVP voting
Damian Lillard is very good at basketball. He’s so good that he had the Blazers running out one of the best starting fives EVER offensively for a significant period of time. His splits of 29.9 points and 7.9 assists per game on 62% true shooting is only matched by what he did last year. There hasn’t been a point guard as effective as Lillard this season.
That’s why I think that finishing in the top three in MVP voting is an attainable goal for Lillard. I would’ve put “Win the MVP” as his goal if Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic weren’t the two clear front runners at the moment. Anything can happen, but I don’t expect Lillard to surpass those two. But even then, maybe Lillard can make a push with Embiid out for the next couple weeks. Top three feels more than within reach for Lillard.
CJ McCollum: Return to pre-injury CJ (or at least pre-injury CJ’s rates)
CJ McCollum was having an All-Star season before injury. He was averaging 26.7 points per game and five assists with shooting splits of 47/44/84. His defensive rating was third highest on the team. He was shooting a career-high 11 threes a game and shooting his best percentage ever from distance. He wasn’t just the Blazers’ second-best guard; he was one of the best guards in the Western Conference.
I would like to see him get back to that level. That might be a lofty expectation, but it’s one worth shooting for, especially considering Lillard’s newfound understanding that load management will be featured prominently in the second half. At the very least, I want to see McCollum doing the things that helped elevate him to another level — an increased three-point rate, better passing, and more defensive intensity. That will help the Blazers immensely if he does these things.
Jusuf Nurkic: Finish consistently and reassume the anchor role
Two years ago, Nurkic was one of the best defensive big men in the league. His ability to deter people at the rim ranked towards the top of the league. He’s been alright in his appearances in the bubble and early this season, but he hasn’t totally felt like his dominant self in the paint. I want to see him return to that form once he’s back from his wrist injury. When he was on the floor, the Blazers were an average defense this season. Nurkic needs to elevate them to that every night to give Portland a chance.
But the biggest thing I want to see is Nurkic become a consistent finisher. He only made 54 percent of his shots in the restricted area before his injury, and he just has to be better in that area. No more weird floaters. No more laying it up when he can dunk. He’s the Bosnian Beast for a reason. I want him to control the paint like one on both ends.
Robert Covington: Shoot 38% from three for the season
The three-point shot hasn’t always been pretty for RoCo. The touted catch-and-shoot threat shot just above 30% from outside in January. He made only 29.5% of his catch-and-shoot opportunities. Lately his shot has been better, and he’s now officially back over 35% for the season from outside. That’s a massive boon to a team that needs shooting on the wings.
That’s why I want to see Covington hover around 38% for the rest of the season. Two reasons for that number: it’s just one percentage point below his best shooting season and it’s a better mark than Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless ever hit at high volume.
Derrick Jones Jr.: Get Dunk of the Year
It’s a really simple goal because I’m not exactly sure what else I want from Jones. He’s always going to be a non-factor offensively even though I know he’s great as a team defender. Would I like him to break the 35% plane from outside and reach the level of finishing inside that he hit last season? Yes. But those things don’t feel as attainable as getting a “Dunk of the Year” nod. Jones has been what we’ve expected in Portland, but I still want to see him throw a nasty jam down. He’s come close, but I want to see him finish it.
Gary Trent Jr.: Improve efficiency in the mid-range
One of the most fun developments of the season has been Trent’s shooting versatility. Obviously he’s hitting threes at a high rate (40.4%), but the fact that he’s getting to other spots and creating with the ball in his hands is just another thing to add to the long list of reasons he’s going to receive a lot of money this summer. The man knows how to get a shot off.
The thing I’d like to see is him improving his efficiency in those mid-range shots. Trent’s only making 37.2% of his shots in that range and it’s a shot he takes a lot. I have no problem with him getting to the elbow and taking an easy jumper—he just needs to start making that more consistently. If he improves his efficiency in that area, he’ll be an undeniable offensive threat.
Carmelo Anthony: Embrace the three-point shot
This should probably be rephrased to “quit posting up so dang much,” but I decided to be more constructive. Melo is going to get his shots. He’s in the 85th percentile among forwards in usage rate per Cleaning the Glass, and I don’t think that number is going to fall. But Melo keeps going to the post far too often at 3.6 times per game and only ranks in the 51st percentile in terms of efficiency. He’s already shooting more threes this year, so why not get that number closer to six per game? Why not capitalize on the shots that help your team the most? It’s tough to teach an old dog new tricks, but a man can hope.
Enes Kanter: Double down on what you do best
You know why Enes Kanter was an effective replacement for Nurkic? He just doubled down on what he does best: rebounding and scoring. He’s averaging a career high in boards per game at 11.8 and has a true shooting percentage of 62.1%. He’s never going to be a good defender, so I just want to see him be elite at the things he knows best.
Anfernee Simons: Finish the year over 40% from three
Figuring out a goal for Simons was tough, but I feel like this is a fair expectation for Ant. He’s not a point guard and he’s not a stellar defender, and neither of those things are changing overnight. The biggest thing for Ant is just remaining confident out on the floor. His three-point percentage of 40.8% is already infinitely better than last year, and I already wrote about how he looks more confident with his shot recently. So let’s just see Ant stick with it and become a 40% shooter at a high volume.
Nassir Little: Keep asserting yourself on offense and hustling on defense
Speaking of confidence, did you know that Nassir Little is shooting 40% from three? If you had that on your 2020-21 season bingo card, then congratulations, because I did not. The fact that he’s gone from an unskilled offensive player to a solid outside shooter is an impressive leap.
For the second half, I want to see Little stay confident with his shot while playing aggressive defense on the other end. I don’t particularly care if he stays around 40% shooting; I just want him to continue shooting it. As always, the more shooting you can surround Lillard and McCollum with, the better, and I want to see Little continue to search for his shot whenever possible.
Rodney Hood: Embrace the point forward position
Rodney Hood looks cooked. That’s a harsh assessment, but he just hasn’t been the same guy that shot 49% from three last season and helped the Blazers win a playoff series in 2019. The best thing he can do for this iteration of the Blazers is fully embrace becoming a point forward and handling the ball with the second unit. If for some reason one of McCollum or Lillard can’t be out there, he has to be the guy that keeps the ball moving. He’s already started to embrace that role, and he needs to stay on that trajectory to provide valuable minutes.
Harry Giles: Fight for minutes
I’ve defended Harry Giles a lot this season. I’ve written about his promise, his flaws, and everything in between. But no matter how you chop it up, it hasn’t been great. He’s a sieve defensively and he hasn’t been the versatile offensive weapon that I hoped he would become.
Playing time is going to be even more difficult to come by for Giles. Nurkic will be back in a couple weeks and Kanter has the backup five spot all but locked up. The goal for Giles is to fight for minutes whenever possible. He’s young and still has an interesting skill set, but he needs to find ways to turn those skills into actual production. If he can’t do that, he’s going to continue languishing on the bench.
CJ Elleby: Learn from the veterans around you. This is pretty self explanatory. The rookie forward should soak up all the knowledge he can from guys like Lillard and Melo.
Zach Collins: Keep rehabbing. Collins might feel like a forgotten piece to this Blazers squad, but he still has size and skills—when healthy.
Keljin Blevins: Enjoy the ride.