Norman Powell has been with the Portland Trail Blazers for about a month after joining the team via trade at the NBA Trade Deadline. He came to this team with the ability to be a bona fide third option on offense and at least an average defender. It was a risky trade, with the dark cloud of unrestricted free agency looming in the distance, but if it pans out, it could be one of the better moves of Neil Olshey’s tenure.
Individually, Powell has been all right since joining Portland. He’s averaging 17.6 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 57.6%. His three-point field goal percentage has dropped significantly from almost 45% to about 34%, but considering he’s shot at least 40% in three of his six NBA seasons, there’s no reason to be alarmed yet. Overall, he’s been a welcome addition to the Blazers.
Individual numbers are great for the individual, but basketball is a team game. Any player can post big numbers without actually helping the team. Are lineups that involve Norman Powell actually doing that well on the court?
The short answer to the question of whether or not lineups with Powell have been positive for the Trail Blazers is yes. According to Cleaning the Glass, there are two lineups that Powell has been featured in most prominently. The first is with him at small forward, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum at the guard positions, Robert Covington at the four and Jusuf Nurkic at center. The second lineup features Enes Kanter at center instead of Nurkic. Both of those lineups have produced overwhelmingly positive results, becoming two of the three best lineups this season for Portland.
The lineup featuring Nurkic has an overall efficiency differential of +14 in 264 possessions played. That puts them in the 80th percentile of lineups with at least 100 possessions together. They are solid across the board offensively — 110 points per 100 possessions with a 57.9% opponent effective field goal percentage — and also decent defensively. Teams are averaging 110 points per 100 possessions against this lineup and shooting 53.6%. Those put them in the middle of the pack defensively.
As for the Kanter lineup, the +19.1 efficiency differential (good for the 89th percentile) is mostly due to incredible offense. While this lineup has been mediocre defensively, the offense has averaged 131.7 points per 100 possessions. That’s good for the 94th percentile. Kanter helps generate more points on those possessions too with his incredible offensive rebounding. The Blazers are in the 90th percentile with a rebounding rate of 31.8% with this lineup.
The offensive firepower that both of these lineups produce is unsurprising. Thinking logically for a second, the Blazers took out Gary Trent Jr. — a fine three-point shooter with an unrefined scoring repertoire inside the arc — and replaced him with a three-level scorer with six years of NBA experience and a championship ring to his name. Replacing someone who made only 41% of their two-point shots with Portland with someone who has made 53% of them since joining is going to boost the offense.
Other things have helped enhance those lineups as well. Covington finally remembered how to shoot threes, McCollum and Nurkic rejoined the lineup, and Lillard simply remained incredibly good. Kanter has also been effective all year long (I wrote about this just last week). Adding Powell to this lineup makes it so that the team is theoretically getting about 75 to 80 points a night from just guards. That means a solid night from a couple role players gives this team close to 100 points already. That’s a recipe for success offensively.
It’s important that Powell continues to be good with these lineups. Once the playoffs get started, Terry Stotts will be cutting his rotation down significantly, most likely to about seven or eight players. Depth becomes overrated once the playoffs begin. At that point, what truly matters is how solid your best players are, or at least how well they play together. So far, these lineups seem very good together.
Even though it’s more important that Powell stays good with the starters at the three spot, it’s worth monitoring two other lineup situations: how he fits in at shooting guard and how he fits in with the bench players. The more comfortably Powell slide in at the two, the less likely it is that the Blazers give their fans aneurysms with one of Lillard and McCollum off the court. And the better he is with the bench, the deeper you can go with it.
As of now, Powell has played about 53% of his minutes at the three and 47% of his minutes at the two. His minutes at small forward have been fantastic, with a +19 efficiency differential that ranks in the 97th percentile. The minutes at the two — not so much. His efficiency differential of -14.9 is in the second percentile. That’s bad.
The main explanation for his struggles at shooting guard is that one person is missing from the lineup almost every single time: Damian Lillard. It might seem simplistic, but Lillard just changes so much for this team that they are a dumpster fire without him. When Lillard plays, Portland is a playoff squad that will struggle against top-tier teams but generally hold their own against lesser competition. Without Lillard, they lose to a team like Charlotte who’s missing two of their three best players. Lineups without Lillard necessitate shooting-guard Norm, and it doesn’t really matter if Powell plays well because the Blazers are just bad without Lillard.
Regarding bad things with Norman Powell lineups, Powell has not really made the defense much better. I cited the solid defensive numbers earlier with the starting lineup that features Powell at the three and Nurkic at center, but even that pretty good lineup doesn’t change the fact this team is 29th in defensive rating among NBA teams. Only two teams have ever had a worse defensive rating in NBA history (one of those teams is the current iteration of the Sacramento Kings). As long as the defense is that bad, this team’s ceiling is capped.
Trading for Powell brought up several long-term questions for the Blazers. How much does Powell raise Portland’s ceiling? Will they even be able to sign him long-term, or is this just a half-season rental before the Blazers bow out early in the playoffs? Does it make sense to shell out $20 million a season to Stormin’ Norman while also paying Lillard and McCollum enormous amounts of money?
These are all questions Portland has to grapple with once the offseason approaches. But for now, one thing is clear: Norman Powell is helping the Blazers. It hasn’t always been perfect, with a slightly below .500 record at 7-8 record, but he has made this team better. Now it’s only a matter of whether he can keep doing so when the playoffs come.