The Portland Trail Blazers have won 7 of 11 games in the month of January, a huge improvement on their 13-22 record before that point. With franchise superstar Damian Lillard inactive for the entire stretch due to an abdominal injury, a 7-4 record is no small feat. Are we seeing signs of life in the 2021-22 Trail Blazers finally? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I hate to ask it but we’re looking better lately. Much better. Is this the team we envisioned finally growing into Chauncey’s system? I know I’m going to curse them but have they turned over a new leaf?
Ha! Don’t go that far yet. The Blazers have shown some semblance of evolution over the last month, though. In a couple of surprising ways, too.
Offensively, there hasn’t been much difference. They’ve produced basically the same stats over the past 11 games that they have all season long, with one major exception. Their three-point shooting percentage has risen from a very good 35.9% to a spectacular 38.9%. Translated through an entire season, that would vault them from the 8th-most-accurate distance shooting team in the NBA to #1 overall. And it wouldn’t be close. The long ball has been a keystone for the Blazers offensively for the better part of a decade. That hasn’t changed.
Jusuf Nurkic has been playing out of his mind in 2022. He carries season averages of 14.3 points and 10.8 rebounds, shooting 54.0% from the field on 10.1 attempts per game. In January, he’s at 17.2 points and 13.4 rebounds. He’s shooting only 48.3% from the field, but he’s getting up 13.4 attempts. His free throw attempts have risen from 4.6 to 6.8 as well. Nurk is rewarding the Blazers in multiple areas for giving him more touches and responsibility, even if his shooting isn’t technically as efficient.
Anfernee Simons has made an even bigger leap. His season stats read: 15.2 points, 3.4 assists on 44.3% shooting from the field, 40.1% from the arc. Over the last 11 games he’s produced 25.0 points and 7.2 assists while shooting 47.8% from the field and 44.3% from distance. His January numbers are phenomenal overall, clearly in Player of the Month range. The increase over his already-good production has helped his team immeasurably, particularly with Lillard out.
The Blazers have also made improvements on the defensive end. They’ve made strides this month in huge categories: Shooting Percentage Allowed, Three-Point Percentage Allowed, Points Allowed, and Points in the Paint Allowed. Technically they’re up in almost every area, but those four show the most significant gains.
The Blazers have improved their margins in the first and third periods. All season, they’ve been horrible in the starting frames of each half, routinely slipping behind better lineups. They’re still not good, but at least they’ve upgraded to neutral.
There are caveats. Portland’s schedule has been friendly. They’ve only faced three really good teams all month, losing to two of them. Also “improvement” is a nuanced term. They’re better than they were, but still average-to-lousy compared to the rest of the league. They’ve even regressed in some categories. They’ve been a bad fourth-quarter team all year. They’re downright terrible in January, even while winning more.
But let’s stop for a minute and ask what we were looking for out of the Blazers at the start of the season. Stellar play by a starting guard? Check. Bigger role for Jusuf Nurkic? Check. Improvement on the defensive end? For now...check. Although it’s looked different than expected and been accompanied by asterisks, the Blazers have started doing what they set out to do.
The ultimate significance of their winning “streak” remains up in the air. They’ll probably go up and down all season, looking good for a few weeks and bad for others. But for a moment we’re getting a glimpse of progress. Any glimpse is better than none at all, Derrick, so go ahead and celebrate.
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