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What Do the Trail Blazers Need to Get Better?

Portland is multi-talented and perhaps deep, but is there more?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers hit a mini-break in their schedule this week, taking a breather after a frantic 13-11 start to the season. Back-to-back victories over the Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers have restored confidence following a dismal 2-8 stretch, but we’re all still left scratching our heads, trying to figure out what this team is up to.

Yesterday we answered a question from a reader, Nick in Southeast, who asked about Portland’s identity. Are they contenders? Pretenders? Something in between? Today we address Nick’s follow-up:

...I can’t read whether I should plan to attend a parade or hope for Wemby.

Nick in Southeast

P.S. If we’re not ready for a championship, how close are we and what gets us there? Or who?

Looking at this team as constructed, forecasting more continuity as they play together through the season, I still don’t think they’re ready to contend. That’s a hard call, because three-quarters of the league is hanging out in Parity Land. 5 games separate the Top 13 teams in the Western Conference. Portland’s right in the middle there. A good streak would put them at, or near, the top of the charts. A bad streak could sink them to 14th. Either one could conceivably happen within a ten-day span.

Part of the reason for this might be the aging of the last generation of superstars. LeBron James used to be a one-man hall pass to the NBA Finals. He’s still incredible, but no longer that. Kevin Durant scores huge but can’t carry a team by himself anymore. Even the once-impregnable Warriors are showing signs of cracking. The glass ceiling erected by a familiar cadre of Hall-of-Fame players is crumbling. Plenty of younger, more team-oriented franchises have a chance before the next group solidifies at the top. We’re going to see a couple of great seasons for the also-rans.

We know the teams that emerge at the top will have talent. That’s a given. With parity reigning, that talent will be differentiated by an old maxim: predictably good beats potentially good. In other words, playing excellently on your worst days matters more than how high your ceiling gets on your best days. That doesn’t show up in the regular season as much as it does in intense, focused playoffs series where opponents have no task but to stop each other. Good teams will make you have bad days. Making those bad days as airtight as possible is the key to emerging victorious.

That’s part of why superstar talent pays dividends. Make a normal, 20-point scorer have a bad day and he’ll shoot 4-16 for 9 points. Make career-prime LeBron James have a bad day and he’ll score 26 instead of 32, with 13 rebounds, 7 assists, and stout defense besides. His nightmare outing is your aspiration. You can’t make him have a day bad enough to lose.

If we assume no teams in the West have superstars strong enough to carry their team through bad days on their own—sorry, 2022-era LeBron—then we have to look to which teams play the best under adverse circumstances.

Right now that list is short. You could argue the Phoenix Suns qualify. In the end, the Warriors probably will too, or at least they deserve the credit because of their history. After that...woof.

The Blazers don’t make the list right now, and that’s not surprising.

When I read the question, “What do they need in order to contend (right now),” I read it as, “What do they need to make their base level of performance as consistent and airtight as possible?”

Portland’s Big 3 of Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, and Jerami Grant are sufficient for the task. That group isn’t perfect. Their defense probably needs help. But if you look at experience, offensive firepower, shooting, and versatility, it’s as good as any group in the NBA outside of maybe Milwaukee. Regular season or playoffs, nobody’s going to be comfortable lining up against that trio.

Then you look farther down the lineup. Josh Hart is a versatile, multi-tool wing. Jusuf Nurkic is a versatile, multi-tool center. Shaedon Sharpe is a rookie, so God knows what he’ll bring on a given night, except we’re pretty sure he can score. Justise Winslow does about five things well, but doesn’t truly stand out in any, save occasionally defense.

You may be noticing a pattern here. Versatility, the Blazers have. Bankability, a little less so. All of their players can do multiple things, but what do their non-Big-3 players do every single night, like clockwork, no matter what the opponent or scheme?

Portland might be better off sacrificing a little versatile potential for more targeted characteristics, in effect coming to the battle with a few Swiss Army Knives and a Big Axe instead of all Swiss Army Knives. Being able to to lots of things is great. Sporking people into submission is a tall order.

Assuming we’re not touching the Big 3, and that changes to the deep bench will bring marginal improvement, the middle positions seem the most ripe for change.

Center is the position I’d target. Fans have been down on Jusuf Nurkic this season, somewhat unfairly. He’s the fourth option in the offense, at best. He’s still finding his way, being used intermittently. Throughout, he’s provided rebounding, sensible scoring, and has even bailed the Blazers out of a couple tough fourth quarters/overtimes on the way to victory. Nurkic is a better player than many give credit for.

But Nurkic’s strength comes in his versatility. Each asset comes with a shadow side. He can score inside or shoot the three, but long-term, he probably doesn’t excel at either. He can defend inside the arc reasonably well, but he’s not a shot-blocker and will never be considered for the All-NBA defensive team. He can pass and facilitate the offense, but he tends to slow down the pace and he commits turnovers.

Now consider the ways in which Nurkic really excels...the things upon which his team relies every night. We mentioned rebounding already. He’s excellent while rolling in screen plays. He won’t give up defensively, willing to fill space as needed.

Here’s the question. Could the Blazers get someone who does those three things as well, or better, who also brings more to the table in other areas? Could they sacrifice some versatility—perhaps in three-point shooting or passing ability—to get consistently great at some things that Nurk doesn’t do?

That’s the kind of move Portland might look to make. Not to get a better center than Nurkic, but to get a more targeted one.

The pie-in-the-sky, imaginative “get” might be someone like Rudy Gobert. Gobert is not going to run the floor. He’s strictly a haflcourt player. But Nurkic is usually the last man down the court anyway. Gobert won’t shoot threes and he’s not as creative of an offensive player as Nurkic. The Blazers would get less versatile at center.

Gobert does the things that Nurkic provides every night: roll to the basket on screens, rebound, even put back offensive rebounds for dunks instead of bringing them down. Gobert also knows enough to pass to an open three-point shooter off of those offensive boards. He might not be as creative as Nurkic if you toss to him in the post, but he can score there. Every core competency Nurk has, Gobert also has in his arsenal.

To that, you add All-World defense, space-eating beyond compare. With a huge backstop behind them, players like Grant or Winslow can take more chances on the perimeter, playing tighter on shooters or going for steals. Right now, opposing drivers worry about getting past the initial defender, knowing the hard part of the job is done. With Gobert’s shot-blocking at the rim, the hard part of the drive comes at the end, not the beginning.

Sacrificing a couple of ancillary, potential abilities, you gain a whole new dimension to the defense. And it happens every night, not because the opponent is right, nor because the player is having a good night and living up to their potential, but because they exist.

That’s the element Portland is missing right now. Gobert is not gettable, but seeing the archetype, you can now go down the list of potential targets, having fewer qualms about whether a player is as “good” as Nurkic (or as versatile and potential-filled), instead asking whether he’d be as useful and what he’d be able to bring to the table every night.

In essence, this is the Buck Williams theorem of roster building. The late-80’s Blazers were holding onto center Sam Bowie, a talented, versatile, former second-overall pick. Centers were rare in those days, seen as the key to franchise success. Despite injuries, Bowie was still serviceable. He could shoot low or facing up. He could get down the floor and defend multiple positions. A shadow of himself, he was still fairly unique.

The Blazers traded Bowie to the New Jersey Nets for power forward Buck Williams, a former All-Star, now aging, who did three things: defend, rebound, and play in the low post when necessary. He was good, but he wasn’t unique among NBA power forwards. But for Portland, Buck’s hard-nosed, blue-collar, “Do three things but do them right every night” approach transformed them from a good team into an NBA Finals team overnight. The versatility and firepower around him carried them there. but Williams became the foundation upon which they stood while reaching for the stars.

If Portland wants to make the next step now, they need to find their, “Three things right, every night” player in the starting lineup. Shore up the space behind their Big 3, especially on defense. Sacrifice a little talent or multi-skill potential at wing or center, get consistency in those other starting positions, and let the young players now in the deeper rotation fill in the upwards gaps.

The good news is, we’re no longer lamenting the lack of a third star beside Portland’s Top Two players, as we did for years with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. In fact, the overall talent/potential level could go down a little bit and the Blazers would still be OK. They have enough scorers and young players to make up for a modest loss. That makes facilitating a trade easier.

The bad news is, that next level of player is still hard to get. Talent and/or draft picks will probably be on the table, which means the Blazers would have to believe not just in that player, but in their own ability to win big with him, right here and now.

Whether that confluence of conditions comes together remains to be seen, but a trade like this is what I’d aim for if you want the Blazers to vault into contention today.

Thanks for the questions, Nick! You all can send yours to!