The Portland Trail Blazers got a wake-up call over the last week, losing three straight games on the road before coming home to a 109-106 defeat at the hands of the lowly Orlando Magic on Tuesday night. With a 19-21 record, the Blazers now stand with the also-rans in the competitive NBA Western Conference. With a few more losses, they could lie among the lottery hopefuls casting their wishes on the wind for ping-pong balls in May. This was not where they expected to be 40 games into the season.
After the loss to the Magic, Head Coach Chauncey Billups said he “couldn’t pinpoint” what was wrong with the team during their current slump. In a two-day series, we’re going to look at some of the strong possibilities.
We’ll start with the most obvious. The Blazers have spent the last month dealing with critical injuries to the middle portion of their rotation. The five Portland starters have remained (mostly) intact, so the bench absences haven’t gotten much press. But they’ve hobbled the Blazers in important ways, causing a cascade that’s been hard to see happening, but obvious in effect.
Starting the season, the Blazers knew that defense would be dicey among three of their starters: Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, and Jusuf Nurkic. Simons was a wildcard hopeful, younger and more athletic than former Blazers shooting guard CJ McCollum. Nurkic shows flashes of defensive prowess if kept in his wheelhouse. Together, though, the trio made a spotty group.
Portland compensated for the ambiguity by building a series of defensive vertebrae down the middle of the roster. It started with forwards Jerami Grant and Josh Hart, then continued right through the upper bench with forward Justise Winslow, guard Gary Payton II, and forward Nassir Little. In an ideal world, Nurkic, Simons, and Lillard would flex their offensive muscle while the forward and wing corps provided defensive backbone.
At the start of the season, the scheme worked reasonably well. Portland excelled, then slipped, but they weren’t pushovers defensively. That was despite not having Payton in the fold at any point. Once he returned from rehab after summer surgery, their defense should have improved.
Except Payton didn’t return. And Little went down. Then Winslow did too.
When that happened, Portland was short three incredibly versatile defenders, capable of defending at least two, and up to four, positions on the floor. Behind the downed trio stood Drew Eubanks, Jabari Walker, and Shaedon Sharpe. Those are incredible, energy-positive players to fill your 9th-11th rotation spots. Pressed into service as the 6th-8th men, particularly on defense, their utility has been limited, even when effort has been admirable.
The natural solution has been to press the starters into longer service and more diverse situations. This has given rise to another issue: fatigue. Damian Lillard is 32 years old, not 26. He’s as good as anybody in the NBA at creating offense, but his transcendent moments come in bursts, not an endless ocean anymore. The forwards have been willing, but their performance noticeably flags as the game wears on. When Nurkic can keep energy high and stay out of foul trouble, he’s valuable. Those things don’t happen every night.
The mid-roster hole has also affected the offense. We left one player out of the last paragraph: Simons. The 23-year-old is capable of playing in long stretches with plenty of bounce and verve. He doesn’t solve the defensive issues, but he should be able to keep the team afloat offensively.
But the second unit is different now than it was pre-injury, and that affects Simons’ game too. Fans rail on him for isolation scoring. They probably shouldn’t, as it’s a strength. A shortened rotation has turned that strength into a near-necessity.
Before he went down, the Blazers used Winslow as a secondary playmaker off the bench. Payton could be expected to fill that role too, to an extent. Sharpe, Eubanks, and Walker are all endpoints of the offense, not conduits. Among them, only Sharpe has a three-point shot.
If Simons is captaining the second-unit offense, he finds himself with a more crowded floor, few shooters to pass to, and most importantly of all, nobody who could be expected to make another pass after receiving the ball. A screen or two aside, it’s not so much developing plays as choosing who’s going to shoot this time down the floor. If someone is going to try and score in isolation, who do you want it to be? Walker and Eubanks or Simons and Sharpe?
The defense knows this too, of course. Not fearing Portland’s reserve bigs—probably not fearing Josh Hart if he’s playing with the second unit—the defense knows where the shot attempt is coming from. And if they don’t, all they have to do is follow the flight of the ball, because whomever catches it next is also the shooter.
As the weeks have progressed, second-unit scoring has ground to a halt, with ball movement stifled and shots coming contested. The only way around this is to forego the second unit entirely, keeping starters in the game instead. And now we loop back to square one, with the defensive issues and fatigue underlined and turned up a notch.
Justise Winslow, Gary Payton II, and Nassir Little aren’t going to turn around games themselves. They will allow more defensive versatility, more ball movement, and above all, more rest for the players who do turn games around, allowing them to be more efficient.
For all these reasons, defense remains the number one culprit in Portland’s current decline.
Stay tuned the rest of the day and into tomorrow as we uncover more reasons for the Trail Blazers’ struggles at the midpoint of the season.