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.
Individual matchups are nowhere near as important in the modern “Pace and Space” era as they were back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The ball moves. Outlet three-pointers reign supreme. It’s more of a five-man game than it has been since the 1970’s. Teams can overcome opposing superstars with fast play, eager passing, and good shooting.
The problem is, the Blazers currently lack two of those three. They play at a snail’s pace compared to their athletic ability. Mediocre defense, having to fight for every rebound, and a general bias towards halfcourt stars conspire to keep them in slow-down mode.
The slower the game gets, the harder it is to generate passes. Screens become the main way of freeing players. When they’re set well and/or the defense is asleep, they’re effective. That doesn’t always happen for Portland. They rank 20th in the league in assists per game, 16th in assists per possession. If Jusuf Nurkic isn’t on the floor, great picks are hard to come by.
Good shooting, the Blazers have. When they’re on, they’re able to space the floor as well as anybody. But that’s only one leg in the trio, and even then, how many of those threes are coming off of individual efforts from Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons?
That means, as a whole, the Blazers have become increasingly dependent on good matchups to prevail over opponents rather than style or execution.
This begs the question: How many good matchups do the Blazers have?
Damian Lillard goes into the win column for sure. Portland fields one of the best, most accomplished point guards in the league. Lillard isn’t quite as spry as he once was and needs to assert himself intermittently during the long season grind. Also the Blazers have shown themselves nearly incapable of stopping high-scoring opposing guards. Those two caveats shade the assertion, but we’re still safe in saying that Portland holds a strong matchup card at the point every night.
After that, it gets sticky.
I want to say that Jerami Grant is a matchup advantage. His combination of offensive firepower and defensive ability usually means he’ll make more of a dent in the opposing power forward than they make in him. Quickness, athleticism, shooting...they’re all there. Grant will get outrebounded, but Portland makes up for that from other positions, so we can probably count Grant as a matchup plus, though not always a dominant one.
Anfernee Simons would be the final candidate among the Big Three. Any 20-point scorer is going to be a matchup nightmare for the opponent. But 20-point scoring guards are more common than they used to be. Simons doesn’t bring it on defense every night. He’s struggling to find his way alongside Lillard. Simons would be a huge matchup bonus as a bench player, but as it is, it’s hit or miss on a given night, depending on his own approach and the opponent in question.
Nurkic and Josh Hart round out the starting lineup. Both are versatile. Either one is capable of exploding for 20. But who are they matchup advantages over, really? They go under the category of “good all-around players, bringing either hustle or size”. Except for Nurkic in targeted situations, they’re not going to bring an edge in themselves.
When we get to the Blazers bench—particularly without Justise Winslow, Nassir Little, and Gary Payton II—we give back all that advantage and more. Shaedon Sharpe has the occasional stellar game. Otherwise the Blazers are fielding rookies, under-22 players, or journeymen. They’re getting a lot out of them, but on no planet does Portland’s injured bench outclass the opponent...any opponent.
Forced to lean into matchup advantages, the Blazers find that they simply don’t have enough. They don’t need to outduel opponents at every position, but on too many nights it’s boiling down to streaks of brilliance from Simons or Grant, then Lillard has to carry everything else on his shoulders. Fielding a host of individuals who don’t do things that much better than their counterparts, the Blazers find as a team that they’re not doing that much better than opponents either.
There is a world in which this roster becomes more than the sum of its parts. The Blazers haven’t found that magic spot yet. Until they do, they’re likely to find themselves vulnerable to being outmatched at a couple positions every night, plus completely off the bench. That’s going to turn otherwise-winnable games into coin flips.