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Who are the Trail Blazers Midway Through the Season?

Answering the tough questions surrounding the team.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Portland Trail Blazers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers are now halfway through the 2023-24 season. Their 13-31 record isn’t great, but Portland wasn’t expected to win this year. This was a season of discovery, development, and growth.

Back in October, before the regular season began, we ran a pair of posts asking seven questions about the team, Midway through the year, let’s take a look back, see how many of them have been answered, and ask if they had the effect we predicted.

Will the Blazers be Able to Run?

Defense and rebounding will be critical to Portland’s fast-paced attack. The Blazers will need to force misses, rebound clean, and get the ball down the court before the other team can recover. Right now, only the third part seems realistic.

If Portland can’t run, they might not have a backup plan viable enough to sustain them. They’re still going to score, but they’ll have a hard time topping more experienced, better-balanced opponents.

The Verdict: Pfffft.

The Blazers currently rank 25th in the NBA, scoring 12.6 fastbreak points per game. Worse, they’re last in the league at allowing fast break points, with a prodigious 17.8 point per game average. They’re running a -5.2 point per game margin in transition every night. That’s horrible.

Portland’s lack of defense has prevented them from getting out on the break themselves. They allow opponents to make 49.7% of their shots, meaning one in two possessions ends with them taking the ball out of the net.

The Blazers rank 27th in turnovers committed per game. That’s one of the reasons opponents are running so much on them. Their own 43.6% field goal percentage doesn’t help.

Who is Deandre Ayton?

If Ayton is asked to close out on the perimeter, can he recover to the lane quickly enough to help Portland’s inexperienced wing defenders? Just as importantly, can he secure rebounds in the sure fashion the Blazers need, as explained above? He’ll be playing next to a non-rebounder in Jerami Grant. Nobody knows who will fill the three spot, but few double-digit board men are lurking on the bench.

Ayton’s role on offense might also be critical. Portland lacks three-point shooting. Opponents are going to crowd the lane against them. It’s usually easier for a 7-footer to get a shot off in a packed interior than a guard. The Blazers probably won’t feed Ayton for solo post-ups, but scoring off of screen plays or short-face ups would increase his utility and worth.

The Verdict: Depends on the night.

Let’s be clear: the Blazers suffered and scrambled during the recent 12-game stretch in which Deandre Ayton sat with tendinitis and ice issues. They had to cobble together lineups from wholly inexperienced centers and converted power forwards. The young replacements had moments, but overall it wasn’t pretty. Portland needs Deandre Ayton.

To his credit, Ayton’s rebounding is right on the mark this season. 10.5 boards per game matches his career average almost exactly. He provides the glass work his position requires.

Defense is another matter. Ayton has brilliant stretches. Wednesday evening’s fourth quarter and overtime effort versus the Houston Rockets stands testimony. “Standing” can also describe Ayton’s defensive approach some nights. He hasn’t been a great help defender, he’s not a one-on-one stopper, and the Blazers aren’t even daring to send him out to the arc. Despite that, they still rank 27th in points in the paint allowed per game at 55.8. Lest you think that was because of Ayton’s extended absence, they were actually worse (28th, 57.0 points per game allowed) on December 25th, right before he left.

Offense has been a disappointment, though it’s hard to know whether that’s because Ayton is slumping or because of the scheme he’s playing in. His 12.7 point per game average is a striking career low, as is his 53.5% field goal percentage. His field goal attempts per minute are down, but not as low as they were in 2020-21 when he shot 62.6% from the field.

Whatever is happening for Ayton at the moment, it just isn’t working. That has to go down as one of the bigger disappointments of the season. Either he needs to step up or the coaching staff needs to learn to use him better. Maybe both.

Is Scoot Henderson The Man?

The Scoot Era will come, but whether it begins right now is an open question.

The learning curve for any point guard is steep. Henderson has athleticism and confidence to burn. He can change direction on a dime and his dribble game is strong. Lack of an outside shot is going to make him easier to defend. Opposing teams will try to cut off his dribble, forcing him to shoot over or pass through traffic.

The Verdict: Answer unclear. Ask again later.

Scoot Henderson, the third-overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, has come off the bench in 20 out of his 35 appearances. Playing 27.2 minutes per game, he’s averaged 36.4% shooting from the field, 29.1% from the three-point arc, 4.7 assists per game, but also 3.2 turnovers. That yields a rate of 4.2 turnovers for every 36 minutes played, or approximately 2 turnovers given up for every 3 assists completed.

Henderson has shown marked, and steady, improvement in his ability to read the floor and get open as the season has progressed. He looked overwhelmed during his initial outings. He plays far more under control now and has even take over games upon occasion.

But Henderson’s position on the bench, his continued shooting woes, and his propensity for turnovers all indicate that he has a long way to go before filling a starting role on a regular basis, let alone living up to his draft position.

Up Next: The rest of the questions!