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.
We published the first three questions a bit earlier. Here are the remaining four.
Shaedon Sharpe, Boom or Bust?
At his best, Sharpe forecasts as an unstoppable starter. He’s got the height, athleticism, and confidence to destroy opponents on a nightly basis. If the foundation isn’t there, though, he becomes a Gerald Green-like figure, always welcome on a roster but seldom making the impact promised by his potential.
This is not an unusual story for lottery-pick sophomores, but the distance between amazing and aggravating is wider for Sharpe than for most, by virtue of his relative lack of high-level experience. The Blazers will need Sharpe’s floor to rise as he reaches towards that boundless ceiling. Otherwise they’re going to have a hard time playing him while keeping a straight face.
Verdict: Who knows?
Shaedon Sharpe is getting more minutes per game this year than last (33.1 vs. 22.2). His points, rebounds, and assists are up, in aggregate and per minute. Head Coach Chauncey Billups appears to view Sharpe as a cornerstone. The young guard has developed beyond highlight-reel play to become a fairly solid defender and a relatively seamless part of the offense. He looks like an NBA player, not just an exciting project. That’s huge.
At the same time, Sharpe’s efficiency has plummeted. His shooting percentage has dropped from 47.2% to 40.6%. His three-point percentage is down from 36.0% to 33.3%. He’s drawing more foul shots than he did his rookie season, but that’s about his only “bonus” addition to the struggle.
Even though Sharpe is looking more polished individually, the question arises whether he’s getting the production increase because he’s one of the few ports in the storm in an otherwise fractured system. How translatable is this experience to a fully-functioning, competitive NBA team?
The point is moot as long as Sharpe remains injured. He’s been inactive for two extended stretches, 12 total games. That’s another factor contributing to the question mark surrounding him.
Can the Blazers Hit Threes?
If the Blazers can’t generate a credible threat from distance, opponents will simply pack the paint against Henderson and Ayton. At that point, Portland will be left bailing out to Grant or Simons in the halfcourt. Each can generate offense. Neither can carry the team to wins with their scoring, or at least not that we’ve seen yet.
Three-point shooting is one of the more commonly-developed skills around the league. Portland may want to get an early start on it. Otherwise we might see the shell of their intended offense without the fruits to show for it on the scoreboard.
The Verdict: Mostly Not
The Blazers currently rank 15th in the NBA in three-pointers attempted, 22nd in three-point percentage. That’s not as bad as it could be, but it’s not great. This is one of the factors contributing to their bottom-of-the-barrel point production. Missed shots don’t generate points, of course, but the “packing in” defense phenomenon is real. Interior scorers for the Blazers always find traffic lined up against them.
Portland gets streaky good beyond the arc sometimes. Those are the fun nights to watch. On average, though, they need more floor-spreading to get their offense off the launching pad.
Are More Trades Coming?
No move this season will alter the team’s current story. There’s no path to contention, or even relevance in the standings, in 2023-24. But trades—or lack thereof—could well indicate the scope and length of Portland’s rebuilding project. Their moves will indicate whether they anticipate making a leap in the next year or two or whether they’re starting three to four years out, banking on the draft picks they got from the Lillard deal to carry them at the end of the decade.
The Verdict: Probably not.
Malcolm Brogdon is of an age, and has enough value, that moving him either this year or next is near-automatic. But the Blazers are reportedly lukewarm even on that prospect, let along parting with high-scorers Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons. Beyond that trio, the cupboard is either bare or stocked with young players the team would like to retain.
Portland’s record and level of play indicate that they’re not ready to move forward no matter what [reasonable] moves get made. Their willingness to trade will be based solely on return, not immediate performance. That leaves them in, “We’ll make a move if it makes sense” limbo.
Things change, but all signs right now point to a relatively-quiet trade deadline, and that’s fine.
Can Chauncey Billups Coach?
The vast majority of Portland’s roster is age 25 or under this season. Billups’ mission now switches to player development. Progress will replace the postseason on the list of achievable goals.
Will the coach prove more apt in this area than he did in coaxing victories out of his former rosters? He has plenty to balance. He can’t abandon winning altogether without losing integrity and denting the team’s culture. How many big-losing years can the Blazers endure before it becomes habit? But milking every possible win out of the season won’t matter as much as the status of Portland’s players in March. Portland winning 33 instead of 29 isn’t discernable. Deandre Ayton, Scoot Henderson, Anfernee Simons, and Shaedon Sharpe performing well is.
The Verdict: It’s not looking good.
Judging Head Coach Chauncey Billups by the team’s record so far this season would be unfair. Not only are the Blazers young and unready, they’ve been plagued by multiple injuries throughout the campaign.
We should also credit Billups with many of the positive remarks we’ve made about the Blazers in these posts, including the growth of Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe.
That said, the team is now 44 games into the year and look how many question marks surround even the basic questions we’ve listed.
The critique of Billups in past seasons wasn’t that he was awful, but that we just didn’t know what was going on. Are they winning or losing, contending or tanking? Are they running a cohesive offensive system or just relying on Damian Lillard? Are they playing better defense or just different defense? Is player X a starter or a bench guy? Does he fit? Or what even is he trying to fit into? Zone? Man-to-man? Pick-and-roll? Drive and dish? What???
Raise your hand if you know any more about Deandre Ayton right now than you did at the start of the season.
Me neither. In fact, I’m slightly more confused. And that typifies the year.
Halfway through the 2023-24 campaign we know the Blazers appear to try hard most nights and their record isn’t very good. That’s it.
If they don’t answer some of these questions definitively in the next 38 outings, this basically goes down as another wasted season organizationally, with slightly-improved youngsters and another lottery pick to show for it.
That’s my fear. More than finding out Henderson isn’t great, more than discovering Sharpe needs another couple years to develop, more than finding out Ayton is a bust or the Blazers need to trade for more shooting...I fear looking at the season after it’s completed and shrugging.
We can talk about injuries and inexperience hamstringing the franchise, but something has got to come out of this mess besides shoulder shrugging and lack of meaningful conclusions. If not, it’s probably time for a new direction.
I don’t know for sure whether Chauncey Billups could coach a fully-functional, veteran roster. I have no idea whether he can coach this one, or what even that would look like besides grabbing a bunch of offensive rebounds and trying to run fast. If clarity is beyond Portland’s grasp, they’re going to have to settle for eliminating points of uncertainty. The most obvious variable sits in the Head Coach’s seat. That may not be fair to Billups, but that’s where reality lies right now.