Let's take a rocky voyage through the last eighteen months for the Portland Trail Blazers. Off we go.
Before the start of the 2015-16 season, NBA pundits understandably had little faith that Terry Stotts could survive the evacuation of four high-quality starters. Portland was forced to revamp on the fly. Like a game of NBA Jenga, the foundation GM Neil Olshey had meticulously built came toppling down in July, 2015. On June 24th, with free-agent bonanza looming, the versatile Nic Batum was traded to Charlotte in exchange for Gerald Henderson and young Noah Vonleh. Moving Batum, who would become a free-agent a year later, made it obvious the foundation was cracking.
The primary blow arrived when LaMarcus Aldridge chose San Antonio. Next, Portland’s lock-down defender, the beloved Wesley Matthews signed with Dallas. Mathews tore his Achilles a few months earlier, effectively ending Portland’s realistic playoff hopes. Finally, center Robin Lopez, with his awesome hair, bolted for New York. And there it was: the Blazers were now Damian Lillard’s team.
2015-16: Surprising Resilience
Las Vegas pegged Portland at 28 wins last year. The betting world didn’t predict C.J. McCollum’s rapid ascent or Al-Farouq Aminu’s newfound shooting range, which may have been more of a one-year blip than a positive pattern. The Blazers surprised the Association by landing the 5th seed in a top-heavy Western Conference (Warriors 73 wins, Spurs 67). Portland’s 44 wins were enough to avoid the two juggernauts and pitted them against the 4th-seeded Clippers. Mid-series, the Clippers lose their core to injury. Chris Paul’s hand and Blake Griffin’s quad. Lillard and McCollum propel the Blazers back to the second round, where they were thoroughly dispatched by the 73-win Warriors. What did we learn from last year? One: this Blazers team is harder to predict than Westworld. Two: this Blazers team has a dynamic backcourt.
This summer, with the salary cap spike and a young roster, Oshey was forced to make a too-early call on swingman Allen Crabbe (great breakdown by Tyler Watts) and Meyers Leonard. When the Nets offered Crabbe 4 years and $75 million, Portland matched, skittish at losing Crabbe’s potential for nothing. Leonard, whose shooting range (42% from deep in 2014-15, 38% last year) fits the modern NBA mold, struggles mightily on the defensive end. Oshey, not wanting to lose an asset, added him for 4 years and $41 million. Big money for two non-established players. Easy to criticize, but within the framework of this brave new salary cap, not insane decisions. Defensive-minded center Festus Ezeli, also signed this summer, has yet to play a game with an ailing knee.
Evan Turner’s mini-renaissance under Brad Stevens in Boston was real. Turner, a ball-dominant offensive player with limited range, is a throwback in the triple-heavy NBA. On the other hand, Turner’s defensive versatility and length make him a great pick-and-roll defender. Portland signed Turner for four years, $70 million. The question many asked: How will Turner’s offensive game mesh with two ball-dominant, sweet-shooting guards? The answer has taken some time to shake out. After a brutal first few weeks, Turner has settled into his reserve role, learning Portland’s motion offense. In nine January games, his offense has picked up to over 10 points in 26 minutes, with 3.6 assists and 4 rebounds. More importantly, his shooting percentages are up (50% overall, 33% from deep). Turner and Ed Davis are the lone veterans on a thin reserve unit.
December Road Woes
After a 12-10 start, this year’s Blazers have hit hard times. Two abysmal road trips and a non-existent defense dropped their record to 13-20. Hard for any team to recover from a 1-10 stretch, but the Blazers haven’t thrown in the proverbial tank towel. They’ve seen too much recent success to resign themselves to a lost season. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have landed on the NBA map despite attending tiny Weber State and Lehigh. Important to note that parts of this brutal stretch came without their best defender, Al-Farouq Aminu. According the ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, Aminu ranks tied for 12th in Defensive RPM. Still, the defensive issues are bigger than just Aminu.
At their best under Stotts, Portland’s defensive schemes took away the three-pointer, got hands in passing lanes, and resisted fouling. Aldridge and Lopez provided solid pick-and-roll defense and rim protection. These Blazers are allowing opponents to shoot 38.2% from beyond the arc (28th in NBA), and can’t seem to create turnovers (22nd).
As of today, Portland sits in that mediocre swamp toward the bottom of the West standings. Denver has a half-game edge on the Blazers. A mere half-game behind them are the Kings, Pelicans, and Wolves are all looking to hand their fans two home playoff games (likely blowout losses to the impossibly good Warriors). It will take a defensive awakening for Portland to land that 8th seed. This year’s draft is deep enough, that it’s probably smarter to accept the reality that this young core needs a front-court lottery pick who might develop into what it appears Noah Vonleh won’t and Meyers Leonard simply can’t. Three names that jump to mind as future Blazers big men: Cal's Ivan Rabb, Duke's Harry Giles, and Kentucky's Bam Adebayo. At Draft Express, these three are currently slotted in the mid-first round. Rabb, in very limited attempts, has shown range to go with his 7'3" wingspan. On the flipside, don’t expect Lillard and McCollum to be okay with the losses. Injuries derailed the Clippers playoff hopes last year, making last April a joyous time to be in the Rose Garden. We’ll see. The development of Moe Harkless has been a bright spot. If he can entrench himself in the starting lineup, that would certainly help.
Saturday, January 21
vs. Boston Celtics (26-16)
Wednesday, January 25
vs. Los Angeles Lakers (15-31)
Friday, January 27
vs. Memphis Grizzlies (25-19)
Sunday, January 29
vs. Golden State Warriors (36-6)