Evaluating Portland Trail Blazers’ Season Through NBA All-Star Break

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While the Portland Trail Blazers recuperate during the All-Star Break, it seems like a good time to offer some thoughts on the Blazers’ season so far, their moves at the trade deadline, and other bits and bobs floating about with the other mental flotsam in my brain.

To say that the Blazers’ season has been disappointing is somewhere between apt and an understatement, depending on your expectations for the team going into 2019-20. I myself was hoping the team would be able to make some noise. Three things were on my mind when the first game tipped off in October: Damian Lillard would continue his incredible play during his prime years, the Blazers’ continuity would help them as it has in the past, and this season would be Portland’s best, and maybe only, true chance at winning the NBA title during the Lillard Era.

While Lillard has continued being the best combination of scoring guard and leader this side of Stephen Curry, it hasn’t availed the Blazers as a team in the win-loss column—they stand at 25-31, four games behind the 8th place Memphis Grizzlies (who beat the Blazers last week) and barely ahead of the 10th place San Antonio Spurs and the 11th place New Orleans Pelicans. New Orleans, in particular, is a looming threat to put Portland’s fragile playoff hopes down for good; watching Zion Williamson obliterate the small, short-handed Blazer frontcourt felt like getting kicked in the daddy bag by a donkey. He’ll probably do it again when the teams play on Friday, too.

(Zion tangent: I’m not old enough to have seen Prime Charles Barkley play, but reading descriptions of him and watching his highlights makes you think of a runaway train in transition. Barkley is a top-five rebounder in NBA history, one of the most violent dunkers I’ve ever seen, and he did it all despite barely being six-foot-six, or just a smidge shorter than Michael Jordan. All that sounds like Zion, except the Pellies rookie also dribbles better and has great passing vision. Williamson won’t be as great a rebounder as Chuck—Barkley’s nose for the ball is a gift that very few players ever had—but given that rebounding in basketball is as devalued as rushing plays are in football, I suspect that won’t matter. Williamson’s ceiling is Better Charles Barkley, with the same health issues. Chuck always broke down during a season, and Zion may be cut from the same cloth. If he stays relatively healthy, however, Zion may become one of the 15 best players of all time—so of course New Orleans is going to f#^$ this up like they did Chris Paul and Anthony Davis. You have to be both lucky AND good in the NBA, and that franchise has only been lucky.)

Portland’s injury luck ran out at the most unfortunate time, as well. The injuries and poor play from Kent Bazemore and Mario Hezonja hurt especially badly this season, not just because they’re wasting a precious year of Lillard’s prime, but because 2020 is the first dynasty transition year the NBA has had since 2011.

Next year, the Golden State Warriors will have Steph, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green back together—older, yes, but seasoned and very dangerous. The L.A. Clippers will retain the most dangerous wing duo in the league in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The L.A. Lakers are likely resigning Davis to a huge contract, hoping he can shoulder more of the load as Lebron James transitions to a Magic Johnson-like facilitating role. The Dallas Mavericks will have Luka Doncic still on a rookie deal, with the clever Rick Carlisle coaching and a deep roster of role players flanking their young phenom.

Portland, meanwhile, will have Lillard aging into his 30s with two guys in Jusuf Nurkic and Rodney Hood coming off devastating leg injuries next year, a second banana in CJ McCollum who may not be suitable as a second banana for a contender, a cadre of role players who are either too young (Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little) or too old (Carmelo Anthony, the quietly brilliant Trevor Ariza) to coincide directly with Lillard’s timeline, and a cap that general manager Neil Olshey is under orders from the Allen family to shave so they don’t have to pay a repeater luxury tax for a non-playoff team. 

This very season felt like the one true, real chance that the Trail Blazers would have to make the NBA Finals for the first time since 1992, but instead, it’s become the most disappointing season we’ve had since Dame was drafted.

At least there’s next year. There’s always Next Year.

As we continue onward, let’s play a little game of comparisons:

Player A: 18 PPG, 16 RPG, 53% FG%, 3.6 steals/blocks per game, 22.2 PER, 1st in Rebound Percentage, 111.2 Defensive Rating, team is 29th in Defense in NBA

Player B: 16 PPG, 14 RPG, 61% FG%, 3.0 blocks per game, 24.8 PER, 2nd in Rebound Percentage, 112.3 Defensive Rating, team is 27th in Defense in NBA

Player B is Hassan Whiteside, who was a prime piece of trade bait because of his $27 million expiring contract—at least before every useful man taller than six-foot-eight got injured for Portland. He leads the NBA in blocks, yet Portland is at the bottom of the barrel in Defensive Rating as a team—even though Nurkic, a lumbering bear of a man, lacks his athleticism.

Nurkic helped the Blazers be an average defensive team in seasons past because of his smart positioning, willingness to help on defense, and sheer mass. Whiteside is the pivot for a tire fire defense because of his tendency to chase blocks over maintaining his position, which is why you see all those lobs at the basket, blow-bys off the dribble, and general disorganization when Portland is on defense. He may get a couple flashy blocks, but that is more than negated by his six-to-10 poor decisions per game.

Player A is Andre Drummond, late of the Detroit Pistons, acquired by the Cleveland Cavaliers at the trade deadline. He’s been a prolific rebounder for years and is on his way to a fifth season of at least 100 steals and 100 blocks (he actually is third in the NBA in steals), yet Detroit was so desperate to get rid of him and the $28.7 million option he is likely to pick up this summer, they traded him for a pu-pu platter of John Henson, Brandon Knight, and a 2023 second-round pick that’s likely going to be in the 50s overall.

Drummond is a player who is very much frowned upon by the analytics crews of the NBA. His raw numbers are impressive until you take in the big picture. Detroit has been a mediocre team for his whole career despite his old-school prowess, and the Cavs project to be a horrible squad even if/when Drummond picks up his option. He’s often out of position, and if he does bother to get positioning, he’s a lazy rim protector; he’s more interested in fishing for rebounds than walling off the paint in order to force awkward floaters and midrangers.

Drummond is a better player than Whiteside, and he hasn’t really had a good pick-and-roll guard (and Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are too busy fighting over the ball in Cleveland to develop into that partner for him), but he’s going to find it very difficult to get anything close to the kind of contract he signed four years ago. Whiteside is in the same situation, except he doesn’t have a cushy option to tide him over.

I mention Drummond because the Association at large is not likely to give him a huge contract whenever he enters free agency, just like Whiteside…unless some team gets stuck in old-school thinking, and forks over huge bucks for a traditional center that plays mediocre defense, can’t space the floor, and is borderline unplayable in a playoff series. Stupid teams like Cleveland and maybe Atlanta (imagine Trae Young and Drummond or Whiteside trying to defend a pick-and-roll next year *cues laugh track*) could dole out a $80 million or so contract.

(Their nicknames, according to Basketball Reference, are also unbearably stupid—Drummond’s is the Big Penguin [?], and Whiteside’s is Count Blockula [?????]. At least they didn’t pull a Dwight Howard and outright steal a moniker, but they need better publicists—who wants to be known as a flightless bird or a goddamned cereal?)

I’m hoping the Blazers don’t take Whiteside’s contract-year desperation at face value. He’s making noises about re-signing here, but there should be no way in hell he gets a long-term, lucrative deal in Portland. And even if he does return, would he be comfortable backing up Jusuf Nurkic? Would Nurk be comfortable backing up a center that plays godawful team defense?

I pray the Trail Blazers ignore Whiteside’s random chatter about staying here and let him walk away to poison another NBA team’s vibe.

Other notes…Good to see Caleb Swanigan back here. His story has always been inspiring to me, and the Blazers can use someone with his size…Carmelo Anthony is welcome to retire here if he wants—as long as he is willing to come off the bench once the Blazers get an actual power forward. He has value as a scorer still, and his 35% from three keeps defenses honest enough for Lillard to shred them off the dribble…Gary Trent Jr. looks like a keeper. Anfernee Simons is coming along more slowly, but his value to the Blazers is immense—either as a dynamite sixth man, or a replacement for Lillard if Dame decides to go championship chasing as he ages…The Oregonian’s Jamie Goldberg reported yesterday that Rodney Hood’s recovery from his Achilles rupture is ahead of schedule. About time we got some good news on the injury front; if things continue as they are, Hood is expected to be available for Opening Night in October 2020…While it’s unrealistic for Zach Collins and especially Jusuf Nurkic to contribute heavily towards a frantic playoff push (and that’s without mentioning Lillard’s balky groin), it’ll still be good to see them both back on the court next month. How loud is the standing ovation going to be the first time Nurk checks into the game at home?

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Jared Wright

Jared Wright is a Portland Trail Blazers writer for Oregon Sports News, though he also writes about other stuff when the mood takes him. He also apparently enjoys talking about himself in the third person. He lives in Southeast Portland.

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