When Terry Stotts was given his walking papers on June 4, 2021, after nine seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, the fans of the team were promised change. New head coach Chauncey Billups would bring in a new era of defensive basketball, coming from Billups’ time as a top-notch defender throughout his illustrious career. The days of ISO-heavy guard play from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum would be over in favor of an offense that could flow through high-priced scoring options like Robert Covington, Norman Powell, or Larry Nance Jr. Portland would finally embrace the potential of the team in a proud march through the Western Conference.
Well, the Blazers are a quarter of the way through the 2021-2022 campaign. The bill of what was promised has not panned out. At all. The team sits at 11-11, yet somehow still in 8th place in one of the weakest Western Conferences in recent memory. Even that .500 record is deceiving. Wins against teams missing many key players, such as Phoenix, Denver, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Multiple losses to the underwhelming Sacramento Kings. Their only road win of the season against a tank show in Houston.
That promised defensive renaissance? Portland is 24th in the NBA in points allowed. Teams shoot 47.3 percent against them, the third-worst mark in the league. The telling stat is teams shoot 38.1 percent from three, the second-worst in the NBA. That all comes down to the issue that has plagued the Trail Blazers for years now: your two best players are undersized guards who cannot play defense.
Lillard has said this season that he feels he is playing the best defense of his career. Take from that what you will, considering his Defensive Box Plus/Minus is -2.8, easily the worst mark of his career. He is 392nd in the NBA in Defensive Rating, which is somehow better than McCollum (398th) or Powell (420th out of 445 eligible players). Countless times this season, he has been embarrassed on the floor with his inability to fight past screens or keep a lock on his man.
Billups said that he wanted to go away from Stotts’ usage rates of Lillard and McCollum. By keeping their minutes down, other players can step up and reduce wear and tear on the focus points of the offense. Lillard averaged 35.8 minutes per game last season. This year? 35.7. Quite a reduction. McCollum is actually playing more, going from 34 to 35.5 minutes per contest.
Speaking of that, McCollum is having one of the least efficient offensive seasons of the last ten years. His 42.7 percent field goal percentage is the worst of his career, but it certainly is not stopping him from firing nineteen shots per contest. His Value Over Replacement Player sits at 0.5, and that’s only after a 28 point night against the moribund Detroit Pistons pushed him up from 0.1. With the awful defensive metrics his entire career, your second-best scoring option gives you about 0.5 wins per season compared to an average NBA free agent.
The issues continue to pour in from all sides. Robert Covington has had little offensive success since coming over to the Blazers. His defense remains solid, though with larger and larger holes coming from covering for Lillard, McCollum, and Powell’s defensive weaknesses. Cody Zeller’s numbers are half of what they were last season with the Charlotte Hornets despite similar minutes. Larry Nance Jr. has severely underwhelmed, a disturbing outcome considering the Blazers are thin on first-round choices after surrendering two to get Covington and another to get Nance. Tony Snell has played like Tony Snell, that is to say, an average to below-average role player. By all accounts, Jusuf Nurkic has played much better this year, and Nassir Little and Anfernee Simons are taking steps forward in their development.
Portland was promised so much from General Manager Neil Olshey. Olshey has undoubtedly been the fast-talking showman he has always been since arriving from Los Angeles. To this point, the fans have not gotten remotely what was promised.