Damian Lillard must’ve built his house on an Indian burial ground. Or lives under a ladder. Or pissed off a very powerful Voodoo witch doctor. Because he once again finds himself single handedly keeping the Portland Trail Blazers afloat after four of the team’s five projected starters have missed time due to a variety of injuries. In particular, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic will be sorely missed on the offensive side of the ball. While Lillard is deserving to be heaped with praise as he keeps the team competitive during this stretch, this article will be examining all the depth pieces that have been forced into more prominent roles in the wake of this string of injuries. I find this this especially compelling due to the fact that these players have already been in this spot previously, as many of these back-ups were the same ones that had to step up last year. We should be able to clearly track their growth, or lack thereof, since last season.
Gary Trent Jr has particularly been forced into a huge role, having been asked to step into CJ McCollum’s shoes as the starting two-guard. He has responded by putting up career marks, in scoring (12.4 points per game), three-point percentage (42.3%) and three-point attempts (6.5 per game). His increased defensive intensity has also been a welcome addition to the starting frontcourt. While the shooting has been a like-for-like replacement, the lack of shot creation has been a glaring step down as GTJ is much more of a “3-and-D” player rather than an offensive fulcrum. This also means his opportunities for passing is much lower, as evidenced by his lowly assist numbers. Trent has clearly shown that he can shoulder a starting role, but he has a much lower ceiling than CJ. Luckily, he only has to be deputized in this role for a few more weeks, as McCollum should hopefully be back to fill that secondary creator role soon.
In bench heavy units during the early part of the season, ballhandling duties were consumed mainly by a combination of Rodney Hood, Carmelo Anthony and one of either McCollum or Lillard. With CJ and starting small forward Derrick Jones Jr out for the time being (forcing Carmelo to run with the starters), a lot of usage rate is up for grabs on the second unit. Naturally, those duties have fallen to back-up point guard Anfernee Simons. Entering his third season, it would be reasonable to expect him to have had enough experience to be ready for such a role. The biggest leap he has taken is in three-point shooting, as he has increased his hit rate from 33% to nearly 41% on two more attempts per game than last season. While that’s a huge positive, his overall field goal percentage has taken a dip and has been averaging less than once assist per game. Considering that he has a 21.4% usage rate, those numbers are severely underwhelming. While having a workable jump shot makes him much more of a playable rotation piece than last year, his lack of ability to finish in the paint and set up his teammates means that he still isn’t able to fill the role that the Blazers were hoping when they drafted him in the first round.
The only other youth player that is receiving minutes is Nassir Little, last year’s first round pick. Having just played 100 minutes so far this season, it’s hard to make sweeping declarations on who he is as a player. BUT what we can say is that he has been far more effective in his limited minutes than he was during his rookie season. Specifically, he’s drilled 58.3% of his threes, as well as making 47.1% of his twos. He also has four blocks and two steals in the nine games he’s played in, making the most of his 7’2” wingspan. He, more than anyone else, has the most to benefit from all these injuries as he started as a reserve to begin the season. With the struggles of Rodney Hood, Derrick Jones Jr and Robert Covington a good stretch of play by Little could be huge in paving the way for future minutes in the rotation when the roster returns to full health.
At the center spot, both Enes Kanter and Harry Giles have had to fill the void. While Kanter has been his usual effective self on offense, averaging a double-double, it’s his defense that bears monitoring. His Box Plus/Minus currently stands at -.3, which means whatever he is bringing on the offensive end has been negated by his ineffectiveness on the other side of the ball. The good news is that he’s not enough of a negative that he is getting in the way of the Trail Blazers from winning games. But it is a weak spot for teams to exploit if Nurkic doesn’t come back. His back-up, Harry Giles, has greatly struggled during his time on the floor in replacement. His .456 eFG% is ugly and indicates his inability to finish plays on offense, while his -.3 DBPM means he’s not bringing anything on the other side of the ball either. With Nurkic out, Portland is once again dealing with sub-par center play.
General Manager Neil Olshey was hoping that by trading two first picks for Robert Covington, the Blazers would no longer have to worry about one of their forward spots. Maybe he hates rain, or trees, or the Columbia river, because something is seriously wrong with Covington during this early season. He’s shooting a ghastly 33.1% on all fg’s while grading out as a net negative on defense with a DBPM of -.1. Also a concern is their other big free agent signee, Jones Jr, is now hurt and unable to make up much of the difference. In his place, Rodney Hood has been playing about as well as an open roster spot, averaging 3.7 points on 34.7% shooting. The only saving grace on the team’s wing play has been old man Carmelo Anthony, who himself has had a down season while shooting 36.1% from the field. None of this is, uh, optimal production from your reworked wing rotation.
Once again, the Portland Trail Blazers have started a season as pseudo-contenders, but due to injury have been playing much more like a playoff wannabe. The one other starter besides Dame that has stayed healthy, Robert Covington, has struggled heavily. While all their youngin’s have taken steps forward of various sizes, their veteran depth has been letting them down. With Nurk going to be out at lease another six weeks and CJ out for another two, the Trail Blazers are going to be forced to grind out some wins, or else be in danger of losing themselves amongst all the other playoff hopefuls in the standings.