For today, your favorite and local NBA team will be known as the Portland “Trial” Blazers, as they are on trial to decide if they will stay together, or be broken up and reloaded.
Here are the facts of the case: in 2017, Portland thought they had found their “big-3” in Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic. The team has posted winning records or playoff berths (or both) every season they have worked together; they have advanced to the second round of the playoffs once and made it to the conference finals once. But it hasn’t all been roses; they have lost in the first round three times, two of them being sweeps.
Lillard was drafted #6 overall in 2012, McCollum #10 overall in 2013, and Nurkic #16 overall in 2014. While Lillard took to the NBA very quickly and won rookie of the year, McCollum took a couple of years to get ready for the NBA and did not become a starter until 2015-16, winning most improved player. Nurkic was originally drafted by Denver and had some good moments but struggled to earn a consistent spot in the lineup once they brought Nikola Jokic the following year. Nurk was brought here via trade in 2017 and named a starter soon after.
On paper, just those three players should make this a team at the top of the standings, but they have struggled against top-tier teams all season. It would be tough to find many folks who would argue against all three being at least top-10 at their position. And yet they have lost three straight games against likely playoff teams. While they were down Lillard and Nurkic for two of those, it’s tough to write off the third where they had both players, and their opponent (Denver) was down one of their best players (Jamal Murray). Their opponent the night before (LA Clippers) was down their best player (Kawhi Leonard), and both games were at the Moda Center. We won’t talk about Charlotte. There’s nothing to say. Portland is losing their grip on a playoff berth, and even if they get into the dance, there is no reason to believe this team can beat the top contenders in the West when they have had no luck doing so in the regular season. Sure it could be a rope-a-dope strategy, but let’s assume they aren’t losing late-season games against possible playoff opponents to throw them off. Let’s assume they are losing because they aren’t performing as well as their opponents.
Fans in Portland like to get excited about the Trail Blazers and talk passionately about how disrespected the team is on the national stage, that they have bad luck. There is for sure bad luck deep in the history of this team. Still, their current status is due to some questionable play, certainly some questionable coaching, and even more so – a roster that is not as top-heavy in talent as those they are facing.
Ask yourself this – does this feel like a top team, or is it a team needing upgrades? Before you see how we answer that question, you will hear both sides of the case.
The Case For Breaking Up The Band
The sad truth is that the Trail Blazers are winless in two (yes, only two) postseason series with Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic on the active roster. Expanding on that, the only time all three have been active for an entire series together, they were swept. Last year, they were short Lillard for an elimination game, and despite CJ doing a great Lillard impression and Carmelo Anthony doing a great CJ impression, and Nurk being Nurk, they still lost. If you count the 2017 playoffs when Nurk valiantly returned from injury to play in one game, this trio is a combined 0-3 in playoff series and a reminder they have been swept twice.
In Nurkic’s time here, the team has made the playoffs four times, he has started multiple games in two series, and they have lost both. Nurkic was a high upside player when he got here, a guy that just needed a chance to prove himself after being shown the bench in Denver after failing to share the court with Jokic, who has become one of the best centers in the NBA today. Nurk should be on Joker’s level, and while he is from time to time, he struggles to stay healthy. Basketball is a game of stats and facts, and those are pointing us to this: Portland has been more successful in the playoffs without Nurkic than with him.
Portland may have already found Nurk’s successor on the roster. They could trade Nurk, get another quality player in exchange, and start Enes Kanter at center. The regular season is fun, but the playoffs are what really matter. In just one postseason with the team, Kanter filled in for an injured Nurkic and helped get them to the conference finals for the first time in 19 years. Is it time to look past the prototypical size and strength Nurk has and give the more athletic and consistent Kanter a shot?
But let’s not stop there. If you’re truly taking an unbiased look at the team and what it could be with upgrades, let’s look at Lillard’s supporting cast.
As neat as it was to see Lillard and CJ make it to the conference finals, it was hard to watch them get swept – again. They definitely aren’t the second coming of Jordan and Drexler; they aren’t even a carbon copy of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Being realistic, they are more comparable to Curry and Monta Ellis, which is not what this team needs. With Norman Powell on the roster (possibly a younger and improved CJ?), is it time to move on and give Powell a chance to help elevate the team around Lillard? CJ is one of the best shooters in the league, but he’s not Ray Allen 2.0. He doesn’t play hard on defense; he doesn’t do much other than scoring, he doesn’t do what Allen and Curry do really well, making the defense commit to tracking him. Is he not doing that because he’s being told not to, or is the more likely problem that’s not how he plays? Powell may not be the shooter CJ is, but he’s a more polished overall player; the team needs that more than just a shooter. They need another star the defense has to focus on, and for the majority of his career, CJ has not been that guy.
It’s fair to assume Portland could get decent returns for Nurkic and McCollum. It’s entirely possible Lillard would not appreciate those two guys being dealt, but I will not pretend to think I have any idea what Lillard prefers. I don’t know the man. He is a loyal and caring individual, and he likes his team, from what I can guess. But I wonder if he thinks he’s getting the most out of his teammates, his coach. Even if he never steps foot on the court for an NBA Finals game, Lillard will be a favorite in Portland for the rest of his life and beyond, but it would be really neat to see him win it all here or at least be given a chance.
We have seen what this team can do, and it has been fun, but that title drought isn’t going anywhere. They have had some fun. Let’s see what competing at an elite level looks like. Let’s see them be champions.
The Case For Keeping The Band Together
The truth is, we don’t really know what this team’s potential is, and it isn’t fair to say we know what they are capable of when everyone is healthy. We’ve never seen them healthy and in the playoffs at the same time. Sure they have played in the playoffs together, but the two times Nurkic has been healthy, Lillard hasn’t been. CJ struggled to pick up the slack, and they lost both series, going 1-8 in playoff games they have all been active for. Just because other teams in the history of this franchise have had misfortune while clinging to the hope of an often-injured player, that doesn’t mean it will happen this time.
Lillard has to push himself so hard during the regular season to put this team on the level of their competition that by the time the playoffs roll around, the dude is out of gas, and the opponents are doing everything they can to slow him down even more. He is usually playing through injuries, which many players are at that point, but his game is built around speed and quickness, so when he can’t move the way he wants to, his game suffers, and his teammates are not able to make up the difference.
In the playoffs, when Lillard has to constantly pass out of double teams or try to force his way into the lane enough times the referees start calling fouls, he is usually beaten up and frustrated, which we would all be. As great of a player as Lillard is, he does not get the superstar treatment the other household names get in this league. Does Lillard create contact or at least the illusion of contact when he drives to the basket? Not really, and that could be part of the issue. There are plenty of crafty guys in this league who have learned how to push and pull and lean and flop and shout to get the referees’ attention. And they do so to the point the referees start blowing the whistle even if the illegal contact might not have happened. Lillard is not that guy, and by the time he starts shouting, he’s beyond frustrated and is not getting the proper attention. He doesn’t appear to be interested in forcing his way to the line, but he doesn’t like complaining, either.
So you have Lillard getting beat up on a nightly basis, CJ trying to be a better player so Lillard can take some plays off, and Nurkic is constantly working so hard to get back into game shape, he usually ends up getting hurt again. These guys are literally killing themselves every night trying to be the team we all want them to be, but even if they are as good as the top players on the teams above them in the standings, they don’t have the supporting casts those teams have, and that’s a challenge.
Zach Collins is on pace to miss more games than he plays in his career. Robert Covington is a great 3 and D player, but he can’t shut down the other team’s best player, not all night anyway. Carmelo is a very distant shell of his former self, and Anfernee Simons appears to be a project that isn’t getting there.
And then you have Norm Powell. He’s a great scorer, plays hard on defense, but like CJ, he lacks the size you want from a shooting guard or small forward. When Nurk and Collins can’t be on the court, this team is small and only getting smaller. It’s really tough to compete with taller and longer teams that have talented scorers and defenders, but it’s even tougher when you weren’t planning on putting out a small lineup. Portland needs to decide which way they want to play and stick with it. If they are constantly trying to adapt to who is in their lineup, well, we know that’s not going to work.
Lillard, CJ, and Nurkic aren’t the problem; it’s the guys around them who need to step up their games or make room for guys that will. I seriously doubt that anyone around the league would be shocked if Portland tried to deal with anyone outside their big three, and rightfully so, none of them are irreplaceable. But none of them bring great value so far either. It cost the team many players and assets to bring in Powell, Collins, and Covington, and they aren’t proving to be worth their trade value so far. Carmelo should go to the Lakers, he’s only here to chase a title, and that’s just not going to happen this year, and he looks and plays a lot older than LeBron James, even though they will both turn 37 this year.
There are many upgrades this team could pursue that do not involve breaking up their core. They worked really hard to get where they are, and just because they failed in their two playoff series so far doesn’t mean they should just hit the reset button. There’s a saying that “once is chance, two is coincidence, and three is a pattern.” Let’s give them at least three chances before we hit the panic button and go through another reload or rebuild.
This team likely needs to be broken up, but they should be given a chance to prove it. Lillard has pushed himself so hard, McCollum tells us he is a great player, and we know Nurkic really wants to be here and be a part of this team. You aren’t breaking them up tonight, let them finish this season, and the outcome should be the deciding factor. If they win a playoff series, you run it back next year, adding talent where possible. If they miss the playoffs or lose in the first round, that’s it – time to say your goodbyes, most of the lineup should be treated as expendable, and Terry Stotts should be included in that. Players aren’t the only issue; you have to have the right coaching. We’ve seen what Lillard and McCollum can do with Stotts at the helm; we need a little more proof of what they can do with Nurkic. If they don’t pass the playoff test this time around, that’s a pattern, and it’s time to make some big changes and see what you can get for CJ and Nurk, which likely means time to move on from Terry as well.