The Portland Trail Blazers have not had a great season so far, but at the All-Star break, they are only three wins out of sixth place in the Western Conference. Despite their hopes of reaching .500 before the break, they lost their last game to the Washington Wizards, leaving them with a record of 28-30 and in 12th place. In addition, the team has been plagued by injuries, with several key players missing games. Coach Chauncey Billups and player Damian Lillard remain optimistic, however, and the team is hoping to get healthy and make a push after the break. But first, let’s grade how the Blazers’ first half went.
Damian Lillard is back in form, averaging a career-best 64.8% True shooting percentage while scoring 31.4 points per game. If not for the record-breaking season Nikola Jokic is having, Dame would be considered a front-runner for MVP. Anfernee Simons has also transformed into a legit three-point threat, shooting 38.1% from three on nine attempts per game. Jerami Grant has also provided a scoring spark in the form of a back-to-the-basket isolation player. Remember rookie Shaedon Sharpe, too. He’s bound to posterize multiple players for the rest of the season.
Defensively, there is a big room for improvement—the Blazers rank 27th in defensive rating this year. Injuries have not helped the Blazers, knocking out Justise Winslow and Jusuf Nurkic for dozens of games. Those two players are the team’s best defenders, forcing the Blazers into a shooting frenzy to keep up. Drew Eubanks has been a pleasant surprise in the absence of both players, but he is overmatched against the bigger centers in the league (he’s only 6’9″). The addition of Matisse Thybulle, who I’ll cover in a moment, will be huge for the Blazers and their defense.
Trade Deadline: B
I don’t mean to turn this into a trade deadline post, but this part will be crucial to their season as we advance and is worth covering here. Other than the Suns, I believe this was the best-case scenario for the Blazers, as they showed their willingness to keep the core players and build around Dame. So let’s check out each trade:
Josh Hart and two second-round picks for Cam Reddish and Matisse Thybulle
There was way more to this trade, but the other players were roster fillers. I was bummed out when I heard about this trade. Josh Hart is one of my favorite players in the league right now. He’s a shooting guard that rebounds like a big and can shoot threes with the best of them. Unfortunately, his scoring dipped from last year, and so did his shooting. After watching Hart, he thrives with the ball in his hand. With primary ball handlers Simons and Dame, Hart didn’t have the ball enough. However, Matisse Thybulle is one of my other favorite players. In case you have yet to notice, I dig the three-and-d players. Thybulle’s long arms get him involved in the passing lanes, and his defensive instincts are top-tier, winning two All-Defensive second-team awards in his three years in the league. Cam Reddish struggled in his visits to New York and Atlanta. While he’s a tremendous athletic talent, the shooting has always been spotty and erratic. Maybe learning under Dame will help Reddish develop into a consistent scorer.
Gary Payton II for Kevin Knox and five second-round picks
Again, there was more to this trade, but there’s much to cover here. When this trade came across my phone, I immediately shot a message to the editor and chief and said, “What are they thinking? Payton II for FIVE seconds?” At the time, it wasn’t reported that the seconds were coming from multiple places, but still. Afterward, it was mentioned that Kevin Knox was also on his way to Portland. To me, Knox has lost his way since his rookie year. He was one of the worst offensive players to get the minutes he was in that rookie year, finishing the year with a -2.2 offensive win share. It has not gotten better, either. He’s received fewer minutes as well, cratering to 6.5 minutes per game with Atlanta last year. This year with Detroit, he’s received more minutes, but I don’t see Knox making an impact for the Blazers. That’s not where the story is, though. Some sources revealed that the relationship between Payton and the Blazers was not friendly. Essentially, the sources said that Payton refused to play while still recovering from the abdominal surgery he had in the offseason, even though he was deemed healthy by Blazers staff. Then, another report came out that Payton was receiving injections for the pain, something the Warriors weren’t aware of before they initiated the trade. As expected, Payton failed his physical, but Payton’s agent disputed the claims saying his client never received injections. The Warriors pushed on with the trade as they needed to send away James Wiseman, who was also a part of the trade, to Detroit. There have been rumors about GPII’s demeanor with teammates, but those seem to be fallout from what could have been a messy, voided trade.
A “C” seems the obvious choice here to grade the season. Their offense is top-tier, but their defense is quite the opposite, putting their overall performance in the middle. The two trades offer some hope for the rest of the season. Acquiring Thybulle for defensive purposes and Reddish for a bit more scoring shows the front office is all in on making this group of players work. Shipping away Gary Payton II for what feels like a record five second-round picks to avoid any sticky situation with rehabbing his injury also makes sense to me. I wouldn’t make it a C+ until we see how the rest of the season plays out. I feel comfortable stamping the Blazers into the playoffs, where anything is possible.