What's Wrong with Portland?
Last year, the Portland Trail Blazers were the surprise and feel good story of the NBA. Losing a star in Lamarcus Aldridge in free agency, along with Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum spelled doom for the Trail Blazers. Many in the media and across the league picked Portland to finish near the bottom of the west and destined for a lottery finish. Instead, the squad finished with 44 wins and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. The Blazers front office responded by retaining their talent and acquiring pieces through free agency. This included 100 million over 4 years for CJ McCollum, 40 million over 4 years for Moe Harkless, 75 million over 4 years for Allen Crabbe, and 70 million over 4 years for Evan Turner. This year, things have gone the opposite way and Portland is fighting to just to get in the postseason. .
So why the steep drop off if the Blazers brought back all their key players and even added pieces? Basically, many aspects of the Portland's success last season has not transferred over to this year's team. Also, many of the Blazers weaknesses that did not get exposed previously, are now, . The main weakness hindering this Blazers team is ultimately the defensive side of the floor.
This year's team is simply one of the worst defensive teams in the league and cannot stop anyone. The Blazers are giving up an average of 110 ppg game and looking at their personnel it is no surprise why. Despite their unbelievable scoring gifts, McCollum and Lillard are negative defenders and combined give the Blazers a turnstile defensively in their backcourt. On the court, they both die easily on screens and will always be undersized for their position. Neither of them can provide much resistance to their defensive assignment, which leads the team vulnerable for offensive explosions. This reality has led some to even wonder if the star duo is compatible in the long run due to their defensive shortcomings. Most teams are able to get away with hiding one weak link on defense, but having two can really cripple a defense.
Even with his high energy, Mason Plumlee is not an elite enough rim protector to erase all of Mccollum’s and Lillard's defensive shortcomings. In addition to this dilemma, Portland has been without a key piece of their team in Al-Farouq Aminu for many games as he has been hobbled by injuries. Aminu is a vital piece as he stretches the floor as a power forward and can switch onto guards and bigs alike. Without him, Portland almost has 0 chance defensively and their margin for error is razor slim.
As mentioned, rim protection was one of Portland's weaknesses going into this season even with the deep playoff run last year. They tried to address this with the signing of Festus Ezeli but the injury prone center has not even saw the floor due to chronic knee issues. This backup plan signing proved disastrous as the Blazers were not able to secure better free agents big man targets like Bismack Biyombo, Hassan Whiteside or Pau Gasol for various reasons. To try to salvage this season, look for the Blazers to attempt acquiring a solid rim protector such as Nerlens Noel, Tyson Chandler, or Willie Cauley Stein. Good defensive big men do not grow on trees, so the Blazers will need to part by trading a piece such as Crabbe, Myles Leonard, and/or a first round pick. In my opinion, the signing of Evan Turner makes someone like Crabbe or Harkless expendable. Teams like Philadelphia or Sacramento need wings and could be tempted to part with Noel or Cauley-Stein to get one. Portland just has too many redundant pieces at guard and need to get rid of one to turn around this season.
To even reach their potential this year, the Blazers need to bolster their horrid defense and not allow their dynamic backcourts offensive prowess to be cancelled out on the other end of the floor. This is the only way they can even come close to replicating last year's success.