The Portland Trail Blazers Have a Lot of Question Marks, and You May Not Like the Answers
It seems like the Portland Trail Blazers have hit their ceiling.
That happens. Sometimes an organization puts all of their chips into a young core with confidence that the only way to go is up. But eventually, the team runs out of room to grow.
The part that makes things complicated for the Blazers: their ceiling isn’t that high, and it isn’t that interesting.
LaMarcus Aldridge left Portland to play in San Antonio two full seasons ago. On top of that, four of the Blazers’ starting five that won 51 games — and looked like a potential conference finalist before injuries derailed their season — departed as well. The only remaining starter: Damian Lillard, the young point guard out of Weber State who is now Portland’s franchise player.
The young Blazers were immediately written out of the playoff picture. But Lillard and his running mate C.J. McCollum weren’t having it. The Blazers have made the playoffs both years since Aldridge bailed, even winning a playoff series in 2016, with the help of injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
But those two seasons were nearly identical, and not in a particularly good way. In 2015-16, there was a two-month stretch where the Blazers went 19-7. The rest of the year, they went 25-29.
In 2016-17, the Blazers finished the year with a 17-6 stretch. But before that, they were 25-35.
Maybe most importantly, the two seasons ended the same way, with Portland getting absolutely waxed by the Golden State Warriors despite the Warriors playing multiple games without Stephen Curry in 2016, and without Kevin Durant in 2017. Overall, the Blazers’ last two years have been the story of a team that might not be as good as it looks and, unfortunately, isn’t all that good in the first place.
The new season is still young, but so far, it looks like more of the same in Rip City. Lillard, McCollum, and co. eviscerated the Phoenix Suns to the tune of a 124-76 victory on opening night. But in the eight games since then, they’ve been almost precisely average, ranking 14th in the league in offense (104.5 offensive rating), defense (103.7 defensive rating), and net rating (plus-0.8).
To be fair, they haven’t had the easiest of schedules. Their four losses on the season have come in close games against three of the league’s more formidable teams — the Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors, and the Los Angeles Clippers — and an overtime loss to a team that will tear you up if you’re off your game — the Utah Jazz.
It’s not the worst start possible. But this year was supposed to be different for Portland. A third straight year of one hot streak dragging an inconsistent team into the playoffs won’t cut it.
That’s because last year’s season-saving hot streak didn’t come out of nowhere. It was caused by the addition of Bosnian center Jusuf Nurkic from the Denver Nuggets.
When Nurkic came over at the trade deadline, he redeemed the Blazers’ league-worst defense, and gave Portland’s star backcourt a competent big man to run with. In the 20 games he played in Portland, he put up 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 50.8 percent from the field. Most importantly, he made the team’s defense 7.6 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor.
Due to Portland’s strange roster full of overpaid role players, that is exactly who they needed Nurk to be to justify giving him a max contract when he becomes a restricted free agent next summer. Unfortunately, that doesn’t even moderately resemble the guy he has been through the first nine games of this year.
In 2017-18, Nurk has scored less points on more shots, rebounded less, and blocked less shots. Most importantly, the offense has been 8.9 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor, and the defense has only been 1.7 points per 100 possessions better, not nearly enough to compensate for the offensive damage.
The team has just been significantly better with Nurkic on the bench. That’s even more concerning when you consider that 173 of Nurk’s 182 minutes this year have come with both Lillard and McCollum on the court as well.
If this is the type of contribution Nurk is giving the Blazers this year, their ceiling isn’t going up. If anything, it’s going down. Portland isn’t likely to win less than 38 games, but that won’t be enough to make the playoffs this year. And it won’t be enough to justify continued investment in their current roster.
Much of the blame for Portland’s relatively low ceiling gets put on it’s overpriced and odd supporting cast. $37 million of Portland’s cap is currently tied up in Evan Turner, Moe Harkless, Meyers Leonard. These guys all contribute varying amounts to the Blazers, but none of them are necessarily worth their cap figure.
This not only limits the team’s current ability to win games, but also handicaps their flexibility going forward, considering all three of these contracts go through 2020. But really, I like Portland’s supporting cast quite a bit. Yes, they’re mostly overpaid, but they’re all good guys who contribute consistently in at least one or two areas. Coach Terry Stotts has these guys playing the right way, and it maximizes their abilities nicely.
Really, the supporting cast is good enough to prop up a contender, if that contending core was already in place. And that’s what brings us to the issue that is really keeping Portland from reaching the next level. As much as Nurk’s struggles and a series of unfortunate contracts gives the Blazers fits, the thing that is really keeping them down is the thing that is lifting them up in the first place: their backcourt.
Lillard and McCollum are two phenomenal players that any perpetual lottery team would cut off a foot or half of an arm to get. They’re good enough to keep every game competitive, and they are a lot of fun to watch.
But they really shouldn’t be on the same team.
When you consider the fit of Portland’s franchise guards, the first thing that comes to mind will always be defense. And that’s an entirely valid concern. As previously noted, the Blazers had the worst defense in the league last year before acquiring Nurkic. There is an argument to be made that if you replaced McCollum with a perimeter bulldog like Avery Bradley or Danny Green, Portland would immediately become a good defensive squad.
How much does defense really matter in the NBA in 2017 though? The Jazz could end up with the best defensive rating in the league and still miss the playoffs. You’ll need elite defense to beat the Warriors in a seven-game series, but no one is doing that anyway.
The bigger concern with Lillard and McCollum may be a more surprising one. Their offensive fit is not only putting a limit on their team, but a limit on their individual success as well.
Yes, both guards were phenomenal last year, each finishing in the top 20 in the league in points per game. But Portland’s 11th ranked offense was underwhelming for a team with two top twenty scorers.
The issue with the Blazers’ backcourt is not a lack of talent or a lack of execution — it purely comes down to fit. And the thing that is disrupting the star-studded backcourt’s fit is simple.
Lillard and McCollum are two very talented guys who are basically the exact same player.
According to Synergy Sports, both guards used far and away the highest percentage of their possessions as a pick and roll ball handler. On possessions where Lillard ran the pick and roll, the Blazers scored 1.008 points per possession, putting him in the 83rd percentile in the league. When McCollum had the ball, the squad scored .985 points per possession ranking him above 75 percent of the league.
McCollum’s numbers likely lag behind Lillard’s due to the fact that when the shooting guard is running the play, the floor is being spaced by Lillard — who only uses 6.6 percent of his possessions in spot up situations — instead of by McCollum himself, who ranks ahead of 91 percent of the league in spot up plays. A ball handler as skilled as McCollum doesn’t want to share the floor with a player like Lillard, who uses 43.4 percent of his possessions in pick and roll and an another 15.8 percent in isolation.
The biggest issue here is clear: both guards want to, and probably should, have the ball in their hands a vast majority of the time. They would both likely be better if they had an elite spot up shooter flying around them at all times.
Compare them to the league’s other elite backcourts, and the issue becomes glaring. The golden standard for guard pairings in the NBA is Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Warriors. If you break down their usage, it tells a drastically different story than the one being told in Portland.
Curry has the ball in his hands even less often than Lillard or McCollum do — likely because he also plays with Kevin Durant. He runs pick and roll with 26.8 percent of his possessions. Thompson, on the other hand, basically never handles the ball. He is either in transition, running off of screens, or spotting up nearly 70 percent of the time. Thompson ranks ahead of 88 percent of spot up shooters in the league.
Thompson is also an elite perimeter defender, making him the perfect complement to Curry on both ends of the floor.
It’s not just the Warriors using this model to build an elite backcourt though. You can also look at the only pair of guards in the league other than Portland to both finish in the top 20 in scoring last year: the Washington Wizards’ John Wall and Bradley Beal.
John Wall and Bradley Beal rock a similar dynamic, with Wall covering most of the ball handling while Beal spots up and opens the floor for him. While Wall certainly needs no help on the defensive end, it doesn’t help to have two elite perimeter defenders. Beal handles the ball more than Thompson does — again, only one of these backcourts has the benefit of playing with Durant — but the dynamic is much more clear.
You can trace this dynamic all throughout the league’s best backcourts from last season — Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley, Chris Paul and J.J. Reddick, James Harden and Patrick Beverley — two elite talents who lift each other up and cover for each other’s flaws, instead of merely coexisting.
If the Blazers keep Lillard and McCollum together, things will probably be fine. They will continue to win 38-45 games per year. If they can luck their way into a Durant, a Paul George, or even an Otto Porter, they may even be great. But if Neil Olshey and the Portland leadership want to swing for the fences, the most sensible move may be shipping one of their stars out of town.
It may sound drastic, it may send the city of Portland into a tizzy. But if they want to maximize the career of Lillard or McCollum — whichever one they may choose — now would be the time. Before any trade demands, before contracts start to expire — when Portland still has the leverage.
There’s nothing wrong with running out a consistently good, if flawed, team. But stars like Lillard and Mccollum deserve to be maximized, and the Blazers’ fans deserve a team that can bust through this ceiling.