2019-20 Team Obituaries: Portland Trail Blazers
In the NBA, only one team can be crowned champion. The other 15 playoff teams that fall short should not be disregarded though. Here at Off the Glass, I will be writing obituaries for the teams that didn't get to hoist the O'Brien Trophy.
The 2018-19 season provided a lot of hope for Portland Trail Blazers truthers. After years of early playoff exits, recycled veterans and calls to blow the team up, they made the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000.
Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have been leading the charge since 2015-16, when LaMarcus Aldridge dipped to San Antonio. And despite what you’ve heard, they have mostly been a successful duo—until the playoffs, that is. Often one of the lower seeds in the wild West, the dyad typically runs into a brick wall of superior talent early in the bracket. One wonders what they could've accomplished in the East.
For those two, that Conference Finals appearance meant quite a bit. It was proof that they could be a winning pair, evidence that blowing it up could be a waste of what was working.
Then the Blazers' two best wings, the guys tasked with guarding the LeBron James's and Kawhi Leonard's of the world, changed teams. Al-Faroq Aminu got three years and $30 million from the Orlando Magic, a modest figure for him but also one that Portland couldn't match. Moe Harkless was another casualty of their financial straits, and was traded into the Los Angeles Clippers' cap space.
In that same deal they sent Meyers Leonard to the Miami Heat, receiving center Hassan Whiteside in return. With Jusuf Nurkic's knee injury set to sideline him for at least a few months, the Blazers took a flier on a guy who put up monster numbers as recently as 2018.
They did little to address either forward spot. Swapping Evan Turner for Kent Bazemore was an upgrade, but only on offense. They might have something in 2019 first round pick Nassir Little down the line, but he was not expected to contribute in his rookie season. Rodney Hood was re-signed to take minutes on the wing with Bazemore, but like Bazemore he only adds offense. And neither of them can bang with bigger forwards; the Blazers’ only fix for the 4 was Anthony Tolliver.
The Blazers have had a roster imbalance since Aldridge left, but never one this stark. Whiteside was not a guarantee to be playable, and neither Hood nor Tolliver has proven to be a reliable starter in recent years. It was going to take some heavy lifting from Lillard and McCollum for the Blazers to even make the playoffs.
They got some Herculean efforts from Lillard, which was just enough to keep the Blazers relevant. In his age 29-30 season, Lillard averaged 30.0 points and 8.0 assists on a scorching .463/.401/.888 shooting line.
No spotlight was too bright for the Weber State alum, who dropped 60 points on three separate occasions while pouring in at least 40 on eight other nights. One six-game stretch saw him average 48.8 points and 10.2 assists on even better shooting numbers, keeping the Blazers in the mix while everything around him changed.
There was more turnover with the roster than there was with the basketball in Portland, as the team cycled through multiple role players. Hood tore his Achilles 21 games in, leaving Marion Hezonja to take on huge minutes. Neither Bazemore or Tolliver was adequate, so the latter two were flipped (along with two second round picks) for Trevor Ariza, Wenyen Gabriel and Caleb Swanigan.
Ariza only played 21 games for Portland, opting out of The Bubble for reasons bigger than basketball. Nurkic and Zach Collins combined for 19 regular season appearances. Anfernee Simons showed some nice flashes in his second season, but the Blazers bled points in the minutes he played with one of Lillard or McCollum—and hemorrhaged in the ones he played with both.
One mainstay ended up being Carmelo Anthony, who was added to the team a month into the season to start at the 4. He gave the Blazers some juice on offense, averaging 15.4 points and 6.3 rebounds on .430/.385/.845 shooting. But the advanced numbers showed that he still wasn't good; no one expected him to be an average defender, but even his offense was maligned by the metrics.
This lines up with his shot selection and limitations as a passer. Only 48.2% of Anthony's shots came at the rim or behind the arc, meaning 51.8% came in the mid range. For a role player with that shot diet to be efficient, he has to be damn good at picking his spots; Melo shot 14% below league-average inside the arc.
A true bright spot ended up being sophomore Gary Trent Jr. Taking over the wing minutes that opened up throughout the season, Trent ran with every opportunity he got, clipping a 58.7% true shooting percentage on 441 shots and 45 free throw attempts. His defense wasn't too shabby either, especially in The Bubble where he had to defend some of the better perimeter opponents. His flexibility to play next to either Lillard or McCollum will prove useful for the next few years.
Despite the hodgepodge behind Lillard and McCollum, their heroics were enough to propel the Blazers into the NBA's first ever Play-In Game. They had to scratch and claw for every game in Orlando leading up to it, effectively warming them up for the playoffs.
That was sufficient for taking down the Memphis Grizzlies in the 8/9 matchup, but not nearly enough to deal with the Los Angeles Lakers. They won Game 1 with momentum from the seeding games, but lost the next four in pretty convincing fashion. It's tough to stop LeBron James when your best wing defender is Gary Trent Jr.
There's plenty to like about this Portland team, like there has been in years' past, but they simply don't have the star power to move up the West's ladder. They also don't have the means to acquire another elite player without completely gutting everything else.
At the same time, there's also no sense in blowing it up. Lillard and McCollum are both in their primes, and are locked up for five and four more years respectively. Their core is set for the next few seasons, meaning their best path to improvement is on the margins.
Fortunately for the Blazers, the little things are their specialty. They've done a great job of hitting on mid-to-late draft picks like Trent and and distressed assets like Whiteside. The odds are on their side as one of the more stable organizations in the league, but it does feel like a lot of work just to get slaughtered by a more talented team.
That's life in the Western Conference. The seeding games were a bloodbath, and all that winning them did was grant Portland the right to be destroyed by this generation's GOAT.
For a small market team without cap space, the best way to improve is through the draft. Portland currently owns the 16th overall pick, and the chances of trading that selection for more immediate help are slim for the reasons above. The best way to make use of this pick would be to select a player and hope he contributes soon.
Free agency will have to be a bunch of small victories. Anthony was a nice story this season, but he's not a starting 4 anymore. The Blazers can either commit to Zach Collins there, i.e. start two bigs, or find a more switchy fit at a discount. Jae Crowder is an interesting name for that role.
It's best to move on from Whiteside too. His counting stats overrated his actual impact, and they also came in a contract year. Another team will give him more money than Portland should. He was added to be stopgap until Nurkic came back, and he was precisely that; it's time to move on.
Rodney Hood will likely pick up his $6 million player option, since he's unlikely to receive more elsewhere coming off an injury. He should help the wing rotation on offense.
Ariza can make up to $12.8 million next year, which sounds like a lot, but is actually team-friendly. He can either fill a need as a 3-and-D wing, or match salaries with a guy who plays another role.
Their cap exceptions can fill in the rest. They own both the midlevel and biannual exceptions, which can be used to answer whatever questions the Ariza situation doesn't.
The Blazers aren't glistening with hope, but they have plenty of ways to get better around Lillard. And as long as he's in Portland, they're one of the most intriguing teams in the league.