The Portland Trail Blazers are currently in a scrappy fight for the eighth seed in the Western Conference but, after last season, it is fair to say that they must have hoped for better. The franchise has one of the best offensive backcourts in the NBA and they were active in the summer, acquiring free agents Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli while retaining Allen Crabbe. Having aimed for Chandler Parsons, Dwight Howard and Hassan Whiteside, you might say that they missed out but the team entered the 2016-17 season with high hopes.
They did not last, though. The Blazers have a record of 19-27 through 46 games and it seems that they will be in a fierce fight just to make the postseason. Of course, having lost four of their five starters entering the 2015-16 season, this is way ahead of where people originally thought they might have been but C.J. McCollum’s breakout, and Damian Lillard’s development into a true leader and franchise player, has led them into playoff contention.
Portland’s problem is taking the next step. Rose City is hardly an attractive free-agency destination, with a small market and rainy climate dampening the passion of the fan base. That is why they brought in Evan Turner, despite a poor fit, and Festus Ezeli, despite having two solid big men. So, if they cannot look to free agency and they cannot rely on finding a gem in the middle reaches of the draft (which no team can reasonably rely on as a strategy for growth), then how do the Blazers leap from a questionable place among the playoff bubble to championship contention?
Is Damian Lillard the problem?
Well, the first place to look is at the franchise centrepiece, Damian Lillard. Dame came into some criticism earlier this season from a respected and veteran former coach, George Karl, who suggested that the point guard might be Portland’s biggest problem. Chris Haynes of ESPN relayed Karl’s comments:
“I was watching the Portland Trail Blazers play, and I was trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with this team? My conclusion is that Damian Lillard is getting too much attention.”
Does George Karl have a point? Nope. But it is easy to see why that idea might have come to him. During the offseason, when players recuperate and then get ready for the grind, Damian Lillard, as Dame DOLLA (Different On Levels the Lord Allows), was releasing his debut rap album, The Letter O. Beyond that, he is the face of many advertisement campaigns and has a number of endorsements. Of course, none of that is especially unusual or detrimental and Lillard will undoubtedly have remained fully committed to the game, but when the Blazers struggle, it is understandable that someone might link the two. After all, it is a team’s best player that receives the blame for their struggles.
Damian Lillard is not a weakness or a problem, though, apart from his struggles on the defensive end. He is the franchise centrepiece and a worthy piece to build around. Dame is an exceptional offensive threat, with the ability to splash from (really) long range or drive to the rim and he does a great job of sharing the ball and leading his team. He plays hard all game, every game. The Oakland-born point guard has a chip on his shoulder after being overlooked in high school and college and at All-Star weekends, and he continues to prove himself. With 26.2 points per game, Dame is the seventh top scorer in the NBA, higher than Kevin Durant and LeBron James. He can take over a game no matter who he is matched up against.
As I said, his defence is still lacking and his masterful skill at running the pick-and-roll is matched only by his inability to work around screens on the other end. However, he is a strong leader for the team and his stoic mindset is perfect for it. Lillard is renowned for not smiling on the court, all business on the hardwood, and being clutch in the fourth quarter, ‘Dame Time’. He involves his teammates on and off the court, shoulders his share of responsibility and never takes a moment off. You know the criticism Dwight Howard gets for taking it easy and not being serious? Well Damian Lillard is all about basketball and winning and he matches that with a level-head and an exceptional love and loyalty to Portland, Oregon.
If Lillard is not the problem, then who is?
C.J. McCollum is their second-best player and for obvious reasons. Like Dame, McCollum is an outstanding scorer from the two and he can shift across to the point when his teammate sits. His handles are excellent and he seems to find ways to score from any position, from out on the perimeter to driving into the tall trees. He, also, is as grounded as Lillard and the two are good friends.
On the court, though, this partnership is one of the biggest problems Portland has. Offensively, the backcourt is immense, dragging the Blazers up the standings last year. Defensively, they are a non-factor. Teams can go to Portland and know that their guards should have an easy time when they have the ball against Dame and C.J. and that is not a way to win. One guard without defence is a weakness, two is a huge problem.
Beyond the backcourt, the Blazers are also paying the price for their offseason. Evan Turner’s fit with Portland was always a bad one. Lillard and McCollum need the ball in their hands, shooters on the perimeter and rebounders in the middle. Evan Turner also needs the ball in his hands as a possession-dominant, playmaking swingman. His shooting is shaky, at best, and so two-way small forward Maurice Harkless is often rightfully preferred to him in the starting five.
And then there is the lack of defence around the rim. Despite having three solid big men, the Blazers are not invulnerable inside and near the rim. Quite the opposite, in fact. Mason Plumlee is a good player, capable of crashing the boards, scoring buckets and passing the ball, but his defence is not a particular strength. Behind him, Ezeli and Ed Davis offer even more rebounding but it is not working and there is not the defensive presence inside that they need; that is all the more important because of the lack of defence from the backcourt. That is why Portland was the best fit for Philadelphia 76ers centre, Nerlens Noel.
The problem, then, has to be a lack of defence. Realistically, few teams can compete with such porous defence and that is what Portland has. As Sports Illustrated’s Rohan Nadkarni put it:
“The issues clearly start at the defensive end. Neither Lillard nor McCollum are known to be great defenders, but the former has particularly struggled so far this season. Portland has been 7.6 points per possession better defensively with Lillard off the court, leading to a better net rating when Lillard sits, something that’s obviously not conducive to winning throughout the season.”
The Blazers are eighth in team points per game (107.5) but 26th in opponent points per game (110.5) and 23rd in rebounding. Analytically, the stats are not better. With offensive and defensive ratings of 106.3 and 108.9 respectively, their net rating is a worrying -2.6. That’s not good enough.
Taking the next step is not easy. Acquiring Noel either through trade or free agency would be a good first step but that gives the Blazers way too many big men and some would need to be flipped. Beyond that, it is becoming clear that the Blazers cannot rely on small forward defenders like Al-Farouq Aminu and Harkless to make up for the lack of defence from the guards.
That leads them to a difficult decision. Could they trade C.J. McCollum? The return for the Lehigh product would be considerable and could net the team a defensively-sound shooting guard to balance out Lillard’s game as well as other assets like draft picks or prospects. It would not be an easy move for Portland to pull the trigger on, because McCollum is a great scorer, but it could be necessary. Together, they are the duo that was tipped to lead Portland into the future and that is what makes this harder. For now, Lillard and McCollum, the “Rain Brothers”, are as much a strength on the offensive end as they are a weakness on defence and that is no way to go about competing. It is what puts them behind John Wall and Bradley Beal as a backcourt pairing as shown by Portland’s recent defeat to the Wizards.
As I said, big-name free agents are not going to be headed to the Trail Blazers and their tradable assets, like Evan Turner, are not likely to pull in a piece that changes their fortunes. Pulling a diamond in the rough from the mid-first-round picks is not a certain way to get better either.
The Portland Trail Blazers need to improve their defence and trading C.J. McCollum might be the best way of doing that. In reality, C.J. and Lillard are not a duo capable of taking Portland all the way to the finals and they would probably not have beaten the L.A. Clippers in the first round of last year’s playoffs had Chris Paul not got injured and opened the door to Dame’s dominant offence. Lillard’s defence is part of the problem but he is not the problem. Dame remains a player capable of leading a team but his team might need to make some brave decisions to take the Portland Trail Blazers to the next level. And that could start with McCollum.