After a strong finish to the regular season pushed the team into the playoffs, the Blazers (unsurprisingly) were quickly dismissed by the two-time defending Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors squad.
While the expectations for Portland were fairly high at the beginning of the season, a combination of injuries, inconsistent performances and (likely) a bit of regression to the mean had Portland in danger of missing the playoffs.
General manager Neil Olshey made a move on February 12th that appeared to be the team “waiving the white flag”, as they traded starting center Mason Plumlee to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 1st round pick (from Memphis). Plumlee, after all, was Portland’s starting center the past two seasons, and had performed well as a jack-of-all-trades big man. Nurkic, meanwhile, had been relegated to the bench for Denver, as Nikola Jokic had surpassed him on the team’s depth chart, and Nurkic’s subsequent whining landed him several ‘DNP-Coach’s Decisions” in the lead-up to the trade.
A funny thing happened on the way to the Blazers NBA Lottery trip…they started winning. Nurkic quickly became the team’s best big man, as his combination of touch around the rim, as well as better-than-expected defense and passing helped propel Portland back into playoff contention. While Nurkic missed the final two weeks of the regular season, and all but one of the team’s games in their series loss to the Golden State Warriors, it appears as though the team has unearthed another cornerstone piece to pair alongside All-Star caliber guards CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard.
Considering pre-season expectations, Portland’s four-game first round loss to the Warriors was definitely a disappointment. The good news is that the team still made the playoffs, despite all the injuries and early season struggles. Looking at the season as a whole, here are the areas I believe Portland needs to improve upon in order to go from a fringe playoff team to a true contender for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
1. Consolidate talent – I believe the Blazers’ roster as currently constructed is overly wing-heavy, and a little light at both guard spots and big men. With big-time money committed to Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe and Moe Harkless, Portland over-saturated themselves with incomplete wing players.
With Crabbe, you have one of the league’s best 3-point shooters, but also a player that cannot create his own shot, attack off the dribble or defend well. With Turner, you have a below average shooter from distance, but also a player that is the team’s best pick and roll defender and a solid shot-creator off the dribble. Harkless is somewhere in-between those two, as he’s capable of defending the 2 through 4 spots. and has enough of a 3-point stroke to keep defenses honest.
What the roster currently needs is a player that both defend opposing wings, as well as shoot the three-point shot at an above-average clip. While Portland is cash-strapped from a salary cap standpoint, the team does have some attractive assets with three first-round selections in this year’s draft, as well as some rotation-caliber players that could be used to entice a trade.
2. Someone to help Meyers Leonard – Ever since Leonard’s breakout in the team’s first round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in April of 2015, Meyers Leonard has seemingly regressed back to where he was as a rookie. He has lost all confidence in his jump shot, and with his defense always being somewhere between mediocre and abysmal, that loss has broken Leonard’s belief in himself.
Olshey clearly bid against himself this past offseason, as Leonard’s play in the 2015-2016 was uneven (and also cut short by injury), and Leonard was a restricted free agent, meaning Portland had the option to match any offer the 7-foot-1 big man received. With three years and approximately $31 million still left on his contract, the likelihood of Leonard being traded is almost nil. Instead, the team needs to consider bringing in someone to help him regain his confidence. Whether that answer is a sports psychologist, or even his former big man coach Kim Hughes (who was instrumental in Leonard’s development), it’s clear that the 25-year old is in need of help.
When focused and confident, Leonard has shown himself to be a solid backup center. His ability to stretch the floor out to the three-point line allows Portland to force rim-protecting big men like Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan and others out of their comfort zone, which also opens up the lane for the team’s guards to penetrate. I don’t see a way that Portland is able to realistically get out from under Leonard’s contract, so the best thing for all parties involved would be to find some way to turn him back into the player who did so well in that Memphis series again.
3. Defensive improvement – Portland has been among the NBA’s most-efficient offenses since Terry Stotts became the team’s head coach, finishing between 4th and 9th in the league in scoring in each of the past four years. On the other hand, Portland has only finished in the top half the league in scoring defense once in that same span (11th in 2014-2015 season).
While starting guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have proven to be two of the more adept scorers in the league, their defense leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, of their regular rotation players this past season, the only player capable of playing guard that I would deem anything better than below average was Evan Turner.
When your starting guards cannot defend the perimeter, the front-court must step up to stop the penetration. While Jusuf Nurkic did average close to 2 blocks per game after being acquired by Portland, he is by no means an intimidating force like the league’s top shot-blockers are. Nurkic also means so much to the team’s success on the other end of the court that you don’t want him being excessively put in tough situations, as he is still very foul-prone at this stage of his career.
Since Portland has hitched its wagon to Lillard and McCollum, it would be unreasonable to expect the team to become a good-to-great defensive team any time soon. What they can do, however, is put players in place around them that may better fit what needs to be done. Head coach Terry Stotts also needs to push his star players harder to make the necessary changes to their game to become better defenders. The starting back-court will always be undersized as long as the team has both Lillard and McCollum on the roster, but there is definitely room for improvement on that end of the court.
As currently assembled, the Trail Blazers play one of the more entertaining offensive systems in the league. If this team wants to become more than just an exciting, fun-to-watch team, there has to be more of a focus on defense.