All stats are current through Friday’s games and are via NBA.com, ESPN and Basketball Reference.
Things were bad for the Portland Trail Blazers before this weekend.
On Thursday, they were 4-8 and sat in 13th place in the ever-so competitive Western Conference, a land where, despite such a new season, a slow start could be deadly. Throw in the surprising Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves, along with basketball’s most consistent and competitive franchise in the San Antonio Spurs who might very well sneak into the playoffs and Portland could already be facing long odds to be playing in late April.
To try and help with that, they signed Carmelo Anthony and then proceeded to blow a 23 point lead Saturday night against San Antonio before rallying to a 121-116 win, improving them to a still meek 5-8 record.
A lot of the numbers posted by Portland don’t support their immense struggle. The Blazers are league-average offensively thus far, ranking 15th in offensive rating by putting up a 107.9 mark. They’re 19th on the other end thanks to a 109.2 defensive rating, good enough for a total net rating of -1.2.
Damian Lillard has been a top seven candidate in the way-too-early MVP race. He’s putting up 30.5 points a game on 48.2 percent shooting from the field and 38.6 percent from three – a really good number considering he’s shooting from deep 9.5 times a game.
Lillard is fifth in PER (That’s a stat that, while telling, is also predicated on large sample size and doesn’t take defense into account), first in offensive and overall win shares all while leading the league in minutes played thus far, making the numbers he’s putting up even more impressive.
All of this – the below-average-to-average ratings and Lillard’s torrid start – shouldn’t equal 5-8. It should be closer to .500, or even better because of Lillard’s performance. But sitting at 12th in the conference among the likes of New Orleans and Memphis almost feels unfair, creating a haunting sense that the Blazers could be getting unlucky or just don’t have what it takes given the insane competition.
It’s likely a little bit of both.
In their losses this season, Portland is shooting 34.2 percent from three. For the most part, they’ve been cold. They shot 25 and 30 percent from deep against Denver and San Antonio, respectively. They hit 55 percent of their threes against the Sixers, but still lost by just a point thanks to an insane Furkan Korkmaz buzzer-beater. Two days later, they regressed back down to 32.5 percent against the Warriors and dropped that game thanks to Eric Paschall’s breakout; Portland’s injuries in the frontcourt really emerged there. Things didn’t get better against the Clippers (Expectedly so) in the next game; the Blazers shot only 28 percent that night.
Portland is 1-3 since that Clippers game, and in their losses they’ve shot 36.7, 26.7 and 39.6 percent from three. The poor outing came against Sacramento of all teams, a squad they likely had the best chance to get a win over after the other two losses came against Brooklyn and Toronto.
The opponents Portland has lost to are allowing their opponents to make 36.18% of their three pointers, so it’s not as if the Blazers are playing teams that are exceptional at defending the three point line. When Portland doesn’t hit from beyond the arc, it hurts them, and subsequently results in losses.
Perhaps they aren’t taking the right shots. Portland isn’t moving the ball at all offensively. The Blazers rank last in the NBA in assists per game and second-to-last in total passes made this season. They’re taking the most pull-up jumpshots out of any team in the league with 32.4 per game, and have the second highest isolation percentage in the league at 9.9 percent (Houston obviously sits in first place there, but they’re isolating a little less than TWICE as much as Portland is, sitting at 18 percent).
So it’s no surprise the shots aren’t falling. The Blazers need to add efficiency to their offense to fix this.
Caremelo Anthony does not bring that.
Hold that thought for a second. We should’t be acting like Melo’s effectiveness or ineffectiveness will have a profoundly negative or positive impact on the Blazers. This is a trial run to see whether he can actually contribute anything at all. That opportunity won’t come in terms of a starting role or crunch-time minutes.
Because of that, the Blazers have to figure out how they’re going to improve the roster they have without outside forces. Trades aren’t going to fix a style of play problem. If they’re considering that, then Portland’s issues are much deeper than we think and are a sign of serious institutional trouble there. This team should be good enough and better than that.
Portland’s most-played lineup has a net rating of -4.7 this season, a brutally low number considering the small minutes sample size. It consists of Lillard (Obviously not the issue; Portland is a -12.4 net with him off the court), CJ McCollum, Rodney Hood, Anthony Tolliver and Hassan Whiteside. Tolliver is the biggest issue. He’s been horrific to start the year, shooting 24.4 percent from the field 24.2 percent from three. It’s likely a sample size issue, but the 34-year-old saw his percentages drop substantially last year. Another drop in those is something Portland can’t afford.
CJ McCollum has been cold too. He’s only shooting 40.7 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from deep. This should absolutely change, unlike Tolliver. McCollum is one of the 25 best guys in the league and is coming off a smoking hot playoff run. It could be just some negative regression stretched over the course of the summer playing a major role. McCollum isn’t just going to be bad – this isn’t baseball, and star players don’t fluctuate like that in their prime.
Rodney Hood has been really good, shooting 50 percent from the floor and 48.8 percent from three. It’d be interesting to see Portland throw him out there alongside the two guards and Anferenee Simons, who has lived up to all the preseason hype so far.
Simons needs to play more. His on/off court numbers are dreadful, but he’s shooting 47.3 percent on field goals and 38.2 percent from three. Plus, he’s hitting shots like this.
This was the game that Simons showed what he was capable of. He dropped 15 points in the fourth quarter, and was practically sealing the game until Kawhi Leonard happened.
Simons is unique because he can play on or off the ball and still be able to takeover in big moments. He was the reason why Portland couldn’t be counted out of contention this year. But as the slow start has shown, he alongside the two stars in the backcourt won’t be enough.
Injuries have obviously played their role. Zach Collins’ dislocated shoulder is forcing Portland to play Tolliver so much. Jursurf Nurkic is still working his way back from that horrific ankle injury suffered late last season and is probably still a ways away from returning.
Because of that, Portland should probably try and go small. Simons and Hood among CJ and Dame might be the best bet for the Blazers to right the ship. Whiteside hasn’t been detrimental but certainly hasn’t been great. It doesn’t matter either way; they don’t have another option, and any smaller lineup is too small. Whiteside has to play no matter how bad he is. It’s simply a bodies issue.
The Blazers could also use their third-most played lineup of the season, which features Dame, CJ and Whiteside surrounded by Mario Hezonja and Kent Bazemore. That lineup is a +26.8 in just 40 minutes. Bazemore brings much needed defense, helping that rating improve to an impressive 95.2. But the offensive numbers just don’t add up to the supreme 122 rating that the group is producing. Hezonja’s been brutal, shooting just 31.9 percent on field goals and 32 percent from three. Bazemore hasn’t been much better, though that’s somewhat expected as he flourishes more with the ball in hands rather than playing alongside two high-usage guards.
It’s likely that the offensive rating is being saved by Lillard, and that the four-time All-Star is accumulating most of his impeccable numbers with Hezonja and Bazemore on the court for some fluke reason.
Still, no option the Blazers have seems to be a good one. That’s the best case for signing Melo. What’s the risk? What do the Blazers, in simple need of literally anyone who can play basketball, lose here? Isn’t there only a route upwards by signing Melo? He can’t make them worse since the negatives he brings to the table are already happening. What if he turns into a potent scorer and doesn’t play as inefficiently? Expecting that kind of turnaround is ridiculous, especially from someone whose been so stubborn about role in his past two NBA stops. That stubbornness led us to believe Melo had received his last chance in the league. Even the Lakers wouldn’t sign him. The Blazers did, and Melo’s going to have to buy in and perform rather than just perform.
But at this point, even him just performing is questionable. Melo was horrible in Houston to begin last year, shooting 40.5% from the floor 32.8% from three in those 10 games last year. And those horrific numbers came in a situation where Anthony was used as a complimentary role player. He was a classic off-ball wing.
But at times, Melo couldn’t resist reverting back to his old self.
What does one of the least efficient teams in basketball need? Probably not someone who is going to be taking shots like those.
The Blazers do need bodies, sure. Melo brings that to table. But the root of Portland’s poor start doesn’t totally lie in their injuries. They can make up for that by playing smart and letting their talent do their thing. Portland’s lack of ball movement, McCollum’s early-season daze and Simons’ limited role doesn’t fit either of those parameters. Neither does Carmelo Anthony.