The Portland Trail Blazers had a rough summer. The team didn’t have the cap room to sign any big time free agents, nor were they part of any major trade that would have landed them a rotation player or a draft pick. Allen Crabbe, matched on an RFA deal in 2016 as future trade spec, went to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for an exception the team could use.
Debits and credits aside, the team’s talent is still significant enough to weigh heavy compared to the team’s mediocre 6-6 record.
The team got off to a rough offensive start, particularly when it came to star Damian Lillard. Last season, Lillard sat second row behind C.J. McCollum as the former battled a nagging foot injury. He looked sluggish and uncomfortable; unbalanced.
Although fully healthy for 2017-18, Lillard hasn’t been his normal self. He’s shooting worse from the field, less frequently and nearly six percent worse from 3-point range, and his value over replacement player has plummeted.
More importantly, Lillard’s free-throw attempts have skyrocketed. Watching Portland games looks like a few seasons ago, with Lillard constantly going to the rim and launching his body toward the stanchion, to hell with the consequences. It feels like it’s a reaction from having to force the offense, something that doesn’t come naturally under Terry Stotts.
This could have something to do with Jusuf Nurkic.
The Bosnian big man — hailed all too quick by Blazers fans over the summer as the savior — has looked sloppy over the first month of the season. Turnovers, poor shooting nights, and getting muscled by both the Marc Gasols and Tyson Chandlers of the NBA has not hung well on him. The amount of awkward, backwards-facing hook shots from Nurkic have been … unbecoming.
That’s to say nothing of his defense, which has too often looked like this:
Nurkic is playing at replacement player-level for the season thus far. Stotts benched him for nearly the entire fourth quarter on Friday against the Nets, likely because of his recent shortcomings.
Al-Farouq Aminu‘s absence due to injury has poked a hole in the extremely thin armor of Portland’s defense. He’ll be back from his ankle issue soon enough, but even the resurgence of guys like Ed Davis (playing masterfully, I should add) can’t make up for the lack of progression from guys like Maurice Harkless and the aforementioned Turner.
Even with a Big 3 they hope to grow together, Portland just isn’t deep enough to compete with the upper echelon in the Western Conference. The Blazers’ bench is filled with developmental talent and guys who can do one thing OK at an NBA level. What they need are two or three who can do a few things each — that’s the difference between contenders and challengers.
The situation is made even worse when you consider that two of the Blazers’ most important players, Aminu and Davis, are on deals that combined total $3.5 million less than one year of Turner. Say what you will about the contracts of Harkless and Meyers Leonard, but much of Olshey’s lauded frugality has been rendered null by Turner’s deal.
There’s no doubt some in Portland will preach patience, and that this team needs time. These folks are right across the aisle from the fans who have been screaming for the team to trade McCollum for DeMarcus Cousins for the better part of the last three seasons.
Even adding a third piece like Nurkic at his peak doesn’t help the fact a team led by McCollum and Lillard — the team’s core, in place for multiple seasons now — will need better defending and shooting on the wing from both starting and bench units.
This is the unpleasant counter to the argument that Nurkic’s performance last season over 20 games was going to lead to some kind of Disco Stu-esque chart of unconstrained success. Portland’s flaws are what they are. They needed a player to provide what Nurkic gave them last year, but that didn’t mean they could fail to address their remaining gaps.
To wit, Lillard has seemed to be more effective on defense, and some early numbers suggest he’s headed in the right direction. He passes the eyeball test too — he’s closer on closeouts, and free from the camp he used to set up on the hips of opposing, screening big men.
McCollum, for his part, has built on the successes of last season. He’s been the most impressive Blazers player this season, playing more minutes, shooting more 3-pointers, and scorching the nets at 52% from deep. While Lillard is still the franchise player and the one hitting game-winning 3-pointers, the fact is that McCollum has instilled more confidence for those watching heavy minutes of Portland basketball.
Other positives include Caleb Swanigan, who is destined for rotation or starters minutes over the next three seasons. That’s not only a good value for the team but an opportunity for Olshey to jettison his unhealthy attachment to Noah Vonleh either by trade or by dodging his extension. Harkless is still useful. Davis is back to being a complete headache for just about every NBA big man.
It feels privileged to slice apart a team like Portland in this way. This is a squad with talent, solidly in the middle of the Western Conference. But their standing isn’t a complete surprise, especially for those who inoculated themselves against “Nurkic Fever”.
Whether fans in Oregon like it or not, Nurkic’s diminished play and the hamstrung nature of the Blazers roster — now led by Turner’s contract with Crabbe gone — has shown that the team hasn’t made much of a leap in their first full season with renewed hope.
Olshey just signed a new contract in August, which makes sense for the team given his drafting ability and trade prowess. However, heading toward the holidays and 2018 the team sits roughly where it has since 2015 after separating from LaMarcus Aldridge — that’s with Lillard and McCollum’s stars shining brighter over that time.
While I prefer to defer to the adage of you can’t make trades that aren’t there, the salary on this roster begs the question of what Olshey has the guts or the freedom to do in the coming two seasons. Eventually, the conversation in Portland has to go from preparation to execution, and 2017-18 feels like the season to see that leap and define that path.
If we’re having this conversation come the 2018 trade deadline, we might finally get those drastic steps some Blazers fans have been calling for. For now, we’ll have to wait and reserve our panic for Portland.