The Portland Trail Blazers sit at 3-4 about two weeks into the NBA season, a disappointing mark for a team that many picked to rocket into the upper half of the playoff picture after adding Robert Covington, alongside several other seemingly great pieces, in the offseason.
However, after a few blowouts and blown leads to begin the year, it appears that that won’t be the case barring some drastic changes.
In order to see what has gone wrong with the Trail Blazers, one must first look to the top, where much of the blame has been assigned.
There have been a lot of calls to fire head coach Terry Stotts, as many feel that he is wasting a roster that’s loaded with potential. However, firing Stotts in the middle of a COVID-19-impacted season carries a huge risk as replacements are not so easy to come by, certainly not any replacement of Stotts’ caliber.
Consider this, Stotts has served as head coach since the 2012-13 season, which was the last time Portland missed the playoffs. Of course, with past-and-present players such as Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and CJ McCollum, making the postseason is but a simple task.
That said, once you get there, winning playoff games is a different beast.
Stotts and the Trail Blazers have seen a first round exit four times in his career with the team, but made the conference semifinals twice and the conference finals once, in the 2018-19 season. In his Blazers career, the team boasts a 55% win rate. So, sure, it’s possible the Trail Blazers could do better than Stotts. But it’s also entirely possible that they do much worse after a midseason search.
The fact of the matter is, rather than replace him, Portland needs Stotts to improve on his formula and adapt in a season where flexibility will be key.
Thus far, the Trail Blazers have managed one of the worst defensive performances in the league and there’s a lot that Stotts can do to alleviate that. First, the bench isn’t working at all and the minutes that Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter have shared have been laughably bad on that end.
The duo of Kanter and Anthony has a net rating of -17.6 in 99 minutes and six games played together. Opponents score at a rate of 123.8 points when the two share the floor. Kanter looks very good on offense and is averaging 11 points a night, but he’s been such a liability on defense, complete with a career-low -3.4 defensive box plus/minus, that it can be hard to justify his minutes.
Another thing that’s particularly strange is Stotts’ refusal to allot any minutes to Harry Giles III, who the Trail Blazers signed over the offseason after a strong year with the Sacramento Kings. Giles isn’t the end all be all to Portland’s problems, but to not be flexible with the rotation is curious to say the least
In fact, Stotts has been stubborn with the rotation for a while. It’s easy to see the starting lineup hasn’t been exceptional, so changes should probably be made in that regard; Lillard, McCollum, Derrick Jones Jr., Covington and Jusuf Nurkic have a -1.2 net rating and a putrid 114.3 defensive rating. By far their most-played lineup this season, it’s clear to see the starting forward combo of Jones and Covington isn’t working. In fact, the entire rotational timeline needs to be altered to best fit each player’s respective skillset.
As the second-worst defender on the roster, Anthony cannot continue to play the most minutes off the bench, certainly not next to the worst defender in Kanter, or ahead of Gary Trent Jr., who averaged 16.9 points during last season’s seeding games, in crunch time — it’s costing the Trail Blazers mightily.
Anthony has lost a lot of his luster over the years, but he can still be a tremendous asset to the team. Last season, he featured in the Portland’s top four most-used lineups and three of them were net positives by a good margin — it’s just a matter of Stotts putting him in the position to succeed on the floor.
Rolling out a lineup of Lillard, McCollum, Anthony, one of Jones or Covington and Nurkic would allow for a much better defensive forward in either Jones Jr. or Covington to move to the bench. That way, Stotts could stagger Anthony’s and Kanter’s time on the court, masking them with better defenders, which would then open him up to boost Trent’s minutes off the bench, replacing Anthony in the closing lineup and giving the offense a nice boost as they look to close out games.
After that, once Rodney Hood is back on his feet, Stotts should go deeper into his bench and consider giving some of Kanter’s minutes to Giles if bench play remains inconsistent.
Thankfully, Portland should be getting some reinforcements down the road. For starters, Nassir Little, the Trail Blazers first round pick in 2019, should return soon and will hopefully provide a spark from the bench. Nurkic and Covington, meanwhile, should both see some positive regression as the year goes on — both have disappointed on the offensive end thus far, with neither averaging more than 10 points per contest.
For the moment, the Trail Blazers aren’t doomed. There is a lot of time between now and the playoffs for Stotts to change his rotation and switch up the defensive schemes. But, if those changes aren’t made soon, serious conversations will need to be had about Portland as we know them at the end of the year.