After many changes to their roster in the short offseason, the Portland Trail Blazers find themselves in a familiar position. With a quarter of the season now complete, Portland sits in seventh place in the Western Conference standings. This is not where they envisioned themselves being after all of the significant upgrades that general manager Neil Olshey constructed.
To say the least, Portland has been through a rough stretch of bad luck over the years. The injury bug has bitten Terry Stotts’ team early and often this season once again. They’ve already been without Zach Collins all year following surgery on his ankle. Starting center Jusuf Nurkic missed most of last season and is still out with a broken wrist that he suffered a few weeks ago.
But the biggest punch in the gut was the injury to CJ McCollum. The talented shooting guard was putting up career-high numbers to start the season, now in a walking boot.
The Trail Blazers were supposed to lean on their depth this season after making several great additions over the short offseason. Clearly, their area of focus was finding defensive-minded wing players. Derrick Jones Jr has been inconsistent aside from the occasional highlight dunk, Harry Giles has barely seen the floor and Enes Kanter has provided some offensive punch in his return but their biggest acquisitions have collectively not lived up to expectations.
Robert Covington was brought in to be the defensive stopper that they have sorely lacked. That, coupled with his ability to shoot from deep, made him an ideal fit next to McCollum and Damian Lillard. A concussion held him out of a couple of games, but even then it has been a miserable start to the season for Covington.
The stalwart forward is averaging just 1.4 made three-pointers per game this season, after averaging more than two every year prior. Through 17 games, the 30-year old has only scored in double figures twice and is currently shooting 30 percent from distance and just 33 percent overall.
Jones, too, has been a rough start – hitting on 26 percent on threes, 56 percent from the free-throw line and averaging just 7.4 points per game.
Unfortunately, Jones injured his foot in a recent game against the Houston Rockets and has joined the others on the sidelines. With the absence of all of these players, Stotts needs someone else to fill the void.
Injury report for Thursday's game vs. 76ers: Damian Lillard (abdominal strain) and Derrick Jones Jr. (left foot sprain) are questionable while Nassir Little (left knee), CJ McCollum (left midfoot fracture), C Jusuf Nurkic (right wrist) and Zach Collins (left ankle) are out.
— Casey Holdahl (@CHold) February 3, 2021
Two players that might regularly step up simply have not yet done so. Carmelo Anthony is a future Hall of Famer but he is well past his prime. Even as a prolific scorer for most of his career, Anthony is arguably one of the worst defenders in the league at this stage. He can play his role, but Portland needs more than that in order to stay above water.
Rodney Hood is another bench piece that has the ability to thrive under these circumstances. He has an injury-riddled past as well and is still shaking off the rust. Hood is shooting 31 percent from deep and just 35 percent overall while averaging a career-low 4.4 points per game. The 28-year old doesn’t offer much in terms of assists or rebounds, but he is a capable defender if he commits to it. But his body just doesn’t appear ready to take on that challenge right now.
The signing of Giles was viewed as one of the best under-the-radar moves in the offseason. After two seasons with the Sacramento Kings, in which he only averaged 14 minutes per game, this appeared to be his opportunity to grow. That hasn’t quite panned out though as he is actually averaging fewer minutes per game (11.3) in Portland. Amid all of the injuries, Giles has gotten a few more opportunities, but it hasn’t translated to much production.
While it may seem all doom and gloom right now, Portland must remain patient – there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Help is on the way, but the key for the Trail Blazers is to stay afloat while their injured players heal. Jones should be back within the week and Nurkic is hopeful to return in early March. The big man should be able to keep up with his conditioning while his wrist heals. McCollum’s foot will be re-evaluated in the next week or two, but they expect to have him back in the second half of the season.
There have been a few bright spots for this team, particularly with Enes Kanter – who is currently notching a career-high 61 percent from the field, 78 percent from the free-throw line and averaging a career-high in blocks and steals. His defense has gotten much better and the center is gambling much less on that end of the floor. That, coupled with his incredible rebounding rate, has really helped Portland’s balance.
The progression of both Gary Trent Jr and Anfernee Simons has been extremely valuable. Both players have been shooting a career-high percentage from behind the arc this season. This has eased the load for Lillard, even though he is quite capable of shouldering the offense. The superstar point guard ranks third in scoring, eighth in assists and owns the seventh-best Player Efficiency Rating this season.
The defensive spark that Trent provides has been a tremendous boost in an area that has been a sore spot. Look no further than last Saturday night’s victory over the Chicago Bulls. Lillard executed in typical late-game fashion, but it was Trent that tied up Zach LaVine in the final seconds to force the jump ball that resulted in the game-winning shot for Lillard.
Portland has long been an elite offensive team but subpar on defense – their team rankings in both categories reflect that, but that could change once they finally get everyone healthy. Unfortunately, the Lillard-led Blazers have lost five of their last 10 games as they navigate their way through the middle of a seven-game road trip.
Their schedule is slightly more forgiving in February, but they only have four home games during the entire month.
Winning the offseason doesn’t always translate to winning the postseason. Portland isn’t expected to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy this summer, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a chance.
Ultimately, that is all they are asking for.
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