After making it to the Western Conference Finals as the three seed last year, expectations were high for the Portland Trail Blazers entering this season.
While that playoff run was magical, this team is a far cry from it. Looking at the roster as it is currently constructed, the only four guys remaining from that squad are Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Anfernee Simons and Skal Labissiere.
Their best wing defenders, Mo Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, are no longer there. Two of their big men in Meyers Leonard and Enes Kanter are also gone. Seth Curry, Evan Turner and Jake Layman also no longer reside in Oregon. Rodney Hood’s season is over with his Achilles injury, and Zach Collins is still months away from seeing the floor as he continues his recovery from his shoulder issue.
With the amount of roster turnover that Portland has experienced, it is difficult to imagine them having the same success from a year ago. Chemistry takes time to build and bond together. The new players will need time to adjust to the playbook, the coaches and their teammates. Having said that, the NBA season is one-third of the way through, and the Blazers appear to still be stuck in neutral.
Portland has won 6 of its last 10 games, but there aren’t any signature wins in that group. They beat Chicago twice, New York and split a pair of home games against Oklahoma City. The other three losses were understandable though, coming up short against both teams in Los Angeles and the Denver Nuggets.
Something else has happened in this most recent stretch though, which should shine some light of optimism in the Pacific Northwest.
After pulling the trigger to bring in Hassan Whiteside during the offseason, the seven-footer is making his presence felt on both ends of the floor. Whiteside has had a reputation of a lazy, block-hunting role player in Miami, but so far this season he has stepped up his game. It goes deeper than his 33-point outburst last week in Denver.
In the month of December, Whiteside is averaging 18.7 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.1 blocks and 2.3 assists per game. Even his free-throw percentage (80 percent) has shown vast improvement. For the season, he currently ranks sixth in rebounding and seventh in Player Efficiency Rating.
Carmelo Anthony has also kicked it up a notch in the last few games. In his last two games, the veteran forward has scored 43 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and recorded 5 blocks and 4 steals. More importantly, he has shot 50 percent from the field (16-32) and 55 percent from downtown (6-11).
The change in Carmelo’s offensive game has been noticeable, but his activity on defense has been a revelation. When he is committed to the defensive end of the floor, Portland really is able to excel. If he is able to sustain this type of play going forward, the gamble to sign the 10-time All-Star will have paid off for the Blazers if it hasn’t already.
The play of these two individuals has been a big boost to the Blazers as they fight an uphill battle to get back into the playoff mix in the West. In addition, there is another name on their roster that holds the key to their fate when the regular season ends.
The loss of Jusuf Nurkic was really felt last season. While Kanter was a serviceable fill-in on offense, he just wasn’t capable of providing the same level of defense and Nurkic did. A report from Shams Charania of The Athletic within this past week indicates that the big man could return in February around the All-Star break. Getting another seven-footer back in the rotation will only solidify their outlook even more. The 25-year old center could be the spark that ignites this Portland team as the regular season winds down.
Trades are all the rage in the league, and Portland has been linked to many rumors out there. The most notable comes in the form of a package for Kevin Love, but making that move might not be the best option. The key factor in any deal for Love is absorbing his gargantuan contract, which still has three years left at $90 million. There are better options for the Blazers to explore, both financially and team-wise.
Should the Blazers not land a significant player in a trade, it won’t be the end of the world. Since Hood went down with his injury, other guys have stepped up to help fill the void. Kent Bazemore and Simons have done the most, but there is an opportunity for guys like Mario Hezonja and Nassir Little. With the expectations of getting Nurkic and Collins back, there may not be a trade that Portland feels it has to make.
Looking ahead to their next nine games, the Blazers have a chance to collect some valuable wins. Six of their next seven games are all at home, including tonight’s contest against the Golden State Warriors, who own the worst record in the league. After that, they face Orlando, Minnesota, New Orleans and Utah. None of those teams should scare them. After a tough matchup with the Lakers, they get Phoenix, New York and Washington.
Having a stable backcourt of Lillard and McCollum is a major positive. Their commitment and leadership are exactly what this young, mixed roster needs. Their ability to carry the load of the offense also comes in quite handy. Ultimately, the fate of this franchise rests on the shoulders of their two stars, as well as their vastly underrated head coach, Terry Stotts.
The words on the fire extinguisher door are clear and concise: “In case of emergency, break glass.”
Avoiding the temptation to push the panic button in these next two months will be the key for the Blazers.
If they can’t do that, they may be left picking up the pieces.
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