A glance at the Portland Trailblazers would have many a fan excited. In Damian Lillard and C.J.McCollum, they have arguably the best offensive backcourt this side of the Bay area. In Mason Plumlee, they have an underrated player but one who fits so well in this team. In Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, they have versatile players capable of defending multiple positions and knocking down open shots. In Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner they have wings who can create with the ball in their hands. And in Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard they have young bigs with significant upside.
Yet this side fell to 13-17 with their latest loss, a howler against the bumbling Sacramento Kings. This Blazers team is one that has made the playoffs for the last three seasons and made the second round in two of those seasons, including last season when they played the Golden State Warriors far closer than the 4-1 score line would indicate. So how can a team whose oldest player is Turner (aged just 28) have seemingly fallen into the abyss of NBA mediocrity? Quite simply, they are woeful on defence to such an extent that even their offense cannot cover the flaw.
They concede the second most points in the league at 113.4, and concede 114.9 points a game away from home. They rank dead last in defensive rating at 111.0, despite playing at the 7th fastest pace in the NBA. They rank 25th in opponent field goal percentage (46.4%), 28th in opponent three-point percentage (38.2%) and 27th in effective field goal percentage. Those statistics are bad enough as they are, but consider that the Blazers are excellent and rank third in opponent field goal percentage within 5 feet of the basket – that makes their defensive performance even worse!
Need more evidence? They are in the bottom five in opponent percentage in shooting from 15-24 feet and are the worst team at defending the shot from 25 feet plus. They are also in the bottom 10 in defensive rebounding percentage and turnovers forced. Apologists will claim their offense is outstanding and they would be right – the Blazers rank 6th in points per game 7th in offensive rating and 8th in both effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. They rank in the top 10 for shooting percentage beyond 15 feet but just 23rd in shooting percentage within 5 feet. From those numbers, you can deduce that they do not get many dunks. Speaking of dunks, unless you lived under a rock for the last week or so you would have seen THIS from Larry Nance Jr.
I will put out there that this might be the best in game dunk I have seen in 20 years of watching the NBA. The jump looks like it is performed off a trampoline, straight up but then he pushes forward a few feet and throws it down over a 7-foot beast and MAKES IT LOOK FUCKING EASY after crossing over at the top of the key! The Brooklyn bench needs to fess up – they were quietly ecstatic that they had witnessed history, stopping themselves from a celebration explosion while Tim Mozgov looked more shocked than he was after watching back his NBA Finals performances from the past two seasons. Larry Nance, you might not even be the best basketball player in your family but take a bow son. He might be the most under-the-radar, watchable young player in the game today.
But back to Portland, remember when Lillard was doing THIS?
This shot was made by a second-year player, and was for the series after he blew a defensive coverage and allowed Chandler Parsons a layup at the other end just seconds earlier. This was when Parsons was an effective NBA player who actually played basketball, as opposed to stealing millions of dollars a year from team after team. Anyway, if Lillard misses that shot the Blazers go back to Houston for Game 7 and probably lose but Lillard iced the game and has proven himself to be as good a big shot maker as there is in the league today. But this season, he has regressed and might be the poster child for matador defence. When paired with McCollum, another sub-par defender, they need to be supreme every night or else they risk being exposed by the multitude of star players in the league. How is this for an impactful stat - Harkless, McCollum and Lillard are THE WORST three defenders as far as defensive rating goes amongst ALL players who play more than 28 minutes a game. All three rank inside the top 30 offensively among the same players but the defensive ratings are damning. Perhaps more important is that of those three, only one is tradable – the move for the Blazers may well be to move McCollum for either a two-way player, an impactful big man or both.
The loss of Aminu to injury has hurt this team and their defensive fortunes will improve as he regains conditioning and works his way back into the rotation, but the investment of signing of Turner and Crabbe seems baffling. Turner signed a 4-year, $70 million contract in the off season but needs the ball in his hands to be effective – unless he is on the floor without Lillard and McCollum, that doesn’t happen often enough to make it a worthwhile investment. Crabbe signed for 4 years and $74.8 million but does much of what Turner and Harkless do – with Harkless having signed for 4 years and just $40m, you wonder whether the Blazers are cursing having almost $150m sunk into Crabbe and Turner.
Portland’s plus/minus ranks them 23rd in the league, and this is an accurate indicator of just how good a team really is. They are ahead of only Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Dallas, LA Lakers, Orlando and New Orleans and behind Minnesota, Miami, Sacramento and Denver (all of who have worse records) in this category. For a team that entered the season expecting to at least replicate their effort of making the second round of the playoffs, they would be mortified at the realisation they may be headed for the lottery unless they start playing defence.
Written by Steven Paice