The Portland Trail Blazers: Mediocrity Epitomized
The Portland Trail Blazers are the definition of mediocre.
The team finished last season with a 41-41 record, in which it had a net rating of 0.0, good for 15th in the NBA. Portland snuck in to the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs, where it got decimated by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.
But not all is lost. The Blazers boast two of the most exciting scorers in the league in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. And they got hot down the stretch after trading for Denver Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic on February 12.
Can it continue?
Small Sample or Sustainable?
Over the course of the season, the Blazers ranked 11th in offensive efficiency and 21st in defensive efficiency. But after making the Nurkic trade, they boasted the league’s No. 9 offense and No. 12 defense—good enough for sixth in net rating.
The team went 18-10 after acquiring the big man, including 14-6 in the games he played. In his 20 outings with Portland, the Bosnian Beast put up 15.2 points, 10.3 boards, 3.1 assists and 1.9 blocks per contest on 50.8 percent shooting. Nurkic displayed solid pick-and-roll chemistry with Lillard and gave the team a different dynamic than running everything through its guards.
But then he broke his right leg near the end of the season and was only able to play one game in the Warriors series. Before getting ousted from Denver, he was out of the rotation and seemed out of shape, which was likely a contributing factor to his injury. With a full training camp and major role locked in, there’s a chance his production, as well as the team’s performance in those 20 games, wasn’t a fluke. But it’s difficult to be all-in on Nurkic, when the Nuggets were essentially a playoff team as soon as they sat him on the pine.
Allen Crabbe Trade
The Blazers traded Allen Crabbe to the Brooklyn Nets for Andrew Nicholson on July 25, a year to the day after matching the Nets’ four-year, $74.8 million offer sheet.
Brooklyn clearly wanted him badly, as Portland was able to get the deal done without any sort of sweetener, but the trade doesn’t come without its drawbacks. Crabbe still has three years and approximately $56 million left on his deal, while Nicholson is owed nearly $20 million over the same span. According to ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Nicholson will be waived, and his remaining contract will be stretched at a $2.8 million hit for each of the next seven seasons.
The deed hasn’t been done yet, so the Blazers have options, including incorporating him in a future trade package. But utilizing the waive and stretch is an odd decision. Yes, $2.8 million is essentially the veteran minimum and won’t add a team-changing talent. But the Blazers are going to be over the cap for the next three seasons either way, so why not just bite the bullet on the $19.6 million for three years rather than put yourself at a $2.8 million disadvantage for the next seven?
If Nicholson is waived, the team’s payroll for 2017-18 will reduce from $138.7 million to $122.2 million, and its luxury bill will diminish from $43.1 million to $4.4 million. They would also sit just $2.9 million over the luxury tax, and a subsequent move could help delay the repeater tax by a year.
However, this isn’t just about finances. With Crabbe on the move, the Blazers lose their most reliable spot-up option outside of McCollum and Lillard. Not only was his 44.4 percent accuracy good for second in three-point percentage (among players with at least 250 attempts), but his 46.4 percent clip on catch-and shoot-treys was also the highest percentage among the same group.
There’s no doubt Crabbe’s shooting was an important ingredient to the team’s attack, which makes their draft selections even more head scratching.
In a vacuum, the Blazers draft went quite well. After entering the night with the 15th, 20th and 26th picks, the team packaged the first two selections to move up and acquire Gonzaga center Zach Collins at No. 10. It then selected Purdue power forward Caleb Swanigan at No. 26.
Collins had decent production in one season as a Zag (10.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks on 65.2 percent shooting). He has the potential to be a rim-protecting big who can also stretch the floor and knock down threes once he extends his range. Swanigan was the Big Ten Player of the Year, winning the award to the tune of 18.5 points and 12.0 rebounds on 54.8 percent accuracy. He is a physical rebounder, a powerful inside presence and can even hit threes when given the chance (44.7 percent on 2.4 tries per game).
Both draftees are quality, NBA-caliber players, but when you consider the rest of the team’s roster, they don’t make as much sense. With the additions of Swanigan and Collins, the team now employs six players (the two rookies, Nurkic, Noah Vonleh, Ed Davis and Meyers Leonard) who could slot minutes at power forward or center.
Head coach Terry Stotts is likely to stick with Vonleh and Nurkic as the starting bigs, and he has good reason to. When the duo was on the court together, the Blazers absolutely annihilated teams, outscoring their opponents by 11.3 points per 100 possessions, per nbawowy. The starting five of Lillard, McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Vonleh and Nurkic was 14-5, and ended up being the team’s most used starting unit.
Vonleh is an aggressive screener and rebounder, and he has a decent knack for switching onto opposing guards. He is a quality option rolling to the rim and picking up the scraps off the rim, but the next step in the 21-year-old’s development will be becoming more of a pick-and-pop threat, as well as protecting the basket.
Ed Davis should get the bulk of minutes at backup center, leaving Collins to pick up any remaining big-man time.
2016 Bad Deals and Wing Redundancy
A major reason for moving Crabbe was to ease the pain of reckless spending an offseason ago. Just last summer, the Blazers signed, re-signed or extended the following players on four-year agreements: McCollum ($106 million rookie extension), Crabbe ($74.8 million), Evan Turner ($70 million), Harkless ($42 million) and Leonard ($41 million). To top it off, they added Festus Ezeli on a two-year, $15.13 million deal. He was injured all season, didn’t play in a single game and was recently waived.
They essentially went from having decent long-term flexibility to a team with a top-five payroll (currently No. 5 for 2017-18, according to spotrac.com).
But ridding themselves of Crabbe’s deal didn’t just help ease luxury-tax concerns; it helped consolidate some of the wing depth, which is chalk full of one-dimensional talent.
Harkless was the team’s starting small forward essentially the entire season, putting up career bests of 10.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 50.2 percent shooting from the field. He is a relentless rebounder for a wing, an impressive cutter into space and, at 35.1 percent from deep, is now the team’s best bet (other than Lillard and McCollum) to knock down an open jumper. Harkless is just 23 years old, and his three years, $30 million remaining on his deal is a steal for a starting wing.
If only they weren’t paying Turner $54 million over the same span.
In theory, the former Ohio State standout is an ideal fit next to Lillard and McCollum. He can handle the ball and make plays, and his perimeter defense is invaluable in making up for the duo’s shortcomings on that end. But without an outside shot, he quickly becomes a liability.
In two seasons with the Boston Celtics, 25.6 percent of Turner’s attempts came within three feet of the rim. With Portland, that number decreased to 19.7 percent, with a bulk of those attempts becoming three-pointers. Considering he’s a career 30 percent shooter from deep, Turner needs to return his focus to easy layups.
The odd man out of the big-man rotation—even if he shouldn’t be—appears to be Al-Farouq Aminu. By raw stats (8.7 points, 7.4 rebounds), the Wake Forest product doesn’t immediately jump off the screen as a significant asset. But diving deeper, it’s clear he was a positive contributor. With Aminu on the court, the Blazers outscored opponents by 1.8 points per 100 possessions, and they were outdone by 2.0 points per 100 possessions when he sat.
After shooting a career-best 36 percent from three in 2015-16, his accuracy took a dip to 33 percent, and righting the ship in that department would do wonders for the team’s drive-and-kick attack. He was still a stronger rebounder and shape-shifted as necessary—starting, coming off the bench and even playing some center near the end of the season.
After playing primarily small forward early in his career, the Blazers slotted Aminu at the power position 95 percent of the time in 2016-17, according to Basketball Reference. But with an abundance of bigs to choose from, Aminu’s small-ball 4 minutes will decrease, and so will his production.
Outside of the frontcourt logjam and redundant wings, the Blazers have two premier guards manning the backcourt.
Damian Lillard is fresh off a campaign in which he put up a career-high 27.0 points and 4.9 rebounds to go along with 5.9 assists on 44.4/37.0/89.5 shooting splits. The Weber State standout continues to be one of the most underrated lead guards in the game, as last year he became the first 25-points-per-game scorer to miss consecutive All-Star games since 1986. On top of that, Lillard’s career averages put him in elite company. Over the past five seasons, just five players have notched at least 22 points, five assists and four rebounds a game: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Lillard. Looking at his Play-Type Profile via NBA Math, we can see that Lillard added value in multiple offensive categories, especially as the pick-and-roll ball-handler and in isolation:
He possesses an array of moves and feints with striking athleticism and a quick-trigger jumper to boot, making him masterful controlling the pick-and-roll:
CJ McCollum continued his ascent to stardom with averages of 23.0 points, 3.6 assists and 3.6 boards on 48.0/42.1/91.2 shooting splits in his second season of starter-level minutes. When we examine the Lehigh product’s Play-Type Profile, it’s clear he has remarkably well-rounded production:
Together, Lillard and McCollum form the highest-scoring backcourt in the NBA, and they’re both among the most dynamic offensive talents the league has to offer. The former breads his butter with a barrage of treys, sprinkled with relentless attacks on the rim, while the latter does it all. Not only can McCollum run the pick-and-roll effectively, but he can space the floor for three pointers—coming off screens or waiting patiently for the defense to commit to his teammates. Per HoopsHype’s Frank Urbina:
As spot-up shooter:
-No. 11 among guys w/ >200 attempts
-Ranked higher than Beal, Klay & Ryan Anderson pic.twitter.com/4rGaHnqWTt
— Frank Urbina (@frankurbina_) July 27, 2017
Even so, the backcourt pair’s dilemma becomes clear when we take a look at NBA Math’s Total Points Added (TPA) database.
Among guards over the last two seasons, Lillard ranks fifth in offensive points added (OPA) at 663.12, while McCollum is 12th at 324.88. But on the other side of the ball, McCollum is fourth-worst in defensive points saved (DPS) at minus-235.12, and Lillard is fifth-worst at minus-226.29 over the same span.
Since they are so damn good offensively, the pair is still a net positive. But as stated before, the team was no better than a middle-of-the-road squad. With two horrendous defenders at the point of attack, the Blazers have to be otherworldly offensively to truly compete with the top tier out West. And that’s where a potential Carmelo Anthony addition becomes interesting.
Keep It Melo
Carmelo Anthony’s distressing stint with the New York Knicks may be coming to a close soon. After outlasting Phil Jackson, Anthony has agreed to waive his no-trade clause if the Knicks can render a deal with the Houston Rockets. Another possible destination for the 14-year veteran is the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he would unite with longtime friend LeBron James. But then he faces the prospect of James bolting town.
So outside of Houston, Rip City may be the best fit for Anthony’s talents.
McCollum has been vocal about his desire to add Anthony, even going as far as photoshopping the 10-time All-Star into a Blazers’ uniform. We also recently saw McCollum and Hoodie Melo playing pickup together, which doesn’t mean much, but is still a whole bunch of fun:
If winners stayed on, I'm thinking Hoodie Melo and CJ McCollum kept the court for a while…
(via cbrickley603 / IG) pic.twitter.com/PC1MB0LBJq
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) August 10, 2017
Where the addition really becomes meaningful is the fit. A whopping 43.3 percent of Lillard’s possessions came as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, where he often ended up launching from deep, driving to the cup or showing off a variety of floaters and runners in the lane.
But coming off a Nurkic screen, flanked by McCollum and Anthony, is a lethal proposition. Among players with at least 300 catch-and-shoot attempts, the small forward was tied for sixth in field-goal percentage (44.8 percent) with…you guessed it…Allen Crabbe. Anthony would shine in a catch-and-shoot role, while still being able to take over when necessary.
Stotts already does a pretty good job staggering his stars’ minutes, but with a new small forward in town, it’d be even easier. Not only would Anthony help relinquish McCollum’s burden as second-unit scorer, but the prospect of always having two of your three best players on the court is almost too good to pass up.
As NBA Math Deputy Editor Dan Favale and I discussed on a recent episode of Hardwood Knocks, a deal for Anthony would likely be comprised of something like a first-round pick, Harkless’ cheap contract, Leonard and one or two of Vonleh, Collins and Swanigan. (Aside: I’d include Vonleh rather than the rookies, since the team has them under contract for much longer. Plus, the Blazers will be facing Nurkic’s, as well as Vonleh’s, restricted free agency next summer and likely can’t pay both).
Yes, that’s a lot to give up for possibly one campaign of Anthony, who has an early-termination option after next season. But he likely wouldn’t leave, as it would take him a minimum of two years to recoup the $27.9 million he’s owed in 2018-19. And even if he does dash, at least the franchise has shown Lillard and McCollum they’re not content staying in the middle of the pack.
Position out West
As presently constructed, the Blazers have about a 50-50 chance of making the postseason. Yes, the team hasn’t finished outside the top eight since 2012-13, but in a revamped Western Conference, at least 10 teams could find themselves in contention for post-April hoops. The Golden State Warriors, Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder remain the only locks, which leaves the Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans to duke it out for the final four slots.
The ‘Wolves and Nuggets got better, while the Jazz and Clippers lost their best players but have a chance to be more balanced. The Pelicans remain an intriguing squad and have a good chance to be the team that decides where the Blazers end up. With a frontcourt duo of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, along with a healthy Jrue Holiday manning the point, the team could reach the 50-win mark. Then again, the injury bug could spell doom, and Rajon Rondo’s antics could prove too much to overcome, leading to a 35-win season.
Either way, adding Anthony to the fold would make the Blazers a near-lock to make the postseason. And if they don’t? Expect to start hearing real grumblings of McCollum trade rumors sprinkled across the Twittersphere. I don’t expect—and don’t want—Portland to move on from the budding 25-year-old, but at some point it’s got to look itself in the mirror. If repeatedly dipping in to the luxury tax only buys you a first- or second-round playoff exit year after year, maybe moving McCollum for quality young pieces and a couple picks is the move.
Again, I don’t anticipate it happening (or Lillard wanting to go through a mini-rebuild), but stranger things have happened.
Keep Portland Weird.
Follow Michael on Twitter @mbrock03