Going into this season, expectations were high for the Portland Trail Blazers. Exactly how high was up for debate. But most would agree they had a good off-season. There was reason to believe they were finally making that leap to a contending team. Losing two of their three best players to injury isn’t something many teams can recover from. But many of the Blazers younger players stepped up to keep them competitive. And some stellar clutch time performances from Damian Lillard have them 5th in the west with a 24 – 16 record. What’s in store for their back half of the season?
Return from injuries
It took time for them to adjust to playing without McCollum and Nurkic. But both players are looking to return shortly after games resume, and it will be just as much of an adjustment bringing them back. Each of them has very different strengths but one thing they both excel in is taking the pressure off Lillard.
Nurkic is the best pick and roll partner Lillard has ever had. They play off each other incredibly well no matter who has the ball often utilizing backdoor cuts. But Nurk’s passing ability opens up the floor for more than just Lillard. He loves hitting the baseline cutters, and this year he targeted the high flying Derrick Jones Jr. often.. Defensively, he started this season a lot slower than past years, struggling to keep up with quicker guards who would blow by him in the pick and roll. But before his big leg injury he played a huge role in the Blazers defense. The big question is what version of Nurkic are the Blazers going to get?
One of the nagging questions throughout CJ McCollum’s career is if he and Lillard coexist in the same backcourt? Prior to his injury this year, the answer was a resounding yes. Through the thirteen games he played, he was averaging career highs in points, assists, three point attempts, three point percentage, and steals. He was playing the most efficient basketball of his career. One of the things he’s done well at in his career is punishing teams that double team Lillard. But if he returns to his pre-injury form that double team may not come in the first place. If the Blazers find success McCollum is going to be a major part of it.
One of the big stories of last season (before the whole league shut down) was the Blazers signing of Carmelo Anthony. The future hall of famer was out of the league for over a year and his return was questionable. He was inconsistent in the time before the season was suspended. But once everything with Covid happened and the NBA bubble was announced the Blazers knew they would be getting two injured big men back. So Melo had to shift from power forward to small forward. He put in the work and once the bubble was ready so was he. He played his best stretch of basketball for the Blazers in the bubble and hit many clutch shots to help them make the playoffs.
His numbers this year are fairly similar to last year. He’s had a strange season in that he was coming off the bench for the first time in his career until all the injuries the Blazers endured which caused him to be in and out of the starting lineup again. Given the turmoil in the first half of the season, it’s difficult to pass judgement on how his play will translate to future games and a potential playoff run. What we do know is that when the Blazers were down and out in the bubble, Melo hit big shot after big shot. They’ll need him to continue finding his spots in the second half of the season.
It has long been said that defense wins championships. Defense has been a major flaw for the Blazers for some time now. In the bubble especially it became a glaring issue as they faced a gauntlet of offensively talented teams. They looked to remedy that this year with the additions of Covington and Jones Jr but so far this year their defensive rating remains in the bottom five of the league.
Nurk’s absence is an easy excuse but an entire team’s defense cannot rely on one player. There are some issues that will need to be remedied come playoff time. For one, the Blazers guards have a tendency to help unnecessarily from the corners. This often leads to open threes. They also struggle to fight through screens and resort to ill-advised switches, giving the offense whatever favorable matchup they want. The Blazers aren’t going to become an elite defensive team overnight but they need to see improvement if they want postseason success.
The Blazers have championship aspirations. They’ve been a competitive team for years now, and they even made the conference finals a couple seasons ago. However, to truly be cemented as a great team, a title is needed. This season hasn’t been perfect, but if things go their way in the second half of the season, they just might find themselves in the championship mix.