The Trail Blazers' struggles to start the season extends further than just their frontcourt depth
Portland's defense and supporting cast are areas of concerns early in the season
Losing Zach Collins is a devastating blow for the Portland Trail Blazers. They were already down Jusuf Nurkic, who has been rehabbing from a broken leg sustained in March, and Pau Gasol has yet to make his Trail Blazers debut after signing a one-year deal with the team over the summer. They traded for Hassan Whiteside to fill the void in Nurkic's absence, and despite his solid performances to start the season, he has a reputation for being wildly inconsistent. The loss of Collins in the starting lineup makes the Blazers thinner than ever, but Portland's struggles to start the season have more to do with just the lack of depth in the frontcourt.
It isn't time for Portland to hit the panic button just yet, the Trail Blazers are dealing with a litany of injuries and a group of new players still getting acclimated, and it's not like they've been awful either. Damian Lillard is putting up MVP numbers, averaging 30 points, 7.1 assists and 5.1 rebounds per night, CJ McCollum is having another solid season and Anfernee Simons has been turning heads with his play off the bench. However, there are some areas of concern for the Trail Blazers early on, mainly their defense and the performance from their supporting cast.
The Trail Blazers are getting in shootouts with teams because they can't limit their opponents' scoring. Portland allows 114.3 points a night, which is seventh-worst in the league, and their defense ranks 19th in the NBA. They allow the second-most second-chance points per game in the NBA (15.9) and commit the third-most fouls in the league at 25.8 a night. There have been miscommunications on defensive assignments, breakdown in pick-and-roll coverage and a frequent tendency to leave shooters open on the 3-point line.
During the offseason, the Trail Blazers sacrificed defense in letting Al-Farouq Aminu walk in free agency, and trading Moe Harkless, primarily because those players didn't offer enough on offense to offset their tremendous defense. However, it's not like they went out and got a bunch of shooters to surround Lillard and McCollum with. Even before Collins went down, their offense was still primarily a two-man game between Lillard and McCollum without dependable shooters around them.
Collins masked a lot of issues for Portland. He had the team's best net rating (13.1), provided versatility on offense and was switchable on defense. He fit in perfectly next to Lillard and McCollum, providing floor spacing out to the 3-point line, allowing the team's star guards to have more room to work with on offense, and had a solid game in the post. Without him, Whiteside is the next best big on the team, and he doesn't provide nearly the same upside on offense as Collins did.
Aside from that though, the Trail Blazers are dead last in the league in assists per game (17.8). There is a serious lack of ball movement in this offense, with 27.7 percent of Portland's offense consisting of either Lillard or McCollum coming up the floor, using a screen to create space and either driving to the rim or pulling up from deep.
It's not a bad strategy, and the Trail Blazers are awfully efficient at it, ranking third in points per possession off of pick and rolls. However, when the defense knows that neither Lillard or McCollum are going to dump it to the roll man, it becomes a bit harder to rack up points.
That's what happened in the Western Conference Finals last year against the Golden State Warriors. Lillard and McCollum were forced to give the ball up more because they would draw a double-team off a screen, and when they did try to pass it to an open Aminu or Harkless, they'd miss more often than not, or it would result in a turnover.
This year, the Trail Blazers are relying more on Rodney Hood, who is playing the most minutes in his career since his second year in the league, and because their lack of size, he's being asked to spend roughly half of his time at power forward, something he's not accustomed to doing. His shooting numbers are up from a season ago, but he has a tendency to completely disappear on offense, as evidenced from his 25-point performance in Philadelphia, followed by 4-point, and 5-point performances in the next two games.
The Kent Bazemore trade hasn't yielded many positive results early in the season as he's shooting 37.1 percent from the field and averaging just 7.9 points through eight games. The only consistent contribution they're getting from their bench comes from Simons who could very well be a trade piece for Portland. He's averaging 10.5 points on 40 percent from beyond the arc and 50 percent from the field.
Portland is reportedly going to be active in the trade market, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, and Simons would definitely be someone opposing teams would want to have in any trade package with Portland. So, who do they target?
One name that's been thrown around a lot is Kevin Love, who has been toiling away in Cleveland for the past couple years. Love is an Oregon native, is averaging 18.9 points and 14.4 rebounds, and can shoot 3s at a high clip. His defense is solid, and he would fit in seamlessly with Lillard and McCollum.
Love would solve the issue in the frontcourt for the Blazers, but if they're looking for a forward who they can switch around a bit more on offense then another option -- and perhaps the better one -- is trying to see what Oklahoma City would want for Danilo Gallinari. In his last season with the Clippers he was a borderline All-Star, and so far with the Thunder, he's been putting up strong numbers, averaging 18.9 points, 4.8 rebounds on 46.1 percent from the field, and 45.5 percent from 3-point range.
He isn't as good a defender as Love, but he'll be a free agent after this season, whereas Love is still owed roughly $92 million spread out over the next three years after signing an extension with the Cavaliers in 2018. Portland has several expiring contracts it could throw in a deal for either player, as well as a few young players who could pique opposing teams' interest.
The season is still very young, and the Trail Blazers have a lot of time before now and the trade deadline to figure out how the new pieces on this team can best work together. However, if they're still in the same spot in February as they are now, they'll have no choice but to make moves in order to make a run in the postseason this year.
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