There's a perception that in today's NBA of seemingly endless possessions, a 20-point lead is nothing. It can, in theory, be all but erased in six possessions. It seems like that happens quite a lot. I was surprised to learn, via ESPN's Tom Bontemps, that teams that had built at least a 20-point lead in a given game had gone 49-0 in those contests to start the season.
That changed Tuesday night, when the Portland Trail Blazers became the first team to blow a 20-point advantage this season in falling 111-108 to the visiting Chicago Bulls, who were playing without a starter (Lauri Markannen) and two rotation players (Tomas Satoransky and Chandler Hutchison).
The Bulls, though there are some things to like, are not a very good team at full strength. Down three players and 20 points, they shouldn't be able to rally against a Blazers team that many, including myself, tagged as a fringe contender this season. But they did. It says a lot about the Bulls, who, again, have some pretty interesting pieces, including Zach LaVine, who is an electric scorer perhaps starting to turn the playmaking corner.
But this game says even more about the Blazers, who are trending in a troubling direction. Yes, it's early. The Blazers are 3-4, same as Dallas and Denver, both of which everyone expects to be in the thick of the West's playoff scene. But this season is going to get late early, as the late Yogi Berra might've said, with just 72 games on the schedule. The fight for a playoff spot, even with the new play-in series, is going to be a bloodbath in the West. These early losses can, and likely will, matter a great deal.
Outside of CJ McCollum, who is off to a bananas start (I'll be writing more about this soon), pretty much nothing is going well for Portland. Robert Covington is shooting under 30 percent from 3. Rodney Hood is hurt again. Jusuf Nurkic came into the Bulls game averaging nine points. Even Damian Lillard, by his standards, is off to a pretty rough start at a 42 percent shooting clip entering Wednesday, which would register as his worst mark since 2015-16.
All that said, the Blazers were the league's No. 8 offense at 114.3 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. Lillard is going to get going. Nurkic will get better. Gary Trent Jr. is picking up where he left off in the bubble, and he and Covington are going to space the floor and make shots. McCollum is an assassin. Long term, don't worry about Portland's offense.
Worry about its defense.
The Blazers currently have the second-worst defense in the league. You might call that surprising given the point they made in addressing their defense in the offseason, signing Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. to give themselves at least a fighting chance on the wing after the departures of Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless prior to last season.
Jones has taken the toughest assignments and, at times, acquitted himself pretty well. I still like Portland's ability to at least credibly match up defensively in the playoffs. They have switchable parts, but any team that is starting McCollum and Lillard is going to be vulnerable at the point of attack. In theory, Covington, Jones, Trent and Hood, when he gets back, can scramble behind Lillard and McCollum to cut off penetration and recover to shooters, but Nurkic has to be a big-time rim-protecting presence.
Entering Tuesday, teams were shooting 67 percent inside the restricted area vs. the Blazers, which ranks 25th league-wide. Nurkic, as the primary defender on such shots, was giving up buckets at a 58 percent clip, which isn't awful but isn't even close to elite. He's shown he can defend at the rim at a 53 percent clip as recently as 2018-19, and he has to get back to at least that given that McCollum and Lillard are going to be compromised a lot on penetration.
The bench unit is an even bigger problem. Right now Terry Stotts is playing Enes Kanter and Carmelo Anthony, two legitimately atrocious defenders, a lot of minutes together. Usually McCollum, another subpar defender, is with them as the lead scorer on the second unit. Whoever rounds out those lineups, two above-average defenders aren't going to offset those first three. It's a problem; even if the plus-minus numbers actually haven't been as bad as the starting-lineup numbers, the small sample size is almost certainly to credit for that short-term cover.
Whereas in some seasons coaches might be able to take their time figuring out rotations, again, this season is different. The Blazers could very well end up within a game or two of making the playoffs and falling into the lottery; the West is that deep. Stotts has to figure this out now. Nurkic has to start playing not just better, but a lot better, right now. Lillard has to find a real groove immediately. Stotts might have to make a hard call on whether he can play Carmelo and Kanter as much, let alone in the same lineups. This is not a perfect Blazers team by any stretch. They don't have a huge margin for error. And whatever margin they do have, they're already starting to use up fewer than 10 games into the season.