A 3-4 start has highlighted the Portland Trail Blazers' lack of depth. How can they make the most of Damian Lillard's prime this season? Mark Deeks says the Blazers face a challenge to remain in contention until the chance to upgrade their roster emerges mid-season.
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The Portland Trail Blazers have made the playoffs for six consecutive seasons. Ever since the second year of the Damian Lillard and Terry Stotts pairing, they have been in the postseason, only once finishing lower than the fifth seed in a highly competitive Western Conference, and entering this year with back-to-back third-place finishes.
In the era of the Golden State Warriors' dominance, there has admittedly been quite the gap between first and third, yet in being at the head of the chasing pack, the Blazers have been in close enough contact to the top that some timely acquisitions could see them bridge the gap.
They have been able to sustain this despite a 2016 offseason in which they spent, literally, half a billion dollars, hamstringing themselves financially and losing that all-important concept of 'flexibility' from their roster construction. Given that vast amounts of this overspend went to marginal players such as Evan Turner ($70m), Meyers Leonard ($41m), Maurice Harkless ($40m) and Allen Crabbe ($74.83m), it looked as though the good momentum that had built up over the previous three seasons had been undercut, and the prime years of 'Superstar Dame' would be spent as an also-ran.
It was reported that Lillard subsequently went to team ownership and asked for not only a commitment to winning, but also an idea of how they planned to get to championship level from the mid-to-low playoff seeds. In turn, the team's braintrust asked for a better commitment to the defensive end from Lillard personally. He has upheld his end of the bargain, and considering the self-imposed quagmire, the front office did a decent job with theirs as well.
Despite having to finagle their bench considering the financial constraints and the constant losses that involved, the Blazers remained competitive in the West by running back the same core and patching up the bench. For example, bringing in Shabazz Napier and Ed Davis, two excellent reserves, for incredibly cheap in the summer of 2017, and then after losing them both again in the summer of 2018, being able to fill that space with the value pickups of Seth Curry and, latterly, Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter.
This past summer, the Blazers freed themselves of Turner, Leonard and Harkless. None of those three very expensive contracts for reserves expired, but all were dealt; Turner was moved to the Atlanta Hawks for Kent Bazemore, while the other two were combined in a four-team deal that yielded Hassan Whiteside from the Miami Heat to cover for the injury absence of Jusuf Nurkic.
Combined with retaining Hood, drafting Nassir Little and bringing in Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver to minimum salary contracts, it was hoped that they could once again paper over the cracks.
A 3-4 start to the year, though, has highlighted the team's lack of depth.
Harkless was not the only defensive combo forward to leave the team this summer. Al-Farouq Aminu left after four years to sign a mid-level exception deal with the Orlando Magic, and Jake Layman was signed and traded for relatively cheap to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange only for the draft rights to a player (Bojan Dubljevic) that will never join the team. Curry also left as a free agent, not really replaced at all, and although Kanter was only with the team very briefly, his value as a scorer and rebounder in Nurkic's absence by far trumps that of his replacement, Pau Gasol.
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Compounding that is a frontcourt injury crisis. It was known that Nurkic would miss at least the first two-thirds of the season recovering from his severe leg break, but the answer to the power forward shortage was supposed to be playing third-year center Zach Collins at the position, going big while everyone else goes small due to Collins's ability to play the perimeter at on either end. Collins, however, has suffered a shoulder injury after only three games and will now miss the bulk of the regular season at least, and with Gasol also unable to play due to foot issues, there is now a distinct shortage of front-court depth.
There is also a shortage of backcourt depth. Unlike when Curry was able to replace Napier, no ball-handling guards were brought in this summer at all. Despite being built like a small forward, Turner essentially played the back-up point guard position for the last couple of seasons, while Curry ran around off that looking for jump shots. Bazemore's good defensive energy and dynamic if very streaky scoring figured to give a bench infusion in a very different way to Turner, but ball-handling and secure playmaking are required on any team, and Portland did not get any.
It was instead hoped that second-year guard Anfernee Simons would be able to step up and man the point guard position when Lillard was out of the game. And as a scorer, he is off to a strong start, able to create his own off the bounce when given the green light to get up shots from all areas. Simons is, however, an isolation player by trade, as are Lillard and CJ McCollum ahead of him.
As a result, the Blazers are having to rely upon the individual efforts of their playmaking guards for a lot of their offense, which has seen a lot of over-dribbling and offensive stagnation from McCollum and Bazemore in particular, whose offensive intent does not match their skills.
Playmaking, shot creation and offensive diversity are particularly limited at the forward positions. They have been throughout this run; Aminu is a defender first and spotty shooter second, Harkless was the same if slightly less effective and Leonard was a shooter and screener only. The frontcourt player in recent seasons with the most of those things was Layman last season, a player whose athleticism added some offensive dimensions. Tolliver certainly does not do the same, though, and with third- and fourth-options Whiteside and Hood being players who have always sought only to create for themselves, the answer cannot be found at small forward and center either.
In the grand scheme of things, too, there are only a few weeks to work with before having to pick a lane. If their struggles with injuries, depth, defense and offensive predictability remain, and they are not able to get back to somewhere near the level they have been over the last couple of seasons, the Blazers will have to decide whether to try and pursue competitiveness this season, or forgo it and aim to reload for 2020-21.
Considering the state of play of the Western Conference as a whole, the temptation will be the former. The Warriors have lost their grip on the top, and although contenders in the form of the Denver Nuggets and LA Clippers are around, there exists a better opportunity to make the NBA Finals out west than there has been for five seasons.
Lillard turns 30 next summer, and while he figures to age gracefully given his reliance on skill rather than great explosion, these are his best years. They are phenomenally good years, too, and that plan for a title that he asked for only exists with him at his apex.
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That said, if they are too short-handed and deficient up front, then as constructed the window does not exist this year. Neither Lillard nor improved backcourt play in general will themselves overcome the serious deficiency at power forward without Aminu and Collins, or offset the roster imbalance that has plagued this team throughout its run. The frontcourt defense used to offset it, but the departures have seen that defense go.
Hope for the former will lie with the return of Nurkic, a player who broke out last season on both ends. Much improving his reliability as an offensive option on the interior, improving his rotations inside defensively and forever being an elite rebounder, Nurkic truly became an excellent player last season before his freak accident, and he is still only 24.
If Nurkic is able to return for the second half of the season, Whiteside can be moved. Whiteside was only ever brought in for convenience; he could fill in for Nurkic on the rebounding glass and do some of the same work offensively, without being too big of a financial commitment considering that his contract expires next summer, adding no more long-term salary then the Leonard/Harkless pairing.
Whiteside has been a bright spot on the team so far - seemingly rejuvenated by the trade from Miami, where he had lost his spot to Bam Adebayo, he has re-engaged with screening, moving off the ball, not loafing through offensive possessions and playing better interior defense than when disenfranchised with the Heat. But the expiring nature of his contract provides an opportunity for in-season improvement.
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A regularly-cited pair of names for the mid-season power forward upgrade are Kevin Love from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Danilo Gallinari from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Both are hugely versatile offensive finishers the likes of which Portland has not seen since LaMarcus Aldridge, and add some important shooting at the four position.
If the Blazers are within sight of realistic competitiveness this season, and if Nurkic is on track to return after the All-Star Game, then the roster as constructed is essentially auditioning itself until February when a trade for such a player comes in.
But if they fall too far behind between now and then, longer-term strategy may be required despite this being one of Dame's best seasons.