The Portland Trail Blazers have widely been accepted as an elite NBA team over the past few years. Led by Damian Lillard, the Trail Blazers have often found themselves making deep runs into the playoffs, but always seemingly coming up just short. This year, the Trail Blazers had very high expectations, with new acquisitions in Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside. Unfortunately for Portland, they have not been able to get things going, and sit three and a half games back of a Grizzlies held playoff spot and are 9th in the West.
The Trail Blazers don’t belong here. Damian Lillard is having a career year, CJ McCollum is having yet another great season (perhaps his best yet), Carmelo Anthony is thriving once again, and Hassan Whiteside has broken through unexpectedly. So why is Portland not winning games? Today we’ll look into this very complicated answer, and hopefully provide you with a few answers.
Portland Struggles On The Road
The Trail Blazers are currently 14th in the Western Conference, only ahead of just the Golden State Warriors in road record. Portland currently sits at 11-23, which is just a 32% win percentage on the road. This compares to a 56% win percentage at home. Some people don’t believe in home court advantage, but the Trail Blazers home record would be enough to propel them into the top 8 teams in the West.
Portland has a pretty good crowd, and often fills up their games. It seems like Portland struggles when they’re the villains. Historically Portland has played some of their best games at home, and has been a very tough team to beat at home. This year, Portland’s inability to steal a few road wins could cost them a playoff spot.
Big Men Problems
The Trail Blazers are running thin on big men right now. Behind Hassan Whiteside, Caleb Swanigan and Moses Brown are carrying the secondary big man unit. Jusuf Nurkic was set to return prior to the COVID-19 situation, however he has been out all season. The Trail Blazers also lost their backup plan in Zach Collins to a shoulder injury early in the season. Collins will reportedly return if the NBA season resumes in the summer. The Trail Blazers also lost Pau Gasol, who was supposed to start this year, to a foot injury that eventually led to his release and potential retirement. To make things worse, the Trail Blazers traded their only other big man in Anthony Tolliver to the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Trail Blazers have no depth with their big men. That includes power forward. Carmelo Anthony currently starts at power forward, at 6’8. Nassir Little backs him up at power forward, standing at 6’5. Both of these players are marginally shorter than the average power forward, who stands at 6’9 to 6’10. Hassan Whiteside is really the only interior presence on the Trail Blazers. While Whiteside does a pretty good job at maintaining peace in the paint, there’s only so much someone can do. Whiteside ranks among the top 6% of players who are most needed on the court, and provide the highest efficiencies in contrast to when their off the floor. Essentially, Hassan Whiteside is part of the top 6% most needed players on the floor. When Whiteside is on the bench, Portland struggles to contain the interior.
The Trail Blazers currently rank 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, ahead of just San Antonio, Washington, Cleveland and Atlanta. Despite having one of the best interior defenders in the NBA in Hassan Whiteside, the Trail Blazers have nobody else who has been able to step up and guard the ball. Portland also ranks 26th in the NBA in points allowed per game, at 115.2. When looking at the common stats, you’d never guess that the Trail Blazers are struggling. Lillard, McCollum, Anthony and Whiteside are all averaging fantastic offensive stats, but there is virtually no defense being played. Portland is 8th in the league in points per game, so the 16 place gap between their offense and defense is a major issue. Only the Washington Wizards have a gap as dramatic as the Blazers, who move from 28th to 6th from defense to offense.
On the Blazers, only Damian Lillard averages 1 steal per game or more (1.0). Only Hassan Whiteside averages 1 block per game or more (3.1). Behind them, there’s no steals or blocks. There’s no defensive efficiency. So what are the Trail Blazers doing behind Lillard and Whiteside? Well, they’re resting to play good offense. We’ve seen this before with teams like Houston and Washington in the past, but it worked. Now, Portland needs to step up their defense in order to win games, because there isn’t much time left, if any at all.
After losing their 6th and 7th man in Zach Collins and Rodney Hood to season ending injuries, the Portland bench is running thin. Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr., and Skal Labissiere are the only players off the bench averaging at least 5 points per game. This is a problem for Portland, who struggle big time when their elite starting 5 take a breather. Portland has 2 players who average just 3 and 3.6 points per game playing significant minutes who are designated back ups (Caleb Swanigan and Nassir Little). In the likely event that a starter goes down, Portland has often found themselves in trouble. Lillard and Anthony have missed a few games this season, and Portland has proven that they need their starting 5 in tact to win games. This offseason, the Trail Blazers will need to restock their bench.
A poor trade deadline was another reason for this lack of bench. Portland dealt both Kent Bazemore and Anthony Tolliver, both of whom were solid bench players that elevated the second unit. Without them, Portland is struggling to win games through their bench.