In today’s NBA you don’t want to be stuck in no man’s land. No man’s land is the 35 to 45 win range. You especially don’t want to be in this land for consecutive seasons. Two years ago the Portland Trail Blazers won 44 games, last year they won 41, this year they are 14-13. That puts them at the seventh seed in the west.
Portland are at a crossroads. They have two great guards in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and then a lot of question marks. This makes them the team to watch at the trade deadline. Portland can go either way. Stay the course and go all in… or blow it up. These are tough decisions for a franchise to make. It calls for the Trail Blazers to take a hard look in the mirror. Let’s dive in and try to sort it all out.
At 14-13 with the sixth best point differential, Portland, if they stay the course, are playoff bound most likely. Best case scenario the four seed, worst eight seed, or maybe just missing the dance. ESPN’s BPI playoff odds have Portland as the eight seed and finishing 41-41. Surely not where Portland wants to be, so what’s the problem?
Portland has been the opposite of what people expect. They are 7th in defensive efficiency and 22nd in offense. Before we get into their surprisingly good defense, let’s break down their struggling offense.
They are an average offense regarding pace. Portland is smack in the middle. The most significant problem has been ball movement. They are last in the league in assists. Last!!! This leads to Portland relying on their stars to continually make tough shots. This has led to Portland being ranked 25th in effective field goal percentage and 23rd in true shooting percentage, they make up for it slightly by being a good offensive rebounding team.
It starts with their starters, which have changed a bit recently. The original starting group of Lillard, McCollum, Moe Harkless, Aminu, and Nurkic has not done well. That lineup is seventh among all lineups that have played at least 15 minutes together in offensive rating.
Their best lineups that include both Lillard and McCollum sub in Napier for Aminu. Napier has improved a ton this season. He gives some much-needed shooting. For some reason, Portland is only 25th in attempts, despite being ninth in percentage. The quick solution for the Blazers is shooting more threes. Unfortunately, they don’t have a lot of willing snipers.Especially from the wing.
Moe Harkless has regressed. He is only taking 1.6 threes per game and making them at a 25 percent clip. Down from 2.6 attempts last year on 35 percent shooting. Harkless is also a big reason why Portland is last in assists. His turnover ratio of 11.6 is higher than his assist ratio of 10.4. That is bad. He has been replaced in the starting lineup because of it. His regression has hurt the Blazers this year.
Portland has tried Pat Connaughton along the two guards as well. He has started five games. Connaughton brings better shooting. He shoots 38% from deep on three attempts per game. Also, he is a better passer thank Harkless. His assist ratio is 16.1, and his turnover ratio is only 8.8. All good right? Well, he stinks on defense. Primarily as an undersized three. Connaughton ranks in the 17th percentile overall on defense. Not what you want from a starter.
The third option is the much-maligned Evan Turner. Turner is an above average defender and a good passer, but he presents his problems. He can’t shoot at all and needs the ball in his hands to be effective. Not a great fit next to C.J. and Dame.
All have strengths and weaknesses, so who fits the best as a starter. Of offensive lineups that include both guards the most effective again are ones that involve Napier and move Harkless to the four. A role he is better at. If they play Evan Turner, they need to add an extra shooter That is why the Turner, Lillard, McCollum, Aminu and Meyers Leonard lineup has done very well. Aminu is the constant of Portland’s best lineups.
Here is the problem, Portland too often has to trade defense for offense, due to the number of one-dimensional players they have.
Their best lineup overall that has played at least 15 minutes together is Aminu, Tuner, Harkless, Lillard, and Nurkic. This lineup, while light on shooting has crushed it on defense. By the way, Lillard’s defense is still below average, but its a lot better this year. C.J. has been a lot better as well and is an above average defender now.
As for the wing situation, Turner is probably the best answer. The lineup of Turner with Aminu, Nurkic, Dame, and C.J. is +36.9 in net rating. Turner brings defense and passing. He is not the best fit, but they invested so much money in him, they have to try to make it work. He at least doesn’t kill the lineup as Connaughton does on defense, or Harkless does as a three on offense.
The other problem is Nurkic has regressed. His rebounds, assists, and field goal percentage are all down. Now he is out with an ankle injury, and he may need to rest a while, he didn’t even look right when he was playing. He only has one year left on his deal, and Portland needs to find out what they have in him. Was last year down the stretch just a flash in the pan? The good news is his defense has been excellent, so hopefully, once he gets healthy they can get his offense back on track.
Terry Stots has done an excellent job getting defensive improvements from within. A big reason why Portland is seventh in defensive efficiency. The only problem is this roster is limited, so who stays and who goes?
Harkless has little trade value, and they’re not moving Turner’s contract. It will be tough to get help in the offseason with limited cap space and no second round draft pick. Aminu is huge to their success, do they try to flip him to a contender. Meyers Leonard is an obvious choice because Nurkic is in front of him, and they want more time for rookie Zach Collins.
Leonard has improved this season and has some value. Ed Davis is still a solid rotation big who has some value. Noah Vonleh is getting better slowly but surely. He still has value because he is young. Portland should probably hold on to him; the best is yet to come.
Then there is the elephant in the room. Should they split up C.J. and Dame. If they do C.J. is the one on the move. He is younger and cheaper, and Dame is better. Portland can get a lot for C.J. Making this move can help Portland financially and get out of 45 win land. C.J. and Dame are great, but together they’re not going past the second round. Two trade the Blazers should consider for McCollum.
Orlando gets C.J. McCollum
Portland receives 1st round pick, Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja and a 1st round pick!
This trade gets Portland an excellent first rounder as the Magic are bad. Fournier is an excellent starting wing. Payton is a good back up point guard for Dame and Hezonja is a former lottery pick who can use a fresh start. He can play a stretch four role in Portland. The second trade is with Dallas.
Dallas gets C.J McCollum
Portland gets 1st round pick, Seth Curry, J.J Barea, Dwight Powell.
This trade also gets Portland a first round pick, two intriguing young players in Powell and Curry, plus a proved veteran guard in Barea. Portland should consider both these deals. They need a first and some more depth. Especially at point guard and on the wing. Otherwise, they will be lucky to win 45 games.
Credit Portland for their defensive improvement this year, but this roster has too many flaws to be a real contender. Right now they are at a crossroads, and have to make some tough decisions. Trading McCollum is the toughest decision, but one they should do. It is the best way to get some youth, cap relief, and depth.