Blazers wreck despite a Damian Lillard at MVP level

Pau Gasol's team, which has not yet been able to debut, is disappointing and there is already talk of market movements: Kevin Love, Danilo Gallinari ...


Last season the Blazers won 53 games (their top in five years) and played their first conference final since 2000, when an epic comeback by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal left them out of the Finals in the seventh and final match. They had made their way into the nicer side (the one that didn't have Warriors and Rockets, basically) of the playoff table thanks to a strange last day of Regular Season in which they traced 20 points to the Kings without any headline in the roster. But, beyond that, they had been the third best attack of the entire NBA (114.7 per rating, only behind the aforementioned Warriors and Rockets) and had a defense sufficiently neat to produce a +4.2 of net rating, seventh of the NBA.

The season ended in success even though it seemed to derail when the warm Jusuf Nurkic broke. The Bosnian bear averaged 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists when it fell fulminated on March 25, already with a master's degree on how to play alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, The Blazers could hide but not forget his immense presence (4-0 in the Western final against Warriors without Kevin Durant). And they finished course with outstanding and the feeling that it was time to try to take the step towards maximum aspiration, the champion ring. During the last years, they had been amazed at the explosion of Lillard and the rise of McCollum, finally at the height of any NBA backcourt that was not formed by Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. In 2014-15, the defeat in the first round despite winning 51 games fulfilled a project that had already been twisted by knee problems that ended Brandon Roy's career. LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nico Batum, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo came out at once. Four headlines and the sixth. And they stayed Lillard and a McCollum who then played less than 16 minutes per game. The Blazers, although threatening deep reconstruction, have not come down from the playoffs since then.

With an extraordinary and committed franchise player, a top-level squire, a good coach (Terry Sttots), a loyal audience in a city where there is no other great team in professional sport and an almost always faultless operation, the Blazers considered how be more than that in, yes, a market too bluster to the northwest and that not even tend to look at the big stars (you just have to look at the flirtations of recent years with a Carmelo Anthony now fallen out of favor). And General Manager Neil Olshey's option was risk, movements of possible residual margin (the key to growth) while securing the trunk. So the team did not change in terms of main protagonists but yes, a lot, in the rest of the cast, already without classics like Mo Harkless and Aminu, whose contribution in recent years had been essential but in those who ended up weighing more problems for score and generate attack in playoffs that its unquestionable service to the collective operation of the team. Nor did Evan Turner, Seth Curry, who played an excellent season last, nor a Meyers Leonard who never fully exploded and, in reality, only a few times. Olshey gave the midlevel (11 million for two years) to Rodney Hood while Enes Kanter thought whether to accept it, switched to Turner for Kent Bazemore, opted for a Hezonja in need of fresh air and for veterans like Tolliver and Pau Gasol. And he caught Hassan Whiteside, a sleepy giant, to keep the pivot post warm until the reinstatement of Nurkic. The Blazers had changed a lot but it was difficult, on paper, to know if they really were better or were just different. And it was undeniable that, in reality, the greatest margin of growth was at home, with Anfernee Simons on the outside and Zach Collins on the inside.

While they put the scalpel to the bottom of their roster, the Blazers tied the shaft and erased the debate (often artificial) about whether Lillard and McCollum could be a couple on which to build a champion team or if it was better to transfer to one of the two. The base (29 years) took an extension of four seasons and 196 million. The escort (28) another of three and 100. The first happened to have a contract until 2025 and the second, until 2024. With those almost 300 extra, both stacked 414 million in the franchise accounts for six seasons. The Blazers, if there was any doubt, would be with Lillard and McCollum or not.

The point is that, for now, they are not. The season has started with a poor 3-6, with now four straight losses and a 0-3 on its track, where not even 60 points from Lillard were worth to beat some Nets that are not being precisely infallible. They have also already lost against the poor Warriors although Lillard went to 39 points. Between both defeats, they did not know how to close in the last minutes (usually the house specialty) a very prestigious victory against the Clippers. And they also lost. Last season they did not get rid of a start with doubts (13-11) and the previous one was around 50% of wins in January (22-21). Blazers tend to correct themselves on the road and be competitive in the playoffs. But this season his goal was not a priori to be outsiders or meritorious but to see how far they could threaten on a throne of the West suddenly vacant after the injury of Klay Thompson and the escape of Kevin Durant from the Warriors. And, in addition, this time the sensations are especially negative because it gives the impression that, simply, the new rotation does not work.

The Blazers have lost the defensive intensity contributed by Harkless and Aminu without adding the creation of play outside the backcourt that both of them lacked. They do not have shooters as specialized as Seth Curry and Whiteside is being the same as in Miami Heat: numbers without specific weight, hollow production and enormous difficulties to play the pick and roll despite its seven real feet and share a track with a specialist so accomplished like a Lillard who, on the other hand, is playing at the best level of his career, in numbers and some feelings of aspiring with gallons to the MVP. It is very worrying to be 3-6 with the base in averages of 33.3 points (roof of his career), 5 rebounds (roof), 6.9 assists (at the height of his best season) and with 38 minutes on the track ( top also) and its best shot numbers by volume and percentages: 49.5% field and 39.8 in triples with 4.1 scored per night. Knocking on the door (round 91% in free throws) of the 50-40-90.

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If Lillard is better than ever and the team is in one of the worst moments of recent years, the rule of three is simple: everything else goes horribly wrong. Health, from the outset, has not accompanied: Nurkic is not close to returning (something known) and Zach Collins is out with no return date due to a shoulder injury that has come before he could know what they really have with him Blazers who had given him the rank of starting power forward, a position in which they are now especially weak. Labissiere, Hood and Whiteside also have physical problems, Pau Gasol has not yet been able to debut and Tolliver is already weighing his twelve years of professional career.

McCollum, the hero of the Western semifinals against the Nuggets, an exciting tie, has started badly: 19.4 points (he has been four seasons above 20) with abysmal nights and his worst total shooting numbers: 38% field , 32.6% beyond the line of three. And Whiteside averages 14.1 points, 13.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks that in most games have no effect (not positive at least) on the scoreboard. So the Blazers have a net rating of -1, their defense is one of the ten worst and their attack is eleventh in numbers ... but much worse in sight and if you pay attention to the sensations and the results. And with the certainty, for now, that the great cross of past seasons is still behind Lillard and McCollum: nobody creates play beyond them, a crucial issue when defenses demand the most in the playoffs.

Anfernee Simons has shown more of her talent than Hezonja of his, but Nurkic's loss seems too transcendental in a team in which Stotts also risks his rotations and does not separate everything that should the minutes of Lillard and McCollum to always have one of the two on track. The sections without any of them are usually a decisive burden. And the movement in attack and the creation are so collapsed that the Blazers give 6.8 assists less than average than their rivals, by far the worst data in the entire league. 89.4% of Lillard's baskets are not assisted (NBA quarter after Fred VanVleet, De'Aaron Fox and Jeff Teague). But McCollum is eighth in that ranking and Hood is also in the top 25. They three amass 57.8% of the total points of the Blazers in which the score now depends on Lillard at toxic levels: 72.7% of the points are produced by the base scoring (29.5%) or attending (43%). In defense, Whiteside is only effective literally next to the hoop: there rivals score 27% of the shots ... which is 78% as soon as they move away a little. Its 4.4% cap percentage is the lowest of its career, its bounce rate has also worsened and the team has been a disaster when a Tolliver has played next to it that has granted 66.3% of close success of the hoop to the players he has defended.

It is easier to neutralize the Blazers and it is easier to find holes in their defense. The latter seems to be demonstrated by the fact that they make four fouls less per game than their rivals but they throw 7.2 free throws more. Proof that they are misdeeds or forced to avoid almost certain entries. If it is easy to assume that McCollum will return to his best level and it is obvious to interpret that Nurkic's return will be an essential push, it is also simple to speculate with possible movements that place the Blazers as one of the possible animators of the winter market. They have young people with market value, Anfernee Simons in the lead, has their draft picks and the expiring contracts of Whiteside (27 million) and Bazemore (19.2). In all the rumors, a Kevin Love appears that is averaging more than 18 points and 14 rebounds in the Cavs and a Danilo Gallinari whose arrival could be easier to undertake with the Thunder fully involved in a reconstruction that goes through the ton of rounds draft they got for Paul George and Russell Westbrook. We will see if the solution is there or if, again, Stotts finds a way to optimize the resources at its disposal. The opposite would be to waste a year that points to Lillard's extraordinary and stay at the doors, again, of the definitive step that separates the good from the best. And give it, of that there is no doubt, it was the goal nothing disguised for this 2019-20 season that has not started well in Oregon.



Photos from as.com
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