The Blazers had a very good team last year and managed to reach the Western Conference Finals in a potential bid to face the Warriors. They fell short, but many expected them to be a stronger contender this year especially after making key signings in the offseason.
But that hasn’t happened at all. The Blazers really struggled out the gate and seemed completely devoid of any resistance on defense, along with inconsistency on offense. This led them to take a leap and signing free agent Carmelo Anthony, who has helped the offense but has not helped the Blazers cause of being a top-four team in the West. In fact, they are far from it.
Despite Carmelo’s resurgence this season, he has not helped the major problems that leave the Blazers hanging to the eighth seed as we approach the new year. The Blazers are struggling to win games because of a few very important reasons.
Losing Key Defenders
Perhaps the number one reason the Blazers are struggling is that they let go of their two best perimeter defenders: Mo Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu. In fact, those two guys did everything on the defensive end. They could switch onto guards, and defend the paint as they were big bodies who were very mobile. Having that defensive stability allowed McCollum and Lillard to dominate the offensive side of the floor.
Those two guys could even make long-distance jumpers and finish at the rim. Mobile forwards mean everything in today’s game, and they let them go.
Now, Portland does not have any defensive resistance and adding Carmelo Anthony gives them three inconsistent defenders with Lillard and McCollum. Aminu and Harkless were crucial to this team, and now all Portland has are scorers.
Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins
Another major reason for Portland’s struggles is the injury of Nurkic. He is their best big man who can rebound and score in the paint, and new signing Hassan Whiteside does not replace his overall talent. While Whiteside is a good shot blocker, there are plenty of rumblings of his effort on the floor and even he struggles with consistency on both ends of the court. Nurkic is a consistent paint threat and would give the Blazers an extra big to help shore up their defense.
Young big man Zach Collins is also missing time with a shoulder injury. He will be out for a few more months, and the Blazers could’ve used his big body as well. They struggle to defend the paint, and Collins is a third starting-caliber big man who is out of the rotation.
Key injuries to arguably their two best big men have left the Blazers desperate for defensive resistance.
The Blazers Backcourt
While McCollum and Lillard can carry the entire offense on their own, they have important weaknesses that do not help the team’s bid to return to the Western Conference Finals this year.
Lillard is a potential superstar player at times, thanks to his scoring and clutch shot-making. But he struggles on defense and has disappeared in the very important moment (including last year’s Conference Finals vs the Warriors). Lillard needs to be more consistent on both ends, and find a way to be productive even when his shot isn’t falling. If it wasn’t for McCollum carrying the slack last year, the Blazers would not have even made the Conference Finals.
But McCollum also has his flaws. He is miniature, and cannot defend All-Star guards very well. One could argue he makes up for it on the offensive end, but if your second-best player can’t defend it is not good for the team. McCollum has also had his inconsistencies this season and has the tendency to go cold at times.
Last Season Was A Fluke
The Blazers had a strong team last year, but their Conference Finals berth was a one-off. They clearly were outclassed by the Warriors, and the weaknesses of their two stars became very prevalent when it mattered most. In fact, the entire team seemed to gel during the playoffs and every role player stepped up for them including Harkless, Aminu, and Myles Leonard, who are all gone.
McCollum had an incredible playoff run and singlehandedly carried his team at times. This will unlikely happen again, as defenses will know how to slow him down when he gets it going. Lillard is a superstar talent, but he must work on his deficiencies as well.
Overall, key losses in size and defense in the offseason along with deficiencies in the star players leave the Blazers where they are right now. If all the bigs return to full health, and if the Blazers can find a way to stop people, they could push up the rankings. But it seems very unlikely that they will each the WCF without making some trades, and potentially breaking up their star duo in the backcourt.