Each week, Blazers: Roses and Rain will look at three things going well for Portland and three things going poorly. After getting their record back up to 5-5 following wins over the Pacers and Lakers, the Blazers then lost consecutive games against the Clippers and Suns to fall to 5-7. A win over the Rockets brought their record to 6-7 on the year.
Rose #1: Nassir Little’s Performance Against Houston
Damian Lillard said after the game regarding Little, “Nobody else has that ability to affect the game the way he can. Seeing him come out and do it at that level should excite everybody.” If Little can consistently bring energy, be a plus defender, and continue finishing well, then he could develop into the exact type of wing player that could change the ceiling of this team. As the team continues to have lethargic periods of play, Little has earned the chance to play more because of hard work and effort. Letting him play through mistakes and learn on the court could end up paying massive dividends later in the season.
Rain #1: Front Office Turmoil
News broke this morning that Chris McGowan, President of Business Operations for the Portland Trail Blazers, had tendered his resignation. The Blazers immediately promoted Dewayne Hankins, which leads me to believe this is something that has been in the works for awhile now. The timing of the resignation amidst a pending investigation into workplace misconduct by President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey, does call into question just what is going on in the front office. From all accounts, Owner Jody Allen has given both McGowan and Olshey full autonomy over their respective jobs. If the investigation into Olshey results in his dismissal from the team, which it should, then the Blazers will need good people to step up and guide this front office back on track. That could be asking a lot of Hankins and a new GM to clean up the mess left behind.
Rose #2: Weathering the Tough Schedule
Based on records from last year, the first 20 games of the schedule was the toughest in the NBA. The month of November features 16 games in 30 days, including 6 back-to-backs. The Blazers have had some injury luck playing teams like the Lakers without LeBron James, the 76ers without Joel Embiid, and the Suns without Deandre Ayton, but they’ve failed to take advantage of some of those breaks. While they navigate learning a new system in addition to the difficult match-ups, hovering around a .500 record will keep them in a position to jump up in the standings when the schedule eases up. They obviously want to be better than 6-7, but as long as they stay in that range they should be okay down the road.
Rain #2: Home Versus Road
Portland is 5-1 at home and 1-6 on the road. Even after getting their first win on the road in Houston, their play style just seems different without the Moda Center crowd behind them. The difference on the defensive end for the Blazers between home and road has been drastic. At home their defensive rating would put them at 5th in the league, while on the road before the Houston game it would be dead last at 30th. The Blazers have to find a way to not have defensive lapses away from Portland. Most good teams find a way to win about half of their road games, so it’s important for the Blazers to stay closer to that mark.
Rose #3: The Defense IS Better
Even if it doesn’t seem like it, the defense is in fact better than last year. The Blazers are allowing 7.9 points less per 100 possessions compared to last year. Scoring is down across the NBA, but the Rockets were the first team in the bottom-10 in offense that the Blazers have played all year. They’re currently ranked 17th in the NBA in defensive rating. The defense should be something that gets more locked in throughout the years as they learn exactly what their roles are on that end. Also, the game plans from the coaching staff should improve as well. There’s reason to be optimistic that the defense could be at least middle of the road throughout the season.
Rain #3: Allotment of Minutes
Head Coach Chauncey Billups is still most likely going to end up being the right coach for the job, that is if he can find a way to get what he preaches to translate more unto the court, but he is experiencing some growing pains as an inexperienced coach. His main dilemma right now are substitutions and the distribution of playing time. This is something a lot of coaches struggle with. Before a game, most coaches will have a general idea of what their rotations will be like during the game. However, if you’re all about accountability then that causes a dynamic where you have to decide whether or not to stick with your best players or the ones that are giving the most effort on the court. Billups appears to be choosing the former over the latter. That’s not to say he shouldn’t have faith in the team’s best players but relying on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to play heavy minutes impairs their ability to give full effort on the defensive end. Allowing high energy players like Nassir Little to continue to get more playing time may help everyone stay fresh throughout the season.