Each week, Blazers: Roses and Rain will take a look at three things going well for the Portland Trail Blazers and three things that are going poorly or need improvement. Since the last edition the Blazers got blown out at the Denver Nuggets and then came home to beat both the Toronto Raptors and the Chicago Bulls. Their record currently sits at 8-8.
Rose #1: 7 Game Home Winning Streak!
Since losing at the Moda Center on opening night to the Sacramento Kings, the Blazers have rattled off 7 consecutive victories. The most impressive one of those wins was a 20 point comeback victory over the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night. Up until that game the hometown fans haven’t been particularly raucous this year, but the Blazers have still managed to play with a lot more energy in their home games than they have on the road. Saturday night they’ll get another shot at the Philadelphia 76ers who will once again be facing the Blazers without Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Portland lost in Philadelphia earlier this season when the 76ers were without those two along with Tobias Harris. The Blazers then face the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday to finish off their 4-game homestand.
Rain #1: Can the Blazers Figure Out How to Win on the Road?
The Blazers are now 1-7 on the road, which is the complete opposite of their home record. On the road the gameplans have been poor, the execution has been lacking, and the energy has been non-existent. With a very difficult 3-game road trip against the Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors, and Utah Jazz looming after these next two home games, Portland has to find a way to pick up their play away from the Moda Center. A solution to that might be to start road games with a super-aggressive defense on the first few possessions to try and force a couple turnovers to get out and run in transition.
Rose #2: A Bigger Role for Larry Nance Jr
After only playing 9 minutes against the Los Angeles Clippers on November 9th, Larry Nance Jr has gotten at least 20 minutes in each of the last 5 games. Head Coach Chauncey Billups has begun playing Nance more as a small ball center and it has led to some really good games from Nance. In those last 5 games, Nance has averaged 11.6 points per game on 70.6% shooting from the field! He’s also playing some really solid defense during this stretch. His effort in Wednesday’s comeback win over the Bulls led to the crowd chanting “Larry, Larry, Larry” in the 4th quarter. He’s becoming a fan favorite here in Portland.
Rain #2: Damian Lillard’s Lack of Free Throw Attempts
Lillard is only getting to the free throw line 3.5 times per game. There is a new rule which took “foul baiting” out of the game, but he rarely foul baits so it’s crazy that his attempts have dropped drastically from last year when he averaged 7.2 attempts per game. Even as a rookie, Lillard averaged 3.9 attempts per game. His free throw attempt rate (number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt) is at 18.3%. Lillard’s career free throw attempt rate is 33.2%. He is a player who consistently gets to the free throw line and he is not getting any calls right now. Defenders are inexplicably being allowed to hand check, shove, hold, and knee Lillard without any consequences. Hopefully the Blazers have been sending film to the league offices asking why fouls that should still be fouls, even with the rule change, are not being called for him.
Rose #3: A New Closing Lineup
The last two games, Billups has elected to leave Nassir Little and Larry Nance Jr in the game during clutch time over Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic. Going smaller and more athletic may not work against some teams, but in those two games both Little and Nance made big plays to help the team pull out victories. It’s not surprising to see Nance in those situations since he is a veteran that fits well in just about any lineup. However, seeing Little get those opportunities this early in the season when his playing time was spotty at best his first two seasons shows how much confidence Billups has in him. If Little can develop into a defensive stopper on the perimeter, it could raise the ceiling of this team over the course of the year.
Rain #3: The Uncertainty Surrounding Neil Olshey
The Athletic’s Jason Quick has reported that he now believes President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey could possibly survive the ongoing investigation into whether or not Olshey conducted workplace misconduct. Even if Olshey is cleared of any wrongdoing, can he really just go back to business as usual? Is Owner Jody Allen only going to fire him if she can do so with cause to get out of his contract? At best, it’s an incredibly awkward situation for the rest of Olshey’s tenure if he’s brought back. At worst, the Blazers could be enabling a toxic environment so they don’t have to eat the remainder of Olshey’s contract. It’s hard to imagine this has a happy ending if Olshey is still with the organization moving forward, even if he is found to have done nothing wrong.