The Portland Trail Blazers are in need of a serious change, as they continue to slide down the Western Conference standings.
After breaking all expectations last season, they’ve gotten off to a disappointing start to the 2016-17 campaign. Their 132-120 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night dropped their record to 13-15, which at this point is only good enough for the 8th seed.
Their defence remains atrocious, sitting dead last in the league with a 109.7 defensive rating, while their bench is only averaging 31 points a game; the 8th lowest in the NBA. The Trail Blazers need to test a different formula, and the easiest solution to point to would be moving C.J. McCollum to the bench and inserting Evan Turner in the starting lineup.
Their loss was a perfect example of everything that has hindered them as a team this season, with their defence and bench production continuing to disappoint. These problems have taken away opportunities from the Trail Blazers, such as against the Nuggets when they failed to capitalize on Damian Lillard’s 40-point performance with their bench getting outscored 47-23.
McCollum has proven himself as a worthy starter around the league, but at this point it’s about distributing the Trail Blazers’ wealth. Their bench continues to get outmatched, while their starting backcourt features a pair of offensive guards that are subpar defenders.
There are reasons to believe this move might be crazy. First, it moves a player who continues to improve down to the bench. Second, McCollum’s production and efficency aren’t nearly as good compared to when he’s on the court with Lillard.
Down the stretch of games, McCollum should still be Lillard’s ideal running mate when the Trail Blazers are looking for big shots. But their flaws on defence don’t allow them to hold a strong defensive presence in the backcourt from start to finish. McCollum would be able to change that by becoming their 6th man; giving the Trail Blazers a new sense of life when he comes into the game for the first time.
Instead, the Trail Blazers have been relying on Allen Crabbe to be their spark plug off the bench; a player who hasn’t been able to match his career-highs from last season. While the Trail Blazers signed Crabbe to a deal this summer, they also signed a defensive specialist in Turner.
The Trail Blazers agreed to a 4-year/$70 million deal with Turner, which he has yet to live up to on the offence. Defensively, it’s hard to forget what he was able to do for the Boston Celtics; holding the team’s best defensive rating amongst their guards last season. Turner’s big contract in the offseason made it seem like the Trail Blazers were ready to focus on their defence, after getting roasted in last year’s playoffs to a Golden State Warriors team that was without Stephen Curry.
With his length at 6-foot-7, Turner has the ability to switch onto players that have the size of a point guard or a small forward. This could give the Trail Blazers, and most notably Lillard, a security blanket when going against teams that use a lot of screens for their shooters, such as the Warriors, Spurs, Cavaliers and Clippers.
Evan Turner in response to a @jwquick question about if the defense can get better: "It can't get no worse!"
— Casey Holdahl (@CHold) November 18, 2016
Of all the Trail Blazers’ backcourt players, Lillard stands out as their worst defender. As their franchise cornerstone, averaging 27.7 points a game this season, the Trail Blazers need to surround him with pieces that will help cover his flaws.
If they want to give him his best chance to battle against the rest of the league’s golden age of offensive orientated point guards, they need to pair him with a backcourt partner that can offer a different skill set. Since the 2015-16 season, the Trail Blazers are 19-30 in games in which they’ve allowed an opposing team’s guard to score 25 points or more.
With their current setup of Lillard and McCollum, they’re entering every contest as if it’s a shootout. It’s a risky game plan, since they do share a conference with Chris Paul and J.J. Redick, and not to forget the Splash Brothers. The difference between the Clippers and Warriors compared to the Trail Blazers is that they also have proven defences, and have other players off the bench that can continue to carry the offence in guys like Jamal Crawford and Shaun Livingston. Not to forget, the other superstars they have in their lineups like Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant. Instead the Trail Blazers are looking at Crabbe and Turner to continue any sort of momentum the Blazers’ talented backcourt might create in their opening stretch.
At this point, the Trail Blazers are on the verge of not even making the playoffs to face those two Western Conference powerhouses. Last season, they were in a similar situation, even holding a 11-17 record at this point of their schedule. They eventually had a run in which they won 18 of their 25 games throughout January and February, but that’s not a reasonable goal this season now that opposing teams know what to expect.
The Trail Blazers shattered all expectations last season, with them battling back strong with an entirely new starting lineup to surround Lillard. Now, they’re struggling to improve in a Western Conference that is starting to leave them behind. They made the necessary moves in the offseason to make sure they’d continue to rise, now it’s just about putting them in the right order to be able to maximize their full potential.
All stats for this article are from NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com
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