Entering Sunday night’s loss to the Rockets, the Trail Blazers had a record of 5–0 in games in which Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum scored over 55 points. That record fell to 5–1 after Houston’s 130–114 win, arguably the nadir in Portland’s woeful defensive performance to start the season (a 137–125 loss to Cleveland is also in contention).
Lillard and McCollum are undoubtedly one of the NBA’s best scoring backcourts. Lillard is a menace who can stretch defenses well beyond the arc as well as penetrate the lane. McCollum is an underappreciated shooter, one who belongs in the next breath after Steph Curry. The tandem’s ability to fill the bucket can’t overcome the Blazers’ league-worst defense however, and nearly a quarter into the season, PDX is under .500 at 9–10.
The issues clearly start at the defensive end. Neither Lillard nor McCollum are known to be great defenders, but the former has particularly struggled so far this season. Portland has been 7.6 points per possession better defensively with Lillard off the court, leading to a better net rating when Lillard sits, something that’s obviously not conducive to winning throughout the season.
The blame can’t all fall on Lillard. Portland’s bigs have actually been solid when defending shots at the rim, but the Blazers’ conservative defensive scheme yields so many shots between the restricted area and foul line that opposing guards can waltz into the paint for undeterred, easy buckets. With Al-Farouq Aminu injured, Portland has no clear choice on the wing to defend perimeter stars. James Harden sliced up the Blazers’ defense Sunday, gleefully taking advantage of both switches and double teams.
That the Blazers are struggling isn’t completely surprising. A similar team to this one got off to a very slow start last season, rounding out to playoff form only after the All-Star break. The issue is this year’s team is a much higher priced version than last, with Portland currently having the second-most expensive roster in the NBA.
Portland matched a four-year, $75 million deal for Allen Crabbe this summer, but Crabbe has a worse effective field goal percentage and is averaging 3.3 less points per 36 minutes this season compared to last. And it’s been widely covered, but Evan Turner has been the worst free-agent signing amid the league’s cap boom, currently ranking dead last (by a lot!) in real plus-minus.
There is some hope, and it’s mostly health based. It’s hard to find any answers on a potential return for Festus Ezeli, but his athleticism at center could help Portland become slightly more aggressive on defense. The return of Aminu could have an even bigger impact. Not only is he the Blazers’ best defender, Aminu is part of Portland’s best five-man group, which also features Lillard, McCollum, Moe Harkless and Mason Plumlee. That unit blitzed opponents for much of last season—and it’s proven it can actually defend—but the group has only played together in eight games so far this season.
Portland’s entry to the second round of the playoffs last season was fool’s gold, and its series against the Warriors would have been far less intriguing if not for Curry’s injury. The Blazers responded by making huge commitments to virtually the same roster, and the organization is paying a high price (literally and figuratively) for not judging the team with a more critical eye.
It’s a long season, and perhaps health (and effort?) can bring Portland’s defense closer to the middle of the pack. Because even with one of the most explosive backcourts in the NBA, the Blazers are far from being a contender. They’re only paid like one.