Blazers
(Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s beginning to look a lot like the 2019-2020 NBA regular season is effectively over. Rather than sit around and wait for basketball to come back into our lives, let’s reflect on what the season has dished up to this point.

We’ll take a look at each and every NBA team over the coming weeks, assessing what went right, what didn’t go to plan, and where their journey took them as well as where the team hoped it would take them.

Today, we investigate three teams that, for different reasons, help make the argument for those that want to abolish conference seedings for the playoffs and move to a league wide 1-16 format: the New Orleans Pelicans, Orlando Magic and Portland Trailblazers.

Portland Trailblazers

Record: 29-37 (9th in the Western Conference)

82 game pace: 36-46

Expectations

Portland’s playoff run last season – a run to the Western finals ended by the Warriors – combined with the injury and defection induced decline of the Dubs, led many to believe that the Blazers were an outside chance to make the NBA Finals, despite the two Los Angeles sides loading up. After all, the Blazers had stability and culture on their side, not to mention no little amount of talent.

The front court was thin, especially with Jusuf Nurkic slated to miss most of the season. But their recent imports, who all under performed in previous stops, would hopefully buy into the Damian Lillard led Spurs-lite culture, and that would be enough for Portland to nab – at worst – the 3rd seed.

What went right

Relative to expectation, not a whole lot went right for Portland. The thin front court was exposed through injuries to Zach Collins, who played only three games before hurting his shoulder and Rodney Hood, who averaged 11 points and shot a scorching 49.3% from deep before tearing his Achilles in December. Things got so bad that the team exhumed Carmelo Anthony from enforced retirement. To be fair, Melo outperformed most expectations with 15.3 points and 6.3 boards per night, though he remains a defensive liability.

Hassan Whiteside was tremendous stepping into Nurkic’s shoes. The former Miami redemption project gave his team 16.3 points, 14.2 rebounds (2nd in the NBA) and 3.1 blocks (league leading by a wide margin) per night. He is close with Lillard off the floor and that clearly helped the chronic malcontent finally find peace on the court. With Nurkic returning, Portland are in the enviable position of having two very good centre’s on roster – one will surely get traded elsewhere for a nice piece.

The only thing that could slow Lillard this season was injuries. He missed 6 games through February and March, but was electric when on the floor: 28.9 points (5th in the league), 7.8 assists (6th in the NBA) and 3.9 three pointers at 39.4%. Hi January number were outrageous: 34.1 points, 8.4 assists 4.9 makes from beyond the arc. Lillard did everything he could to drag his injury depleted squad to the playoffs in another top MVP worthy campaign.

What went wrong

The Blazers front court was absolutely snake bit. Losing Nurkic to a broken leg in last season’s playoffs was only the tip of the iceberg, as it turned out. Losing Hood and Collins meant that the team lost it’s entire starting front court from last season’s playoffs. Whilst Whiteside was immense, and Melo surprisingly competent, Coach Terry Stotts simply couldn’t find anybody to capably fill Hood’s small forward spot. Kent Bazemore worked hard as always, but was over matched. The team had to trade for the 34 year old Trevor Ariza – himself underwhelming in Sacramento – to fill the void. Ariza was serviceable once he joined the team.

The other notable off season addition was former #5 overall pick Mario Hezonja. The headstrong forward has never really played in a culture as strong as Portland’s and it was hoped that this would bring out the best in the enigmatic Croatian. It didn’t go so well. Hezonja was awful at both ends of the court. Perhaps the NBA is coming to the realisation that he just isn’t that good.

The outcome

A disastrous season in Portland sees them missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013: Lillard’s rookie year.

Due to the state of flux the front court found itself in, it’s tough to make any judgements on where the Blazers go to from here. With Lillard, CJ McCollum, Hood, and Nurkic all between 25 and 29 years old, and Collins still a mere pup at 22, it’s expected that Portland roll it over and take this core into next season. The key’s for Portland from here will be whatever they can get for the centre (likely Whiteside) that they move on and, obviously, health. Should the Blazers stay relatively injury free, a vengeance season from Lillard will be exciting to watch.

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