Why Portland is feeling a new kind of pressure

The Vertical
Yahoo Sports
Damian Lillard and the Blazers are 8-7 this season. (Getty Images)
Damian Lillard and the Blazers are 8-7 this season. (Getty Images)

The Vertical Front-Office Insider Bobby Marks, a 20-year executive with the Nets, examines how teams evaluate their rosters during the season.

In some ways, the Trail Blazers start could be deemed a success.

They are 8-7, good for seventh in the Western Conference, have an All-Star point guard in Damian Lillard, and have one of the league’s youngest rosters, ranking ninth with the number of young players averaging 13 minutes per night.

However, the Trail Blazers are only two games better than last season’s 6-9 mark and have been inconsistent.

Portland overhauled its roster last season, finished with 45 wins, and lost in the second round of the playoffs in a competitive series against Golden State with the second-lowest payroll in the NBA.

While the core remains the same, expectations have changed.

The $62 million payroll has ballooned to $112 million.

Did the Trail Blazers overachieve last season, or are the early season growing pains consistent with a young team still developing?

The Vertical examines the major themes for the Trail Blazers through the first 15 games of the season.

The roller coaster

The marathon of an 82-game season is full of ups and downs.

Portland used the same starting five in its first eight games, but because of injuries has used four different starting lineups in the last six.

The Trail Blazers, like the Clippers, returned the same starting lineup from last season, but things haven’t worked quite as well for Portland as they have for Los Angeles.

Playing catch-up

Falling behind double digits in the first quarter has not been the ideal situation for head coach Terry Stotts.

Since forward Al-Farouq Aminu’s calf injury, the Trail Blazers have been outscored in the first quarter in five of the past seven games.

Portland trailed by only three points after the first quarter against New Orleans on Friday night and was up by three against Brooklyn on Sunday, but the trend of being down double digits heading into the second quarter has been a continuous pattern.

In the past two weeks, Portland has been down 12 points (Houston), 21 points (Chicago), eight points (Denver) and 20 points (Clippers) before the start of the second quarter.

Portland is 30th in the NBA in first-quarter points allowed at 29.9, with a plus-minus of minus-11.2 points.

The first-quarter woes also carry over to the third quarter with the Trail Blazers ranking 26th in points allowed at 27.6, with a plus-minus of minus-11.7.

The loss of Al-Farouq Aminu has hurt the Blazers’ consistency. (AP)
The loss of Al-Farouq Aminu has hurt the Blazers’ consistency. (AP)

Defensive hiccups

Portland’s defense has slipped this season. It has struggled with second-chance points, miscommunications and breakdowns, allowing 47.9 points in the paint, third-worst in the NBA.

Portland, which ranked 20th in defensive efficiency last season, is ranked last this season, allowing 112 points per 100 possessions.

In the Trail Blazers’ loss to Houston on Nov. 17, the Rockets’ guards had an easy time penetrating and forcing center Mason Plumlee to overcommit, allowing either a layup or an uncontested shot in the paint.

Too often that scenario has unfolded on defense.

Figuring out the bench

The 15th game of the season against Brooklyn could be a sign of things to come.

An inconsistent bench scored 58 points, including 19 from Evan Turner, in a win over the Nets on Nov. 20.

While the outburst came against a Nets team ranked near the bottom defensively, Portland’s success will not rest on Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but with the bench production from Turner and Allen Crabbe.

Injuries

Free-agent addition Festus Ezeli, who had knee issues in his last three seasons with Golden State, hasn’t played this season because of a left knee injury.

Aminu has missed the last seven games because of his calf injury, forcing the Blazers to use four different lineups.

The schedule

Through the first 15 games (eight on the road) the Trail Blazers’ strength of schedule was ranked 19th, with an opponent winning percentage of .497.

Over the next 11 games, Portland will be on the road for seven, including two this week at New York and Cleveland. Then there is a four-game home stand in late November against New Orleans, Houston, Indiana and Miami before heading back on the road for a five-game trip in early December.

The view from the top

An 8-7 record and the third-highest payroll might make some teams think of an early season overhaul.

But the roster general manager Neil Olshey built over the past two summers is one of valued contracts and a young core that has future stability.

The offseason free-agent signings limit Portland from any player movement in the next six weeks.

The trade restrictions for Turner and Ezeli expire Dec. 15, and the restrictions for Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless will not be lifted until Jan. 15.

Crabbe also would need to approve of any trade for one year because the Trail Blazers matched the Nets’ offer sheet for him this past summer.

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