This time frame between football ending and baseball beginning is the perfect opportunity to watch your favorite NBA team. In the early-to-mid part of the season, you can get a rough view of whether or not your team is worth following until the end. For us in the Pacific Northwest, the Portland Trail Blazers have kept things interesting, but it could fall apart at any moment.
The offense has been clicking, to the surprise of nobody. The Blazers rank #8 in points per game and #7 in offensive rating, which calculates points scored per 100 possessions. Leading this effort, of course, is superstar guard Damian Lillard. Lillard’s 28.1 points per game is good for third best in the NBA. He’s spreading the ball with 6.7 assists per game as well, twelfth best in the league. What might come as a surprise is how well his backcourt partner CJ McCollum has been playing.
While McCollum has never been a slouch, he’s turned it up another notch this year. His points per game at 26.7 is a head and shoulders above his career average of 18.7. It also slots him at eighth in the league, ahead of superstars Luka Doncic, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard. A large part of this is his 63 three-pointers made this year, six ahead of second place in the NBA. His three-point percentage slots in at an incredible 44% on a whopping 11 attempts per game. There’s always the chance that this isn’t sustainable but if he remains this consistent, he’s practically guaranteed his first career All-Star appearance.
The role players around the two guards are great assets to the team. Veteran Carmelo Anthony is third on the team in points per game at 12.2, and he’s often coming off the bench. Following him is the sophomore out of Duke Gary Trent Jr. who has looked good on both ends of the court and can only go up. Enes Kanter has been invaluable inside as well, almost averaging a double-double on 62% from the field.
This list is lacking an important member of the team, which leads into the bad news. This defense has been disappointing and will continue to get worse over the next eight weeks without Jusuf Nurkic. On January 15, he suffered a broken wrist, putting an end to his comeback attempt after he only played eight games last year. He will be sorely missed, as over the three years heading into last year, he averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Even with him, the Blazers defense leaves a lot on the table. They allow 115.9 points per game, #26 in the league. Their defensive rating is even worse at #28. The two forwards are as much to blame as anyone else. Derrick Jones Jr., acquired in free agency this year, has looked really flashy at times but needs to be more consistent at what he does to be a constant threat. At his best, he’s a block monster and a reliable presence inside.
The other defensive-minded acquisition of the year, Robert Covington, has been forgettable. On both sides of the ball, he’s playing worse than he ever has in his career. His 10.5 points is a career low, and his 30 percent field goal shooting is abysmal. Both his offensive and defensive ratings are his career low.
That said, the Trail Blazers are at 8-5, second in their division, and tied for fifth in their conference. While the very foundation of the team could collapse, they at least have a week of sub-par opponents. The Knicks are clinging to their playoff spot in the Eastern Conference thanks to a league-best points allowed per game, but are last in scoring. The Thunder sit at 6-7 and are coming off a brutal 18-point loss to the Nuggets. The week rounds out with the 4-9 Rockets who only managed that record before trading away their ace in James Harden. They’re rebuilding and will likely only get worse as the year continues.