And I don’t mean the theater in Portland; it’s all about The Diamonds in the Rough
To all of Portland Trail Blazers fandom, I say, feel free to “Put your head on my shoulder”!
If you’re wondering what bottom looks like, well, “We’re there!”, after Portland recently tied the record for the 5th largest defeat in NBA history, losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder by a mere 62 points.
The good news?
It could be and actually has been worse.
“The 62-point margin of defeat is second only to the team’s 65-point loss at Indiana (124-59) during the 1997-98 season.”
I’m just Joshing you, though! The real good news is I’m here to be a beacon of positivity in these dark times.
Team building is much like the Field of Dreams, if you do it right, that is. And I still believe Joe Cronin and his Cronies [collectively known hereto forthwith as The Cronies]are on the right track.
Coach Billups, having been armed with some new pieces to move about his chess board, has also shown some glimpses that he, too, might be onto something. During his first two years, he seemed to be playing checkers (perhaps by no fault of his own), but (particularly in the early going of this season) there has been some evidence to suggest he’s capable of playing chess, at least when most of the pieces are healthy and available to him.
He and The Cronies are definitely building something different, dare I even say exciting and new. It just doesn’t feel like it at the moment. Just know that the wins (like baseball players to the Field of Dreams) should come. And these horribly lopsided losses will be a distant memory.
How can I possibly know this? Well, “Come with me, and you’ll [see]!”
Our mode of transport? A magic carpet ride! A journey that will take us, not to “a world of pure imagination”, but to the Aladdins from this Trail Blazers season, The Diamonds in the Rough.
[And yes, full disclosure, I am excited about the new Wonka movie…
…obviously! But no, I don’t just watch children’s and family movies.
Speaking of adulting, I’d also like the record to reflect that Primus’ rendition of the music from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is more my jam. Primus is one of my favorite bands of all time.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado …
The Defensive Anchor
Man has it gotten ugly without DeAndre Ayton in the Blazers lineup. The team was able to remain competitive in the early going of his absence, but the wheels have since come all the way off. The timeline of DeAndre’s games missed is pretty inciteful:
- They actually won the first game Ayton missed on Nov. 22, beating the Jazz 121-105.
- He then missed 3 additional games from Dec. 6th – Dec. 11th, with the Portland Trail Blazers losing all 3, but the games were competitive, with an average margin of defeat of just over 7 points.
- While DeAndre Ayton is expected back soon, he hasn’t played since just before Christmas, on Dec. 23 to be exact, with Portland now having played 10 additional games without him.
(The count is actually 11 now, see the ***asterisks*** below)
Much like before, when DeAndre missed 3 games from Dec 6th – Dec. 11th, the Blazers were able to piece things together during the first 3 games of this 10-game absence, actually winning 2 of 3. And they managed to only lose to the Spurs by 13 points on Dec. 28th. But since beating the Spurs the following night, it has gotten the ugliest it’s been all season.
Other than beating the Nets in OT on Jan. 7th, the Portland Trail Blazers have lost all 6 games by an average margin of defeat of over 33 points. Even if you remove the 62-point drubbing, the margin is still a staggering 27.4 points.
It is pretty obvious Portland really misses their defensive anchor, DominAyton. And the reasons for this are fairly intuitive.
Without a backline to their defense, tremendous pressure is put on the Trail Blazers’ perimeter defenders to keep their man in front of them, including fighting through an untold number of screens, depending on who they’re guarding. Having also played these 10 games over just 18 days and 6 of the last seven on the road, it’s no wonder the team is gassed, hence the staggering margin of the last 6 losses.
Secondarily, without their best rebounder in Ayton, it’s incumbent on every player to crash the boards. This rebounding by committee approach is also exasperated by having such a light rebounding PF in Jerami Grant.
A defensive possession resulting in a missed shot doesn’t really end until the rebound is secured. Few things are more deflating as a basketball player than busting your ass on defense to force a missed shot, only to have the offense steal the rebound. This, too, can be a very exhausting endeavor.
Sidebar: If, upon DominAyton’s return, the Blazers don’t return to playing competitive basketball, then I think it’s fair to question if Coach Billups still has the team’s attention. If he has lost the team in this way, then he isn’t playing chess or even checkers anymore and should probably be shown the door. But this is a topic for another day (sunshine and rainbows, remember?).
Having said that, I do think Billups showed enough when he had a fuller compliment of players, that I can still get behind him taking another swing at this upon DeAndre Anchor’s return.
***The MLK Eve game vs. the Suns was omitted from this analysis (as inspiring as the team’s effort was) due to only 8 healthy players being available, thus making it an outlier. The IR [or sick]included a bit of a who’s who: Deandre Ayton, (OUT – Knee); Ibou Badji, (OUT – Hip); Shaedon Sharpe, (OUT – Thigh); Robert Williams III, (OUT – Knee); Malcolm Brogdon, (DNP-Right Abductor Muscle); Moses Brown, (DNP – Left Wrist Injury); Jerami Grant, (DNP-Illness); Matisse Thybulle, (DNP-Illness).***
***But Big Ups to Coach Billups for getting his severely undermanned team ready to play***
The Defensive Maven
The Portland Trail Blazers have two players previously lauded by NBA media members for their defensive chops – Matisse Thybulle (2021 & 2022 All-NBA Defensive 2nd Team) & Robert Williams III (2022 All-NBA Defensive 2nd Team).
Health continues to be the major obstacle for the Time Lord. In the year 2022, Williams was selected to the 2nd Team. He played in a career-high 61 games. In the prior season (2020-21), he played in 52, but otherwise, he has not played in more than 35 games. Whereas Thybulle is just too limited of an offensive player to command more than the 20.8 minutes he’s averaged in his career.
It’s really a pity Portland doesn’t have a player with All-NBA defensive ability, but he is at least playable offensively. And by playable, all I really mean is they can be deployed for more than 20 minutes a game.
Oh wait, they do!
In the games he has started, Toumani Camara has averaged 25.4 minutes/game on the strength of his defense and improving offensive game. He is way ahead of schedule as a defender, though. Toumani replaced Matisse as the starter, and according to Thybulle, it was well-deserved:
“It would have been easy for them to say, Hey, we want to develop the young guy, so we are going to start Toumani,’ Thybulle said. ‘But that wasn’t the conversation. It was: Hey, this guy is doing really well for us, and we want to go with him and bring you off the bench. And there was nothing I could say. The proof is in the pudding when it comes to him.”
Matisse also spoke to Camara about being a quick study:
“I told him this last week: It took me so much longer to get a feel of how to play different players and when to be physical, when to play off, when to push up … he just picked everything up so quickly,’ Thybulle said. ‘I used to get into foul trouble as a rookie really, really quickly — and he’s had a couple of games where he has — but it just feels like he is learning everything so fast. He has a really advanced sense of self and what his boundaries are and how to adapt to players while still being himself.”
(https://theathletic.com/5151301/2023/12/20/toumani-camaras-trail-blazers/, subscription required)
Already, Tomani Camara is the Trail Blazers’ resident Defensive Maven. Now just imagine how much better he’ll be when the game finally slows down for him, which should be a matter of when, not if, as he gains the necessary experience. Tomani’s play alone is something all of Blazers’ Fandom should be celebrating. But that’s not all!
The Next Man Up, Exhibit 1A
During the Portland Trail Blazers season opener Anfernee Simons injured his thumb. An injury that required surgery with a recovery timeline of 4-6 weeks. One game into this new era, and Portland was without arguably its best player. Someone had to step up in Anfernee’s absence or the Trail Blazers’ season would be sunk before it even got started. And that someone was Shaedon Sharpe in only his 2nd season at the tender age of 20.
Given his age and inexperience, Shaedon’s numbers as a starter this season are pretty astounding. Over 25 games as such, he’s put up 16.9 pts, 5.3 reb, 3.3 ast, 2.1 3pm (on 36.8% shooting), & 0.9 steals. The only area in which he’s struggled a bit is efficiency, shooting 41% overall & averaging 2.7 TOs. The raw numbers are unquestionably NBA starting-caliber, and the efficiency should only improve with experience.
Sharpe is a star in the making with a great blend of insane athleticism and a refined skillset that really belies his age. Since you likely need something to get excited about it, just watch this highlight reel from Shae’s franchise record-making performance vs. the Cavs on Nov. 30th:
Having just watched it myself, I’m fired up! Hopefully, you are now, too!
The Next Man Up, Exhibit 1B
First, it was Simon’s that went down, and then it was Scoot to My Lou. Henderson was lost to an ankle sprain/bone bruise on Nov. 1st and ended up missing a total of 3 weeks. In his stead, Malcolm Brogdon did what Malcolm Brogdon does. He’s done his thing when starting to the tune of 17.1 pts, 6.8 ast, 3.7 reb, 2.3 3pm, & 1.1 stl.
Malcolm played so well, in fact, he remained a starter even after Scoot returned from his injury. That is until Brogdon himself was hobbled by a short-term injury of his own beginning with the Blazers game vs. the Warriors on Dec. 6th.
Malcolm Brogdon’s producing, when given an opportunity, is probably the least surprising development of the season thus far, but it has proven instructive for the Blazers’ future on a couple of different levels.
Scoot Henderson’s youth and inexperience could easily challenge Malcolm’s aforementioned production as the least surprising development of the season, especially since he really only had 1 year of semi-pro experience leading and running a team in his 2nd season for the G-League Ignite. This is all still so new to him, and this is to say nothing of the huge jump in competition level from the G-League to the NBA.
Brogdon, on the other hand, is a veteran table setter, and his teammates have taken turns benefitting from his experience and savvy. First up to the table was Jerami Grant. In Malcolm Brogdon’s 1st 7 starts, Jerami averaged 29 points/game, scoring no less than 22, which is slightly above his season average of 21.1 points.
Up next was Sweet Baby Shae! Over Malcolm’s next 2 starts, Nov. 30th & Dec. 2, Shaedon Sharpe went bananas, averaging 27 points, which included him making franchise history on Nov. 30th. Oh, how very sweet that was! Now would be a great time to rewatch his mixtape above. It’s just good medicine!
Then Anfernee Simons made his triumphant return on Dec. 6th, only to lose his new backcourt running mate to injury. Not to worry, though; the band got back together with Brogdon’s return to the starting lineup on Dec. 21st. Anfernee and Malcolm then made beautiful music together for two additional games, Dec. 23rd & 26th, before Henderson was reinserted into the starting lineup.
Over their 4 games starting in the backcourt together, Simons went all Dame Time on the NBA, averaging over 30 points per game, including a 41-point masterpiece vs. the Wizards on Dec. 21st. It was as if Anfernee Simons was celebrating Malcolm Brogdon’s return as if Christmas had come early for him.
The point being, with emphasis on Point (as in Guard), Scoot to My Lou clearly is NOT ready for primetime. So, who better to teach him his table setting manners than Malcolm, with the Portland Trail Blazers leading scorers collectively averaging a robust 29.2 pts/game in his 13 starts at PG (not counting his last 3 alongside Henderson). What is clear is that Brogdon knows how to get scorers the ball in their preferred spots, which will be an incalculable lesson for Scoot to learn as he prepares to be Portland’s lead dog of the future.
What this all should also put to rest is this idea that the Trail Blazers have to trade one of their young triumvirates, Anfernee Simons, Shaedon Sharpe, or Scoot Henderson. Malcolm Brogdon has laid bare the path ahead for this young trio, with Scoot as the fulcrum and Anfernee and Shaedon, causing a multiplicity of problems from the wing with their ability to shoot the ball, start the break, and initiate the offense. There will be no double-teaming any of the triumvirates cause the other two will make teams pay.
Given enough time together, I’m confident Henderson, Sharpe, and Simons will bring the Big-3 Era back to the NBA. We just need a big ole’ spoonful of patience in the meantime. Spoonfuls of sugar and other comfort foods may also be necessary to get us through these trying times.
And there you have it, another family movie reference, a full circle moment or sorts. I’d better stop while I’m ahead cause thoughts of the Circe of Life are coming to mind.
But seriously, though, why don’t we let this young team complete its circle before we jettison any of the potential Big-3 components?
And so long as DeAndre Anchor remains fully vested, the Defensive Maven are great blocks on which to build this thing, too!