Damian Lillard’s heroics during the seeding games felt like something straight out of a superhero movie. But without anyone who can contain LeBron James, Dame Time won’t be streaming in the playoffs for long.
Versatility at wing and forward is a requisite ingredient for postseason success. When a team has undersized guards like the Trail Blazers do with Lillard and CJ McCollum, wings become even more vital. In recent weeks, Lillard frequently has been compared to Steph Curry, a player who is familiar with facing LeBron James in the playoffs. Fair comparison or not, Curry and Lillard have vastly different supporting casts, which is one reason Golden State has had so much more playoff success. Between 2014 and 2019, the Warriors had Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Harrison Barnes—a blend of stars and role players who stood over 6-foot-5 and had the length and skill to slow down opposing go-to scorers. Curry, Thompson, Durant, and Draymond Green deserve the majority of the credit for Golden State’s success, but the supporting cast provided the connective tissue around the superstars to help take that team from great to historic.
Meanwhile, the Blazers are currently fielding Mario Hezonja and Carmelo Anthony at forward. Last season, Hezonja famously blocked LeBron’s would-be game-winning jumper while he was still playing for the Knicks. But it was a lone highlight in hours worth of lowlights—he shoots only 31 percent from 3, makes poor decisions with the ball in his hands, and struggles to defend man-to-man with any consistency. Anthony is a bucket-getter and is trying on defense, but he’s not a star-stopper. The two forwards obviously aren’t solely responsible for the Blazers hemorrhaging points (they ranked 27th in defensive rating this season), or their lack of ability to rack up steals and deflections (27th in opponent turnovers), or their failure to end possessions (tied for 27th in defensive rebounding). But they are part of the issue.
Portland would be in better shape if Rodney Hood (ruptured Achilles) and Trevor Ariza (opted out of the return) were available. Hood isn’t a lockdown defender and Ariza is past his prime, but they’d help—especially Ariza, who defended current or former All-Stars on 20 percent of his defensive possessions, which ranked 11th most in the NBA, per BBall-Index. They still need someone who’s better. The Blazers lack the type of wings who can equally defend speedy guards—like Thompson did against Lillard in all three of Golden State’s playoff series victories over Portland—tricky big guards like James Harden, and beefy scorers like LeBron. The Blazers don’t have anyone capable of reliably shooting 3s and defending a star.
That’s why they’ll lose to the Lakers. But this series won’t be a normal 8-seed vs. 1-seed blowout. With the firepower of Lillard and McCollum—plus the scoring support of Carmelo, Gary Trent Jr., and Jusuf Nurkic—the Blazers can score enough to make games competitive. They could possibly even steal a couple of wins. But until the Blazers find higher-level wings, they won’t become true Finals contenders.
The Blazers need more hits like Trent. Sure, he hasn’t had success in the NBA for long, but he’s been draining contested 3s since high school. What he’s doing now better than ever is defending, and that’s what Portland needs more of. In a recent tweet, Draymond Green complimented Trent for this play:
As Green describes, Trent has no way of recovering to the ball handler, so he alertly scrambles back to the rolling center to block his path to the rim, which many teams refer to as a “veer back.” He gets in the right position then deflects the ball and steals two points from the Nets. Had Trent not been there, it would have been a dunk and a tie game with 90 seconds remaining.
Trent is the type of defensive playmaker the Blazers need, someone who can get in the passing lanes and cause havoc. This season, Portland ranked only 26th in deflections, 28th in defensive loose balls recovered, and 29th in charges drawn, according to NBA Advanced Stats. But at only 6-foot-5 and 209 pounds, Trent is at his best defending guards and smaller wings. The Blazers still need someone to defend bigger, stronger players like LeBron.
Finding wings isn’t easy for anyone. The Blazers have had a rotating cast of wings over the years, but haven’t found the right players. Wesley Matthews left for Dallas. Allen Crabbe never got better. Evan Turner wasn’t what they had hoped for. Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless couldn’t knock down enough shots.
The Blazers hope they already have one answer developing on their roster. Nassir Little was drafted 25th last summer and plays bigger than his body. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Little has a muscular frame and long arms made for positionless basketball. He can become a player who’s sturdy in the paint and shifty on the perimeter if he fixes his youthful flaws. At North Carolina, he was an aloof defender who lost track of the action while playing off the ball far too often. And on the perimeter, he looked flat-footed after adding weight to play in the frontcourt. Not to mention he’s hit only 25 percent of his 3s since high school. So much of his game is just potential.
Little could become the type of player who can guard guys like LeBron or Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, but it’s still critical that the Blazers nail their first-round draft pick, which is slotted for 16th. Fortunately for the Blazers, this draft class is loaded with options at wing. President of basketball operations Neil Olshey will have his choice from a group with dramatically different styles, all of whom could be valuable if they pan out.
Two sophomore wings who could be available in the mid-first stand out: Aaron Nesmith from Vanderbilt and Saddiq Bey from Villanova. You can find my full scouting reports of them in The Ringer’s 2020 NBA Draft Guide, but to summarize: Both stroke 3s and compete hard on defense. They are similar in weight and wingspan, though Bey is listed as two inches taller. Bey also has a better knack for shot-creation and passing than Nesmith. But Nesmith has shown more of an aptitude for shooting off screens, handoffs, and movement. Each wing in this class has similarities with some distinct differences; the Blazers need to pick the right one,
Portland could also look to fill the need in free agency. The Blazers could have either the non-taxpayer midlevel exception (currently projected to be worth $9.3 million) or the taxpayer midlevel exception (worth a projected $6 million), depending on the decisions they make on their own upcoming free agents. Those exceptions could be worth millions less since the coronavirus pandemic has affected league earnings and the salary cap might decrease for the 2020-21 season. Regardless, this upcoming free-agent class has a shortage of wings that fit what the Blazers need.
Nets wing Joe Harris has appeal for his shooting, though he doesn’t have ideal size. Harkless could also be available to return, but he wasn’t the perfect fit last time around, either, as a career 33 percent shooter from downtown in his four seasons with the Blazers. At that point, you’re looking at the likes of Markieff Morris, Jae Crowder, and Josh Jackson.
The draft could be a better option to take a swing on a wing instead of settling for a known, average commodity. In free agency, Portland could be better off chasing a big man to upgrade over Hassan Whiteside, such as Most Improved Player candidate Christian Wood from the Pistons or veteran Marvin Williams from the Bucks. Finding a player who could offer some versatility, like Wood can with his shooting or Williams can with his defense, would go a long way toward giving coach Terry Stotts more versatility in his lineups.
Portland has paths to solutions, whether it’s within its roster or through the draft or free agency, but the pressure is on. Lillard turned 30 in July and McCollum, who turns 29 in September, is playing through a back injury that requires him to manage pain. Both are signed for at least four more seasons, but time is never promised in the NBA. Lillard’s upside as a championship player hasn’t been fulfilled yet, and there are no guarantees he’ll get the right help.
The Western Conference is also a juggernaut. By next season, the Warriors will rejoin the top tier of the West, and the Lakers and Clippers aren’t going anywhere. The rest of the West is loaded, and that’s even before factoring in the potential improvement of promising young teams that missed the playoffs like the Grizzlies, Suns, and Pelicans.
Winning a title won’t be easy for anyone, even for a player who’s pushed the limits of his own potential like Lillard. Never having “Finals champion” on his résumé wouldn’t take anything away from his accomplishments. It’s a thin line between failure and success in the NBA, and a blend of shrewd decisions and a lot of luck is necessary to win it all. The Blazers have a clear missing ingredient at wing. If they can find the right fit, maybe Dame Time could go down as a blockbuster instead of a cult classic.