The Portland Trail Blazers woke up on Thanksgiving day at 10-9, alone at sixth in a loaded yet inconsistent Western Conference. Chauncey Billups’ team has at least somewhat righted the ship after a chaotic, discouraging start to 2021-22, and there’s ample reason to believe the Blazers’ best basketball awaits as they grow increasingly comfortable operating the rookie head coach’s schemes over the rest of the 82-game grind.
Here are three factors Portland should be thankful for after the first five weeks of the regular season.
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Happy Thanksgiving to the Portland Trail Blazers
1. Finally, some lineup and stylistic versatility
The wholesale roster changes that Damian Lillard damn near demanded over the summer never came to pass. It’s not like bringing in Cody Zeller, Tony Snell and Ben McLemore, solid signings at worst for the veteran’s minimum, have made much of an impact for Portland, either. But the Blazers are playing with newfound stylistic and lineup versatility regardless, the result of Billups’ malleable approach to real-time strategy and the addition of Larry Nance Jr. and Nassir Little to the team’s incumbent core.
Portland’s base defensive scheme calls for bigs to show on ball screens, but Billups has reverted back to drop coverage on several different occasions already. He also deploys a still-developing 2-3 zone on an almost nightly basis, and regularly tasks the Blazers with switching across four or five positions. That last option wouldn’t exist without the presence of Nance and Little, both of whom have emerged as staples of Portland’s en vogue closing five against teams playing without a true center.
The Blazers’ newfound variability extends to the other side of the floor, too. They rank top-five in frequency of shots at the rim and percentage of possessions that end via off-ball screen, significant departures from the Terry Stotts era. Portland is driving to the basket more often, completing more passes and using fewer dribbles per touch. This is what going from “good to great” looks like in half-court situations:
Odds are still that the Blazers lack the top-tier talent necessary to actually compete for a championship. But Billups arrived with the belief that Portland wouldn’t have a puncher’s chance at legitimate contention under its longtime stylistic status quo, immediately working to change it.
Barely a month into the regular season, his team looks and plays much differently than it did a year ago, which is cause for some measure of celebration all by itself.
2. Nassir Little’s palpable breakout
Little’s per-game numbers don’t jump off the page. A bench player averaging 8.6 and 5.3 in 22.3 minutes isn’t exactly noteworthy, especially considering the third-year wing is shooting just 33.3% from 3-point range. What a testament it is to Little’s boundless energy, physicality and competitive edge that he has forced his way into Portland’s rotation regardless, even recently emerging as a fixture of Billups’ preferred closing lineup.
Little entered the league in 2019 with the reputation of an elite athlete, and he has lived up to that billing every time he has stepped on the floor in 2021-22. The powerful transition dunks and soaring weak-side blocks get more attention, but it’s Little’s elite rebounding ability that has most separated him from other young wings across the league striving to cement themselves as impact players. He ranks in the 95th percentile among forwards in both offensive and defensive rebounding, per Cleaning the Glass, and Portland grabs nearly 7% more of its misses with him in the game:
Little makes sure opponents feel him every time he takes the court. His all-around edge and intensity have repeatedly set a tone for the Blazers that his teammates follow, helping them climb out of early-game ruts.
Maybe Little’s skill development this season won’t amount to much more than improved finishing ability, a smoother mid-range jumper and a more commanding sense of what to do when the ball is in his hands. Given how he affects the game without scoring, though, it’s virtually assured Little’s lagging accuracy from 3 — which could very well be the result of small sample size, by the way — won’t keep him from continuing to be an overwhelmingly positive influence for Portland.
3. Health and availability luck
The Blazers boast a litany of impressive victories in the season’s early going … at least on paper. They’ve already beaten the Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and Chicago Bulls, none of whom would be shocking conference finalists come late May. Few teams in basketball have a more impressive collection of victories than Portland.
One major caveat? All but one of those wins mentioned above came with the Blazers’ opponent missing at least a singular superstar, multiple key contributors or both. Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard, out with knee injuries until spring at the earliest, watched their teams’ losses to Portland from the bench. Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. were also out on Tuesday night. LeBron James was sidelined for the blowout win over the Lakers at Moda Center, and Anthony Davis left it after a single seven-minute stint in the first quarter. Nikola Vucevic and Joel Embiid were absent for the Blazers’ victories over the Bulls and Sixers, dealing with bouts of COVID-19.
It’s not just Portland’s wins that deserve the context of opponent availability, either. The Blazers have already fallen to the woefully short-handed Nuggets and Clippers. Embiid and Tobias Harris, not to mention Ben Simmons, missed a road loss to Philadelphia on Nov. 1. Just over a week later, the Suns beat Portland without Deandre Ayton. Even Billups’ first-ever win as a head coach, a 29-point drubbing of Phoenix in the second game of the season, came with Chris Paul, Devin Booker and company on the second leg of a road back-to-back.
The Blazers can only play who’s in front of them, and they’re hardly the only team in the league to sit consistently on the right side of health luck in the season’s early going. When assessing this team’s ultimate viability as a contender this season, though, it’s crucial to remember the fortunate circumstances of Portland’s October and November schedule. The Blazers really may be as good as their record, but almost certainly aren’t as good as the surface-level quality of their individual wins.