Quite a bit has been written about the Warriors’ injury-induced fall from grace, but when it comes to the Portland Trail Blazers, their fellow 2019 Western Conference finalists, things have been more muted. Damian Lillard has been a monster, averaging better than 30 points per game on career-best efficiency all while ranking second so far in wins above replacement using FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric. Yet the All-Star’s efforts — like his 60-point showing in a losing bid last week — haven’t been enough to turn the tide for Portland, which stands at a highly disappointing 4-8.
The Blazers’ shortcomings are apparent. With power forward Zach Collins and center Jusuf Nurkić (who’s been replaced for now by Hassan Whiteside) out for months, Portland is getting next to no playmaking from its frontcourt. Aside from putting too much scoring pressure on the team’s talented backcourt,1 that lack of frontcourt depth also asks a lot of wing youngsters Nassir Little and Anfernee Simons.
So the Blazers decided to dial up future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony, who last saw game action a little over a year ago. And while there’s a framework in which the low-risk, veteran-minimum signing could work for both sides, the deal could also leave Portland in the same place it was prior to getting the 35-year-old.
It’s not clear yet how heavily the Blazers will lean on Carmelo. But FiveThirtyEight’s model projects him as a rotation player getting 18 minutes a night, which would improve the club’s strength by exactly 1 Elo point — from 1485 rating to 1486 — leaving Portland as a below-average club (1500 is average) with a 25 percent chance of making the postseason.
In a way (ignoring the fact that Anthony is older now), Portland’s scenario isn’t all that different from his stops in Houston and Oklahoma City. What that means in a nutshell: Carmelo will be of some value if he can knock down the open shots he’ll get by playing next to a pair of heavily defended playmakers. That alone would give him a leg up on stretch-four Anthony Tolliver, who’s long been a FiveThirtyEight favorite but hasn’t been able to hit open triples consistently enough early on this season.
But even though most of the focus will likely be on Anthony’s offensive fit, there are more questions on the defensive side, where Portland ranks just 19th in the NBA almost one month in. Over the summer, the Blazers shook up a key part of what had been one of the more stable rotations in the league, dealing away a solid defender in Moe Harkless as part of the move for Whiteside before losing Al-Farouq Aminu, another versatile defensive wing, to Orlando in free agency.
One area to watch: how opposing teams go about attacking Anthony in pick-and-roll scenarios. The Blazers already rank in the bottom five this season in terms of how badly they’ve been touched up on defense when switching pick-and-rolls, according to data from Second Spectrum. In the past, teams sought to punish Anthony’s defensive presence by forcing him into screen-roll action — and at times were so successful that they played him off the floor — and it seems a safe bet that the same thing will happen again if he logs considerable minutes now. (In fairness to the Blazers, they did make it the Western Conference finals after picking up center Enes Kanter, who’s also seen as a pick-and-roll liability on D. So maybe Portland can make it work.)
Regardless of how it all plays out, though, it’s hard to knock the Blazers for making the move. They’ve had an uninspired season so far, and it’s a smart move to see what, if anything, Anthony can add to the club before taking far more risky measures to try to salvage the campaign.
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