Portland Trail Blazers: The fuel behind their turnaround

Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard CJ McCollum (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard CJ McCollum (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images) /

Taking a closer look at the turnaround that the Portland Trail Blazers have made this season after their disastrous start

It isn’t over until it’s over.

On November 24, 2019, the Portland Trail Blazers were in the 14th spot in the Western Conference. After losing 10 of their last 12 and just dropping a game against the last-place Cleveland Cavaliers, many believed that the Blazers were making a swift fall out of contention.

The team looked completed disjointed in nearly every lineup they fielded. After injuries to Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins severely damaged Portland’s frontcourt depth, the wounded Blazers were forced to fight out of the mud every game this season.

Flash forward to the present day, and the Blazers are managing to stay. afloat. Currently, 2.5 games back on a playoff spot and riding a hot-streak, Portland has won five of their last six. Even more impressively, five of those games were against playoff-bound teams.

Over that stretch, the Blazers have played like a new team. Reminiscent of their Western Conference Finals run the year prior, the team is fluidly running their offense without becoming a liability on the other end of the floor. Portland seems re-energized from their new additions, with Hassan Whiteside becoming a menace on the glass and Carmelo Anthony showing he still has hustle left in the tank.

Oh, and don’t forget Damian Lillard.

Back in form and sitting within striking distance, one question begs to asked: how did they pull it off? Below is a timeline of events showing the roster moves and defining moments that have been the driving force behind Portland’s playoff push.

Nov. 19: Blazers sign Carmelo Anthony

Record: 5-10 (14th)

In arguably the most anticipated free-agent signing during the course of this season, the Blazers took a chance on the proven veteran; Carmelo Anthony. After unsuccessful stints in Oklahoma City and Houston in the two years prior, Anthony seems to have found a good fit for his offensive game in Portland.

Melo wasted no time getting acquainted with the Blazers team, finding a rhythm and getting back into form. It was an impressive comeback, especially considering his lengthy absence from the game action to start the season. In his fourth game back in NBA, Anthony put the league on notice, putting together a 25-point performance, 12 of which coming from deep, going along with eight boards.

Since the signing, Portland has stabilized its rocky start to the season, going 19-19 in games with Melo in the lineup. In the 19 of those games where Anthony put up 15 points or more, the Blazers have won 13.

For the first time in a few seasons, it feels as though there is a place for Anthony’s game in the modern NBA. Part of this success has come from the ways Melo has been able to bring his game up to date, finally adding consistency to his three-point shot. His 37 percent from 3-point range is the highest he’s had since his 2013-14 season with the Knicks.

Melo has proven to be a vital part of the Blazers roster, and performance down the stretch may prove to be a difference-maker in April.

Jan 13: Damian Lillard catches fire

Record: 16-24 (11th)

Recently, “Dame Time” has taken on a whole new meaning.

Coming into January 13, the Blazers were sitting in 11th in the West coming off a two-game skid. Facing off against the Hornets, Lillard took control and put together a dominant 3- point performance in the scrappy win for Portland.

Since then, Lillard has not looked back. Over the 12 games following, Dame has been shooting the lights out, averaging 38.5 points per game including three 50-plus point performances.

And better yet, he’s doing it efficiently. Lillard’s 50 percent shooting from the field has carried the Blazers to eight wins over the stretch. From deep, Lillard has used his full arsenal of 3-point shots, launching many from near the logo and still managing to average an exceptional 44 percent from 3.

If Lillard can keep up this productivity, the Blazers should be lined-up nicely to make a push towards the playoffs.

Jan. 21: Trevor Ariza acquired from Kings

Record:  19-26 (10th)

Before rumors turned to serious consideration at the trade deadline, the Blazers made an early move to add a veteran wing player and locker room presence that could still produce. The deal was made with the Sacramento Kings, centered around acquiring Trevor Ariza and two young bigs coming while shipping off Kent Bazemore and Anthony Tolliver.

Blazers receive: Trevor Ariza, Wenyen Gabriel, Caleb Swanigan

Kings receive: Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver, 2RP (x2)

The pair of Bazemore and Tolliver mustered just over 11 PPG during their time in Portland. In his seven games so far, Ariza has averaged just under 10 points per game, leading Portland to a 5-2 record over that stretch. His 48 percent shooting is the highest since his time with the Lakers in 2007-08, slotting into the starting lineup nearly effortlessly.

While his game is still rough around the edges, Ariza has proved so far to be an efficient scorer the Blazers can put on the floor to start the game. Along with Ariza in the deal, Caleb Swanigan adds some frontcourt depth that the Blazers desperately needed with Collins and Nurkic out and Whiteside day-to-day.

While only averaging 14.6 minutes per game, Swanigan has been efficient in his short sample size, shooting 60 percent from the field and nearly six boards. Look for Swanigan to get more playtime as his familiarity with the lineup grows, and especially if injury trouble persists.

The remainder of the season: Get healthy

With 30 games remaining in the season, the Blazers are in a good position to move into the top eight in the West. If their recent play isn’t a facade, Portland has an opportunity to carry this good play into April- or at least until their injury trouble subsides.

Portland has played their cards to their chest when discussing the injury progression of All-Star center Jusif Nurkic, never giving a definite timeline on his return. The same has been done for fellow big Zach Collins, currently recovering from shoulder surgery from a dislocation earlier in the season.

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If Portland continues this play and pushes its team into a playoff spot, the return of either or both of these players makes for a huge addition to the Blazers’ frontcourt. Paired with Hassan Whiteside, the offensive and defensive glass will be a battleground for any opponent setting foot down low.