Typically, a team should expect to win when its best player tops 50 points. Over the past five complete seasons, NBA teams are a combined 48-20 in games in which at least one of its players hits that milestone. On Friday, Damian Lillard hit an even higher plateau, dropping 60 points on the Brooklyn Nets, but his team still lost. That is his third career loss under such circumstances, bringing his regular-season record when scoring at least 50 down to 3-3.
The Trail Blazers as a whole are now 3-6 on the season despite Lillard averaging more than 32 points per game. Their best player’s excellence hasn’t been enough to save them, and that proved especially true on Friday, as their loss to the Nets practically served as a greatest hits album for this team’s flaws.
If Lillard has one major flaw as a scorer, it is dealing with traps off of ball screens. By the time Lillard was in the mid-40s and it was apparent that they had no other means of containing him, the Nets threw plenty of them his way. For the most part, they didn’t go well.
This isn’t to say that the loss falls on Lillard’s shoulders. He was spectacular Friday, and he generally handled his end of the trap bargain fairly well. His teammates, however, can’t say the same. The New Orleans Pelicans swept Lillard out of a playoff series largely by employing this tactic, and while he held plenty of blame for that loss, his big men didn’t exactly do him any favors. That was the case Friday as well. Hassan Whiteside completely missed a wide-open Nassir Little in the dunker’s spot during one late possession.
Lillard’s weakness to handle traps should have forced Portland to be especially picky with the kind of centers they added over the summer. Any pick-and-roll partner of Lillard’s needs to be a proficient short-roll passer, or at least a willing one.
Instead, they landed Whiteside and his career average of 0.6 assists per game. Whiteside told Jason Quick of The Athletic during training camp that he was “playing more like a point-center” in Portland’s offense, and that he could “probably get a triple-double with assists here.” So far, he hasn’t even done so for the season. Through eight games, Whiteside has six assists.
That forced Lillard to more aggressively dribble through traps before they formed. Even when he did, he found a brick wall waiting for him at the rim. As any smart point guard would, Lillard took advantage of the numbers advantage his team had at that point to hit the open shooter in the corner. The problem was that the shooter was Kent Bazemore, who had made only 32.1 percent of his 3-point attempts entering Friday. He played hot potato with the ball, giving the defense just enough time to catch up.
Bazemore has other virtues, but he is hardly the first Portland wing to hesitate from behind the arc. It was a specialty of Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless, who were both jettisoned this offseason.
Bazemore brings their defensive intensity to the floor, but not their size. As a result, the Blazers have to make compromises in their lineup choices, especially now that Zach Collins is out. They chose to play four guards down the stretch, including 20-year-old Anfernee Simons, in order to maximize their offense when trailing in the game’s final minutes.
The trouble with trusting a 20-year-old on offense is that it means trusting a 20-year-old on defense. Guess who Kyrie Irving hunted as he sealed the game for Brooklyn?
Some of these issues will correct themselves. Whiteside is a placeholder for Jusuf Nurkic, whose improvement as a passer played an enormous role in Portland’s success last season. Losing Collins deprived them of any spacing big men. Ideally, Little will develop into a dependable two-way forward to fill the gaping hole that currently exists on Portland’s wing.
But it is extremely discouraging to see a team that has largely maintained the same core for five straight seasons losing for the same basic reasons they did years ago. The names on the fringes change, but the basic problems for the Trail Blazers stay the same. Their big men aren’t passing well enough. Their wings aren’t shooting well enough. Nobody is defending well enough. Until these problems are addressed in a manner more meaningful than drafting someone in the 20s and hoping for the best, it won’t matter how much Lillard scores. Portland will continue to find itself in situations just like this one.