Portland Trail Blazers return from latest trip with laundry list of issues


What a difference two weeks can make in the NBA.

On Nov. 13, the Portland Trail Blazers returned home from a 4-2 trip sitting at 9-4, tied for first in the Western Conference.

On Sunday, the Blazers lost 111-97 at the Brooklyn Nets to conclude a four-game trip at 1-3. They’ve now lost five of their last seven games and return home 11-9, seventh in the West.

“It’s a tough little stretch that we’re in right now,” Blazers coach Chauncey Billups told reporters Sunday. “But it is what it is. Every team goes through it. We’ve just got to get back and take care of home court.”

The Blazers will host the LA Clippers Tuesday before playing Wednesday at the Los Angeles Lakers. Then they visit the Utah Jazz before settling in for a four-game homestand.

But the Blazers have much larger concerns right now than where they play. They must reverse trends in several areas if they hope to return to winning on a consistent basis.

Here are five major issues that have hurt the Blazers recently:

DAMIAN LILLARD’S HEALTH

Lillard has missed nine games and failed to finish two. The culprit hasn’t been a severe injury, which is good. But two relatively minor injuries to his right calf have proven to be problematic, robbing him of nearly half of the season to date.

Damian Lillard, Gary Payton II

Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard, right, and Gary Payton II, left, watch from the bench during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash) APAP

That reality has helped illustrate just how valuable Lillard is to the Blazers. They are 7-2 in games that Lillard starts and finishes. The Blazers are 4-5 when he does not play and they lost both games he left early with an injury. If winning percentages held up in this equation, the Blazers could be 15-6 with a healthy Lillard.

Lillard’s latest injury will be reevaluated soon. He missed 12 days because of his first calf injury. The 12th day out from his second injury is Thursday. That timeline would suggest that Lillard could return next weekend, when the Blazers play at Utah (Saturday) and at home against Indiana (Sunday).

ANFERNEE SIMONS UNDERPERFORMING

Anfernee Simons carried the Blazers for two months last season when Lillard was sidelined with injuries. So far this season, that magic hasn’t always been there. Over his last five games, Simons is shooting just 42.4% from the field, including 33.9% from three-point range. It’s not horrible, but it’s also not enough to lift the team in Lillard’s absence.

Trail Blazers at Cavaliers, November 23, 2022

Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons (1) drives to the hoop past Cavaliers forward Isaac Okoro (35) during second half action in the game between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Wednesday, November 23, 2022. The Cavs won 114-96. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.comDavid Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

Simons, who is averaging 23.6 points and 4.2 assists this season, showed Friday what he is capable of by scoring 38 points in the Blazers’ 132-129 overtime win at the New York Knicks.

The Blazers need much more of that from Simons to remain formidable in Lillard’s absence.

BENCH SCORING

The Blazers entered Sunday ranked 29th in the NBA bench scoring, averaging 25.8 points per game.

Part of that can be attributed to Lillard missing nine games. Some of his points are being absorbed by other starters and/or the player who replaces him in the starting lineup.

Still, Portland needs better production from Nassir Little, Shaedon Sharpe, Drew Eubanks, Justise Winslow and Trendon Watford.

If it’s any consolation, the Blazers are surrounded near the bottom of the bench scoring rankings by quality teams. The Philadelphia 76ers rank 30th, the Atlanta Hawks are 28th, the Cleveland Cavaliers are 27th and the Miami Heat rank 26th.

Also, Portland’s bench players are shooting 50.8% from the field, first in the NBA, and 35.9% on threes, 12th in the NBA.

But the Blazers’ bench certainly will need more production. The Blazers’ bench was outscored 112-75 on this trip.

Chauncey Billups, Shaedon Sharpe

Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups, left, talks with Shaedon Sharpe (17) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash) APAP

The bench’s struggles could be helped tremendously by the debut of guard Gary Payton II, who continues to recover from summer core muscle surgery. His return would not only help the Blazers’ bench production, but also their defense, which has suddenly become an issue.

SHAEDON SHARPE

The Blazers’ rookie originally replaced Lillard in the starting lineup, but returned to the bench after a couple of poor showings. That trend has continued.

Since scoring 20 points in a home loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Nov. 17, Sharpe has scored just 11 points on 5-of-25 shooting. His struggles have not only affected the Blazers’ bench scoring, but also created more pressure on the starters.

Sharpe went scoreless against the Nets and Cleveland in 30 minutes.

Billups has praised his Sharpe’s talent. But he also has noted the shortcomings of a 19-year-old rookie who didn’t play at Kentucky before entering the 2022 NBA draft. Teams now have film on Sharpe, they appear to be scheming to stop him, and Sharpe has struggled to adjust.

DEFENSE PLUMMETS

The Blazers’ defense has been slipping.

After allowing just 103.7 points per game during their 4-2 trip, the Blazers surrendered 118.3 over their last four games.

Consequently, Portland’s defensive rating, which had been ranked in the top 10, has jumped to 19th (112.4).

Over the last eight games, Portland has had a defensive rating of 117.9 (28th in the NBA). During the recent trip, that number was 120.7 (29th).

Teams across the NBA are experiencing their share of ups and downs. All things considered, the Blazers remain in a good position.

“Obviously, you at least want a split on a road trip that is as tough as this one is,” Simons told reporters. “I think we just have to keep moving forward and looking forward to that next game … It’s the NBA. The games are going to keep coming.”

— Aaron Fentress | afentress@Oregonian.com | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook). Subscribe to Oregonian/OregonLive newsletters and podcasts



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