The Portland Trail Blazers look vastly different from the team that fell to the Denver Nuggets in six games in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but the way Portland has blown it up seems a little drastic for a sixth-seed that lost to the third-best team in the Western Conference.
The Trail Blazers entered the series slightly favored due to a combination of Portland’s hot streak after their midseason addition of Norman Powell and Jamal Murray’s injury. Without their second option and Robin to Nikola Jokic‘s Batman, pundits expected the Trail Blazers to overwhelm Denver with their advantage in top-end talent.
Of course, despite that edge, Portland wound up dropping the series even with a Herculean effort coming from Damian Lillard, who averaged north of 34 points and 10 assists per game for the series. Changes definitely needed to be made, but could the team be heading for an overcorrection?
Are the Portland Trail Blazers overreacting to the first-round loss against the Denver Nuggets?
Even with the MVP in Jokic, analysts and talking heads expected the Blazers to disparage the shorthanded Nuggets. Fast forward to today and the Joker has an honest case to repeat as the most important player in the league, leading Denver to their current sixth-seed standing — and this is sans Michael Porter Jr., a walking mismatch who put 18.8 points per game against Portland while stroking 54 percent of his looks from the field and 42 from deep according to statmuse.
Without his second and third bananas, Jokic has his team just three games short of homecourt advantage in the playoffs again.
Not only did people underrate Jokic’s ability to singlehandedly dominate a series, but they also understated just how ill-equipped the Blazers were to match up against the Nuggets.
With Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum starring in the backcourt, Portland had two guards who are particularly inept at defending at the point of attack and navigating off-ball offensive actions. The Nuggets took full advantage of these weaknesses and saw Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers, and Monte Morris all have uncharacteristically great nights.
The Trail Blazers also featured Jusuf Nurkic, a capable defender in his career while deploying drop coverage, but the Joker made it look easy when popping out behind the arc for triples or to negate Portland’s only source of rim protection. He also was able to put the ball on the floor or unleash a platter of post moves to repeatedly put the Bosnian Beast into foul trouble.
Once Nurk was sidelined, former Head Coach Terry Stotts had only the infamously defense-averse Enes Kanter to try to slow down the MVP. That matchup went about as well as everybody expected.
Aside from Jokic, the Nuggets also had another mismatch begging to be picked on at the small forward slot. Michael Porter Jr. at 6’10 was starting opposite Portland’s 6’3 Norman Powell who had played out of position since arriving in Rip City.
Denver also easily got the nod in terms of reliability off the bench.
It’s clear that while Portland technically had the advantage in star power, all the other factors leaned heavily in Denver’s favor.
Watching the Nuggets get swept in the next round didn’t help to ward off the implosion in Portland, but it made sense considering Denver was going up against the 2021 finalist Phoenix Suns.
Did Portland need to shake up the roster? Unequivocally yes, but many of the issues in that series could have been solved with a steadier bench and a true defensive-minded small forward. Those changes would have answered all of Portland’s roster questions this year and in years past as well.
Instead, then-General Manager Neil Olshey opted for a systematic overhaul that his roster wasn’t built for, the losses rolled in, and the team was eventually cornered into blowing it up after firing the controversial executive. On the bright side, the emergence of Anfernee Simons has made swallowing the trades of CJ McCollum and Norman Powell for 50 cents on the dollar a lot more manageable. Here’s hoping that the organization doesn’t repeat the sins of the past.