The Portland Trail Blazers looked mighty for the first half of the season, but the cracks are starting to show.
The Blazers are still tied for the third best record in the West, but the team is just 4-6 over the last 10 games.
Portland's schedule is only going to get tougher moving forward, with 19 of the 29 remaining games coming against playoff contenders. Despite this, there are some key adjustments the Blazers can make to compensate.
More Focus Is Needed Defensively
It's mostly due to the tempo at which the Blazers play, but the the team's defensive numbers aren't great. Per ESPN.com:
If Portland is looking to contend this season, the team's defensive identity isn't strong enough to come through down the stretch. The Blazers are no doubt talented offensively, and often win based on this, but going up against a strong defensive team won't yield positive results.
Whether it's internally or through a trade, Portland must look to lock up opponents on a regular basis. It isn't a change that will happen overnight, but head coach Terry Stotts and his staff must focus on creating a defensive identity.
Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum all have the speed, length and ability to be much more potent defensively. LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez also have the strength and length to do so in the paint, but it must become a central concept of the game plan before it becomes a real part of the team.
Joel Freeland is a rugged big man on the interior with his 6'10", 225-pound frame, but a sprained MCL will keep him sidelined for four to eight weeks. Meyers Leonard is a big presence as well at 7'1", but he doesn't have the confidence to really be a game changer.
He has averaged 4.7 points and 2.7 rebounds off the bench in February, but defensively is where he'd be most helpful. If (and it's a big if) Stotts and the team can instil more trust in Leonard, he could prove to be useful off the bench.
But that should only be if a trade or signing doesn't present itself, as Leonard hasn't shown much so far.
The Blazers Need to Rest Up for the Long Haul
Portland rarely relies on the reserve squad for much contribution, and the team doesn't have much choice, either. The Blazers rank dead last in terms of bench scoring, according to Hoops Stats.
The Blazers' best reserves are clearly Mo Williams and C.J. McCollum, but the lack of bench help in the frontcourt has been cause for concern. The team's best big man off the bench in Freeland is down with an MCL sprain, leaving just Thomas Robinson, Victor Claver and Leonard to come in behind Aldridge and Lopez.
Robinson and Leonard combine for 20 minutes per game, with Claver having appeared in just three games. It's clear Robinson and Leonard haven't developed as planned, as both were lottery picks in the 2012 NBA draft but are bench players at this point.
Yet with the playoffs approaching, it would be wise for Coach Stotts to give them a bit of an extra run. Aldridge needs all the rest he can get for the postseason, despite a "rest" period not being quite relevant until the last few weeks of the season.
Even so, playing Leonard and Robinson a little more—and Claver if needed—will not only help rest the team's frontcourt, but also prepare the slowly developing big men for the future.
Williams and McCollum are playing great behind Lillard and Matthews, respectively, hence the real focus needs to be down low.
Portland Should Look to Make a Trade
The NBA's trade deadline is just days away, and Portland needs to make a big push to acquire some extra help. The Blazers have some superstar names, but their talents are limited with few other contributors.
Portland has the assets to make a move, with a first-round pick in each of the next five drafts (aside from the 2014 draft, as the pick is owed to the Charlotte Bobcats). It isn't likely those picks will be very high (or of much value for that matter), but they remain assets to a certain extent.
The Blazers are limited in terms of personnel to offer, but the team's focus on incoming players should be solely on the frontcourt.
Williams, Dorell Wright and Earl Watson make for a strong veteran presence in the backcourt along with rookie McCollum. Robinson and Leonard haven't proven much since being drafted, but their youth could be the upside in a potential deal.
Portland has enough firepower to be a contender in the West but needs a little extra juice to be contenders for the NBA title.
It wouldn't need to be a major move either, as a minor trade or free-agent signing could be enough. As seen with the Miami Heat and Chris Andersen last season, even the addition of a bench player gave the team that extra push.
The Blazers don't truly have that spark plug off the bench, although McCollum is becoming a terrific scorer as he becomes more comfortable. But in terms of frontcourt players, Portland's depth is severely lacking.
The Trail Blazers are off to one of their best starts in years, but they’re not kidding themselves. They know they’ve taken advantage of a pillow-soft schedule and have surprised themselves with their shooting (45%). So they’re quietly looking to improve, talking to the Rockets about trading for Omer Asik. They can send back Robin Lopez in a deal, but don’t have the “stretch four’’ the Houston is looking for as it searches for a home for its disgruntled backup center. The Rockets want a power forward who can shoot threes to pair next to Dwight Howard.
As the report states, the Blazers don't quite have the assets the Rockets are looking for. Portland could offer a future first-round pick to sweeten any deal the team puts together, although my optimism might be swayed from playing too much MyGM Mode in NBA 2K14.
In any case, adding a big man like Asik would solve a plethora of issues for the Blazers. It'd go against making a smaller tweak, but it's a move that would pay huge dividends for Portland.
If the team is unable to chase Asik, being on the lookout for a veteran presence in the paint is the Blazers' best bet.