POWER RANKINGS » Rising & Showing Promise In Week 14
By Desmond Johnson
The Portland starting lineup has felt like a revolving door for much of the second quarter of the season. Between injuries, Covid-related absences, and other outside circumstances, the Trail Blazers have fielded 16 different starting lineups through 43 games this season. When compared to the 13 starting lineups used throughout all of last season, which was not particularly injury-free, it becomes clear that first-year head coach Chauncey Billups has had to do the most with the cards he’s been dealt this season. After an impressive 5-3 start to January without the services of their top two scorers, the Trail Blazers still sit seven games below .500, but these games without Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have provided an opportunity for the other players to exhibit their growth and chemistry together in expanded roles. The proof is in the pudding for Portland's supporting cast who have had some stellar performances in recent games.
Anfernee Simons has been scorching hot, averaging 26.1 points and 8.0 assists on 50% FG in the month of January including career-high performances in points (43) and assists (11, twice). At just 22 years old, Simons is beginning to string together big games with the consistency needed to be a star in this league, and the league is taking notice, as Simons has seen double-teams sent his way in recent games.
His young running mate Nassir Little has also scored in double figures in seven of the last eight games for Portland. The Uber-athletic Little has shown grit and hustle on the defensive end and galvanized the team with energy-inducing dunks on the other end.
Veteran forward Robert Covington has been showing off his three-and-D chops, averaging 2.8 steals and 2.0 blocks over the last six games, including two games with five made threes.
Jusuf Nurkić has recorded two straight 20-point double-doubles including a performance of 21 points, 22 rebounds, four steals, and two blocks against Orlando on Monday.
Ben McLemore has scored in double figures in each of the last five games on 18 total made threes, good for sixth-most in the league over that span.
The starting five of Simons-McLemore-Little-Covington-Nurkić is 3-0 this season and the only Portland starting lineup to all score in double figures in a game. With CJ McCollum returning to the lineup after missing the last 18 games, Portland adds another offensive weapon back to a lineup that has been rolling as of late.
In CJ McCollum’s first game back on Monday, Portland took care of the last-place Magic in Orlando. McCollum contributed 16 points on 7-13 shooting and looked to be getting his rhythm back offensively in his return to the court. Portland’s next game against the Heat in Miami may serve as a better gauge of how this roster looks with McCollum back after the growth and chemistry the rest of the starters exhibited in this recent stretch of games.
Norman Powell should return to the lineup soon as well after missing the last five contests in the league’s health-and-safety protocols. Just like that, Portland will have two of their top three scorers back after a 4-1 stretch of games without either of their services.
Following what may have been the most high-profile win of the season over the Nets, Portland kicked off a six-game road trip on the wrong foot with an ugly 108-140 loss to the Nuggets in Denver, but have since doubled their road win total on the season with wins over the Wizards and Magic. The Trail Blazers are now 4-1 over the last five games and have been playing winning basketball in the month of January without some of their top scorers.
Damian Lillard will remain out for the next couple of months following abdominal surgery, but there is hope in Portland with the way the others have stepped up and it’s reflected in this week’s power rankings. Portland took the biggest leap up the rankings in weeks, coming in as high as No. 20 and as low as No. 23. Here’s where the Trail Blazers sit in the fourteenth edition of the weekly power rankings after a promising start to the new year.
• John Schuhmann at NBA.com has the Trail Blazers at No. 21 this week, three spots better than last week...
Last week brought some clarity on the Blazers’ backcourt. Damian Lillard had surgery on his abdomen and will be re-evaluated in late February or early March. CJ McCollum, meanwhile, is expected to make his return (from an 18-game absence) on Monday. So it will be a McCollum-Anfernee Simons backcourt for at least the next several weeks. The Blazers are 1-3 with McCollum and not Lillard, with the three losses having come by 29, 31 and 28 points (the win was over Detroit). But they’ve outscored their opponents by 1.7 points per 100 possessions in 250 total minutes with McCollum and Simons on the floor without Lillard.
And they’re 4-3 without either Lillard or McCollum in January, with the league’s sixth-ranked offense this month. They’ve won their last three games with Simons, who missed their loss in Denver on Thursday and has averaged 28.3 points (fourth in the league) and 8.2 assists in 2022. Jusuf Nurkic had his best game in a while (23 points and 14 rebounds) in Washington on Saturday, as the Blazers outscored their opponent in the paint for the first time in their last 16 games.
That was also just the Blazers’ third road win of the season, but it improved them to 9-6 against the Eastern Conference. They should also be getting Norman Powell back (he’s missed the last four games) as they complete their six-game trip this week.
Schuhmann has the Trail Blazers behind the Lakers at No. 20 and ahead of the Pelicans at No. 22.
• The panel of voters at ESPN has the Trail Blazers at No. 23 this week, two spots better than last week...
Damian Lillard underwent abdominal surgery, and he will be out another six to eight weeks. Still, the Blazers have somehow won three of their past four games. Credit coach Chauncey Billups for getting his team to persevere and Anfernee Simons for showing what he can do with a bigger opportunity. Simons is averaging 27.8 points in January, and the Blazers have won the past three games he has played. (He did not play during Portland's 140-108 loss to the Nuggets on Thursday.) Despite Lillard's absence, the Blazers will get a boost with CJ McCollum expected back as soon as Monday.
The folks at ESPN have the Trail Blazers behind the Hawks at No. 22 and ahead of the Pelicans at No. 24.
• Zach Harper at The Athletic has the Trail Blazers at No. 22 this week, one spot better than last week...
The thing keeping the Blazers out of an F grade is that they fired Neil Olshey. That was a long time coming, and the Portland Trail Blazers at least got that right this season. The coaching change hasn’t fixed anything, and it’s fair to wonder if it hurt them in the short term. Maybe Terry Stotts wasn’t going to make this team better, but he seemed to keep them from being this bad. Damian Lillard is out for a while. They’re barely holding off Sacramento and New Orleans in the standings. But at least Anfernee Simons has been fun, and CJ McCollum is back.
Prediction Update? No, I’ll stick with this one and just wear the L as a scarlet letter on my lapel. I had the Blazers being in the top 20 in defensive rating. Not a tall task, or at least that’s what I thought. They’re 30th in the NBA this season, and there’s probably no way they actually climb up to at least 20th. Everything is a struggle for them, and this season looks like a complete waste at this point.
Harper has the Trail Blazers behind the Hawks at No. 21 and ahead of the Pacers at No. 23.
• Rohan Nadkarni at Sports Illustrated has the Trail Blazers at No. 22 this week, four spots better than last week...
With Damian Lillard’s return this season looking questionable, C.J. McCollum’s own injury troubles, and a 17–25 record, Portland clearly needs to be looking to retool. The Dame-CJ pair hit its ceiling a while ago, and perhaps no roster is in bigger need of a reset. The Blazers don’t have to give up on Lillard or on contending with him. Moving basically all the vets (Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington are on trade-friendly expiring deals) and executing a one-year tank could reload this team very quickly in time for as early as next season. At the very least, give Lillard a fresh start with a new cast next year instead of letting him hit his head against the wall with the current group.
Nadkarni has the Trail Blazers behind the Kings at No. 21 and ahead of the Spurs at No. 23.