The Trail Blazers sit with unfamiliar company in the bottom third of the week nine power rankings largely surrounded by rebuilding franchises, perennial playoff missers, and teams without superstar players. At this point last season, the Blazers were breaking into the top 10 in the power rankings. Having now lost five games in a row and eight of their last nine, Portland has been unable to take advantage of this home-heavy stretch of games despite their early-season success at home.
Portland has had the toughest strength of schedule of any team thus far but has the 22nd-strongest remaining strength of schedule. This may prove paramount for the Blazers, as a run is needed sooner than later to climb out of play-in cusp territory and back into playoff contention. Despite the recent slide, Portland still sits just three and a half games back from the sixth seed in the West.
Injuries have further complicated things for Portland. In the midst of Damian Lillard’s five-game absence managing an abdominal injury, CJ McCollum suffered what was originally thought to be bruised ribs, but was re-evaluated and found to be a collapsed right lung. There is currently no timetable for his return, but other players who have suffered similar injuries, such as Gerald Wallace in the 2018-19 season and Terrence Jones in the 2014-15 season, have missed about six or seven games. Lillard returned to the lineup from injury against the Timberwolves on Dec. 12 and said after the game that he felt “significantly better” physically than he had in a long time.
After piecing together some unexpected starting lineups earlier in the week out of necessity due to injury, coach Billups opted to start Larry Nance Jr. at forward against the Timberwolves in Dame’s return with Robert Covington coming off the bench. The box score would indicate that this move helped spark some valuable production from the two forwards, as Nance Jr. was able to grab 12 rebounds and Covington snagged five steals and four blocks in 34 minutes off the bench. Anfernee Simons was the game’s leading scorer with 26 points, but despite these statistical high-points, Portland gave up a fourth quarter lead in the final four minutes of regulation, scoring only seven more points the rest of the way leading to a fifth straight loss.
The Blazers have played only two games since the last iteration of weekly power rankings, and perhaps this is a good thing because with only two losses this week they weren’t able to slide too far down the rankings. After losing to the league-leading Warriors on the road with an injury-depleted lineup and dropping another at home to the Timberwolves, the Trail Blazers come in as low as No. 25 and as high as No. 22 in this week’s power rankings.
Here’s where the Blazers sit in the ninth edition of the weekly power rankings following a short week:
Before they got Damian Lillard back, the Blazers lost CJ McCollum to a collapsed lung. And as you might imagine, their offense was bad (92.5 points scored per 100 possessions) in two games without either starting guard.
But their defense (against the Clippers and Warriors) was solid, Norman Powell (55 points over the two games) kept them somewhat afloat, and neither game was a blowout. Lillard returned from a five-game absence on Sunday, with the Blazers shuffling the starting lineup even more by replacing Robert Covington with Larry Nance Jr. Alas, Lillard shot 5-for-17, the lineup was outscored by 13 points in less than eight minutes, and the Blazers blew a seven-point, fourth-quarter lead to Minnesota. They actually closed the game with both Covington and Nance on the floor without a center, a look with which they’ve outscored opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions (in 98 total minutes).
Having lost eight of their last nine games, the Blazers have seemingly spiraled out of the playoff picture. But they’ve played the league’s toughest schedule, they’re essentially tied with the 10th-place Kings, and the two teams occupying the top two West Play-In Tournament spots — Dallas and Denver — aren’t exactly taking care of business. Still, trade-scenarios aside, if the Blazers want to remain competitive, they need to find their footing soon. Their schedule remains home-heavy for another four weeks, but nine of their next 12 games are against teams currently over .500.
Damian Lillard missed five straight games due to a lower abdominal injury before returning on Sunday. The Blazers desperately needed him after losing CJ McCollum indefinitely with a collapsed lung. Portland’s season has been a mess so far, but a healthier Lillard could soon surpass a Hall of Famer on the all-time 3-pointers list: After Sunday, he is 35 3s away from eclipsing Paul Pierce for ninth place.
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