In the second game post All-Star Break, the Sixers host the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that dominated them a few months back during the Sixers’ first west coast trip. That December 30th matchup was the second fewest points the Sixers scored in a game, and the most they allowed in a game that didn't go to overtime. So it’s safe to say they’ll be seeking some revenge tonight.
I got to talk with Sagar Trika, an expert on all things Blazers, to learn more about this Portland team. In addition to his Blazers insight, Sagar does great work at Early Bird Rights, an essential salary cap tool for die-hard NBA fans.
Question #1: The Blazers made a few moves in the last few weeks, first trading Sixers legend Nik Stauskas, Wade Baldwin and two future second-round picks for Rodney Hood. Later, they acquired former Knicks center Enes Kanter off the buyout market. How much did the Blazers improve with these two moves?
In my opinion, the movements have the potential to be significant, but I don’t know that that’s the most likely outcome. The thought process behind the moves seems to be to shore up the bench at its two areas of need on the wing and down low to try to gain some level of consistency from that unit. As it stands, Portland’s bench has the ability to have big games (for example, scoring 52 on the defending champion Warriors right before the All-Star Break), but it’s not something that can be relied upon down the stretch or in the playoffs. I think the two moves were made with the hope of stabilizing the bench unit and adding some consistency.
It’s hard to say just how meaningful the moves will be just because Hood has only played a handful of games and Kanter only just got his first practice in with the team on Wednesday morning in Brooklyn.
Question #2: If things don’t go well down the stretch in these final few months for Portland, significant changes could be on the horizon. So let’s say the Blazers get knocked out of the playoffs in the first round once again — what drastic changes, if any, need to be made in the summer?
I think the changes that need to be made, in my opinion, will differ from what actually happens. In the scenario that the Blazers are eliminated in the first round (or that they miss the playoffs altogether), I think General Manager Neil Olshey should be the first person held accountable. I also think it would make sense for the front office who replaces Olshey to strongly consider packaging guard CJ McCollum for a meaningful upgrade at the wing position. It’s hard to say who that target should be, though (two years ago, it was Paul George prior to his trade to Oklahoma City, but that ship has obviously sailed). Those are the two changes I would hope to see.
However, I expect differently. If the Blazers are eliminated in the first round of the playoffs (or if they miss the playoffs altogether), I think it’s pretty clear Terry Stotts is out from his post as Head Coach. From there, I also think it’s highly likely one of Olshey and McCollum are gone. Local reporting has suggested that a minimum of two of Stotts, Olshey, and McCollum would be out in that scenario. Stotts is the obvious one given the manner in which coaches are always the first to be held accountable in the NBA, and it seems more likely McCollum would be the second to go rather than Olshey. So, I’d expect Stotts and McCollum not to be with the Trail Blazers in the hypothetical scenario you posed.
Question #3: Now, to tonight’s game specifically: the Sixers will be short-handed without Joel Embiid, still out due to his sore left knee. But with Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler, they still have three dynamic offensive players on the floor. It will be difficult for Portland to match up with the Sixers’ size, especially for a team that is generally undersized to begin with, particularly in the backcourt. How do you anticipate the Blazers will attempt to stifle Philly’s offense?
Philadelphia poses tough matchup problems for most teams due to the fact that they have a giant of a primary ball-handler in Ben Simmons. Like you noted, those matchup concerns are only exaggerated for teams with undersized backcourts like Portland. Because Philadelphia’s offense will run through a 6’10” point guard and two dynamic wing players, the Blazers will have to rely on their wing depth more than normal. That could potentially mean more minutes for two of Portland’s three bench wings, Jake Layman and Rodney Hood (former Sixer Evan Turner is out with knee soreness). Each has shown the ability to hold their own defensively over the course of the season (Hood obviously to a lesser extent given he only just arrived in Portland recently), so I expect Portland to rely more on them than small guards like Seth Curry and slower big men like Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard, and obviously defensive turnstile Enes Kanter, who has no chance being of use against those guys.
Big thanks to Sagar for taking the time to answer our questions this morning!