NBA power rankings: Damian Lillard is back

PORTLAND, Ore. — Welcome back, Damian Lillard.

The Portland Trail Blazers dynamic All-Star guard will be in the lineup for Tuesday's game at Cleveland after he missed the past five games with a right hamstring strain.

Tuesday's game also marks guard Isaiah Thomas' first game of the season and debut with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thomas, who was traded from Boston to Cleveland in the offseason, has been rehabbing a hip injury.

On the surface, the Blazers fared well enough without Lillard, winning three of the five games he missed. But a deeper dive shows that Portland, which was outscored by 4.5 points per game over the past five contests, was scuffling without their best player.

The Portland Trail Blazers' anemic offense looked about the same without Lillard, ranking 23rd in the NBA with 101.4 points per game. But the defense, which ranks fifth this season in points allowed (101.2 points per game) took a step back, giving up 105.6 points over the past five games. (Story continues below)

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The fact that Portland's defense slipped without Lillard on the court reinforces how much he has improved on defense. Long considered one of the worst defensive guards in the NBA, Lillard has turned it around this season and ranks second in the NBA among starting point guards in defensive rating.

One reason the Blazers won three of their past five games was because of how well Shabazz Napier played in Lillard's absence. After averaging about 20 minutes per game this season, Napier's minutes increased to about 37 per game and he responded by averaging 18 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals.

The Blazers (19-17), who have won six of their past 10 games, are currently tied for sixth place in the Western Conference with the Denver Nuggets, and are just a half-game back of the Oklahoma City Thunder in fifth place.

Portland has already picked up one win this week, beating the Chicago Bulls in overtime, 124-120, on Monday night. After Tuesday's game against the Cavaliers, Portland returns home for two games, against the Atlanta Hawks (10-26) on Friday and the San Antonio Spurs (25-12) on Sunday.

Here's a look at where the Blazers stand in the first batch of NBA power rankings for 2018.

ESPN: Blazers rank No. 13 (up 1)

Previous ranking: 14

Portland's neighbors: Indiana Pacers at 14, Denver Nuggets at 12

What they wrote: Damian Lillard has missed Portland's last five games with a strained hamstring, but the Blazers have gotten huge shots from unexpected places in his absence. They're 3-2, with each of their wins decided by one or two possessions. In the final five minutes with the score within five points, Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless and Evan Turner are a combined 5-for-5 from deep.

CBS Sports: Blazers rank No. 14 (down 1)

Previous ranking: 13

Portland's neighbors: Chicago Bulls at 15, Indiana Pacers at 13

What they wrote: I really thought Portland's offense was going to bounce back at some point this season, but it doesn't appear to be happening any time soon. As a result, they're an OK team with a major flaw holding them down from what they could be.

USA Today Sports: Blazers rank No. 12 (up 4)

Previous ranking: 16

Portland's neighbors: Denver Nuggets at 13, Milwaukee Bucks at 11

What they wrote: While the Blazers boast the fourth-best defense in the NBA, they're 27th on the offensive end of the floor, scoring just 102.4 points per 100 possessions — a five-plus point drop off from last season.

NBA.com: Blazers rank No. 16 (no change)

Note: These rankings were published Monday before the Blazers' win at Chicago

Previous ranking: 16

Portland's neighbors: Miami Heat at 17, Indiana Pacers at 15

What they wrote: The Blazers have remained anemic offensively without Damian Lillard. They've scored a brutal 91 points per 100 possessions in 125 minutes with C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic on the floor without the starting point guard. But they've survived with some solid defense and an out-of-nowhere, 42-point fourth quarter against Philadelphia on Thursday. Shabazz Napier had 15 points in those 12 minutes and has averaged 21.7, 4.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists in his three games as a starter, with McCollum struggling in the absence of his regular backcourt mate. The Blazers will have a chance to find some sort of rhythm offensively this month, with the easiest January schedule in regard to opposing defenses. Thirteen of their 16 January games are against the bottom 15 defenses in the league.

Sports Illustrated: Blazers rank No. 14 (no change)

Note: These rankings were published Monday before the Blazers' win at Chicago

Previous ranking: 14

Portland's neighbors: Indiana Pacers at 15, New York Knicks at 13

What they wrote (author Kenny Ducey wrote a New Year's Resolution for each team with his rankings): Win the Nick Young rap beef. If Damian Lillard does not dust Swaggy P in his response track, this season has been a failure.

Jared Cowley is a digital producer at KGW. You can reach him on Twitter here. All stats in this article gleaned from kgw.stats.com and nba.com/stats.

3-on-3 Blazers video: Should the Blazers trade Shabazz Napier, and other trade questions

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