PORTLAND, Ore. — It’s been a week since the Portland Trail Blazers traded for sharpshooter Norman Powell and starting center Jusuf Nurkic returned from injury, and the early return has been good: three wins and no losses.
Now there is a big disclaimer with those three wins as they have come against the Orlando Magic, Toronto Raptors and Detroit Pistons, three of the five worst teams by record in the Eastern Conference. And while the sample size is obviously small and not against the toughest competition, it’s what’s currently available to evaluate this Blazers roster that is fully healthy for the first time since the middle of January.
In the three wins Portland ranks first in the NBA in offensive rating, scoring 121 points per 100 possessions. No surprise there as the Blazers have ranked as one of the league’s top offenses all year, despite the months-long injuries to Nurkic and CJ McCollum, and Powell, whose greatest strength is scoring, not being on the roster. The improvement for the Blazers over the past three games has come on the defensive end where the team ranks 15th in defensive rating, giving up 110 points per 100 possessions. That’s a sizable leap as Portland ranks 29th defensively for the entire season. Even a consistent league-average defense, when combined with one of the best offenses in the NBA, makes the Blazers a bigger threat to make a run in the playoffs.
Again, though, it’s a small sample size and the Blazers have faced weaker competition. But it’s nonetheless encouraging.
The early production from the Blazers with Powell and Nurkic in the starting lineup was the focus of discussion on the latest episode of KGW’s 3-on-3 Blazers podcast, hosted by KGW sports anchor Orlando Sanchez, alongside KGW's Jared Cowley, Nate Hanson and Max Barr. (Story continues below)
LISTEN: KGW's 3-on-3 Blazers Podcast
In Portland’s past two games, against the Raptors and Pistons, head coach Terry Stotts has gone with a starting lineup of Nurkic, Robert Covington, Powell, McCollum and Damian Lillard. That lineup has been lethal in the limited minutes they’ve played together so far. In 28 minutes, that five-man lineup has scored at a rate of about 132 points per 100 possessions while giving up just 96 points per 100 possessions, a +36 net rating. That stacks up with the NBA’s best. Of lineups across the NBA that have played at least 75 minutes together this season, which the Blazers' starting unit is well on its way to doing assuming everyone stays healthy, the best net rating is +33. That lineup is the Los Angeles Clippers' group of Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Reggie Jackson.
Another common lineup fans should expect to see, at least while Nurkic’s minutes are limited as the team works him back into the fold after being sidelined for two and a half months, is backup center Enes Kanter with Covington, Powell, McCollum and Lillard. In 11 minutes so far, that lineup has scored at a rate of 113 points per 100 possessions, while giving up just 85 points per 100 possessions, a net rating of +28. That lineup, like the starting lineup, has been extremely effective in its early limited use.
The question many Blazers fans have is if that level of production is sustainable. The likely answer is no, as the Blazers' competition over the past three games has been among the worst in the NBA. But even with a little regression, the new starting five for Portland has shown a glimpse that it could be among the best units in the league.
Fans will get an opportunity to see how the fully healthy, new-look Blazers stack up against better competition in the coming days. The Blazers play the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz in three of their next four games. Each of those teams has a better record than Portland and blew out the Blazers in previous matchups this season.
It may all change in a week, but the early returns for the Blazers with Nurkic and Powell in the starting lineup have been at least encouraging, and potentially very promising. Portland heads into the final month and a half of the season with a 29-18 record, tied with the Denver Nuggets for the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference.
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LISTEN: KGW's 3-on-3 Blazers Podcast