The Portland Trail Blazers have been plagued by the same issue for several years running:
What happens when Damian Lillard is not on the floor?
It's a fundamental issue that every team revolving around a superstar must ultimately reckon with. From LeBron James to Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden to Luka Doncic, every team must solve for X as a variation of the same basic equation.
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Portland has never quite been able to figure it out.
Until now... sort of.
When 16th century Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus postulated that the Sun is at the centre of the universe with the Earth revolving around the Sun along with every other planet, he may as well have been describing the single-star system that would come to describe a majority of NBA teams. Copernicus would have been a big fan of prime Melo.
Granted, Anthony is no longer the All-Star force with a gravitational pull strong enough to survive with every other piece orbiting around his game.
That's not the version operating in Portland. That would be Damian Lillard.
MORE: Should Lillard start the All-Star Game?
But just as planets revolve around the Suns, so too do moons around planets. And if you think of Anthony as a planet orbiting within the greater context of Portland's Dame-centric existance, there are still times when it's important to focus on those smaller orbital reactions.
Like when Lillard is off the floor.
Back to that original problem.
Perhaps the biggest issue with Portland's dreadful start was the degree to which they got smoked whenever their All-Star point guard sat. Prior to Anthony making his debut on November 19, the Blazers played 141 minutes without Lillard on the floor. In those minutes, they got outscored by a whopping 16.0 points per 100 possessions. Now it's obviously not the biggest of sample sizes, but that equates to the worst team in NBA history.
This is nothing new. Here are the net ratings of Portland over the last few seasons without Lillard:
- 2018-19: -7.2 in 1,133 minutes
- 2017-18: -5.2 in 1,281 minutes
- 2016-17: -4.0 in 1,293 minutes
I know what you're saying. "Wait, aren't most teams bad whenever their best player takes a breather?"
Yes and no. That's famously been an issue with LeBron James teams for years (it still is!), but it's not a hard-written rule. While some might be in the red, good teams typically don't get rolled.
The Bucks have still been very good whenever Giannis Antetokounmpo sits.
The Mavericks are still good whenever Luka Doncic is not in the mix.
Even the Rockets, who lean on James Harden to a historic degree, haven't been that bad whenever the Beard needs a break.
Since Anthony has arrived, that troubling "we are the worst team in NBA history when our star sits" trend has been largely rectified. There are still some holes springing leaks, but no longer are the waves crashing uncontrollably overboard.
If you take a look at Portland since Anthony's debut on November 18, there are two different stories to tell.
- There are those times when both Lillard and Anthony are out.
- There are those times when Lillard is out but Anthony is in.
A disclaimer: some of it is garbage time and there are certainly grains of salt to be consumed. There's plenty of noise so it's far from perfect, but it's what we have to go on, so here it goes.
These numbers are from games in which they've both played.
That first story? OK, so maybe the waves are still crashing overboard. According to the invaluable pbpstats.com, Portland has played 102 minutes with both of them off the floor and been drowned to the tune of 29.3 points per 100 possessions. That's a tidal wave crashing overboard a canoe.
What about the second one? There have also been 141 minutes that Melo's been out there sans Lillard and in that time, Portland has been +4.2 with an offense that would rank close to the top 5.
On the whole, the numbers still aren't pretty overall with Portland still getting pummeled whenever Lillard sits.
But venturing into the weeds reveals that maybe what Blazers' coach Terry Stotts should consider is letting Melo be Melo more often and staggering his time more strategically opposite Lillard.
Who knows? Perhaps leaning more on the former 10-time All-Star could be the antidote to one of Portland's biggest recurring flaws and the adjustment needed to spark a run towards the postseason.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.