The Pacific-Northwest! A land of moody mists, shaggy pine forests drenched in fresh beads of rain, and a man named Hassan Whiteside, who is obsessed with a koi fish named Party Boy Steve he met this past summer in Portland’s Japanese Gardens. The Trail Blazers got off to a juddering season, we can all admit that much. A team that looked to be high flying, combustive, and fun fell flat to start. Cue the triumphant return of Carmelo Anthony, resplendent in jewel-tone turtlenecks, to give a bit of a needed boost to a team that has been dealt some awful injury luck.
Zach Collins has a dislocated shoulder, victory lap Melo was slowed down by a knee contusion he’s slowly coming back from, and Rodney Hood is out due to an Achilles injury, all while Jusuf Nurkić, down since last season, is still out. The good news is is that what it’s going to take for the Trail Blazers to turn it around is to do what most residing in Portland take a twisted kind of pride in: get weird. And so, let’s take a look at what should be on the Blazers holiday wishlist.
For the Blazers to stay teetering atop the middle of the Western Conference heap on which they’ve recently climbed, they need for their two main guards to explode. In their four and change seasons starting together, C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard have never gotten 25+ points in more than two consecutive games. But hark! A holiday miracle! In the last week leading up to Christmas, McCollum and Lillard have produced close to 30 points per game in glorious tandem.
With Anthony out, it’s this kind of reliable production Portland needs from its dominant shooters, because it has been the waffling that’s hurt them. Opposing teams get a whiff of a wonky stretch of shots not falling and close in. Plus, isn’t it more fun to see McCollum and Lillard playing the kind of game it feels like they’ve always been destined for and sinking ‘em?
#2: Hassan Whiteside to embrace being basic
Damian Lillard knows when you’re faking it. Okay, maybe not you, but for sure when Hassan Whiteside is. When asked about Whiteside’s recent rebounding performance, Lillard said, “When he’s playing like that, we’re going to have a great chance to win games. It’s almost like it’s obvious when he’s not doing it. It’s obvious when he’s not bringing it, because when he does, it’s like so obvious and it’s such a big deal for our team.”
Whiteside has been a monster with rebounding for the month of December. At best, he’s yoinking 23 rebounds in a game, and when he backs off, he’s still been putting up double digits. As the holidays grow nearer, he’s been embracing stuffing, too. His blocks have increased per game since the season began, and he’s no slouch shooting the ball, either. If this is what it means for Whiteside to be basic, then he needs to embrace it, all the way.
#3: Get weird
Look, there are some teams in the league who are abundantly comfortable going all the way zany when it comes to their lineups, especially in a deficit brought on by injuries. The Blazers have not yet gotten good at getting weird. And why not? What’s stopping them? Look, at this point in the season, with Whiteside being able to rebound, block, and shoot, play him like a traditional center and let the shooters space the floor, leaving Whiteside free to crash the board. He’s about a hundred times more dangerous if Lillard and McCollum stay hot. Bring Kent Bazemore off the bench as a catch and shoot valve, let Anfernee Simons cook.
The best thing about Portland being in the position that it’s in, smack dab in the middle of the west’s standings, is that they won’t be so precious about their wins — hopefully — that they can’t experiment with the alchemy of things.