Achtung Panzer! #2: The Tanking Portland Trail Blazers

Some teams, you know they’re tanking. They dump salary, let G-League rejects and second-rounders have big minutes, sign just enough veteran salaries to get above the league’s salary floor, and go out there and suck the way everyone knows they’re destined to suck.

And then there are the 2019-20 Portland Trail Blazers, with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and a 5-11 record good for 14th place in the Western Conference above only last week’s Achtung Panzer entrant, the Golden State Warriors.

The Blazers, on paper, shouldn’t be this bad. But there are clear signs that they are stealth tanking, convincing casual fans they’re trying to win now while in reality playing their way into a position where they’ll get a pick in the mid-to-late lottery and possibly win the jackpot for an impact player that will turn their fortunes around in a lot of the same ways the San Antonio Spurs did when they parlayed injuries to Sean Elliott and David Robinson into Tim Duncan in 1997.

Let’s start with the obvious, the greatest snow job pulled on the casuals in recent NBA history:

Carmelo Anthony Washed Up…On The Shores of the Willamette River

Carmelo Anthony is so washed that it has taken him exactly two games in a Blazers uniform to post a VORP of minus-0.1, a measurable non-rounding departure from zero to the negative side of the column.

He has minus-0.2 Win Shares. In two games. That’s -.151 WS/48, a mark so bad that it is the mirror image of Pat Connaughton (.150) on the Milwaukee Bucks and further into the negative than Myles Turner is into the positive (.143) for the Indiana Pacers this year.

A -4.1 VORP/82 is over 50 percent worse than Michael Olowokandi‘s worst-of-all-time NBA season he barfed out in 1999-2000. It is nearly twice as bad as Collin Sexton‘s rookie year in Cleveland, when Sexton was thrown to the wolves on a wretched Canton Charge team wearing Cavaliers uniforms and more or less told to figure it out for himself.

And yes, it’s two games, but the moral of the story is what we already knew. Melo sucks. And if the Blazers are trying to lose games while selling tickets, that’s a fine way to do it. It’s the perfect con.

No Nurk? Call The…Oh, the Turk is in Boston.

Last year, when Jusuf Nurkic went down with injury, Enes Kanter played like a big damn hero for Portland’s run to the Western Conference Finals.

Kanter averaged 13.1 points per game (fourth on the team behind Dame, CJ, and Nurk) and posted .196 WS/48 (Karl-Anthony Towns had .197 last year) and 2.1 VORP/82. Those are borderline All-Star advanced stats overall.

This year? The Blazers have…Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside is a big name for a team to trot out there so nobody knows they’re tanking.

Yes, Whiteside is posting .180 WS/48, mostly because he remains an otherworldly rebounder, but he’s posting pedestrian-for-him defensive advanced stats and actively taking things off the table offensively.

The Blazers would be better off with Enes Kanter helping the offense and not guarding anyone than they are with Whiteside not doing anything on offense and playing good-not-great defense.

Kent Baze Less

Kent Bazemore has never in his career been very good. He has topped 1 VORP just twice (on the bright side, at least he’s not in Melo/Andrew Wiggins territory of actually posting negative numbers relative to his former colleagues in the G-League), and his best season was 1.2.

But this year? He has negative Win Shares (-0.003 per 48) in 16 games so far. Not as bad as Melo, but still pretty atrocious.

He is following up a terrible 2019 campaign in Atlanta where he posted just .021 WS/48 and a negative (-0.1) VORP.

If he was ever good, he ain’t anymore. Perfect for a tank job.

The Road Forward for Portland

On the bright side, this is not a hopeless team. This is just a team with no depth behind its All-Star backcourt.

Getting Nurkic back is the first step. Getting rid of Melo (and Bazemore) during the next offseason, using their likely lottery pick on a 3-and-D frontcourt player, possibly signing a solid but low-priced defensive power forward, and boom, they’re right back to the tools that guided them to a 53-win record last year.

Some tanking teams need to go full Process to be good again. The Blazers just need to sort out a key injury and use the gift of a lottery pick—it’s worth noting that Portland has zero first-rounders currently owned by other teams at any point in the future—to get their high-priced stars some help.

This was a Western Conference Finals team a year ago and unlike the Warriors, this is still fundamentally a playoff roster, it’s just got injuries and steaming hot frontcourt garbage helping with one of the sneakiest tank jobs in the NBA this year.

NEXT WEEK: The Atlanta Hawks. O, John Collins, Where Art Thou?