As the afternoon progressed today I saw pairs of antelope, giraffes, zebras, hippos, muskrats, possibly-evil ducks and all manner of creatures filing past my mailbox as it became flooded with inquiries regarding the Blazers 2-3 start and its various permutations. Once I shooed the beasts away I distilled the questions down to three which seemed to represent most people's concerns.
1. How serious is the slow start?
That depends on how you define terms.
Compared to what is this start "slow"? Frankly, this was the kind of start I expected last year when the opening schedule was so brutal. We didn't get it then. (Though we did start the season 2-3 we then went on to win 12 of the next 15 games which seems like a longshot for this year's club.) The extra boost we got from winning some of those early tough games kept the Blazers high enough in the standings that, despite some so-so middle months, the incredible late-season run really created something special. That led to a 54-win season and a corresponding raising of expectations. Did I expect the Blazers to start by losing 3 of 5 this year? No. Am I aghast? Also no. Those heightened expectations shouldn't entirely mask that this is a start we accepted last season and could have been delighted with in seasons prior. That doesn't mean we should like it or even be fine with it. It does mean we need to realize that we're defining "slow" based on what we assume could be, not what is. A rocky start was always a possibility with this team, particularly given the pre-season roster turmoil. We're seeing exactly that...no more, no less.
If you were expecting the team to win 60 and challenge for the #1 seed then yes, this is a slow start. But what we're seeing is only partly a problem with the Blazers. It's just as much a problem with forecasting improvement. We always assume everything good that happened last year will repeat itself and more will be added because of progress. That repetition doesn't always happen (e.g. coming out of the gate strong and always winning at home). If everything that went right last year doesn't happen exactly that way again then the improvement due to growth gets tempered.
However if you're expecting the Blazers to be competitive in the conference and challenge for a decent playoff seed then this start isn't that bad. The Nuggets have rocketed to a 5-0 record and we're 3 games behind them. We'd be in the hunt at 3 games behind were this mid-March. It's barely November. In real terms we've barely started, let alone started slow.
Also what is the time frame for defining "serious"? In the short term the team is facing some serious issues. The San Antonio game won't be easy. The Blazers embark on a five-game road swing next week and two of those games are penciled in as probable losses right now. If the team doesn't find some continuity, energy, and execution we're looking at going 4-3 at best in the next seven games, leading to a 6-6 overall record. That's still not a disaster but it's hardly healing. In addition we're not looking at clear and simple fixes here. The rotation probably needs to be shaken up and then streamlined. The Blazers need to emphasize getting in the lane on offense and taking as much individual defensive responsibility as possible, particularly in the backcourt. But beyond that we're really talking about trust, confidence, and experience together. Those take time. If there's going to be a revival soon it's almost going to have to come by going 4-1 on that road trip. Failing that it'll be the end of November before the schedule allows us sustained potential wins. But then again December gets harder and January's not that much better. The Blazers' issues aren't going to be absolved automatically nor can they be swept under the rug. In that sense they're serious.
However this start isn't serious at all over the long haul...at least not yet. It's tempting to jump all over the first five games of the year as wholly indicative but truly in two months nobody will remember them. Cleveland is 3-2 right now. Miami and Phoenix are 4-1, both division leaders. I wouldn't bet that those trends will continue. The Blazers really will go on streaks this year that will make you think they're world-beaters. This start doesn't change that nor does it cripple the team in any way. No five games anywhere in the season could do that, save perhaps the final five depending on the standings.
2. How much of this is Nate's fault?
Not as much as people are currently claiming, but more than he's ever had to deal with before as Portland's coach.
Let's look at the situation for a second, starting from training camp. Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez didn't play much of the pre-season because they played internationally over the summer. Batum ended up getting injured and won't be back for months. Martell Webster just came back from a year off, in essence never having played with this incarnation of the team. Greg Oden is getting a do-over of his rookie season, trying to expand his role while operating on limited experience. At the same time he's trying to stay healthy and out of foul trouble so he can actually play and get that experience. Andre Miller is brand new to the team and is unexpectedly (for him anyway) coming off the bench. Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge just signed HUGE contracts and, like it or not, that affects how you interpret the game and your role in it, adjusting to which takes time. Travis Outlaw is in a contract year and has his own agenda and things to prove. Steve Blake and Joel Przybilla are dealing with the possibility of lesser roles as each has a player fighting for their position who wasn't there last year. Coincidentally each looks a little lost and is having a rough start. Did we miss anyone in the main rotation?
When you look at the sum of all of that and then you hear that the team is having early continuity problems the response is, "Gee, really? Ya think?" The Blazers are dealing with issues that teams like the Nuggets and L*kers aren't in the same way.
That said, every team has these issues from time to time. It's the coach's responsibility to focus the team in spite of the obstacles, the better to overcome them. The Blazers do have a couple of glaring shortcomings that look like they could become chronic. If they do become so, no amount of coaching will fix them. It becomes a roster issue. Other than that, though, Nate himself is describing the situation much as I have laid it out: effort, trust, continuity, execution, focus, desire.
Here's the thing. You get to highlight those issues as a coach but you don't get to highlight them for long. This is the first time in the Roy-Aldridge era that we've heard them brought up in a serious manner. Fair enough. But if we're still talking about them three months from now you start to wonder how much this is a player issue and how much it is a coaching issue. It's never 100% either way, of course. It's always a combination. But you do start asking if this combination is going to work. The moment Coach uttered the word "effort" his clock started ticking. He and the players do deserve that time to make it work together as they have done so well in the past. But the hounds will be let loose in mid-January if things haven't improved and the end of the season will see some serious soul-searching if the Blazers fall short of their goals.
In other words, we don't know how much of this rests on Nate's account...yet. This is partially because we don't know exactly what's going on yet. But the ledger book that has been solidly and rightfully closed during Nate's tenure here just opened. This season will bring an accounting one way or the other.
3. What's the fix?
The Blazers aren't necessarily running bad sets. They're running decent sets poorly, with horrible spacing, seemingly in confusion. How many times have you seen two big men trying to set an identical screen? How many times have you seen open players missed? How many times have you seen two defenders follow the same guy leaving somebody else wide open? How many times have you seen players running, or worse standing, in no-man's land defensively, covering nobody effectively, able neither to stop penetration nor to jump out on shooters, the only recourse being a clumsy foul? The fix to these things is more teaching, more effort, more attention to detail, and more time.
If you want to jump-start the offensive growth my initial inclination is to hand the ball to Andre Miller in most situations. He penetrates. He runs. He knows what he's doing and he knows what the Blazers need to do. Him being comfortable and in charge would go a long way towards bringing this offense the continuity it needs. The fly in the ointment is whether Brandon Roy is comfortable with that idea. Brandon trumps everything else on this team. Without him the Blazers don't contend, period. As much as you can, though, let Miller do his thing. Watch and see if you don't get fewer awkward jumpers and more inspired play.
Defensively the Blazers have problems. They probably need to zone more, run harder, and cover for each other better. But the backcourt situation, particularly at point guard, isn't going away. You know how in every Star Trek space battle the ship loses its rear left deflector so the helmsman can say, "If we take another direct hit on that side we're done"? That's exactly how the point guard defense feels right now. Zoning and rotating are attempts to turn the ship so the enemy's weapons hit a stronger shield. But how much of that can you do when multiple Birds of Prey come knocking? The lack of containment, the lack of ability to prevent penetration and still cover the outside shot...these are leading to too many easy buckets, too many fouls on the big men, and too many defensive stands that leave the Blazers staring at each other instead of pushing the ball down the court to score themselves.
I'm pretty sure that every opposing team in the universe is circling the Blazer backcourt in red and saying, "Take it right at them." I'm not sure a permanent fix is available right now. Besides the trick defenses my guess is the Blazers will simply have to depend on scoring more to make up the difference. Right now they're not demonstrating the ability to do that either but that may be the easier learning curve for them.
As we discussed on last week's podcast, if any ball-handler appeared that would let Rudy and Roy play together without a third guard it might be worth a try simply to see the scoring permutations increase. Nobody could guard the opposing point guard still but the opposing point guard would have to take Rudy, Roy, or a small forward on the other end. But alas, based on the dribbling demonstrations we've seen so far that eventuality doesn't appear to be on the horizon either. Thus Miller is likely the best option for now.
I think that addresses most of what people were asking. In the end these shortcomings, even should they endure, won't turn Portland into a bad team. They'll make it difficult for the Blazers to stay with the league's elite teams though. Here's hoping they're able to grow out of them.