Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports
A discussion of the natural fault lines running through the Portland Trail Blazers roster: why they exist and who they affect most.
Last week in the comment section you talked about the Blazers "fracturing". The comment caused some feathers to fly locally. Care to elaborate?
The actual comment was, if the Blazers got blown out in Boston after a team meeting they'd "continue to fracture". They did get blown out. They've had a couple good and a couple poor performances since. This isn't too surprising. My take wasn't that the Blazers were on the verge of collapse and civil war, rather that this season will put plenty of stress on the locker room...stress which they'll have to actively combat in order to remain unified and on track. It's a tall order.
The best way to understand what I'm saying is to imagine the roster as a land mass with natural fault lines running through it. A fault line does not guarantee an earthquake. Some go for decades or centuries without shifting. Others experience tremors on a regular basis. But if there is going to be a tectonic shift, it's likely to be along one of these obvious lines.
Losing, adjusting to a new coach, and the rigors of any season spent with teammates on a professional level will all exert force on the roster. The strength of that force plus the ability of the people involved to withstand it will determine how many quakes we see. So far the force has been relatively light compared to what was expected. The Blazers are 9-12, a decent record all things considered. Their recent road trip was rocky but that's not surprising. They felt pressure, called a team meeting, tried to correct, and bailed themselves out with a couple of overtime wins. Good enough. That won't be the only four-game losing streak of the season, nor will it be their last test. The pressure will keep on coming.
Fortunately the capacity of these players to withstand that pressure seems high. They seem to have a good rapport, a fairly clear pecking order, and they're playing in an offense in which they share the ball. Several of the players seem like "good guys" and the rest don't seem prone to explosiveness or overt selfishness. If anything, it's the opposite. These players seem less likely to assert themselves than many of their NBA peers. You don't see a lot of ball-hogging or me-first attitude even when the team needs somebody to take over. As far as NBA locker rooms go, this is probably a nice one to be in.
That doesn't change those natural fault lines though, the places where the roster is most likely to crack. Those depend less on personality and more on systemic issues. If there is going to be a fracture, it may well come in these places:
Potential Fault Line #1: Between LaMarcus Aldridge and Everyone Else
Aldridge is the star of this team. He's the only player even close to making that claim. If anyone's reputation will be tarnished by losing, it's his. He's also having the least efficient season of his career by far. Individual accolades, including his coveted All-Star berth, are already hard to come by in Portland. Even in his best years he's a marginal All-Star to most observers outside of Portland, settling in behind stat-machine Kevin Love, spotlight hog Blake Griffin, and possible ex-MVP's and champions Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan. All of this makes Aldridge the only player with both right and reason to look at the rest of this impoverished roster and say, "I'm better than this. I don't need this crap." This could take the form of demanding touches, playing outside the offense, or taking the easy way out by drifting to the outside on offense and failing to rebound on defense. It could take the form of quietly checking out on the season, his teammates, or his coach. In extreme circumstances he could demand a trade. None of these things seem in Aldridge's nature. Also, as we said, the stimulus just isn't there yet. But you can bet that sometime, somewhere, Aldridge is going to be tempted in one or more of these directions, particularly if he's left off of the All-Star roster for a year or, worse, two.
Potential Fault Line #2: Between Damian Lillard and Everyone Else
Lillard's problem isn't that he's a star, rather that he's a rookie and a point guard whose outstanding quality is scoring. He also requires plenty of assistance from teammates on the defensive end. No matter how nice and mature of a guy you are, that's a potentially toxic situation.
Lillard is THE guy mentioned on opposing broadcasts. Lillard can miss six shots in a row but when he drains that seventh and it's a sweet three, folks go wild about his potential. Color commentators don't gush over Aldridge or Wesley Matthews though both are more accomplished and consistent players at this point.
Lillard also gets as many shots as he wants most nights. If he's struggling he shoots his way out of it. That's his job. He's calmed down the last few games but you don't have to look at many 8-21 outings to figure out the potential undercurrents. His teammates were all rookies once too. You know how many of them got to loft 20 shots, period, let alone when they were off? They had to defend. They had to defer to veterans or other scorers. Even Aldridge had Brandon Roy and Zach Randolph to worry about. He's the man now, but when he was young he was projected as the #3 guy on this roster. It's like working your way through school and wanting to go on that special class trip to Disneyland but hearing over and over again that only 7th graders get that privilege. So you work and study, but just when you hit 7th grade the school opens up the trip to Kindergarten kids too. No matter how understanding you are, no matter how friendly those Kindergarten kids are, that has the potential to rankle.
Then there's the defense. As we've chronicled throughout the year, it's an issue. Some claim it's a learning curve. So be it. Either way, the Blazers have to offer help early and often on Lillard's man and opponents are capitalizing accordingly. How often will any teammate--even the best--sacrifice to help on defense again and again while watching the player they're sacrificing for score 20 while they pick up scraps from the table?
Again, this has little or nothing to do with personalities. You could put any player's name you want on either end of these characteristics and the reaction is likely to be the same. It's not personal, it's human nature. Human nature can be overcome but that takes work. How much work will these players be willing to put in for Lillard, especially if the season goes bad and they suspect this roster won't be here past June, let alone forever?
Potential Fault Line #3: Between J.J. Hickson and the Starters
Hickson has been the energy guy of this lineup most nights. His rebounding has been inspirational, particularly since he's playing out of position. But energy defines his contributions. He's not a natural center, nor a great defender at the position. If he doesn't bring it hard the Blazers get obliterated at that spot.
J.J. Hickson is also the red-headed stepchild of the starting lineup. Name the starter you'd guess the Blazers would be most willing to trade. Name the only starter without a guaranteed long-term contract. The guy who's busting his butt hardest many nights is also the least appreciated and will remain so. You think he doesn't know that?
Hickson many not have as much right to go into business for himself and/or fold as Aldridge does, but he may end up with more reason and more emotion behind that kind of decision.
Potential Fault Line #4: Between Terry Stotts and 14 out of 15 players
There's always potential for friction between a new coach and his players, particularly when the team is projected to lose. We must keep in mind that 9-12 is actually a comparatively good record for this team. A fault line here in no way suggests that Stotts is a poor coach or that the team is performing poorly. But Stotts also has plenty of people to potentially disappoint on this roster.
The one guy who's safe is Damian Lillard. Stotts is going to ride him and give him the green light. That's practically a mandate. Unless something goes radically wrong in their interpersonal relationship Stotts should always have Lillard on his side. Then again, Lillard is a rookie, so what does he know and what clout does he wield in the locker room?
The list of potential disappointments starts with Aldridge, for reasons mentioned above. No matter how tight their relationship and how willing Aldridge is to work within the new system, Stotts runs the risk of losing his star if his system doesn't coax the best out of Aldridge. Then you have Nicolas Batum who might also fancy himself a star and would probably like a steady diet of touches but is currently playing third fiddle to Aldridge and Lillard. Where does that leave Wesley Matthews? We just mentioned the Hickson situation. Stotts is under-utilizing his bench and has a responsibility to ride the young guys and make sure they know how to succeed in the league. That kind of tough love gets accepted early but it chafes as the season progresses, minutes don't expand, and wins remain elusive. Stotts could end up with any number of detractors among his reserve players. If losses start mounting it's going to be easy to cast sidelong glances at, and perhaps complain about the effectiveness of, the coach.
None of this speculates on any issues between players, something I wouldn't be comfortable speculating about but which could certainly impact a season too. Even if there aren't any of those whatsoever, even if this is the most chummy locker room ever, the Blazers still have hills to climb to keep themselves together.
It's perfectly possible that this team will get through the entire season without so much as a mutter or a peep. Maybe nothing will come of any of this. But here's the important part: if that happens it won't be because the potential was absent. The Blazers are going to have to work plenty hard to stay together. Neither the league nor many of their personal circumstances will do them any favors. If they do make it through unscathed even through one season, let alone the next two or three, it'll be a credit to their commitment and sacrifice. The fault lines are there. The pressure will come. How well will this team withstand? It'll be an interesting development to watch.