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What's Wrong?

Over the last couple of days I’ve gotten plenty of e-mails with questions, comments, and theories about the same topic:  What’s wrong with the Blazers?


My initial, instinctive reaction (almost certainly the most correct one) is simply, “Nothing!”  Most decent, and plenty of downright good, teams lose three straight games at some point during the season.  I suppose if you believe that Portland is going to challenge the L*kers and Celtics for the title this year you can officially begin to worry.  Probably if you think the Blazers will usurp the Hornets’, Spurs’, Rockets’, Cavaliers’, or Magic’s place as the next-most-likely to get there you can begin to worry as well.  But if you’re worried about the Blazers falling apart or falling out of the playoff race you can set your heart at ease.  That’s highly unlikely and if it does happen it won’t be because of these three games.  A lot more would have to go wrong than that.


Nevertheless, losing to the Clippers at home, no matter how hard-fought the game, is bound to stir up concerns.  It’s not in itself a sign of trouble, but I suspect people worry it’s a prelude to trouble, kind of like watching your friend who quit smoking a while back suddenly start heading to the bus stop for breaks.  Maybe he’s just reading the ads out there, but you worry a little.


So, OK.  Fair enough.  It would be silly to overreact to, or put too much weight on, the last couple of games but in the spirit of helping people not overreact and worry, let’s talk a little about what’s been going on this week.  Here are the possible reasons that we’ve encountered a mini-slump.  I’ll list them in order from the nearly-certain first to the possible-but-speculative at the end.


The symptoms of the Blazers’ play lately have been a lack of energy (particularly in the basic area of transition defense), loss of focus (notably on offense), porous perimeter defense, and lack of finishing power when the game has been on the line.  The reasons for this could include:


1.  Fatigue


The Blazers have been playing every other day for what seems like forever with plenty of road games and travel days salted within.  They’ve got to be tired.  This past Saturday night was the first time in forever that I wasn’t posting about the team--either recapping a game, previewing the next one, or both in the same night--and I’m tired.  That’s just from writing about the games.  They’re playing them!  No matter how young and athletic you are when the body starts going south you need rest.  Because of the length and intensity of the games this week the starters have actually been playing more minutes, not fewer.  That’s not helping.  Also anybody who’s experienced physical fatigue in their daily exercise or what have you knows that mental and emotional fatigue follow quickly in its footsteps.  You may know the right thing to do.  You may see the right thing to do.  It can be right in front of you.  (“Run down the court, fool!”)  Somehow you don’t quite make it…at least not this play.  All it takes is three or four of those plays in a game to lose it.  In two cases this week it would have taken just one.  This team will almost certainly look better after this small break.  Let’s hope they get away from the game for a while and get some rest.


2.  Emotion


This belongs partially in the fatigue section, as wearing down affects your emotional perception.  (Unless, of course, my wife is reading this.  You are ALWAYS sweetness and light, honey, no matter HOW tired you are.  Yes, indeed.)  However there’s been some emotional fallout that goes beyond that.  Almost to a man the Blazers are in the uncharted territory of making the first real playoff drive of their career.  They’ve also experienced a fair amount of success early on in that endeavor.  Along with that success comes the implication that you’re a team of destiny.  This has been aided and abetted by the near-miraculous nature of some wins and the deceptive ease of others.  But emotion is a double-edged sword, seldom effective as a long-term aid to winning.  You could almost see the air leaking out of the balloon with Hedo Turkoglu’s miracle three in the Orlando game.  “Wait a minute…we’re supposed to win like that, not lose like that!  You mean that can happen?”  I know that kind of response doesn’t make much sense logically but since when have emotions and the adrenaline they cause bowed to logic?  All of a sudden it seems like you’re not a team of destiny anymore.  That’s a hard edge to regain.  This is part and parcel of being young and having these experiences.  Chances are they’ll go through it again in the playoffs at some point.  It’s a hard lesson.  This isn’t a fairy tale, it’s basketball.  Teams of Destiny seldom win it all.  The most competent, prepared, hard-working, and talented teams win it all.  Cold maybe…less emotional and inspiring certainly…but true nevertheless.  While recovering from this slump will be another learning experience for the team they’re still going to be running heavy on emotion this year meaning there are going to be more ups and downs.


3.  The Law of Averages


The Blazers are still a jump-shooting team.  Jump shooting teams have good nights and bad nights.  Heck, they seldom manage an entire night, rather favoring good quarters and bad quarters.  If that doesn’t describe the Blazers so far this year I don’t know what does.  It’s to their extreme credit that they’ve ridden out those on-and-off periods and secured far more wins than losses.  At some point that’s also attributable to good fortune as well, which is bound to go the other way sometimes.  We’ve seen that in the Orlando and Clipper games both.  The good news is as Greg Oden continues to develop (and hopefully as Lamarcus Aldridge continues to develop his offensive aggressiveness) Portland will get more inside opportunities which will balance out some of the topsy-turvy offensive production.


Part of the problem here is that the defense, or lack thereof, makes the offensive bar pretty high.  When you’re allowing the opponent to shoot in the upper 40’s it means your offense has less room to vacillate.  The Celtics and Rockets can weather off-nights far better than the Blazers can simply because they can dip lower and still remain ahead.  Portland’s offensive standards, particularly shooting three-pointers, is pretty high if they’re to be successful.  This may not change this season, leaving the Blazers more susceptible to the law of averages.


4.  Trust


Basketball is a team game.  Most of the time the Blazers play like a team, covering for each other on defense and sharing the ball on offense.  When under stress they tend to play more as individuals offensively.  Also certain players--either through inexperience, misunderstanding, or just plain inattentiveness--abandon sound defensive principles.  All it takes on defense is one person to blow an assignment or miss a read and the whole coverage is blown.  When that happens it’s hard to feel like your effort is contributing to the whole, so you tend to put less into it.  You can’t give your best when you don’t trust the guy who’s watching your back.  The Blazers do fall apart like this sometimes.  Part of it is their individual characteristics.  Part of it is their youth.  Part of it (and we forget this often) is that many of these players haven’t played together for more than 20-odd games.  As the team gels through the season and on into next year some of this should go away, even when the Blazers are hard pressed.


We should acknowledge that there’s a difficult balance to be struck here offensively.  On the one hand you want to be effective on offense and everything else should be subservient to that.  It shouldn’t matter who scores as long as the ball goes through.  I think the Blazers feel and play that way as much as humanly possible.  But then again there’s only so much that’s humanly possible.  We have a lot of players who would deem themselves potential offensive stars.  We have about one-and-a-half who have proven themselves as actual offensive stars.  Every one of them, without exception, is young and still finding their way…still needing to explore what they can do and prove themselves.  That makes things tricky.


On the one hand you have to be happy with Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge taking most of the shots.  Anyone who objects to them hitting at a 50% clip and scoring 30--including their own teammates--needs a reality check.  This is the NBA.  You need players who can and will do that.  Allen Iverson has made a huge career scoring 30 shooting a far poorer percentage than that.  There isn’t an elite team in the league who doesn’t have at least one player who takes over the game on a regular basis.  On the other hand, to loosely paraphrase Shaquille O’Neal (easily making this the most vilified paragraph I’ve ever written, name-checking Iverson and Shaq within two sentences of each other), “You have to feed the dog if you want him to guard your yard.”  Greg Oden needs some touches and shots.  Rudy Fernandez needs shots as well.  Sergio Rodriguez is not going to play his best without being able to create on his own.  And with young players especially, when they’re not getting their touches they’re not in the game fully.  That ball has to move around in order for everyone to be playing at their peak.


When the Blazers are playing well this happens almost instinctively.  But when somebody misses a few shots or the opponent turns up the pressure the flow gets interrupted.  You see our stars start second-guessing making that pass, wondering if the guy on the other end is going to score.  You see our supporting players start launching shots or trying to make plays that they shouldn’t, perhaps wondering if they’re going to see the ball again.  Even more often you see them stop expending energy off the ball on offense, figuring that they’re not going to get the pass anyway.  This, of course, decreases the opportunities the stars have to get them the ball and a vicious circle ensues.  That kind of functional selfishness (I say “functional” because I don’t believe it’s intentional, rather a by-product of trying to do what’s best, defining “best” by what oneself can contribute) will hobble even the best of teams.  The Blazers are not yet the best of teams.  It will kill them, and has.


The solution here is not for Brandon or Lamarcus to take fewer shots necessarily.  They’re probably correct about themselves being the best scoring options right now.  Nor is the solution for the supporting cast to give up their scoring roles and aspirations and cede this team to the two current stars.  Rather on those nights when the offense is struggling or the game is tight the whole team needs to understand where its bread is buttered.  The supporting cast has to play their collective butts off, continuing to expend energy on both ends of the court, being ready to take their offensive opportunities but not getting discouraged if they don’t come as often as they’d desire.  Also the stars can’t get sucked into a “me against the world” mentality and must continue to look for, and trust in, the other players…understanding that the only way they’ll get free enough for decent looks on a regular basis is if the players around them are seen as legitimate threats also.


5.  Coaching


Everybody wants to point to this first after ever loss.  I’m putting it last because I think there’s only a ghost of a chance that this applies compared to the other factors mentioned.   However when you see a team suddenly not getting back in transition, playing a little self-centeredly on offense, and not expending sufficient energy in all parts of the game you do at least put “has tuned out the coach” somewhere in the list of possible causes.  There is not enough evidence to support any definitive conclusion at this time.  There are TONS of mitigating circumstances (read about fatigue, youth, and emotion above) that fit the explanation better than a sudden, radical change in the Blazers’ reaction to coaching.  It’s almost certainly a non-factor.  But if this were to continue and become a regular occurrence (not losing per se but the energy and lack of detail issues) you would wonder if certain messages were being repeated too much or too little or in the wrong way.


To the extent that this could be true it’s incumbent upon ALL parties, players and coaches alike, to evaluate themselves and their approaches.  Simply put, this is too good of a team to let frustration get in the way.  The start has been too effervescent and the progress too pronounced.  Also these players and this coach are too good to let a breakdown happen.  I’m sure Jerry Sloan, John Stockton, and Karl Malone had words at some point.  There’s no way those three shouldn’t have been married to each other.  They were too good together.  The Blazers will be that way as well.  Nate will raise these players in the right way.  He’s already brought them incredibly far.  They need to understand that.  They are growing up as well and they need to be allowed some freedom and mistakes as part of that process.  The coaching staff has to understand that.  If part of the recent lack of focus is a mini-protest (and again, we won’t know that for a while yet) they need to have it out, get over it, and play basketball.  This kind of thing, were it to occur, wouldn’t help anybody.


Hopefully that will answer some questions and put people’s minds at ease.  The best bet is to let another week or two of games play out and see where we are.  We’ll be able to talk more intelligently about the situation (if there even is one) then.


--Dave (