It's the popular question everywhere nowadays. "Why are the Blazers losing?" History tells us that the better question is, "How the heck did the Blazers win that many in December/January?" We'll let that go though. The post-streak blues add extra disappointment to the current stretch but there are still valid reasons we're not doing so well. Next time somebody asks, you can trot these out for starters.
1. We're getting outhustled.
This isn't rocket science. Even at our best we're not a dominating team. We're not going to overwhelm you with athleticism or score 110 a night. In order to be successful we have to play efficiently and then use the extra energy to get to every loose ball. That's just not happening. We're reaching and leaning. We're a step slow to everything. We haven't seen three honest floor dives in the last six weeks.
Part of this is our personality. We specialize in big, smart, multi-skilled players not all-out fireballs. Wishing we'd play with Ruben Patterson-like abandon is like asking the chess club to smash beer cans on their heads. Another huge part is just fatigue: physical, mental, emotional. I know you're sick of hearing it, but it really is that simple. One more time: these guys haven't played this many minutes with this much responsibility. It's literally more than they've ever played in their life. After you read this go outside and run as far as you've ever run in one stretch. Then add another 40% to that. You know what? You can't. They're professional athletes so they can do a reasonable job of it, but they're going to be at a serious disadvantage against other professional athletes who have done it before. Unless you're a freak of nature you don't win your first marathon. These guys aren't going to either. Every contested ball that falls into the opponent's hands or out of bounds (which is most of them) testifies to that.
2. We're missing our outside shots.
One glance at the scores from December through February will tell you that multiple things are going wrong with our offense. During the period when we won 17 out of 18 we topped 100 points 11 times. We have done it only 3 times since, all three of those overtime contests. Our inability to hit from the perimeter is one of the main culprits.
As analysts from coast to coast have pointed out we are basically a jump-shooting team. When you start missing your bread and butter you're in trouble.
More than that, the jumper is our key to spreading the floor. We don't have a post player who can bull his way through to the basket and score. In fact we don't have a lot of great one-on-one players at all. We need space for our cutters and drivers in order to get any kind of easy shots, motion, or decisive passes. Those things have been lacking lately.
Those extra points from the three-pointers didn't hurt either. We play a ton of close games. The 3-4 points extra from canning threes rather than twos make a big difference.
Why are we missing from outside? James Jones is injured. Our other smalls who depend on range are inconsistent. Jump shots are the first thing to go when you get fatigued. They're also the easiest shot for opponents to bother. Wrap it all together and we're in trouble.
3. We've lost our free throw advantage.
Earlier in the season we were getting more, and hitting more, free throws than our opponent by a margin of 3-4 per game. We still have an advantage on the year but it's down to barely 1 attempt more per game and less than 1 more free throw made per game. Keep in mind for the gap to have narrowed that precipitously we have to have run quite a deficit recently. These are yet more of those critical extra points we're missing out on.
Again this can be partially attributed to fatigue. Physical fatigue causes us to commit more fouls (slow to defend) and draw fewer ourselves (less hard driving). Mental fatigue contributes to misses at the line.
4. Our spacing and communication have gone south.
One of the beautiful things earlier in the season was watching the ballet-like grace with which this team played on both ends of the court. That's not happening now. The off-ball movement is intermittent. We're gathering defenders in precisely the areas we need to clear. Part of this is the aforementioned lack of outside shooting. But another part is we're not reacting to each other well on offense. The most successful plays are turning out to be the one-on-one plays from Brandon, Lamarcus, and Travis. Everybody else ends up standing and watching, or worse...drawing their defenders right down into the play.
The same is true on defense. We always depended on team defense requiring rotation and help. That means a lot of attention and a lot of talking. Neither seem to be happening. We're letting drivers inside uncontested and exposing our big men, who are also rotating late. We're requiring three guys to stop a player that should have been stymied by one or two (if we stop him at all). This puts us deeply out of position for rebounds and also out of position to defend the inevitable second shot.
Again, we're not a team stocked with dominating athletes. If we don't help each other out to the maximum extent possible we suffer.
5. We're paying the price for a lack of rebounding.
You can buck the odds for a while, but not forever. Losing the rebounding battle night after night will eventually catch up to you because you won't generate enough possessions and you won't be able to aggressively prosecute those possessions. In this sense we're like the Vegas slot machine jockeys who won big but played a little too long.
6. Gimmicks have a shelf life.
We have employed a lot of interesting tricks this year to cover up basic weaknesses, especially on defense. In the NBA the zone is pretty much a gimmick. Switching on every screen is a gimmick as well. They're good as surprise tactics but a steady diet ruins their effectiveness. The league has solved us and we have still not solved our weaknesses.
You can hear the echoes of this every time Mike and Mike talk about the Joel Przybilla/Channing Frye debate. The exact words are, "Nate is substituting for [offense/defense] here." If you have to utter these words it means you're lacking something no matter which way you go. The only long-term solution is to have more players who don't force you to make such decisions and thus employ gimmicks to cover them. Or (cough) get one of those special players who covers a multitude of sins...
7. We're dying by the sword we lived by.
During the streak we looked like we knew we had a chance to win every game. Indeed, we'd often find ourselves within 5 or 6 in the fourth and pull out the amazing come-from-behind victory. But you can only fool with come-from-behind for so long before it bites you. Now we find ourselves equally behind but have lost the swagger that allowed us to crawl back. Instead of "behind and then win" (Go Travis!) we get "behind and then behinder". We never did learn how to translate that inspired fourth-quarter play into not getting behind in the first place.
8. We haven't jelled at the same rate as the best teams.
This team has great chemistry. This team is unselfish. But this team still falls apart when Options A and B aren't available. If we were a bathroom we'd have magnificent tile with golden inlay but there would be plenty of cracks running around it. Plain old linoleum with proper filling is going to look better. This wasn't necessarily true at the beginning of the year. Plenty of teams were still settling in and finding their way. Most of the veteran squads have found theirs. We're still making November mistakes in February. Which leads us to the final big reason we're struggling...
9. It's the opposition too.
One of the common ways we fool ourselves--team and fans alike--is acting and speaking as if everything is in our control. The number of times you hear a player say, "They were just better than we were" is dwarfed by the number of times you hear them say, "We didn't do X, Y, and Z and we let them do P, Q, and R." This is true even if everybody and their uncle knew going in that the talent disparity was overwhelming and the team would probably lose.
An Obvious Truth: We're playing tougher teams now and will continue to do so as we face our Western Conference mates almost exclusively during the latter part of the season.
A Less-Obvious But Also Important Truth: Most good teams play tougher, harder, and more focused in the latter months of the season when the playoff races are starting to take shape than they did early on. They're not going to let you have that critical six-minute run that slipped by before Christmas. They need that six minutes so they can catch up to the team right ahead of them.
Put all of these together and you have a reasonable synopsis of what's going on. About half of them are solveable. The other half, though, are not. They're matters of experience, talent, or other things beyond our control at this point in time. It's worthy to note that even the uncontrollable half of these issues could very well have caused us to lose had we played perfectly in all of the ways we could control. We might not be losing quite so much, nor by quite so much, but neither are we a San Antonio-like team hamstrung by our own choices.