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Fighting for the West playoffs, and 4 other thoughts on the Blazers entering 2016

What are your New Year's resolutions for the Blazers this Jan. 1? I'll share a few of mine.

These two have some things to figure out.
These two have some things to figure out.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

If I've learned anything about the human condition as it relates to self-improvement (and there's a good chance I haven't, but bear with me anyway), it's that the expectations we set for ourselves aren't really expectations. When we "demand" something of ourselves, it's not really a demand. We set goals, and keep them in the backs of our minds that yeah, sure, it would be nice to achieve them, but we're also not terribly crestfallen when we come up short. It's kinda what we expected would happen anyway.

This is how I look at New Year's resolutions. What I'm saying is, they're not exactly hard and fast rules. They're guidelines, and they can still prove beneficial even if you fail to meet them. Take my resolutions from last year, for example. On the first day of January 2015, I set out to accomplish two big things over the course of the coming year - I wanted to finish a marathon, and I wanted to read 50 books. So I mapped out a kinda-sorta-plan-like thing in my mind, and I set out.

The outcome? One outta two ain't bad. I did the marathon thing! I started out with training runs every other day ranging from three to nine miles, gradually ramped it up, finished a half marathon in May, did another one in July, then trekked out to Hood River and did the full 26.2 in the Columbia River Gorge in October. Awesome! As for the 50 books thing? Uhhhhhh, yeah, not happening. I realized in early March that I was still slogging through the same novel I had cracked open in December, so the whole "averaging one book a week" thing was not exactly looking realistic. I finished the year somewhere in the range of 15-20 books read - a far cry from the goal I'd set.

But here's the thing. Even though I failed miserably, 15-20 books is still a lot, and it was a big increase from whatever minuscule volume I tackled in the years before that. My "failure" was actually a big success because it helped me reform my habits and improve, albeit not as much as I'd (perhaps overly ambitiously) planned.

Long story short: Striving for improvement is a good thing. Even if realistically, you're not cut out to achieve everything you set your mind to (case in point - I'm a slow and lazy reader), trying is still noble. Failing to do something is much better than never attempting it at all. As Kanye West says, reach for the stars, so if you fall, you'll land on a cloud.

So. The Trail Blazers.

It's safe to say that we're not watching a championship team in Portland this season. The Blazers played 35 games during the 2015 portion of their 2015-16 schedule, and they went 14-21. They're two games behind the Utah team that just beat them for eighth place in the Western Conference. Through 35 games last year, the Blazers were a ridiculous 27-8, just 1.5 games behind Golden State for the best record in the NBA. They were a legit title contender then; perhaps one Stephen Curry ankle injury away from being the favorites. That's not the case anymore.

That said, striving for improvement is still laudable. This Blazers team has taken a major step back in the last calendar year (as evidenced by its 39-45 record between Jan. 1, 2015 and Jan. 1, 2016), but things are still far from hopeless, and with a few little tweaks they can implement from January on, they'll be in good shape for the future.

The following is my attempt to identify five key New Year's resolutions for the Blazers as they enter 2016. What are yours?

1. Flesh out a hierarchy of supporting stars beyond Damian Lillard.

This has been an ongoing goal for the Trail Blazers this season, as we knew it would be from the moment LaMarcus Aldridge left in July. It was clear right away that this would be Lillard's team; what we didn't know was who else would emerge to play the key supporting roles.

That picture is now starting to solidify a bit, but the Blazers' depth chart is still far from a finished product. C.J. McCollum has been the second banana since the beginning, but things have been murky past that. Al-Farouq Aminu enjoyed a solid month as a go-to scorer in Terry Stotts' offense; then, Farouq fizzled and Allen Crabbe began assuming more of that role. Meyers Leonard was a key component, then he was hurt, then he was healthy but not doing much. Now he's back-ish. Not a whole lot has been consistent.

I think we've learned a great deal, though, from the last week and a half. That's because Lillard is currently battling plantar fascitis, and he hasn't seen the court since Dec. 20. It's obviously a bad thing to lose your star player, but it's also been an educational time period for the Trail Blazers. During that time, they've surprisingly tread water at 3-3 - not bad at all when you consider they're seven games under .500 overall - and they've done so with a variety of players contributing. Per stats:

The Blazers have been surprisingly quick to establish an identity with their best player missing. It's a perimeter-oriented game. McCollum's the creator with the ball in his hands; Crabbe and Leonard are the spot-up shooters on the wings who seize upon the opportunities he carves out. Aminu, Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis contribute where they can with putbacks and occasional pick-and-roll buckets.

For the moment, it works. And there's no reason it can't continue working once Lillard gets back, just with an extra creator/scorer in the mix alongside McCollum. This team appears to have carved out a style that's successful. The question in 2016 is whether they can prove it's sustainable.

2. Execute better offensively - cut those turnovers.

This is a common problem that befalls young teams, and Portland is unfortunately no exception. The Blazers are a picking-and-rolling team that uses a lot of motion and shuffles the ball around a lot to create shot opportunities; The old days of "just throw it to LaMarcus and have him go to work" are long over. This team doesn't have a ball-stopping scorer, and when you move the rock the way the Blazers do, turnovers are bound to happen.

The average NBA team this season turns the ball over on 13.7 possessions out of every 100, per basketball-reference stats. The Blazers this season check in at 14.1 per 100, tied for No. 23 in the league. It's not just ball-dominant guards like Lillard that are guilty of giving the ball away, either; Plumlee is surprisingly second on the team with 75 turnovers and Aminu is fourth, at 61. The Blazers play a slow-paced style, often allowing all five players to touch the ball before creating a shot, so no one is immune from the turnover problem. It's especially an issue for Plumlee, who's often asked to create plays out of the high post. That turnover rate hits a "red alert" level of 20.7 when the big fella's on the floor.

It's going to take time for everyone in the Blazer rotation to get used to this team's style and learn the nuances of getting each other the ball. Where on the floor is each teammate moving? How fast is he getting there? How are defenders likely to play him? These finer points take a while to figure out. Improvement is likely at some point, though it won't necessarily be easy.

3. Get better at playing tough defense without fouling.

Another problem that's common with young teams. Is it because young players don't know how to walk the line between being physical and being overly physical... or is it just because this is the NBA, where young guys don't get calls? I don't know. You could debate that topic 'til the cows come home, but why bother? The point is that whether it's their fault or not, the Blazers need to stop getting whistled for fouls.

They're currently second in the NBA with 763 total fouls committed, leading to an also-nearly-league-most 901 free throws. (Only Milwaukee is worse in both categories.) Plumlee has fouled out three times in 35 games, and he's currently second in the NBA with 113 personal fouls. Davis, Crabbe, Leonard and Aminu are all in the league's top 50 as well.

A lot of this is the result of size mismatches. The Blazers are an awkward group to match up with opposing offenses, and sometimes it shows. Davis is a center often masquerading as a power forward, and sometimes he has to guard fours who are quicker than he is. Same with Crabbe, who's sometimes a step slow to guard twos instead of threes. Leonard has the opposite problem, as he's often overmatched by bigger, more physical centers. When you're too slow or too weak to guard a certain guy, sometimes you just foul him. It happens.

This might be a problem the Blazers are just stuck with, as they've got a combination of guys who are a) foul-prone to begin with and b) fit together oddly in certain lineups, leading to tough individual matchups. These are problems that might not be fixable without major personnel changes. But still, it would behoove Stotts to preach a cleaner brand of basketball at least a little. Blazer opponents get about 20 points per game at the free throw line; nudge that figure closer to the NBA average of 17 or 18, and you might be looking at a few close games that go the other way. For a Portland team that's still just 3-8 in games decided by 5 points or less, all the little differences absolutely count.

4. Figure out the power forward mess.

The point has been belabored to death, but it's a pretty tough one to let go. Noah Vonleh has been the Blazers' starting PF in every game since Nov. 18, and we still have no evidence that anyone - not Vonleh himself, Stotts or anyone else - has a clue what he's doing out there.

It's been a few weeks since I trotted out these stats, so let's revisit them: According to Synergy Sports, Vonleh is averaging only 0.77 points per attempt as a spot-up shooter, 0.67 as a ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations and 0.31 in straight post-up attempts. Those numbers are absolutely dreadful, and they represent little to no improvement from where Vonleh was at in early December. If the goal was to develop Vonleh's game at the pro level by throwing him into the fire, it hasn't worked. All he's gotten is burned.

CSN Northwest's Jason Quick has reported that Stotts isn't starting Vonleh for player development reasons - the coach has insisted that Vonleh is playing with the starters, and Leonard off the bench alongside Davis, because that's what gives Portland the best chance to win. That's frankly really difficult to believe. What use is it giving significant minutes to a raw 20-year-old who's still yet to adapt any of his offensive skills to the NBA game? Vonleh during his freshman year at Indiana was a jack-of-all-trades big man - a post threat, a crafty roll man and even a deadly shooter from outside. He's none of those things in the pros, and blindly tossing minutes at him has not changed that.

Imagine what this must be like for Meyers Leonard right now. Leonard would be the first to admit that he's slumped a bit this season, but he surely can't deserve to lose his starting job like this. He's also in a contract year, as he failed to agree with the Blazers this summer on an extension, meaning he's headed for restricted free agency in July instead. These next few months will decide his value. He almost certainly deserves better than a 20-minute gig off the bench.

At some point, Stotts has to reconsider what he's doing with his big man rotation. Is he trying to help Vonleh improve? Motivate Leonard to play harder and earn his job back? Whatever he's doing, is it really worth continuing for much longer? Here's hoping the coach figures that out between New Year's and Presidents' Day.

5. Fight for the playoffs. (Yeah, I said it.)

Life comes at you fast, doesn't it?

I did not think I'd be writing this in January 2016. We all knew what the expectations were coming into this season - that the West would be loaded, and that the Blazers would be little more than a young, rebuilding team. Neither of those things is quite as true as we thought.

First of all, reports of the West's loadedness might have been a liiiiiittle bit exaggerated. A few teams haven't turned out as planned so far this season. New Orleans has been absolutely bamboozled with injuries, and even if the Pels get right and start winning in 2016, they might be so far behind that it's too late. Houston has gone through a weird malaise - injuries have set them back a bit, locker room tumult's been an issue, James Harden has slumped here and there, and Ty Lawson's been an absolute mess. Utah should have been one of the best defensive teams of the century, but Rudy Gobert's absence has set them back a ways. On top of all that, there's just a general Warriors/Spurs Effect looming over the entire conference - the presence of two historically great teams in the West (and yes, the Spurs are on pace for 68 wins themselves and are absolutely worthy of the "historically great" label too) has flattened out the won-lost records of everyone else. It's hard to win 50 games in a season when you've got an eight-game chunk of your schedule that just screams "1-7."

Anyway, it's incredibly weird that 14-21 qualifies the Blazers as playoff contenders, but ostensibly it does. They're actually tied with the Jazz right now in the win column (remember, the W column matters more than the L one when you're under .500, because wins are harder to get), meaning they're virtually in a dead heat for the No. 8. You could make the argument that quantitatively, they're one of the eight best teams. According to basketball-reference's Simple Rating System, which measures team quality using offense, defense and strength of schedule, they're better than Memphis and Houston. This isn't so far-fetched. The Blazers are sixth in the NBA in offense and No. 23 in defense, putting them significantly ahead of both the Grizzlies (No. 26, No. 17) and Rockets (No. 9, No. 25).

I believe the Blazers are one of the eight best teams in the West. But will they make the playoffs? That's a tougher question, and it depends on how hard they choose to push for it. Pushing will entail cleaning up some of the issues this team has had with executing well in close games. It will almost certainly require pushing Vonleh aside, even if you're endlessly intrigued with the 20-year-old's upside, and relying more on established, productive players like Leonard. It might also, and this one's a bit controversial, mean playing Lillard even if his foot's hurting and he's only 90 percent ready to play, not 100.

I say go for it. And I say this knowing full well that it'll hurt the Blazers' draft status - the pick that Portland sent to Denver a year ago was a lottery-protected first-rounder in 2016, meaning they'll pick around No. 10 or so if they miss the playoffs this year and get nothing if they make it. That's fine. Go for it anyway. To obsess too much over the Blazers' draft prospects is to misunderstand this team's developmental arc. Obviously a No. 10 pick would help this roster, but it's not a deal-breaker. The Blazers already have enough talent on their current roster to build a winner. They just need to develop the group they already have. The way to develop is to compete hard in every game and continue playing relevant basketball into March and April. This isn't Philadelphia, where the objective is to tear everything down and draft an entirely new franchise nucleus. The Blazers have their nucleus already.

The best-case scenario for the Blazers this season is probably 36 wins, a bottom seed in the West playoffs and a bloodbath of a first-round series against Golden State. To that I say, cool. Bring on the Warriors. Much better than to fight this season and lose than never to fight at all. No one thought the Blazers would be this relevant, this soon in the Western Conference - the No. 1 objective in 2016 is to ride this out.


We're planning on sending 2000 underprivileged kids to see the Blazers play the Sacramento Kings on March 28th and we need your help. You can donate tickets to the cause through this link:


Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)

You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.

PLEASE consider sending a child or two! Donations have been strong but we've had a LOT of requests and we're not to 2000 yet. Help if you can.