This edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag tackles the question that every Portland Trail Blazers fan has been asking in the last week or so.
I’ve heard a dozen theories about what’s wrong with our Blazers but I want to hear yours. Why are they playing so poorly all of a sudden? I think it might be the new guys but you are unusually level headed and probably have a different view.
The Mikes return! Last season we couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a Mailbag question from a Mike or Michael. We’ve missed you guys!
In November, 2016 centrifugal force would carry that same swinging cat into several theories on what ails the Blazers. There’s the vocal “It’s All Evan Turner” brigade, the “They’re Getting Paid Too Much” troop, and I’m sure we’re not too far away from, “It’s All the Coach’s Fault!” (Not looking forward to that one, personally.)
Identifying the symptoms of Portland’s malaise is easy: lack of defensive coordination, lethargic rebounding, playing way too close with teams that aren’t that good. Pinning down a cause is all but impossible. Tidy answers inevitably fall short. To the theories you’ve already heard I’d add the following possibilities, all of which I find compelling.
It May Just Be a Slow Start
Bad starts happen to decent teams. How often have we seen a .500 or below record in December turn into a mid-level playoff seed run in April? As soon as the Blazers rattle off five straight wins, nobody will remember the 7-7 start to the year.
A record resurgence won’t happen randomly. If the Blazers keep playing like they have in the past week, forget it. But teams do play better in some months than others. Once confidence catches, it can be just as contagious as the deer-in-the-headlights attitude we’re seeing this month.
The Blazers Weren’t As Good as Their Current Expectations in the First Place
Continuity was one of Portland’s big buzzwords entering the season. The Blazers returned more players from last year, accounting for more minutes played, than anyone in the league. That’s fantastic if last year’s team won a title. They didn’t even come close.
In Portland’s case continuity means as much, “We didn’t get the transformational starting center we needed in free agency” as, “We’re enamored with our team.” McDonald’s has more continuity than anybody in the restaurant business. You can get the same pretty-good hamburger from thousands of outlets across the globe. Uniformity alone does not make burgers or basketball teams great.
Pre-season whispers about Conference Finals aspirations came as much from Portland’s foray into the 2016 NBA Playoffs as from a frank appraisal of the strengths, weaknesses, and talent level of the team. The Blazers made it to the second round last year; naturally the third round should follow this year, right?
Except as Dan Marang and I opined during the June and July Blazer’s Edge Podcasts—to a chorus of boos and cries of negativity—the Blazers hit the second round as much due to injuries to Los Angeles Clippers stars as to their own play. The Blazers made inroads but they were getting exploited and the veteran Clippers quietly had that series in hand. L.A. just couldn’t overcome the loss of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin simultaneously. In like manner Portland fans took comfort from beating the Golden State Warriors once in Round Two and playing them close in the last couple games. In reality they weren’t in that series, losing 1-4 even though M.V.P. Steph Curry sat out the first three contests. This was not a typical, let alone glorious, playoff run.
During the playoffs we saw teams exploit Portland’s heavy reliance on their starting guards for scoring, lack of defense from same, and the one- to two-dimensional nature of everybody else suiting up alongside them. So far neither Evan Turner nor Festus Ezeli has shown enough to change the assessment, or the weaknesses, of the roster. Except now it’s not just playoff opponents taking advantage but anyone who had a television on when Portland faced those opponents last spring. Hooray for continuity!
The Blazers did legitimately earn a 44-38 regular season record last year, a .537 winning percentage. Portland stands at 8-7 this year, a .533 winning percentage. They could get better; they could get worse. All we know right now is that they’re the same. And “the same” isn’t nearly as good as people want them to be.
The Blazers Might Not Be Prepared to Deal with Success
Last year’s 44-win performance wasn’t astonishing in itself, but because few people picked the Blazers to win much more than 30. This team thrives when people underestimate them. #They became the motto of the season.
That approach is effective, but it also has limits. Once you’ve cleared the relatively low bar, what then? Can you set it higher and clear it once more, this time with everyone expecting you to, or does your motivation disappear in a mushy puddle of self-satisfaction?
As we’ve often mentioned here, reaching the 41-50 win plateau is relatively easy compared to taking the step beyond. Hitting 55, getting to the Conference Finals...these take a whole new set of skills, talents, and dedication. Winning in the mid-40’s means not having horrendously bad streaks. Winning in the mid-50’s means fine-tuning your defensive scheme until it’s clockwork regular and summoning hidden reservoirs of energy in February—a hundred tiny acts that turn a few former losses into wins—without letting down a single thing you did before.
The need for such adjustments isn’t evident when you’re on your way up. It comes with veteran status. Nobody on Portland’s roster has more than six years of NBA experience and nobody has played a major role on a majorly successful NBA team. They’re learning as they go. Mastery of last year’s set of challenges does not grant mastery of this year’s as well.
Portland’s early-season play bears the hallmarks of a team flush with success who doesn’t quite understand or remember where that success came from, let alone how to build on it. They look like they expect wins to happen just because they’re the Blazers, and didn’t you hear what they did last year? They appear to have lost a step between receiving coaching and translating it onto the floor. They seem stunned that their teammates are not covering for them anymore without being aware that they’re not covering for their teammates either. Last year everybody seemed to be busting their butts because they felt disrespected and wanted to prove themselves. This year they look like they think they have proven themselves already.
Here’s the harsh reality of life in the big leagues. The Blazers played really well last season all things considered. They also had a free pass because of the low expectations. Other teams overlooked them. They would have earned a standing ovation just making the playoffs even had they not won a single game there. Anything they did that wasn’t terrible would have been fine.
With their unexpected success and claims that they’re better than everyone thinks, the protective bubble around their achievements disappears. Explaining their journey in the kindest possible terms no longer suffices. Talking no longer matters; they are what they do. In retrospect, a dozen other teams posted 44+ wins last year. Remove the “all things considered” qualifier and the Blazers weren’t good, but mediocre.
Both qualifier and protective bubble serve a purpose—indicating progress and fostering hope—as long as everyone involved understands the difference between life inside the bubble and out. When the guys on the court start confusing “all things considered good” and actually good, mediocrity becomes the goal. At that point opponents are going to start handing them their lunch.
When everybody said the Blazers were bad and they struggled to prove otherwise, at least they hustled. That’ll win you some games. But when you aspire to mediocrity and call it goodness, the hustling stops and mediocre is all you’re left with. At that point you get beaten by teams that are good plus every team that is working harder than you.
Even if the Blazers could manufacture another #They to motivate themselves (and odds are they’ll try) it wouldn’t get them where they need to go. They can’t judge themselves by last year’s standards or any subjective measure. If the Blazers want to be great empirically they have to start playing great no matter what anyone says, making the commitment and sacrifices necessary to achieve that goal. They need to stop claiming they’re better than everyone thinks and start playing harder, faster, and more efficiently than the opponent they’re facing each night. They may not have the personnel to make it as far as they’d like, but they can certainly give a better accounting than they’ve done so far this season. Success will come when they stop worrying about #They and start taking more responsibility for #Us. Until then, .500 ball seems about right.
Be sure to send your Mailbag questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Dave email@example.com / @DaveDeckard / @Blazersededge
Blazer’s Edge Night 2017
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