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Are the Trail Blazers Turning the Corner?

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After an unexpected 7-7 start to their season, the Portland Trail Blazers blew out the Nets on Sunday. Is that a sign that they’ve reversed course after dropping three straight, or just a blip on the radar?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

We’re nearly 20 percent of the way through Portland’s 2016-17 season and - unless you’ve been living under a rock - you know the Trail Blazers have struggled with bouts of inconsistency lately. They were blown out in three consecutive games before putting away the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday afternoon, one of the first real signs of positivity in Rip City in several days.

While the team currently sits a game over .500 at 8-7, Portland has been underwhelming on defense, weak when it comes to rebounding on both sides of the court, and has seemed to lack the intensity that made up so much of last season’s success.

....And don’t get me started on the bench.

Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Maurice Harkless, and, yes, Jake Layman, have been the bright spots of varying intensity in an early season that has seen the Blazers appear to be gliding through games at times – and chalking up losses as a result. Before the team’s offensive outburst against Brooklyn, the Blazers had trailed by 20 points in their last three games, and by at least 17 in their last five. That’s not good. While it wasn’t time to freak out yet, it was time to think about getting ready to hit the panic button.

Of course, many people will rightfully point out that last year’s team started the season 11-20 before righting the ship. And that’s true, it was a remarkable turnaround; the kind of remarkable turnaround that isn’t as likely to be repeated this season. The difference is that last year, the roster was overhauled and constructed with young players thrown together with little to no on-court experience together, and it took them a little time to figure out how to acclimate to one another.

The team shouldn’t get as much leeway this season, unfortunately, having only essentially swapped out Gerald Henderson for Evan Turner. These guys know each other. Portland is No. 26 and No. 28 in the NBA in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, respectively, after finishing No. 13 on the defensive glass and ranking third in offensive rebounding last season.

Last season, the Blazers weren’t a stellar defensive team, but were good enough considering their offense, coming in at No. 20 in the NBA with a Defensive Rating of 108. This season? They’re last in the league at 108.5, according to NBA.com stats (Basketball-Reference has them listed at No. 30 with a DRtg of 111.5, so take your pick).

There’s no denying that losing Al-Farouq Aminu for an extended period of time definitely hurt the Blazers on defense, but Portland has gone 4-4 without Aminu – counting the game he was injured and only played four minutes – and 4-3 with him. That’s not too much of a difference, especially considering how ineffective Aminu had been on the offensive side of the ball. Don’t get me wrong, he’s an important part of the Blazers’ defensive strategy, but him being off the court isn’t why Portland dropped four out of six by an average of 21 points.

The good news is that there were a lot of encouraging things to take away from Portland’s win over the Nets. First, and most importantly, they won. Whether by a margin of 30 or by a single point at the buzzer, the Blazers needed a win in a bad way and they got it.

Sunday’s victory was the also the first time all season that Turner, Meyers Leonard, and Allen Crabbe were all cooking in the same game, putting up 47 points between them. For a team that was talked about as being too deep over the summer, the Blazers needed a night for the bench to gin back some confidence. Turner in particular looked like a completely different player than he did in the previous month – confident, quick, and highly effective.

Basically, the Trail Blazers looked like they were playing to win, instead of playing not to lose. Of course, shooting nearly 58 percent from the floor can skew the perception, but they were more active on the glass, loose balls, and generally had more bounce to their step than we’ve witnessed in some time, which is hopefully a harbinger of things to come.

This is the kind of effort that Portland needs to give every night, or else fans may need to reevaluate their expectations for the team as currently constructed (not that anyone was claiming in September that Portland would win it all this season. However, no one was really talking about this team potentially finishing in the 2017 NBA Lottery, either).

That’s probably not going to happen, but the Blazers need to continue to build on the positives from their win over Brooklyn and start competing more or it’s a very real, though unlikely, possibility this season.

In reality, this team is probably a No. 6-8 seed as it currently stands. This may seem disappointing to many who were hoping for the Blazers to take the next step after making the second round of the playoffs last season, but it’s important to remember that 44 wins usually wouldn’t even get you to the playoffs in the Western Conference over the last dozen or so years. Blazer fans would be wise to remember that this is only year No. 2 of a rebuild, but success demands success, and the Blazers need to figure out who they are if they’re to have a chance to improve upon last season.

Portland has a killer 1-2 punch in Lillard and McCollum, an emerging third scorer in Harkless, and a whole lot of question marks afterward. They still have work to do on the defensive end, but that may not be possible to drastically improve with the current roster, or at least until Festus Ezeli is able to play (if at all).

If the bench output against the Nets isn’t just an anomaly, but the start of real production out of the reserves - and if the Blazers’ keep up the solid rebounding they’ve displayed their last two games - then they may, in fact, already be on their way to turning the corner.


Blazer’s Edge Night 2017

Want to assist us in sending 2,000+ underprivileged Portland-area kids to a Trail Blazers game this spring? Check out Blazer’s Edge Night 2017 for information on how to get involved, and help spread the word!

...And don’t forget to catch Peter and Evans Clinchy on Blazer’s Edge Radio live this afternoon at 12:00 - 1:00 PST on 107.1 XRAY FM in Portland, or streaming online at XRAY.FM.