How do you feel about the first 18 games of the Trail Blazers' season?
Your answer, whether it's a positive one or not so much, is no doubt dependent upon your preseason expectations and how the present-day reality compares. If you're an optimist who saw the Blazers making another leap this season from 44 wins to 50-plus and a high playoff seed, you're probably feeling pretty glum about how things have turned out so far. If you were more bearish going into the season and you braced for a little regression, you might not be taking it so hard. This is more or less what you expected.
The point is, either way, a record is never just a record in a vacuum. It's all about how you frame it. The Blazers right now are 9-9; that's a middling record, by definition. Whether you're happy with that depends on whether you're OK with Portland this season being middling.
It's a funny question because a year ago, Blazers fans would have killed for middling. Last year's team started off incredibly rocky: 1-2 in the opening week, which then snowballed into 4-9, and then 11-20, and then 15-24. After starting the season 1-0, the 2015-16 Blazers didn't find themselves back over .500 again until after the All-Star break. Last year's team had its fair share of minor issues - a brief injury to Meyers Leonard, some struggles from Noah Vonleh, a tough time finding consistent effort and defensive cohesion - and in a competitive West, those minor issues were enough to keep them out of the playoff picture for the majority of the season. For the most part, though, no one was unhappy with the on-court results. The Blazers were young; they were developing. It was a process. Everyone expected them to take a few lumps.
Really, the only difference this year are expectations. The team is still largely the same. There's still a rotation player with a minor injury (this time it's Al-Farouq Aminu), they're still getting subpar power forward play (from both Vonleh and Leonard), and they're still having occasional lapses with effort level and team defensive play (OK, maybe with the defense it's a bit more than occasional). Despite all the hype that's followed the Blazers since their hot streak that began last February, this is still the same team on a macro level that it was a year ago, with all the same imperfections. So it shouldn't be that surprising, I'd argue, that the results are what they are. In fact, they're a bit better - last year's team through 18 games was 7-11.
And yet last year's team probably didn't have its captain telling reporters after a random mid-November loss that "We kind of suck right now."
Again, though: Sucking doesn't just mean sucking. Sucking is relative. If the Warriors are 9-9, they suck; if the 76ers are, they're over the moon. When the Blazers are 9-9, it's really open to debate how much they really suck. I'd argue not much.
Last year, every single game the Blazers won was a rousing success story, an inspiring tale of an underdog triumphing over adversity. This year, wins are expected, and the process of piling them up feels workmanlike and joyless. That's what success does to you. Everyone was thrilled to see the Blazers nab that No. 5 playoff seed and win a round last spring, but they're dealing with the emotional consequences now.
Me personally? I'm trying to keep my head up. I understand all the logical reasons why people are labeling the Blazers as kinda sucky. It's not just the 9-9 record. It's also their point differential; by allowing 3.7 points per 100 possessions more than they've scored this season, the Blazers are playing like the 12th-best team in the West this season, ranking ahead of only Phoenix, Sacramento and Dallas. They're also dead last in the NBA in defense. These problems are very real, and they can't be denied. They also don't necessarily have to be cause for panic.
If you don't believe me, read on. I've got nine reasons you might want to stay cautiously optimistic.
1. The schedule so far has been really tough.
If you start from the premise that the Clippers, Warriors and Cavaliers are the NBA's three truly elite teams, which I think is fair, it helps with putting the Blazers' rough start into perspective. They've already had four games against that small cadre, and understandably they've struggled. They're 0-4 against those teams and 8-5 against everyone else. Mind you, the "everyone else" group also includes some solid playoff teams like Utah, Memphis, Chicago and Houston. All things considered, 8-5 against that slate isn't bad. According to basketball-reference's strength of schedule index, Portland has had the fifth toughest start in the NBA - only Toronto, San Antonio, Denver and Dallas rank higher.
It's not just who the Blazers are playing, though. It's how they're playing them. They've had to play 10 of those first 18 games on the road, where they're 4-6. They've had 14 of the 18 against the superior Western Conference, and they're actually a respectable 8-6. They’ve had four back-to-backs already this season, and they're 0-4 on that second night.
The schedule won't always be this cruel. Things will normalize before long, and the Blazers will almost certainly reap the benefits.
2. The Blazers haven't been able to use their best lineup.
This has been a thing ever since the Blazers got hot back in March, and it remains a thing today: The team's go-to starting lineup, with Aminu sliding down to power forward and Moe Harkless taking over at the three-spot, is one of the very best five-man groups in the NBA. Last season, the unit of Damian Lillard/CJ McCollum/Harkless/Aminu/Mason Plumlee outscored opponents by a ridiculous 14.4 points per 100 possessions and this year, they've somehow managed to be even better, upping that net rating to 15.3. In the whole NBA, only the Clippers and Rockets have better starting fives. Not even Golden State or Cleveland can compete.
But unfortunately, with the calf injury to Aminu that's kept him out for more than two weeks now, the Blazers have hardly gotten to use their best lineup. So far, they've played only 108 minutes together the entire season; Doc Rivers in L.A. has gotten to use his starters for 329 minutes, and that's despite the fact that the bricktastic DeAndre Jordan is nigh unplayable in crunch time. It's hard to stay competitive when you don't have access to your best combinations of talent. Aminu will return eventually, though, and this problem will go away.
3. It's been a struggle to find continuity so far.
It's easy to say that growing pains were expected last year because you were integrating so many new pieces. When you've got Plumlee, Aminu, Harkless, Vonleh, Gerald Henderson and everyone else still finding their way, a few hiccups are to be expected. A harsh Blazers critic might even say this year's team doesn't have that excuse anymore.
I'm not so sure. The Blazers largely brought back the same team from last year, but it's worth noting that newcomer Evan Turner is an especially tricky player to integrate, since he thrives with the ball in his hands and it's hard to figure out when, where or for how long he should have it. Beyond that, though, it's just been really, really tough for the Blazers to figure out who they are this season! In 18 games so far, coach Terry Stotts has already tossed out five different starting lineups. Aminu was the starting power forward when healthy. When he went down, Stotts tried subbing him out for Vonleh, then Leonard, then Allen Crabbe, then Ed Davis.
In typical early-season Stotts fashion, he's had loads of trouble deciding on a rotation he can stick to. His tinkering with the starting five has a ripple effect on the second unit, too - and that's a significant problem when you consider that Turner is trying to get a feel for who his teammates are and how he can gel with them. It might be a while before things finally settle into place for this team. If and when they do, the game will be a little easier.
4. The defense has been without key personnel.
There's really no way around this. You can gripe all you want about the Blazers being the worst team in the league defensively, but what did you expect? They were already a bad defensive team last year, and they're now without their best defensive player in Aminu. According to NBA.com on court/off court data, the Blazers allow 103.1 points per possession when Aminu is on the floor this season and 111.9 when he's not. That's a massive gap. It's not only a testament to Aminu, who's very good, but also a reflection of the steep dropoff to the Blazers' backup plans. Leonard and Davis are too slow to guard stretchy power forwards, and putting in Turner or Crabbe and sliding Harkless up a spot makes you too small. The Blazers don't have a good Aminu backup (though I'd argue Vonleh might be the closest thing).
"Next man up" is a silly cliché. Sometimes your next man just isn't very good.
The other thing is that this team could really use Festus Ezeli! When fans talk about the Blazers' needs on the trade market, they often talk about a solid defensive big man - someone who's good around the rim, plays well in space, has a nose for rebounds and so on. It's funny to hear buzz about trading for a guy like that when really, all the Blazers need is to get the guy they already have, healthy. Why give up significant assets for a Nerlens Noel-type when you basically already have one?
5. Evan Turner won't be this bad forever. Really.
So - ESPN just released its real plus-minus leaders for the 2016-17 season. Chris Paul, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard are currently the NBA's top three players, out of 416 guys total. Way down at No. 416 - yes, dead last - is Turner. He's last by a mile, actually. At No. 415 is someone named Semaj Christon, who I'll be honest and admit I didn't know existed until this morning when I started writing this. Apparently he's Russell Westbrook's backup in OKC. And his name is "James" backwards, so that's cool.
I don't think this will continue. In fact, I'm going to be super daring and predict that Turner finishes the season as one of the 200 best players in the NBA. I know that's ambitious, but I think it'll happen. He just needs to get a little bit more comfortable with his teammates on the Blazers' second unit, getting them the ball in the right spots at the right times and calling his own number when appropriate. He's also got to start hitting shots - right now he's at 40.4 percent from the field, a career low, and he's taking more threes than ever despite only hitting them at a 23.8 percent clip. I'm not saying Turner is going to start looking like a deserving $70 million man overnight, but "respectable rotation guy" is a more reasonable goal. I say he gets there.
6. Meyers Leonard will start hitting jump shots.
I have had my issues with Meyers Leonard this season, and I've made no secret of this. For the most part, though, those issues are on the defensive end of the floor, where he struggles to find matchups he's comfortable in. Offensively? I'm not so worried. Meyers has been bad - very bad - but I'm confident that's not who he is. He'll snap out of it.
For the season, Leonard is shooting 31.9 percent from 3-point land. He's had some truly nightmarish games, including 1-for-7 against the Knicks the other day and a 1-for-6, 0-for-5 pair of games against Denver and Chicago last week. It appears that he's struggling to find a rhythm this season, which is understandable given how much he's been yanked in and out of the rotation and seen his offensive role fluctuate.
But if things level off, Leonard will be a useful offensive player. If the shot starts to fall, and he mixes that in with an improving pick-and-roll game, the Blazers just might have a legitimate offensive threat at the center spot. Really, no joke - this could happen. You gotta believe.
7. The rest of the bench will improve with time.
This was an underrated development amid the starry exploits of Dame and CJ, but the Blazers had one of the best benches in the league last season. Crabbe, Davis, Henderson and (for most of the season) Harkless gave the Blazers a good sense of stability in spots six through nine on the depth chart. Stotts could rest his starters and still be confident he had NBA-level talent on the floor.
This year, things have been a little shaky. It's hard to be 9-9 despite having one of the best starting lineups in the game; part of that is the Aminu injury, but the other part is the dropoff to the second unit has been steeper than expected. The hope is that this won't last, though. The optimist's outlook is that Vonleh will keep improving, Davis will stop shooting a ghastly percentage from the field (right now he's at 44.9 percent, which is a career low and it's not even close) and Crabbe will settle nicely into his role as the team's high-scoring sixth man. Hell, maybe even Jake Layman continues to have a breakout year. I don't think any of these things are unrealistic (well, except maybe the Layman one). If they happen, the Blazers will improve.
8. We could all stand to tune out the small sample theater.
The bottom line is that the NBA season is long. Eighty-two games is a lot of games, and there are bound to be good stretches and bad ones along the way. It's sort of silly that these players are obligated to talk after every single game. Not every game means something in the long run, but each time the Blazers win or lose, reporters thrust their recorders in Damian Lillard's face and urge him to overreact. Every win is a maestro performance. Every loss, they totally suck.
I don't blame anyone for this. Everyone involved - the players, the media, us as fans - is doing their job. It's just the way the system works. Part of that system involves us massively overreacting to every little November development. It's an emotional response, not a rational one, because I think in our brain of brains we all realize these games are just little blips. The hysterics are a little over the top sometimes, and I think as the season goes on everyone eventually starts to understand that.
9. This team is too prideful not to step it up.
When ESPN's Zach Lowe lit into the Blazers in a feature last Wednesday, writing that they "should be above this nonsense," we all took notice. Rightfully so. That's an incendiary quote that's sure to get a rise out of a passionate fanbase - one that, for the most part, really likes its current team. But to me, the more interesting little snippet from Lowe was the sentence that came immediately thereafter - he wrote that the Blazers' performance so far "carries the whiff of a team that thought it might be good enough to coast in some games."
Is this really true? I find it hard to believe. After all, the Blazers were a playoff team last year, but it took them almost the entire season to realize that potential, and it was pretty miraculous that they landed the No. 5 seed and a first-round victory. In reality, they were a .500ish team that scored only just barely more points than they allowed last season (0.8 per 100 possessions, to be exact). The Blazers are smart. You have to think they understand this. You have to think they know that in the long run, winning 44 games is not their final destination, and it will take hard work to keep climbing the ranks. Coasting just isn't their M.O.
But if they have been coasting? You have to believe they'll snap out of it. Lillard is proving to be one of the best on-court leadership figures in the NBA, and Stotts is a tough coach who demands accountability from his players. These two men are not going to let the Blazers wallow in mediocrity for much longer. If they're capable of playing better, they'll do it. I think they are and they will. The last thing I'm going to do is panic on Thanksgiving.
Let's wait until Christmas at the very least.
Blazer’s Edge Night 2017
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