Exactly one year ago today, the Trail Blazers defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 105-76 to kick off a thrilling stretch of basketball that saw them finish the season 33-18 after only winning 11 of their first 31 games. This year, Portland has started comparably slow—winning 13 of their first 32. Are there parallels between the two seasons?
Blazer fans are aware that this is virtually the same roster as last season; essentially swapping out Gerald Henderson for Evan Turner and Chris Kaman’s DNPs for Festus Ezeli’s. They started slow last season and are simply doing so again, some might say.
That may not be the case, however. Last season, Portland had so many new faces on its roster—including six rotation players, by my count—that these guys needed time to gel in the most fundamental of ways. Players needed to learn tendencies, strengths, where guys like to catch the ball, etc. This season, that excuse simply doesn’t hold water.
So what is it?
It could be that this team isn’t good at playing up to expectations. I think most players agree that it’s easier to get fired up and play with a chip on your shoulder when pundits are openly calling for you to be terrible. How many times did you see #they last year? We haven’t seen it this year because Portland was now expected to be a middling playoff team showing minor internal improvement. Fans and analysts questioned the Evan Turner contract, but if you take the money out of the equation, he’s been a fine replacement for Gerald Henderson.
This team was expected to be able to manage the meager expectations of having won a playoff series and having a young core return with little shakeup. Clearly, things haven’t worked out the way. It’s possible that this group of guys—many of whom being castoffs from others teams—don’t know how to not be the underdog.
Another potential difference is that last season, Allen Crabbe, CJ McCollum, Moe Harkless, and Meyers Leonard were playing for contracts. This is a delicate point, so I want to be clear—I don’t think anyone on this team is coasting. However, on a very base level, playing for what could be the only big payday in your career is a big-time motivator and, inversely, obtaining that security can cause a bit of easing off the gas, so to speak. Again, this isn’t going to be a conscious thing among players, but we see it happen time and time again with players in contract years.
Yet another change is the lack of a veteran who is going to “call it like he sees it.” Chris Kaman was obviously that guy last year; we even saw him make comments in the media about how some guys don’t work as hard as they should. Vets have learned how the league works and know what it takes to be successful, and that’s why you see great teams made up of veterans in key supporting roles.
This year, the most tenured players are Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Evan Turner. There’s definitely some experience there, but no one who’s been around long enough to be practically considered an assistant coach—which Kaman was more or less regarded as while he simultaneously worked with the younger players and picked up multiple DNPs.
Ultimately, there is time for the Blazers to turn it around, but it’s looking more with each passing game that this may be a lost season. As Evans Clinchy pointed out last week, the Blazers are basically in a tier all by themselves as the eighth best team in the conference. They could still end up being leapfrogged by Sacramento or Denver, or they could reasonably finish as high as seventh if Memphis or Oklahoma City fall off somehow. As things stand, the most likely ending to this season is a first-round matchup with The Golden State Warriors, and I don’t think many would be predicting this team to become a giant-killer in that scenario.
All of this is assuming that the right deal doesn’t fall into place before the trade deadline, of course. Portland does have assets and, though some of them are difficult to move at the moment for varying reasons, the fluidity of available pieces on the NBA trade market could change Portland’s fortunes for the better. No matter how you slice it, saying “there might be a trade out there” is a tough thing for Blazer fans to hang their hopes on.
Since it looks like the hope of any real progression from last season is a lost cause at this point, I’m approaching the rest of this season looking for any progress in smaller iterations; a few solid defensive possessions strung together, flashes of confident play and decision-making from Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh, and the development of Harkless. Otherwise, barring a major turnaround or shakeup, this season will likely go down with 1977-78, 1988-89, and 2011-12 as one of the more disappointing seasons in Blazer history.
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!