Through 44 games the Portland Trail Blazers are 18-26. The statement has now been pretty much true for two consecutive seasons (they were 19-25 through 44 games in 2015-16), but the narratives between them couldn’t be more contrasting.
Last year, after being picked as one of the worst teams in the league by the Las Vegas bookmakers, Portland came out of the blocks slow but went on one of the hottest streaks in recent memory to close this season three wins above .500 at 44-38. Considering where expectations were set, the Blazers blew those out of the water. However, is winning 44 games worthy of celebration, even if little is expected of you?
After making it to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs last year, the narrative shifted drastically. Heading into opening night of the 2016-17 season, Damian Lillard set expectations for team that were even loftier than previously anticipated when he talked to J.A. Adande of ESPN.com.
"This year I want to get to the Western Conference finals and give ourselves a chance to get to the [NBA] Finals," Lillard said. "I think it's possible."
Essentially Lillard is saying the Blazers were more of the team in the second half of the season than they were the opening stanza. Welp. Fast forward to today and Portland is staring again at virtually the exact same record through 46 games and this time they don’t have a real magic bullet like the line up switch they had last year.
This year does however carry the caveat of an early season injury bug. Lillard missed seven games, while Al-Farouq Aminu missed extended time, and Maurice Harkless has had a few nicks forcing him to sit a handful of games. This only exacerbates the point that last year was really lightning in a bottle. Even with very few injuries (save Meyers Leonard) the Blazers still finished only three games above even.
As for the magic bullet, last season Portland toyed with Noah Vonleh in the starting line up for 56 games. When it became obvious the Blazers would be playing for a Top six seed in the playoffs, he was replaced in the starting line up by Maurice Harkless. Boom. Like discovering the perfect alchemical combination the Blazers caught fire and went on a tear buoyed by Lillard’s best stretch of his young career and the emergence of Harkless as a utility player capable to making every play possible when called upon.
This year, Lillard has elevated his game to career highs almost across the board. CJ McCollum is an emerging star, almost nearly as capable of dropping 40 on an opponent as Lillard. Mason Plumlee is leading all centers in assists, Allen Crabbe has discovered the shooting form that got him paid in the offseason, and Evan Turner is rounding into more than a serviceable player off the bench. Yet, here they sit at the exact same place they were last season—several games under .500 with very little to show for it.
The return of Aminu to the lineup from injury saw Portland’s defense tighten up a bit, yet still they struggle mightily on that end. McCollum was absolutely sensational in Lillard’s absence, and save one performance, has continued that trend since his return. So you’ve got Lillard and McCollum playing better than nearly any point of their careers, Harkless continuing his solid production from last season, Crabbe back to his shot making ways, Plumlee providing offensive and defensive value on a nightly basis, Aminu contributing significantly on the defensive end, and Turner rounding his way into a semi-Boston-like stat line of 10 points, five rebounds and five assists. Essentially all of these guys are giving you at or better production than last season, yet they’re severely underperforming.
Certainly many people are asking the question and Dwight Jaynes of CSNNW.com has solicited responses from numerous NBA front office personnel and the responses run the gamut.
And so here you are; feel free to pick and choose what you agree with and what you don't agree with:
"They all got paid. Too many of their players either got new deals for this season or guaranteed extensions that kick in next season. I've seen it before -- when you get that big contract, you can't help but relax a little. You don't think you're doing it, but you are. And you get a whole team full of guys like that you can lose your edge."
"They may have overestimated how good they were in the first place. Last season was a crazy one in the West. The games they won (44) got them a lot better seed in the playoffs than it usually would. And then they got past the Clippers because of those injuries (to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin). That wasn't a second-round team but that's where they ended up. It probably gave their front office, their players, their fans and the media a false impression of how good they really were."
"The way they play may lend itself to unpredictable outcomes. They are 'equal-opportunity shooters.' They encourage anyone who is open to shoot the ball. It works out well sometimes. But on our team, we have people who shoot and others who don't. They are giving a lot of three-point shots to players who have not proved themselves as three-point shooters. That could lead to inconsistencies, especially with the number of threes they take. And honestly, I don't understand that philosophy. Yes, some guys get better as shooters when given an opportunity. Most don't, though."
"Trying to play defense with starting guards who can't keep people in front of them is very difficult. It puts too much pressure on their interior defenders -- and let's face it, (Mason) Plumlee isn't exactly a premier shot blocker. Their defense is horrible."
"Teams have caught on to what they're doing. We just try to take their guards away from them and they have nobody left to score. And then we attack their guards at the other end. By the end of the game, they're worn out."
"Their roster doesn't make a lot of sense. They've spent a lot of money on their backcourt but up front they are starting players who have never before been starters -- and may never again. They do a great job of milking all they can from those guys up front, but I'm not sure there's much more upside there."
That’s a pretty damning compilation. As you might expect with the way Portland’s season has progressed, a lot of the Five Stages of Grief are rearing their head. Initially the shock of getting absolutely hammered by the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, and the Houston Rockets in the early season had players and fans all in a complete state of surprise. This was a team that was touted as a Conference Finals contender! Contenders don’t get dump trucked at home by anyone like that, let alone multiple times in a short span.
As the negative trends continued, denial and frustration settled in as players and personnel both got tired of answering questions about what was wrong. Players weren’t on the same page, everyone was giving effort, no one can put a finger on it, etc. The same platitudes spoken in different sentence fragments night-in and night-out.
Look at the performance of this year’s squad versus last years and it’s easier to spot areas the Blazers are underperforming than it is to find areas where they’re ahead of last year’s team.
One could argue that the bargaining stage is taking place. While it’s not a players-only meeting—hashing out the ups and downs of the season—the film session that took place Tuesday sure has the familiar sound of bargaining. The tried and true, “if we do this, then X will happen,” followed by cliches of coming together and making it work. I don’t mean to make light of it, it’s just that we’ve seen this tale before. Not just in Portland but around the league.
How many times this year has it been proclaimed that the Blazers have turned the corner? The first time was a wire-to-wire whupping of the, ahem, Brooklyn Nets, the same team that has now lost 11 straight. If that’s your turnaround spot, yikes. Then there was the blowout win of the Indiana Pacers, which started off one of a couple three-game win streaks the Blazers have had this season.
Like everything seemingly this season, that winning streak was followed by a stretch of subpar play, resulting in a four-game losing streak. This of course is the same period where Festus Ezeli and CJ McCollum had a difference of opinion.
After this rough stretch, the Blazers had another spike with a phenomenal performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Just like that, they were back again. Except they weren’t. They lost four straight, including the most lopsided game of the season, a 45-point defeat to the Warriors.
Time and time again, Portland has said they had the answer. It even shows up for a quarter, a half, sometimes even an entire game. But it hasn’t carried over for any significant stretch of games. The answers that people want to come from inside are limited.
How much more can you get out of Lillard and McCollum? Sure, you could ask more of them defensively. That’s probably a fair thing to ask, even. Who else? On this roster, who is currently playing so far below their value that you have to expect more out of them? Ed Davis is probably the only one you can answer with a straight face.
Asking Plumlee to morph into DeMarcus Cousins isn’t just unfair, it’s absurd. Expecting Aminu to become Draymond Green devalues what Aminu is at his core. A well-above average utility defender who’s on a team-friendly contract—and in my view he’s severely out performing that deal. Over the last month, Crabbe has been what a lot of people thought he would be: a knock-down shooter who can get in passing lanes defensively, while adding a couple small tweaks to his offensive repertoire.
Who is the player that’s going to be the new ingredient that causes this team to come together? Does it come from within, or do the Blazers have to take a significant look around the room and make some changes before the trade deadline?
Praying that they can catch lightning in a bottle two years in a row is foolish at best. At worst? Well...we’ll leave that for now. This isn’t last year’s team, and the sooner they accept that the sooner they can move on and become what they need to become.
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