Nearly halfway through the 2016-17 NBA season, the Portland Trail Blazers’ off-season script looks even less like a fairy tale and even more like a Steinbeck novel. Little has worked out as intended for Portland. Chris Haynes of ESPN detailed where the trouble began in his Wednesday morning piece entitled Bad summer still a bummer for struggling Trail Blazers, and today we’ll filter through the most important parts. Of course, the full article is worth the read, and you can find it by following this link, but we’ll start here:
The plan was for Ezeli, a 6-foot-11 center, to play around 15-20 minutes in about 55 games, sitting out the second game of back-to-backs and participating in limited practices. That plan quickly evaporated.
The Trail Blazers knew Festus Ezeli was going be a boom-or-bust contract when they signed him, and their expectations reflected a cautious middle ground, as did the low-ball, partially guaranteed deal. After receiving injections of bone marrow aspirate concentrate in his left knee on August 23, Ezeli spent the pre-season recovering, but did manage to work his way into parts of practice by mid-October. On October 18, he experienced a setback that delayed his recovery, and two months later it was subsequently reported that he would consider season-ending surgery.
Signing Ezeli in the first place was a bit of a desperation move. As Haynes outlines, outside of player retention, President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey’s off-season goals were to acquire a ball handler and a rim protector. Evan Turner became the former and a series of big man strikeouts (Hassan Whiteside, Joakim Noah, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol) made Ezeli the latter. Neither the Trail Blazers nor Ezeli were in position to ignore each other a week into free agency. Both were hurting for a fit as the well of centers and their suitors ran dry.
Despite the absence of actual playing time, Ezeli wants to contribute in any way he can. This amounts to talking up the team, which, as you can imagine, is frustratingly undercut by his circumstances.
For some within the franchise, this route has been puzzling and difficult to digest. On the road last month, during one of the team's toughest stretches of the season, the frustration spilled outwardly.
After suffering a challenging, 115-107 loss to Milwaukee, Ezeli, in street clothes, addressed the team in the locker room with a stern speech centered on playing with urgency, sources told ESPN. Then two games later, after a crushing defeat in Memphis, Ezeli once again started giving a team speech, but he was cut short.
McCollum interrupted Ezeli in midsentence and told him that was enough, sources told ESPN. Portland was in the midst of an emotionally draining December, losing 11 of 13 games. Players were desperately pouring out every ounce of effort trying to change the trajectory of the season, and being lectured by someone who wasn't even playing wasn't received favorably.
This is understandable from both sides, and it is unfortunate that, within a locker room, we can actually divide by sides. Ezeli sees a team that is struggling—his team. He wants to make them better, but his body will not let him do that on the court. He is, however, the only player on the team with championship experience. He is also older than most at 27 years old. He should be encouraged to offer what he can; especially when the team is down.
At the same time, the active roster is getting trounced out there, and a general who is not in the trenches is in no position to give pep talks. Milwaukee and Memphis were meltdown losses, as was Indiana on the day of Ezeli’s second speech. Perhaps a little petulance was justified.
The Trail Blazers continued to struggle since the incident in question, going 3-8 after losing to the Pacers. With Ezeli sitting out and Turner playing well below contract value, the team needed to be as good as, or better than, it was last season, and that has been far from the case. Injuries to offensive leader Damian Lillard and defensive leader Al-Farouq Aminu have exacerbated the problems, but not directly caused them. Frankly, this squad is struggling to reconcile their overall middling talent with the borderline-elite identity that was thrust upon them after overachieving in 2015-16.
Haynes notes that player retention was priority number one for team owner Paul Allen, since attracting talent has been historically difficult for the franchise—if not epitomized by Center Search 2016.
Nearly a week into free agency, Portland was still without a shot-blocking center. And then there was the matter of the four-year, $75 million offer sheet Brooklyn handed Crabbe. Sources told ESPN that Blazers owner Paul Allen never thought twice about matching. There was no dialogue, no consultation. Crabbe was being retained.
Additionally, Leonard re-signed for four years and $41 million; Harkless re-signed for four years and $40 million; and McCollum was locked up with a four-year, $106 million extension. Allen was adamant that he wasn't going to allow talent to get away, even if it meant going into the season with virtually the same roster and the third-highest payroll in the NBA.
So here the team sits, without an active rim protector, without cap space, without a winning record, but with the same set of pieces they had last season and opponents that are now fully prepared to face them. Olshey believing that the Trail Blazers’ first 36 games of this season are the exception, not the rule, there are two major items to consider when looking at where the team goes from here:
1) Terry Stotts will remain the head coach, as it is believed that his position is safe.
Coach Terry Stotts' job is not in jeopardy, league sources told ESPN. Damian Lillard, the unquestioned leader of the team, has stressed player accountability. The organization isn't panicking, believing that, when healthy, the Blazers will work their way back into the playoff picture.
2) Despite the strong perception that the Trail Blazers will be buyers at the trade deadline, and their glaring need for a big man, the two players around which rumors have swirled are reportedly “not on Portland’s radar.”
A trade for Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins or disgruntled Philadelphia 76ers big man Nerlens Noel could help the team, but sources say they are not on Portland's radar.
Keeping Stotts is likely for the best, but any potential unwillingness to trade smacks of a troubling “I’ve made my bed” mentality. This team is not what it was supposed to be. In order to even meet last season’s record (44-38), the Trail Blazers need to finish 29-17 (.630). With expectations that this roster would improve upon last season’s campaign, both in the regular season and the playoffs, acknowledging that just holding level is a lofty goal at this point should be eye-opening. Portland is in danger of missing the playoffs entirely.
The on-court product has been a disappointment, surely, but it is born from something Trail Blazers fans have known, or at least suspected, since July; the off-season was a disaster. Weaknesses went unimproved and no penny went unspent. There is a difference between not panicking and not making changes that the front office would be wise to parse now that the time for results is in ‘better late than never’ territory. A franchise can only be sustained by upside for so long.
The Trail Blazers march onto the court in Oakland tonight without Lillard (ankle), without Ezeli (knee), and ostensibly without a significant chance of victory. That is not unexpected, as most teams fall to the powerhouse Warriors; the trouble is that the Trail Blazers’ outlook remains rather bleak against other elite teams, based on what we’ve seen thus far—even upon Lillard’s return. Examining where Portland is and where they started, it is fair to ask if the damage has been done. The Trail Blazers’ best laid plans went beyond awry; they went haywire.
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