Coming off of the 16-game season-opening stretch that experts pointed to as the Portland Trail Blazers’ best chance to go on a sustained run this year, the Blazers stand at a relatively disappointing 9-7. They are about to head out on their first long road trip and a full quarter of this season’s home games already in the books.
Portland has certainly had their share of missed opportunities in the early-going (losses to the Bucks, Clippers, and Jazz come to mind) and the way that they’ve been losing—carelessly, inconsistently, and down the stretch of close games—has been predictable. We’ve seen both fans and experts try to pinpoint what exactly what’s going on with this team, with suggestions ranging from offense, rotations, or simply a lack of talent. One of the major issues with the team is seldom mentioned: Youth.
The Blazers entered the season with the third-youngest roster in the NBA, two months older than the Philadelphia 76ers and a whopping 4 months older than the Phoenix Suns. While the Blazers do have legitimate talent, a true star in Damian Lillard, and a secondary emerging star in CJ McCollum, this team, is suffering from all the drawbacks of tender age.
The Blazers have been maddeningly inconsistent this season, the hallmark of a young team. One day they look like they could take on anyone in the NBA, and then the next they’re losing to the Nets or Kings. It’s frustrating, disappointing, and often derails any sense of momentum.
Inconsistency often rears its ugly head in crunch time, which is why young teams usually have difficulty winning games that come down to the last couple of minutes. The margin for error gets smaller, the spotlight shines brighter, and players that haven’t been there before start missing assignments, standing around on offense, or committing costly turnovers. With the glut of close games this team has played, we’ve seen all three from Portland multiple times this season. While I’m not a fan of Damian Lillard playing hero-ball in the fourth quarter, the Blazers should be thanking their lucky stars that they have him to turn to.
While coach Terry Stotts has taken some heat for his rotations - and I’ve questioned some moves myself - there is only so much he can do when it comes to mental lapses. If you coach a guy up, and he’s still missing assignments or shrinking down the stretch, what do you do? Bench him? Maybe. But while the Blazers are set at center and the guard spots, they have little dependable depth at the forward spots, and the bench tends to run hot-and-cold as whole. It’s a balance between a teaching lessons, development, rewarding dependability, and taking your best shot to win.
Neil Olshey tried this offseason to land both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony and, while those both would be clear upgrades at the forward spot, I’m curious as to what Olshey is looking for while he’s working the phones these days. Players the quality of ‘Melo and George don’t come available easily, but given the start, the Blazers need to consider a move for some sort of veteran presence on this team. The 76ers have 33-year-old J..J. Redick and the Phoenix Suns have 35-year-old Tyson Chandler. Evan Turner (29) and Ed Davis (28) are the old guys on this roster. Nothing against them, but they’re not the kind of crafty veteran that has seen it all, made a couple playoff runs, and has the experience to be a commanding voice in the locker room. Teams have to learn to win, and a carefully selected vet or two can help expedite that process.
Until such a move comes, patience is probably in order for Blazers fans, as unfortunate as that seems. The team will continue to raise hopes with stellar play, then dash them by playing down to poor competition and coughing up the occasional game in the fourth quarter. Rotations and rosters can be tweaked, but you only get older one day, and one game, at a time.