The Portland Trail Blazers tantalize and traumatize in equal measure. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are one of the most dynamic backcourt duos in the league and Jusuf Nurkic is no slouch at center. The Blazers are defending well and have remained relatively healthy. Yet their record floats just above .500 and fans are getting frustrated. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
Help me figure out this team. Who’s the real Portland Blazers, the team that goes 4-1 on that glorious road trip or the team we’re seeing now? I just don’t get it. Is it lack of effort or better opponents or supermoon allergies or something else?
Also, what’s going on with the offense?
Ahhh...the Trail Blazers.
Last road trip I gave you my heart, but the very next day, you gave it away. This year, to save me from tears, I’ll give it to someone special...(special).
No doubt every Blazers fan feels a little bit of what poor George Michael must have felt as he crooned that timeless tune. The team looks so good sometimes, shaking their Lillard and McCollum out there on the dance floor. But every time you try to get serious with them, they flake out and don’t show up.
“Don’t you remember? We shared so much in New York. It was the turn-around!”
“Yeah, baby, that’s cool and all but I can’t handle the world right now. I just want to chill out and watch Bradley Beal score 51 tonight. I’ll catch you some other time.”
Maya Angelou had that famous quote, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” That applies to professional basketball teams too. The Blazers are showing you who they are. They have been for a while, really. Are they the team that goes 4-1 or the road trip or the team that goes 0-3 at home? They’re both. They’re consistently inconsistent.
Part of the confusion comes from perception. Portland is an echo chamber. The Blazers have an out-sized voice inside that room. How many times did you hear “4-1 Road Trip” during the travel days between Portland’s road victory versus the New York Knicks and the home loss to the Milwaukee Bucks? Approximately a billion?
Obviously you know they’re 0-3 on the current home stand because you’re deep in the Blazers conversation, but how many times have you overtly read “0-3 Home Stand” over the last couple days? That doesn’t receive near the coverage. It won’t show up in the broadcast lead-in. It’s not plastered on Twitter. In fact you barely know individual losses happen from the social media vibe. Losses and bad showings are plastered over with unusual stats or highlights.
How much of an impact did you think rookies Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan would make based on their draft hype and Summer League coverage? Odds are the estimate was far higher than what they’re currently providing.
Earlier in the year a popular line ran, “We’re only ‘x’ number of points from having an incredible record!” We’re past the quarter-season mark now and the record reads 13-11. The Blazers are 22 total points (less than a single quarter of scoring spread over 24 games) from being 8-16, vying for last place in the West. The first mantra was uttered copiously; the second is never thought of.
Remember Joe Pesci’s foolproof system for winning in “Casino”? He only showed up at the bookie joint when he won. Outside of the core of die-hard fans, that applies to Blazers coverage. The most positive angle on every development gets shouted to the moon while negative stuff gets buried in hope or distraction. The resulting message is pure Lego Movie: Everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you’re part of a team.
Some things about the Blazers are awesome. Their defense looks better even after small sample size season has passed. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are a once-in-a-generation pairing. Jusuf Nurkic has had some incredible games. Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier have been pleasant surprises. Their rebounding is phenomenal.
Some things about the Blazers are less awesome than they seem. They’ve played 6 of their last 9 games against opponents missing their main star, literally the #1 Guy. Portland’s record in that stretch has been a paltry 5-4. They’re 7-7 at home, 19th in the NBA. Based on strength of schedule, the early streak of home games, and opponent injuries, they should probably be making us guess whether 18 wins qualified them as contenders alongside the Houston Rockets. Instead we’re wondering if they can beat Houston or Golden State (who will be without Stephen Curry...another break) to avoid dropping back to .500.
If they were going to be special—if that 4-1 Road Trip was indicative of anything—we’d be seeing and feeling it right now. Instead everybody seems to be feeling lost. The Blazers are capable of rattling off 4 wins in 5 road games, but it ends up meaning nothing because they give it right back. It’s similar to the stirring season-ending rally that brought the Blazers to the playoffs last year, retroactively scuttled by a poor season start that doomed them to a low playoff seed and a date with the Warriors. The order of events may vary; the story’s the same.
Right now the Blazers you see are the Blazers you get. Sometimes it feels like speaking that truth is like slogging through a flooded basement, waist-high in water and floating scrap. The stairs are ahead, but they’ll never reach them going, “This is fine!” and turning in circles. At this point it’s pretty clear their problems are systemic, matters of roster construction, not just random bad luck for a team that “should be better” judging by their highlight reels and corny statistical constructs. The surprise isn’t that they’ve stumbled during this home stand. They’ve been flashing signs of it all season. The real surprise is that people thought that this Christmas would be different than Last Christmas even though everything else is basically the same.
Tomorrow, Kris, we’ll take a look at your question about Portland’s offense and see how all of this is playing out on the floor: why the hype surrounding Portland’s attack is turning out to be greater than the reality. Then it’ll be onto an interesting weekend with games against Houston and Golden State. Not to worry, though. “Consistently inconsistent” means that losing both of those games would be far too expected. The Blazers will probably win one, maybe even both, to get hopes up again. That’s the joy and pain of being a Portland fan. You never get one without the other.
Hey folks, Christmas is coming. Why not ask for some Blazer’s Edge stockings in YOUR stocking? It’s important, because every pair you purchase sends another kid to Blazer’s Edge Night in February, and we’ve already got more than 1200 kids lined up to go! Purchase your socks or donate tickets here!