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Riding the Trail Blazers Roller Coaster

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We explain how a team can play their worst game of the season then the best in consecutive nights, irrespective of opponent strength.

Super Bowl Hero James White in 'Going to Disney World' Parade at Walt Disney World Resort Photo by Matt Stroshane/Disneyland Resort via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers just went through a crazy back-to-back sequence, losing horribly to the New Orleans Pelicans then winning gracefully against the San Antonio Spurs. Today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question asks us to explain the whiplash.

Hey Dave,

First off, I know this is the 64K dollar question, but after ruminating on the horrific lack of effort I witnessed in that game last night (POR vs. NO), I'm curious about your thoughts..what is causing this alarming inconsistency? I've been following the 'Zers now for over a decade, pretty much since I moved to Portland in 05'..and I can't recall another Blazer team looking this disinterested and flimsy (well, maybe the Jamal Crawford/Ray Felton era). It's really disheartening, especially since this last game was so vital to their playoff chances. What gives?

Thanks for letting me vent :)

Zac

And then the next night they up and beat Spurs and all of a sudden everything’s better. But do you trust it? Me neither.

The answer to both extreme results lies in the same basic place: the Blazers don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t mean in a basketball sense. They run nice plays and they’re well-coached. But there’s something to this process that they’re just not picking up yet.

We should admit that the simplest explanations are usually the best. The team isn’t talented enough to win 60 games, 50 games, or this year even 40. Those lofty win totals require consistency. There are too many holes in the roster to generate it.

This isn’t just a two-game phenomenon. The writing was on the wall in the first couple months of the season. It’s only been bolded and underlined since. The Blazers have a single four-game winning streak to their credit this year, plus a trio of three-gamers. That’s it. In the remaining 54 games they’ve accumulated 17 total victories. Their long streaks have been negative, punctuated by isolated spots of hope. Losing horribly to the Pelicans then bouncing back gloriously against the Spurs wasn’t unpredictable. If it’s not par for the course it’s a birdie at best...Portland’s pattern turned up to 11.

This pattern exists, in part, because they haven’t been through enough as a team yet. Nor do they have enough veterans with meaningful experience to guide them on the court and in the locker room both.

The league changes based on your level of accomplishment. Bad and mediocre NBA teams go through a different 82-game routine than great teams do. To approach an NBA Championship level you have to withstand everything the league can dish out. Opponents gun for you every night during the regular season. They gauge their progress on how well they match up with you. When you get to the playoffs that intensifies. Portland has experienced the so-so level. They’ve not been anywhere near greatness.

I’ve often cited Portland’s 2008-09 matchup against the Houston Rockets as an example of this phenomenon. That was the year of ascendance for the Brandon Roy-LaMarcus Aldridge-Greg Oden lineup. The team won 54 sporting the best offensive rating in the league and the 13th-best defense. It was good enough to earn them home court in the first round against Houston, who carried nothing into the series but a track record of playoff futility.

The Blazers stepped into Game 1 wearing their accolades on their brow and the Rockets promptly cleaned their clocks, 108-81...in the Rose Garden no less. Houston would go on to win the series 4-2. Yao Ming was a huge factor but the other guy who hammered the Blazers to death was Metta World Peace (née Ron Artest). He didn’t just play hard, he played nasty. Portland’s young roster had never seen anything like it. They came to work with briefcases; he brought a machete. By the time they figured it out they were in a hole. Every time they threatened to crawl over the lip he stomped them back down again. He knew what this was about, what it took to win not just occasionally, but intentionally.

The current Blazers aren’t at the level of that 08-09 squad, but even if they evolved to that point they’re still in their infancy mentally. There’s not a World Peace among them, either in temperament or in deep playoff experience. They are self-taught. The generation before them—the 2006-07 draft vintage—was also largely self-taught. That kind of learning has limits. Figuring out how to play is easy; figuring out how to win is hard.

Portland’s isolated, insulated, and criticism-averse culture also has something to do with it. For years the franchise has been spinning mediocrity as pure gold. I don’t disagree with their assessment entirely. The Blazers exceeded expectations by a wide and impressive margin last year. The way I put it is, “They’ve done well, for the Blazers, considering all the circumstances.” But the league does not award a Blazers-Only trophy. Opponents don’t check your circumstances at the door and moderate their play accordingly.

All of the trumpeting and glory last year amounted to a highly-improbable second-round appearance versus a team that handled Portland easily despite playing without their MVP-level star for half the series. This year the standards are even lower. People are going to say that the Blazers have achieved their goal and fought incredibly hard if they manage to earn an 8th spot that’s been wide open all season, then bow out to a near-inevitable gentlemen’s sweep. The Blazers themselves will say that! Meanwhile we can easily name 6-8 teams for whom that same result would be considered an unabashed disaster.

This is not to cast shade on the team and their quest for the playoffs. I’ve said myself that they should fight tooth and nail to make it. I’ll be happy if they do. But so will they, and that’s the point. They’re going to talk as if they achieved something. In qualified terms maybe they have. In actual, league-wide terms not so much...or at least not as much as it’ll sound like from their reactions. That self-congratulation is going to be followed by more talk about transforming the team through three second-half-of-the-draft picks, as if each one were gilded and found inside an over-sized chocolate bar. It’s great that they have those picks. They’ll be made into more than they are.

This team also plays like a group who thinks they’re more than they are. They started the season playing like they were happy with the results in their rear-view mirror. Ever since they’ve been on a roller coaster. When the world writes them off, they find a reservoir of toughness and bust out a great performance or two. When those decent performances become established, even slightly, all of a sudden they play clueless and are back to losing again.

Compare this to Buck Williams describing his Portland teams by saying (paraphrased), “If we lost one, we got after it. Weren’t going to lose two in a row.” Not only did they seldom lose two in a row, they seldom lost two in a week. That’s something. But Williams explained that a couple decades after the fact. When the team was actually doing it their play spoke for itself.

Right now it feels like this team is caught in a weird vortex of youth, spin, and believing their own publicity. As I suggested in the recap of that awful Pelicans game, they have become their own #They. They’re stopping themselves, winning when they get to the brink of irrelevance or when they string a few nice games together but losing if they’re not feeling it or if the opponent is tough. That describes about half of the teams in the league: the half that fall short.

The next step for Portland is learning to win even when they’re not feeling it, when they’re not playing their best. They need to shore up the roster, but they also need to figure out the mental aspect of the game. They’ll win consistently when they stop waiting for an imaginary #They to rile them up and become the #They for other teams, denying the opponent the win and leaving them talking about the moral victory. Until then keep the safety bar down and your hands and arms inside the car, because this roller coaster isn’t stopping.

Thanks for the question, Zac! Everyone else, get yours answered by sending it to blazersub@gmail.com!

—Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard