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Trail Blazers Off to a Hot Start, Is it Cookie Time?

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The Blazers beat Milwaukee. Excitement is bubbling. How justified is it?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers are off to an 8-3 start to the season after vanquishing the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night. The victory was the high point of the season so far. Even before that, though, the early hot streak led to tantalizing hopes, accompanied by a bit of salty skepticism. We cover all of it in this edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag

Dear Dave,

The Blazers have looked pretty good this season. The bench is better, Collins has taken a step forward, and Lillard is playing some of the best basketball of his career. However, have the Blazers really improved to the point that a repeat of last year’s pathetic playoff performance will not come to pass?

Obviously, it is too early to tell, but, barring major injuries, I dont feel like the Blazers can compete with the top-tier Western conference teams--Warriors, Nuggets, Pelicans, Jazz and Rockets. If you believe this is the case, is it finally time for the Blazers to move CJ McCollum? There seems to be top flight players that are potentially available like Butler and Beal.

Best,

Trey

Hot Start

The Blazers have done quite well. They’ve caught the league-wide wave of three-point shooting. They’ve adjusted bench roles. They’ve started 8-3, which is better than their 6-5 start last season, 7-4 the season before, and 4-7 in 2015-16. You have to go back to 2014-15 before finding another 8-3 start for the franchise.

The Blazers are 3-0 against teams currently above .500, beating the Spurs, Pacers, and Bucks. They’re 5-3 against teams currently below .500. The first number is fantastic. The second doesn’t look quite as good, but the distinction is tenuous, as the line between above- and below-.500 is thin this early in the season. As we say that, we must also admit that standings positions are also tenuous; the distance between Portland and a lottery spot is only 3 games, despite the hot start.

Shuffle all of that together and the Blazers still merit two enthusiastic thumbs up. They’ve handled the schedule, travel, and opponents so far. Portland fans could hardly ask for more from the first few weeks of the season.

Hot Finish?

“Pathetic” playoffs performances are still up in the air, but your descriptor may be a little harsh. The Blazers losing in the first round last year was only mildly surprising given the bunch-up between the 3rd-9th best teams in the Western Conference. Getting swept without making so much as a peep was the shocking part. But the sweep can be pinned on the particular matchup against Anthony Davis and the veteran New Orleans Pelicans. Portland’s performance wasn’t great, but “pathetic” might not have come into play if not for a specialized opponent who exposed them.

That doesn’t mean we can automatically expect things to change based on what we’ve seen this season.

  • A hot start is no guarantee of a good finish. The Trail Blazers who started 8-3 in 2014-15 lost in the first round, winning only a single game against the Memphis Grizzlies. (Recall LaMarcus Aldridge’s injury and subsequent departure.)
  • Portland won 15 of 16 games between February 8th and March 18th last season, beating the Jazz on the road, the Thunder, the Cavaliers, and the Warriors twice in the process. It still ended in a result you just termed “pathetic”.
  • “Good” is relative. Even had the Blazers gotten past the Pelicans last year, the Warriors would have eaten their lunch for a third straight time. There’s no reason to suspect that won’t happen again should the team meet in the 2019 Playoffs.

Portland’s improved start gives us leeway to ask the question, “Could they ultimately be good?” It doesn’t mean that question is anywhere close to being answered.

No Worries, But No Cookies Either

My personal take is that I’m not worried about the team right now, and I’m as not-worried as I have been at any time since 2015. That doesn’t mean I think they’re elite. It takes a lot more than 8-3 and “no worries” to breathe rare air.

If I have any concern, it’s whether the Blazers can define success in ways other than they’ve experienced and expected. They’re playing beautiful basketball right now, but right now isn’t the goal anymore.

Recall Kevin Durant ribbing CJ McCollum about the difference between top teams and also-rans (and an overblown definition of “winning”) in McCollum’s podcast this summer. He was pointing out steps that the Blazers need to take, but haven’t begun to yet. In that light, I will freely admit that quotes like this from the organization and its players make me roll my eyes:

The “Us vs. They” thing was inspiring back in 2015-16 when the team needed a rallying cry after losing Aldridge, but seriously, nobody in 2018 is invested in dogging the Blazers. Nobody outside of Portland cares about the Blazers, in part because they just got swept in the first round by a 6th seed, in part because that left them basically in the same place they were back in 2015 when battling “They” first became a thing.

At this point, “They” is a straw man. The Blazers have had three seasons with the same basic roster. If they’re going to make an impact, sustained, excellent performance will do the talking. No other statement matters.

“I’m sure people didn’t expect us to be where we are now.” Where are the Blazers now? They’ve had a good three-week stretch. Starting well was important! At the same time, they had a better and longer streak just last season and nobody remembers it now.

Back in 1990-91 with Clyde Drexler and company, the worst the Blazers did was lose four games in an entire month. Their current streak would qualify as a down stretch for the best of the best.

The Denver Nuggets still sit in front of Portland in the standings with a 9-1 record. Should we stop and give them a cookie, speculate on them being elite, and wonder if they’re finally fulfilling their potential as a powerhouse, or is that just a nice blip in a long season?

The Blazers are past that kind of noise...or they should be. An 8-3 start is the first of multiple hurdles for them to clear. They need to clear ALL of them before they can claim relevance. 8-3 is not going to matter in February. 8-3 will say nothing about this team in April. If this achievement is special—if 8-3 isn’t just the new norm, barely more applause-worthy than breathing—then their “success” will just become a distraction and bite them in the butt...again.

We’ve seen and heard this struggle for relevance before. It’s the kind of thing that actual winning teams chuckle at. It’s the kind of thing you’re supposed to outgrow, like not being happy with just knowing addition when multiplication is on the table.

The Blazers need to demonstrate a winning culture and a breathtaking record in order to distinguish themselves from the mass of teams in the middle of their conference. They don’t have either yet. They get full credit for a good start. If this isn’t just the beginning instead of the main point, that credit is empty and misplaced.

Every semi-decent team in the West is going to have some kind of streak this season. What it leads to...that’s what matters.

Thanks for the question, Trey! We didn’t get to trading McCollum, but that’s a question for another day. (40 points! Whoo!) Everybody keep sending your Mailbag questions to blazersub@gmail.com!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com