It’s safe to say that things are not going well for the 2019-20 Portland Trail Blazers. Heading into the season with conference finals aspirations, the Blazers currently sit a game behind the Spurs for the final Western Conference playoff spot and are about to hit a tough patch in the schedule.
After a rough loss to the Heat on Sunday, frustration is starting to boil over. Yahoo’s Chris Haynes, known for having direct access to Damian Lillard, said yesterday that the Blazers star “didn’t sign up to be on a team like this” moments after mentioning Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore. Things haven’t been this bad since, well, pre-Nurk fever. Not great!
So, yeah, nobody is happy. Fans, players, presumably the front office — we all wanted more from this season. So what now?
Win the games that are winnable
Step one for the players has to be winning the winnable games. Normally I try to write in the style of a poor-man Zach’s Lowe, but I’m going to have to channel a rich man’s Magic Johnson and state the very obvious to make this point: The Blazers need to play with more fire.
Rarely does good NBA analysis delve into announcer talk but look at this domesticated ungulate bowel movement:
Total defensive failures were commonplace against the Heat. It was not fun to watch. And notice who’s not on the court: Hassan Whiteside.
The bottom line is that no scheme or personnel change is going to fix the unrepentant apathy we’re witnessing. From the outside, it’s impossible to know what’s going on in the locker room, but salvaging this season will start there. If the team’s leadership can’t urge everyone to play through their frustration, it won’t matter what coach Terry Stotts does between now and April.
This one’s for the fans. I’m confident with three realities of the 2020 Trail Blazers:
- They’re not getting back to the conference finals
- They’re leaving wins on the table
- For better or worse, Lillard and co. are unwilling to go full tank.
Given those confines it’s time to readjust expectations. A team with four blackholes (Melo, Simons, Whiteside, CJ) as their 2-5 players isn’t going to win pretty and isn’t going to win 55 games. Ball movement isn’t going to happen. Beating the Lakers in a playoff series isn’t going to happen.
If they can’t even muster that Lillard might as well develop a nagging injury and sit out the rest of the season.
In addition to that very obvious goal, I’m going to watch for continued development from Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little. Simons, billed as ready for prime time entering the season, has shown promise breaking down his man off the dribble but struggles with shooting, playmaking, and defense. Right now he’s basically a bench version of McCollum. Hoping for positive growth between now and May is another reasonable fan expectation. Similarly, my fingers are crossed that Little will show signs he’ll be a legit rotation player next season.
The rest of the players on the team are already either hitting expectations (Lillard and McCollum) or largely irrelevant to the future (Whiteside and Hezonja, oh, wait, he has a player option ).
This one’s for the front office. Blazer’s Edge has written several times about not sacrificing the future to chase a couple extra wins in 2020. Turning Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore’s contracts into long-term assets is a self-apparent necessity. Let’s not re-hash.
Beyond that, the front office can do more to maximize long-term hope. They’re sitting on an empty roster spot that could be filled via a minimum contract, either of two trade exceptions, or a disabled player exception. Signing a veteran to fortify the bench in the short-term, hello Jeff Green, hasn’t happened but that roster spot can still be put to use.
Specifically, I’d advocate turning it into multiple scratch-off tickets. Use 10-day contracts to give de facto tryouts to long-shot prospects. If they don’t work out after 20 days cut them and choose someone else. Search for the next Danuel House or Isaiah Hartenstein, two players who have started games for the Rockets this year, to help fortify next year’s bench. There’s no real downside to playing the D League lottery and it’s a better use of the 15th spot than literally nobody.
The Blazers’ season is not going according to plan, but the reality has become worse than practical limitations dictate. The players need to start beating bad teams. The fans need to reset expectations and accept ugly play as a personnel limitation. The front office needs to do everything it can to gear up to next season. Nobody signed up for for a sub-.500 record and this team, but Portland can still use this season to make positive progress toward future NBA success.