The Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors will meet this evening in the final clash of Portland’s preseason schedule. So far the Blazers are 0-3, limping through the on ramp to the season like a car with mistimed pistons. Much has been made of individual play and the significance of the exhibition schedule over the last two weeks. Let’s clear it up in today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
Safe to say this isn’t the start we wanted to the season. Dame is barely playing and the team is looking awful. How worried are you?
I don’t think this is working but I don’t want to overreact.
Honestly, I’m not that concerned in the abstract. Preseason is preseason. The Blazers have always been a team of streaks and runs. They’ll lose six in a row, then run off nine victories. That’s who they are. A few preseason losses won’t change that one way or another.
That’s the point, though. The Blazers aren’t supposed to be the Blazers this year. They’re supposed to be better. In that context, yes, this kind of matters.
Portland needs to get off to a good start. They need to keep themselves in the upper echelon of the Western Conference. If they don’t, they’re going to begin staring at each other. Is it the new system? Can Chauncey Billups really coach? Is the team deep enough? Are they holding down Damian Lillard too much, or, conversely, is Dame breaking the system? Will they ever be good defensively?
Lillard’s reported discontent this summer, putting the franchise on a short timeline for improvement, will add gravity (and gravitas) to every moment of doubt. It’s the elephant in the room. It’s not going away and it won’t be delayed while the team gets its act together.
The only way around this is for the Blazers to come out as a cohesive, dominant unit from the jump. They’ve looked anything but during the preseason schedule. Lillard has barely played. Injuries and rest days abound. The only time the top seven players actually took the floor at the same time, the team lost by 45 and the starters earned a cumulative -23.2 in plus/minus as a unit. That’s not the warm-up they wanted.
This development is not particularly surprising. It shows the “there, but not there” duality of the franchise.
Coach Billups is walking into a roster topped by seasoned veterans. Nobody in the main core is 22 anymore. This team has won regular season and playoffs games. Lillard and CJ McCollum have earned respect league-wide. Robert Covington is one of the best supplementary players in the NBA. Norman Powell just got a new contract. Jusuf Nurkic and Larry Nance, Jr. would be welcome on any team. You don’t mess with these players much, especially at first blush, especially in the preseason.
Remember when Nate McMillan walked into the franchise back in 2005, demanding his players remove their headbands, hush up, and play defense? Billups can’t do that. (And probably shouldn’t.)
But now the franchise’s duality rears its head. This team hasn’t won enough. They’re looking for a kick in the pants, for somebody to demand the excellence it has not been able to provide consistently, to push the accelerator to the floor to see if talk of contention was real or not. That doesn’t appear to be happening either. Instead players are looking confused and uncoordinated on the floor, giving intermittent effort, and only succeeding in streaks...when they play together at all.
It’s a weird gray area. Is the franchise successful or not? Do they need praise or deep criticism? One leaves them without the forward momentum they need, the other breaks the long-held narrative that they are succeeding already.
While they’re figuring it out, the team seem lost between tuning up for the most important season in a decade and resting veterans so they can make that run. They’re stuck between riding accomplished players, demanding more (and different) things from those players, and not pushing them away.
This is potentially a mess. And “a mess” is just what the Blazers have looked like so far.
That said, there’s nothing to be done about it now. They’ll get through tonight’s game without Lillard, Anfernee Simons, and a few others. They’ll make their cuts afterwards, then press CTRL-ALT-DEL on the whole thing and reboot for Sacramento next Wednesday. In the process, they’ll claim that the preseason doesn’t mean much for a team with this kind of experience. They’ll be half right too.
It’s the half that isn’t right that will worry everyone. Justifiably so, perhaps.
The Blazers will meet the Warriors at 7:00 PM this evening. Join us for the last Game Day Thread of the preseason!