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Are the Blazers in the Middle of the Season That Wasn’t?

Nobody knows exactly what’s going on, but it’s clear things need to change in Portland.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers have now passed the quarter-mark of the 2021-22 NBA Season. Their 11-11 record leaves plenty of room for interpretation...the usual Rorschach Test that Blazers fans are accustomed to.

This year, the process just hits different, though. Maybe it was the Damian Lillard Departing scare in the off-season. It could be raised expectations from finally acquiring and/or developing a viable second unit. Or maybe sheer repetition has worn on Blazers Nation.

Either way, this is exactly the kind of situation that Dave Deckard and Dia Miller, hosts of the Dave and Dia Podcast, step into. As the duo resumes their writing ways, in addition to podcasting, they take stock of the season so far against their internal measuring sticks

Dave: Dia! We’ve been keeping on with the podcast every week, but it’s been a minute since we’ve written together. Nice to be back at it!

The first question I want to start out with is a general one, but important. How are you feeling about the season so far. Usually you’re rainbows and unicorns, or as much as possible, but we know there’s plenty of complexity underneath that intentional choice. So give it to us...where’s the Dia-meter pointing after 21 games?

Dia: I am usually very glass half full, but I need to be clear that that has a lot more to do with choosing to enjoy a team I love than with reality sometimes. Right now is one of those times. There are plenty of positives I can focus on and point out— Nassir Little is fun to watch, we have superstar Damian Lillard— and often I choose to focus on those things, but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to the fact that we aren’t a championship team as it sits. Do I think we should be competing and winning as much as possible? Yes. Do I think we can make it to the playoffs? Yes. Are we going to win a championship with this roster and lineup? Probably not. As far as where I’m at, I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated but choosing to enjoy watching guys I really like play a game I love.

Dave: Usually that realization doesn’t sink in until about 50 games in. And then when it does, the Blazers go on an 14-of-16 winning streak to close the season and make you hope again. Mind you, they’re still going to do that...maybe not 14 of 16, but there will be stretches when this team looks great, I’m sure. But it’s that Las Vegas kind of façade. “Oooh! Look! The pyramid! It seems just like Egypt! Wait...is this made out of packing Styrofoam?” As long as you pay attention to the shiny lights and don’t look too closely otherwise, the illusion is preserved. Nobody’s buying facades in the playoffs though.

Nassir Little...watching him is awesome. I like what we’re seeing from Anfernee Simons too. Up until now, we’ve kind of been asking whether he can really be a player. Now the questions are, “What kind?” and, “How good?” He’s crossed that invisible line between prospect and rotation guy. I feel good for him.

Sorry...I didn’t even delve into the frustration. Is it frustration of missed expectations or is it something more, to the core of how this team is constructed and/or operating? We don’t often hear this side of you. Let it out!

Dia: I think it’s a little bit of everything. It’s watching a franchise I’ve loved since I was a child, seemingly lose it’s appeal from the top. When leadership doesn’t seem to care about winning a championship, it’s hard to keep hope alive. You can have some of the best players in the league but if the team is poorly constructed, it’s not going to win championships. And even if you could stack enough talent to circumvent the poor construction, the wins wouldn’t be pretty. It’s frustrating to watch players that I have grown to love both on and off the court have to play under leadership that doesn’t seem motivated to win. It’s frustrating to be chasing our tails and running in circles trying the same things but calling them different (same package, different bow essentially) and hoping that what’s failed us before will magically work because we are calling it something different.

Dave: I feel kind of bad for Dame. I understand he’s not playing his best right now, but geez...that was going to happen at some point, right? Even if this is just a temporary thing, someday it won’t be. He should be able to play deep into his 30’s knowing that he’s insulated, that everyone has his back. Instead we’re watching him after a long prior season, a terribly short and action-packed off-season, have to carry the team again. We’re seeing what happens when he can’t, in real time.

I want a roster where, when Lillard plays his best, they’re in contention, and when he doesn’t, they’re still good. It doesn’t feel like the Blazers are there right now.

How about the new players? We mentioned young incumbents stepping up, but what do you think of Larry Nance, Jr., Cody Zeller, Tony Snell, and/or Greg Brown III? Have they made the impact you expected, or at least been fun?

Dia: I agree with you on Dame. At some point a decision has to be made— are we building this team around him to potentially win a championship with him, or are we going to hold onto players we like to watch play if they don’t fully fit what he does because we like them? It seems like as of now, the latter is true. While I love watching the players we have, every single one of them, I think the smart choice right now is to build a team that works around Dame’s strengths and weaknesses and that’s not what I see happening.

So with that being said, I really like the new guys. I think they’re entertaining. I like rooting for them. I think Larry Nance Jr, Dennis Smith Jr and Cody Zeller have been difference-makers on our bench. Our bench has improved greatly and it’s been fun to watch. I don’t think that’s our issue right now. Our issue is that we are playing 3 small guards in a league filled with almost 7-foot-tall players. To pull that off, all 3 of those guards would need to be stellar defenders. Not average. Not even good, but the best. Admittedly, they aren’t. They’re fantastic players—-they’re some of the best at what they do, but what they do isn’t defense.

So yes, I like be new additions, I think they’ve taken our bench up a level which we needed. But that by itself isn’t enough. Greg Brown sure is entertaining though.

Dave: Guards are the thing now, though. But maybe that’s the deal with the Blazers. They tried to become Golden State after Golden State had already become a dynasty. The window opened after the Warriors got injured, but the Blazers got housed by LeBron and Anthony Davis. Now they’re going all-guards just when the league seems to be pivoting slowly towards a return to bigs, or at least players who can threaten inside. And throughout all of it, lack of defense has sapped 50% of the effectiveness of their lineups.

The Blazers have seemed a step behind, derivative rather than iterative. This is what’s so special about Lillard. He’s the one factor that put them ahead. He wasn’t totally unique in the league—it is the era of scoring point guards, after all—but he was close. It’s like he burst through the wall of mediocrity, but the gap wasn’t big enough for the whole team to fit through. Watching him try it again is like Sisyphus.

My thing about Dame, CJ, and Norm is that even when all of them are doing reasonably well together, it hasn’t guaranteed a win. It doesn’t always happen. When it does, it’s often at the expense of Nurk’s touches. It’s one thing to say it just isn’t working. It’s another to say it IS working, but not producing the desired results. Somehow the Blazers are in both spots at once. It isn’t working, and is, and isn’t. That also describes Nurkic, and sometimes the bench, and sometimes the system.

Give me your gut feeling: will more time together fix this? If so, how much?

Dia: my gut feeling is that time isn’t the solution. We had time last season. We had time the season before. We have essentially been trying to do the same thing time and time again, and you know why doesn’t have much time left? Damian Lillard’s prime. That window is closing. I think change is needed. I don’t think that’s a secret or something we haven’t been aware of, it’s been a matter of a GM who is too stubborn to make moves for one reason or another. I don’t ever want to see any of these guys go because I like them all as players, as human beings and as Trail Blazers. But the clock is ticking on Dame Time and we need to reset it here. We need to do something, and we need to do it now.

Do you agree with Dia? Any takes you want to add? Or just feel free to share your feelings about the year so far in the comments!

Watch for the next episode of Dave and Dia to drop tomorrow!