The Portland Trail Blazers have earned a 13-20 record so far in the 2021-22 NBA Season. They stand far behind league leaders, stuck in a swamp of injuries, COVID protocols, and issues with getting old talent to mesh with new key players and a brand new system. The early parts of the year haven’t been pretty. That’s causing some to contemplate jumping ship, the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I love this team and always will but I’m having a hard time watching them. I thought the season was going to be so good. I thought our new coach would get things right. It seemed like we were so close. Now everything is falling apart and they seem farther away than ever. What can [Head Coach Chauncey Billups] do to turn this around right now? Is there any trick he should use to motivate or get them ready better? I’m about ready to give up.
No, we’re way past that now. You know that feeling when your hot water heater broke and it’s now flooding dozens of gallons of water across the floor and down the stairs? You’re sitting there with your jaw hanging, watching it gush out, your mind trying to process what you’re seeing. That’s where the Blazers are right now.
There are three responses in this kind of situation: cry, say something we can’t print on this site, or yell, “Get a towel!” and try to take the first of the small steps necessary to fix this eventually. That last one I call the “parental” response. If you were alone, doing this for yourself, you’d just break down maybe. But people...or pets...or the mortgage-holding bank... somebody depends on you to take care of it. Nobody else is going to do it. Even if you can’t address it fully, you start taking the stupid baby steps that you know will have to happen in the end, even as the water heater continues to ruin your evening.
The Blazers are that water heater right now. Think back to the beginning of the year, to the Mailbags or Dave and Dia podcasts. Remember what we said? The Blazers have talent, but they’re maybe eight deep. They need their young players to step up, Larry Nance, Jr. to fit in quickly and make a dramatic difference, Jusuf Nurkic to return to peak form, Norman Powell to score a ton at small forward and find a way to defend the position, plus they need these new schemes to work. There are no alternatives. There’s nothing in the cupboard to make up for one of these things not happening. What you see is what you get.
Instead CJ McCollum has been injured, Damian Lillard has been embroiled in the toughest stretch of his entire career, Nance, Jr. has been muted, Robert Covington has looked like a non-factor, and now he and Nurkic are in COVID protocols. Plus the schemes aren’t doing anything to improve the situation.
The Blazers couldn’t afford for ONE thing to misfire. Instead NOTHING is working! They have Powell giving it every night, Nassir Little showing you why he has a future in this league, and Anfernee Simons trying to adapt to a new role with mixed success. Those are the bright spots. If all three of them were unmitigated success stories, it still wouldn’t be enough. They’re not even close to “not enough”.
I mean, come on. Even Lillard???
Like the parent watching the water heater, Coach Billups’ options are limited. Once upon a time, in the early stages of the season, we could talk about whether some of these things could be mitigated by a more experienced coach. The Blazers are going through bumps that they didn’t have to, and maybe couldn’t afford because of their franchise timetable, because of inevitable first-year acclimation issues. But those are speed bumps. What’s happening to them right now is seismic. Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, Jack Ramsay, and Phil Jackson combined couldn’t take this team into contention in this situation. The team might be playing differently, probably developing better habits, but there’s no way from Point A to Point B for any coach when you’re at the bottom of those flooded stairs.
What is Billups to do? Screaming and crying isn’t going to make it work any better. So night after night you grab the towel, get into that stairwell, and start blotting up the one bit of water you can reach. It’s not going to make much impact, but it’s step one of a thousand to cleaning up this mess.
Most importantly, you don’t give up. When you’re tasked with taking care of this kind of thing, you can’t walk away. You can’t even describe it as impossible. If they’re going to blame it on you, dismiss you, do a postmortem that says you should have checked the water heater before you bought the house, let them. That’s not your concern. Your concern is the flood, this one piece of cloth you hold, and the next stair in front of you. If it’s a lost cause, you let somebody else say it. You make somebody else tell you to go away, to quit trying. When that person comes, they’ll find you wringing out your towel and cleaning whatever piece of the mess you can reach with it.
That’s not dissimilar to your fandom, by the way, Marcie. Your critiques are, essentially, correct. One of the main arguments at, and of, this site over the last decade is that it’s important to be honest, to tell the truth even when the truth isn’t shiny. Don’t flood the stairwell and then sell it as an indoor swimming pool project. You’ve done that.
We don’t tell the truth so we can quit. We tell it because that’s the first step to evolving in a different direction. Truth seldom matters in the abstract. The purposes to which its put show it fruits and thorns.
We don’t coach these players. We don’t make organizational decisions. Our opinions matter, but they seldom change the world. If NBA Championships depended on passion, fervor, or fan smarts, the Blazers would already have a half-dozen in their case. They don’t.
But when ultimate success is out of reach, you narrow down to a successful season. When that isn’t achievable, you go down to a week, or a game. When those don’t happen either, you look for something that’s still working and start to ask whether that’s the first handkerchief dab that’s going to lead to the carpet being dry and the house usable again. Those will always exist. Finding them and celebrating them is our job.
Coach Billups gets a free pass on basketball for now. As long as he’s doing something, that IS something. When Lillard gets back to full form, McCollum and Nurkic are healthy again, trades become possible, draft picks are gained and/or executed, the mess will clear up. Then we can critique the team on bigger things. Right now, are they playing? Are they trying? Is anybody doing something notable? Whether you’re the Head Coach or just a fan writing into a website, that’s the hook to hang your hat on as you search for a mop and brighter days.
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