Following the Portland Trail Blazers’ loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night, the team is embroiled in its first legitimate losing streak of the season. The 119-111 defeat comes on the heels of home losses to the Utah Jazz and Brooklyn Nets, dropping Portland’s record to 10-7, good for 8th in the NBA’s Western Conference. That’s a far cry from the heady first-place position the team occupied just last week.
The short jag is causing sections of Trail Blazers nation to... worry? I want to say, “Lose their minds,” but that might be exaggeration. Slightly. This morning the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag was full of ideas, solutions, critiques, and a few complaints. Normally I’d reprint several, but it’s easier to summarize. According to submissions, any of the following might be to blame for the plunge: Chauncey Billups’ coaching, Anfernee Simons’ streaky offense, lack of depth, turnovers, an imbalanced roster, or Jusuf Nurkic just existing,
There were more, but you get the idea.
Rather than address these one by one, let’s step back and look at the situation a little. And chill. We need lots of chill.
Yes, the Blazers are losing right now. They’re giving back their hot start game by game. In the last episode of the Dave and Marlow show, co-host Marlow Ferguson predicted that Portland’s upcoming game against the Cleveland Cavaliers would be the hardest one to win all week. Since Marlow is near-inerrant, let’s go even farther and presume Portland drops their fourth straight game tomorrow.
Ok. So what?
Realistically, this was coming... not because the Blazers are bad, but because the Blazers are a basketball team. In all of franchise history, only two squads have avoided losing streaks: the 1977-78 Blazers before Bill Walton got injured and the 1990-91 roster with Clyde Drexler at the peak of his power, a star-studded group of starters around him, and Danny Ainge and Cliff Robinson coming off the bench.
Those were once-in-a-lifetime dream lineups. The current Blazers are good. They’ve been playing well. This is still not a once-in-a-lifetime roster, or at least not yet. These guys have spent a grand total of 17 games together. We don’t know exactly what they are yet, let alone what they’ll become. We do know they’ve won 10 of those 17, many against good opponents. That’s praiseworthy, period.
Compare the Blazers to the 9-6 Sacramento Kings. Hometown fans and NBA glitterati are nodding Sacramento’s way right now, heaping praise on them for playing hard and pulling themselves out of the NBA cellar, at least temporarily. You know who else was in the NBA cellar last year, all but dead-ending for a couple seasons before that? The Blazers. Portland is deadlocked with the Kings right now, yet the descriptions of the two franchises couldn’t be more different.
We can go even farther. Compare the Blazers to the conference-leading Jazz. Portland lost to them on Saturday, making a slide down the standings near-inevitable. Utah is riding high in first place with a 12-7 record. The Blazers, with their lowly 10-7 mark, sit one game behind. One game. That’s all that separates the Top 8 in the Western Conference right now.
Had a couple of shots bounced differently last weekend, the Blazers would be #1 in the conference and Utah languishing in low playoff position. And it would mean just as little as it did when Portland was flying high in the standings last week.
Momentum is a nasty partner: fun to flirt with, but toxic in a long-term relationship. It’s going against Portland right now with this streak. But let’s invert the scenario. Had the Blazers started the season 0-5 but now held a 10-7 record, everyone would be over the moon about this team. The schedule would have allowed either; it wasn’t easier to start with, it’s not much more difficult now. The data coming in a different order doesn’t make the final result that much different.
There’s more to it, of course. There are several concrete reasons the Blazers don’t look as good right now as they did earlier.
First comes the one nobody mentions: Damian Lillard is either ailing or absent. Portland did win games without him a couple weeks ago, but that should be viewed as a bonus, not a pattern. Take the shoes off a UPS delivery driver. If they complete their rounds barefoot in a given week, you fete them appropriately and marvel at the dedication. You don’t then expect them to be able to do the same on a regular basis.
Lillard looked horrible against Utah before he went out. He didn’t play against Milwaukee and won’t again for a couple weeks. Until he suits up healthy, the Blazers should be praised for every victory they achieve, not lambasted for the ones they miss out on. This is true even with overlapping guards to replace him. Simons is stepping up as a first option and Josh Hart is never bad as your energy/effort guy, but Shaedon Sharpe is going to rookie and Portland’s frontcourt wasn’t built to carry games by themselves.
Without Lillard, the Blazers are dancing on a floor that might collapse underneath them at any moment. The moves look the same, but ultimately you’re never sure if they’re going to matter or if it’s just a pretty way to crash to the basement. If they want more certainty, Lillard has to prop them up.
The Blazers have also shown vulnerability to opposing superstars. This is nothing new. Devin Booker, De’Aaron Fox, and Luka Doncic racked them up earlier this season. In this streak, the emphasis switched to forwards, with Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo doing the honors.
Portland has a nice, interlinking defense this year, kind of like one of those well-woven doilies that mom decorates the Thanksgiving table with. It’s a lot prettier than the cat hairballs they’ve been dropping in the dining room the last few years. But when the opponent brings a carving knife, that doily still ain’t holding up very well. It can hold a fair amount of weight, but it’s still easy to slice through.
In this streak, the Blazers have also had trouble stopping opponents in the paint. Technically, paint scoring is supposed to be Portland’s gig this year. When the other guys do it better, the gap is larger than meets the eye.
Complicating matters, the Blazers haven’t earned the edges they need in extra points to make up for the paint problem. They haven’t shot well enough from the three-point arc. They’ve lacked the bloated advantages in free throw attempts that have buoyed their early-season performances. Their bucket has been leaking slowly, but steadily, and they haven’t made big enough splashes to refill it.
Still, the team is fighting hard. These games haven’t been bald runaways. Margins are still single-digit. The caution, of course, is that Portland’s wins have come the same way. That shows how precarious these things can be. Last-second heroics are like energy drinks: nothing wrong with pepping up with one every once in a while, but if that’s your steady diet, you’re going to break down eventually. Portland’s caffeine headache is showing right now.
No worries, though. This will turn around. The season is going to be fickle. Nobody else in the West is doing appreciably better than the Blazers so far. They’ll be in the mix.
If we were expecting them to contend for a title, that explanation would seem pale. You’re not supposed to go with the crowd; you’re supposed to be better. But those dreams fizzled quickly after Portland’s 2019 Western Conference Finals run proved a mirage. For who they are and where they are, the Blazers are still doing remarkably well. They’ve left room ahead of them to grow and get better, perhaps becoming the team we can expect more of. If you look back at the arc of the last decade, even uttering that sentence is progress.
Don’t panic, Portland faithful. We know the road is going to be bumpy. We still don’t know where it’s going to lead yet. Give them half a season to figure out if they need to make any trades, a full season to assess what they’re doing as they go forward. Riding any three games, up or down, is just going to make you carsick during this twisty year. Enjoy the scenery instead. At least it’s different, and that’s something.