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3 Things We’re Learning from the Trail Blazers

Portland isn’t winning, but there are still things to mine from the season’s closing stretch.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers are in the midst of an interesting season. They began the year with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and an inspiring, if somewhat predictable, veteran roster. They’re ending 2021-22 with much less talent, playing a different brand of basketball. What might we learn from this transition and the contrast between the two Blazers teams we’ve seen this season? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

We all know this sucks but let’s try to find a positive. Is there anything you’re learning from this season?

Also David

I think we’re learning a few things, or at least getting a different angle on them. The end of this season, featuring a completely unexpected roster, has provided an interesting Petrie (ha!) Dish in which to test some basketball theorems.

I think we’re seeing the limits of coaching in Portland’s recent performances.

Hollywood has given us the familiar trope of a coach pushing all the right emotional buttons, motivating a group of no-name charges into unselfish, winning play through stirring speeches. We like that narrative for a couple reasons:

  • It gives us hope when our team is the underdog.
  • Though few of us seriously think we can play at an NBA level, we can dream of finding the magic phrases (as opposed to technical knowledge and/or earned experience) that transform losers into winners. In this way, we get to insert ourselves into the story for free.

Real life doesn’t work like that. We’re seeing it right now. The Blazers are executing pretty well. They’re hustling and being unselfish. In many ways, their style of basketball the last month and a half has been more pleasing than the brand they were playing at the beginning of the year. Yet they’ve lost 17 of their last 19 games.

Talent matters. It can be shaped by coaching, chemistry, and a dozen other factors. A franchise might get marginally more or less out of their roster because of those factors. But less talent equals less success, period. No matter how good of a chef you are, you can’t make an omelet without eggs.

We’re also seeing that height has real value in this league. That’s not just true with the Blazers, who lack it right now. The advent of Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic as MVP frontrunners, Rudy Gobert as a cornerstone in Utah, DeAndre Ayton as a key cog in Phoenix, and Evan Mobley as a Rookie of the Year candidate in Cleveland says a lot.

The NBA has been guard-dominated for years. It still is, really. But the Blazers aren’t losing because they lack 20-point wing scorers. One or another of the smaller players seems to step up every night. Portland’s inability to rebound and patrol the paint leaves them running on quicksand. Even with all the effort, they end up sinking slowly into the muck. When the effort stops, they submerge in a nanosecond.

It’s not necessary to have a star pivot in order to compete, but you can’t give away paint points, carefree dunks, and rebounds every night and survive the incurred debt. Portland needs size and talent in the frontcourt too. Otherwise averaging 45 a night between their starting guards will just be a fancier way of losing.

The other obvious take-away is that energy does make a difference. Forced turnovers, run-outs, and at least trying to close against shooters on defense have made Portland’s bad basketball more palatable. The contrast from the start of the season (and seasons past), when they had far more talent and far more to play for, has been stark. You can’t help but feel that this level of “playing for my career and enjoying the experience” spark translated to that level of roster would have yielded better results.

Portland’s problem now is a classic one: how do you combine the characteristics of completely different players into a workable whole? Maybe the vibe from the end of this campaign will inspire the start of the next. But that might be like fantasizing that Russell Westbrook’s athleticism will combine with Steph Curry’s shot to create the perfect guard.

Portland had a halfcourt-based offense—and a playing percentages defense—for a reason. When the veterans return, so will those reasons. The Blazers have to hope that a little of the vision translates, though. What they did before wasn’t working without that extra jolt of energy.

Got anything that you’ve learned from the end-of-season run? Share in the comments below!

Thanks for the question! Remember you can send yours to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll try to answer!