The Portland Trail Blazers have gotten a wake-up call over the last week, losing three straight games on the road, then dropping two at home to the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliiers. With a 19-22 record, the Blazers now stand with the also-rans in the ultra-competitive NBA Western Conference. With a few more losses, they could lie among the lottery hopefuls casting their wishes on the wind for ping-pong balls in May. This was not where they expected to be halfway into the season.
After the loss to the Magic, Head Coach Chauncey Billups said he “couldn’t pinpoint” what was wrong with the team during their current slump. In this two-day series, we’re going to look at some of the strong possibilities.
In our first post of the series we talked about injuries. In the second we talked about the lack of easy points. Over-reliance on matchups comprised the third post. The fourth covered the seemingly-eternal turnover issue, the fifth Portland’s deficit in the paint.
In our final installment, we’ll mention the reality that most have forgotten 41 games into the season. Half a year seems like an eternity, but in NBA terms, these players are still in their infancy together.
Portland’s relative inexperience is masked, as so many other things are, by their leader, Damian Lillard. The 11th-year guard is not only playing, he’s playing as well as he ever has. 28.2 points and 7.0 assists in 35.8 minutes per game makes this his team, without question. In that blizzard of gloriousness, it’s easy to forget that the whole team isn’t him.
Jusuf Nurkic joins Lillard smong the tenured Trail Blazers. The Bosnian Beast is playing the same position, and at least a vaguely similar role, as he has for the last six and a half seasons in Portland. If you’ve read this series up until now, you’ll also know that Nurkic is inconsistent in ways that contribute to Portland’s issues. But at least he’s been here and knows what he’s doing.
Contrast that with the rest of the roster.
- Jerami Grant—First year in Portland, first time with these teammates
- Josh Hart—First full year in Portland after a mid-season trade, first time starting as Portland’s small forward, first time with these teammates (as the team was fractured last year)
- Anfernee Simons—First year as starting shooting guard alongside Lillard and first time playing with most of these teammates
- Justise Winslow—See description of Hart, minus the starting forward role
- Shaedon Sharpe—NBA Rookie
- Drew Eubanks—See also: Hart and Winslow
- Trendon Watford—In his second full season with the Blazers.
- Gary Payton II—First year with the Blazers. Also first two games with the Blazers so far.
- Nassir Little—The “grandpa” of the group. He’s in his fourth year with the team.
- Keon Johnson—See Winslow.
- Jabari Walker—NBA Rookie
- Greg Brown III—Why are you even asking?
Oh yeah, and don’t forget...
- Chauncey Billups—In his second season coaching ever, and last year barely counted.
Some of Portland’s players are veterans who should be able to pick up the system quickly. Several are talented by NBA standards. Almost all of them have have done well. But newness can’t be overcome by a player’s internal abilities. It affects the environment and relationships.
You might be great at Parkour, but all the leaping and calculation ability in the world isn’t going to help if the ground below you is shaky. You can leap, but can you land? The Blazers are amazing leapers on a fractured floor right now.
It gets even worse when you work in an unsteady environment and have to make split-second decisions based on experience.
Communicating and coordinating with others is the hardest part of any job. It’s the devil in sports. Doubles tennis involves just two people, a limited court space, and nobody else can get in your territory but your partner. You can still mess up duos by putting the ball right between them and making them decide who’s going to chase it. By the time tennis champions get to a world-class level, they’ve had thousands of games together. Hit them on Game 40 of their partnership and they’ll still be figuring things out, staring at each other as opponent shots zizz by. The same is true for basketball, multiplied by 2.5 times as many people, a bigger court with more options, and defenders in your face and everywhere around the floor.
Yes, these guys have played thousands of professional games between them, but they haven’t done it together. When you count injuries, they haven’t even played 41 together, really. That makes a difference.
At the end of the Magic game this week, the Blazers needed a shot badly. Jerami Grant stood at the top of the three-point arc, with the ball, well-covered. He passed the ball to the side of the court with Jusuf Nurkic while Damian Lillard stood on the other side, also open. Obviously, the smart play would have been firing to Lillard. Some fans were up in arms about that, as Nurkic missed the ensuing three-pointer that might have changed the game. How could Grant do such a thing?
Reality check: it’s somewhat unlikely that Grant stood at the head of the court and said, “Given the choice, I’m going to hit Nurkic instead of Dame.” It’s far more likely that he either didn’t see Lillard or couldn’t process Lillard’s presence fast enough, but Nurkic was standing there, wide open, and that’s what took hold.
That’s neither a talent issue nor a mental defect with Grant. He hadn’t been in that position with this team before. Reading and processing take time, doubly so under stress. The only thing that alleviates that is repetition. If Grant knew Lillard and Nurkic were both likely to be there, he could have skipped the ascertainment step and gone right into action. In reality, he wasn’t sure of either. He was only able to act on what he could process. In the heat of the fray, that processing was incomplete.
Multiply that by hundreds of moments, big and small, in each game, and you begin to see the cost of Portland’s experience deficit together. They’re still not 100% sure how to deal with each other, let alone the opponent.
This probably also contributes to the infamous, “Stand Around and Watch Dame Work” approach that many are noting from teammates when Lillard gets hot. That’s a human tendency. And let’s face it, when Lillard is on fire, who else do you want shooting it? On top of that, Lillard’s teammates probably don’t know yet how to move or act when he’s taking over the game. He doesn’t have time to tell them, nor would he be able to, because he’s the one taking it over, not the one playing beside himself.
Eventually, they’ll probably pick this up. But that’s a long process...just as everything will be this year.
A 10-4 start is the first time this team had to handle winning together. This current funk is the first time they’re having to handle unexpected losing. Every conversation is new. Every solution, locker room meeting, stare back and forth, and finger point is new too. They have to get past all this in order to figure out who they are going to be. They need to get to the stage where they don’t have to do any of this stuff, where they can just go out and play together instinctively.
That’s not advocacy to keep this team together as-is. They need personnel changes, or at least additions. It’s an admission that, right now, addressing their issues takes an extra layer of concentration and effort because of the limited amount of time they’ve spent in the league and/or together. When inexperience typifies 12 of 14 players and the Head Coach, you expect some variance—and plenty of confusion—in the first half of Season One.
Things might not get better with time. That’s a product of talent and roster construction. But odds are they’ll get easier, which is the same thing as saying they’ll get surer and quicker, which would be a big help to this team.