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Portland Trail Blazers, Deandre Ayton Leading with Effort in Early Season

Two weeks in, the Trail Blazers are happy with their progress and the standard they’re setting.

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Amanda Loman/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers are trying to make the food taste better during the 2023-24 NBA season.

Let me explain. Well, actually, I’ll let Trail Blazers center Deandre Ayton explain in a moment.

On Monday’s media availability session at the Trail Blazers practice facility, Ayton was in high spirits as he talked with reporters. The session was just a day after Portland’s difficult 112-100 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night. The loss snapped the Trail Blazers’ three-game winning streak and saw the Grizzlies close on a 26-2 run. Portland failed to register a field goal over the final 8:13 of the game. Ayton, individually, had one of his more frustrating nights as a Trail Blazer. Teammates struggled to find him on mismatches down low and the Grizzlies attacked him in the paint on their massive run down the stretch. His box score read six points on 3-of-9 shooting and 11 rebounds.

But on Monday, the 26-year-old center was quick to smile and crack jokes. When Trail Blazers reporter Brooke Olzendam asked who were the “premier trash talkers” on the team, Ayton, who is often referred to by his initials, D.A., responded, “Ah, just D.A., D.A. and D.A.” Ayton wasn’t blowing off the loss or taking it lightly. He had the look of somebody happy to be at work and who felt secure in the effort he and the team put forth the night before.

“We felt that we played hard. ...Shots weren’t falling, but we did everything Coach asked us, and Coach was happy about the game,” Ayton said. “It puts a good feeling in your body to move onto the next.”

Later, he circled back to this idea of personal fulfillment gained from hard work on the basketball court. It’s an approach he’s trying to foster in his young teammates — and that’s where cuisine comes in.

“Letting them know that feeling of playing hard, the food tasting better and things like that,” he said. “That’s just the main goal right now of what we’re tryna teach.”

Ayton at once said something simple, yet so true: When you work hard, you feel good, and that feeling spreads to other parts of your life. You appreciate more because it feels more earned. The food tastes better. Science even backs it up. Essentially, Ayton was talking about intrinsic motivation — working hard not just for wins or a paycheck (and yes, the paychecks probably help in the NBA), but because of an inner desire and a personal standard.

That concept is critical during a rebuilding season that carries the precedence of valuing improvement over wins. The Trail Blazers are trying to establish a culture and rebuild a roster, a process that historically takes years to reap the benefits. Intrinsic motivation may be the difference between whether this unit is largely kicking water until the next iteration gets its turn or if it’s building momentum toward something special.

So far in the early season, this mix of young hopefuls and professional veterans have shown that desire to commit to the slow-moving grind ahead.

Two weeks into the season, the Trail Blazers stand at 3-4. The team is slowly but surely improving from the rude awakening it faced against the Los Angeles Clippers in a 123-111 season-opening loss. At the same media availability on Monday, Trail Blazers Head Coach Chauncey Billups emphasized he was happy with the progress.

“I told them today I’m having so much fun coaching them,” Billups said. “...They do everything we ask them to do, so I’ve been so happy with our team and with our intention and with our focus.”

Billups, similarly to Ayton, commended the team’s fight. The third-year head coach said he never questions his players’ competition level, even during that difficult closing stretch on Sunday.

“Ninety-five percent of those teams concede that loss,” Billups said. “They just [say], ‘it wasn’t our night.’ … We just don’t do that.”

The team’s ability to keep chugging shined through during last week’s three-game win streak. In a 110-101 win against the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 1, Portland trailed by 18 in the first half and 15 in the third quarter. In the first matchup against Memphis last Friday, the Trail Blazers came back from 10 down in the final three minutes of regulation to steal a win in overtime.

“More important than our record, I think we’re improving in the areas we want to improve in,” said Trail Blazers guard Malcolm Brogdon on Monday.

Brogdon said the team took strides on the defensive end after being unhappy with its on-ball pressure in the first few games. They’ve also cleaned up some of the “silly breakdowns,” Brogdon noted. In Portland’s first three losses, the Trail Blazers ranked 28th in defensive rating with a rating of 117.8 and tied for 12th in steals with 8.7 per game. In the four games since, the Trail Blazers yielded a second-best defensive rating of 103 and tied for second in steals with 9.8 per game.

Prior to Sunday’s game, Billups put an emphasis on sharing the ball. The team responded with what he called its “best passing game of the year,” assisting on 23 of 37 made field goals for an assist percentage of 62.2%, which is right around league-average. In the six games prior to Sunday, the Trail Blazers’ posted a second-lowest assist percentage of 50.4%.

So despite the offensive collapse on Sunday, the mood was positive on Monday because Portland’s incremental steps were bearing fruit in areas other than the win column. For Ayton, the positive attitude was early evidence he was making good on his media day promise to “change the narrative” at his new destination. With the Phoenix Suns, Ayton grew to carry an unfavorable reputation of not playing hard if he got left out on offense.

Yet there he was on Monday, upbeat following the fifth game this season he took less than 10 shots. Though he’s been instrumental on defense, it hasn’t been the most seamless transition to the Portland offense for Ayton. Part of that is likely due to injuries to his primary pick-and-roll partners Anfernee Simons and Scoot Henderson, and Billups said part of it is due to the coaching staff learning how to use its new center.

Regardless of the reasons leading to Ayton’s early offensive struggles, he didn’t seem too concerned about the topic of his touches. He presented more ready for the work that lie ahead.

“It’s a new thing we got going over here, so it’s not really about me.” he said. “It’s about how are we going to figure this thing out and win games the right way.”