Going into the season, my hopes for this year's Blazer team were sky-high. Coming off a very fun 54-28 year, having upgraded the three weakest positions, and entering the fourth year for the heart and soul of the team to be together, I optimistically suggested 60+ wins, a Western Conference Finals or better appearance, and an opening month with a record as sparkling as 15-4.
Just a couple weeks later the team seems to be in disarray. They almost gave up a home game to the out-manned Rockets then did lose at home to not only the Nuggets but also to the Hawks.
This is not a shot at the Rockets, Nuggets, or Hawks. The Nuggets look to have a good shot at giving the Lakers a run for their money for best record in the conference based on their play without J.R. Smith. The Rockets have been playing unbelievably well. And the Hawks are one of my dark horse teams in the Eastern Conference with a roster somewhat similar to the Blazers.
But the plain and simple truth is I truly believed that this edition of the Blazers was set for a run vaguely reminiscent of the 77 Title team. They are not expected to contend by most experts but have the talent to play a superior brand of basketball.
The pre-season injury to Nicolas Batum was disappointing as the defense he provides the team is certainly an important element but hardly something the Blazers could not overcome. The return of Martell Webster would provide a major offensive upgrade at the price of a slight decline in defense.
Meanwhile, more minutes would open up for Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez.
Yet five games into the season, Portland has looked...well, let us not mince words. They have looked bad.
Playing competitively but losing home games is what teams with losing records do. The Blazers have done it twice.
The Nugget game in particular hurt because most Blazer fans expect the Blazers to battle the Nuggets for Northwest Division laurels. Losing a home game to your chief rival, particularly a home game you thought you should win, is just the sort of thing that comes back to haunt you late in the season.
So what exactly is happening here? Unfortunately, I have been out of town since the Nugget game, so primarily what I have has been anecdotal evidence. But those anecdotes have been telling.
Following the games on my mobile phone with the auto-refresh set for every 15 seconds has been brutal. The Blazers would close to within a bucket, it would refresh, they would be down six points. I would look at the last couple plays, and all too often, the plays were opponents dunking. And dunking again. Then, for something different, getting an offensive rebound and dunking.
Yet opponents are only shooting .429% against the Blazers. So for the game, their defense is adequate, it is only when the game matters that they go into matador mode and let the opponents have a layup drill.
Compounding the problem, the Blazers themselves are shooting a very mediocre .422%. They are winning the rebound and 3-point shooting percentage battles and losing the turnover game by just .6 turnovers per game.
Thus the statistical story tells us that seven hundredths of a percent in shooting is not going to kill Portland in the long run as better three point shooting and four extra rebounds should cover that in the long run.
What they really need to do is find the killer instinct to put teams away. Portland has been outscored 137-121 in the fourth quarter, more than offsetting their 112-103 third quarter advantage. They are losing the second half by over a point a game.
This is troubling since the Blazer bench is supposed to be a major strength. With guys like Andre Miller, Fernandez, and Outlaw the bench looked like a potent weapon capable of having three guys in double figures nearly every night.
Yet if the bench was producing, the starters and closers would not be so worn down that they give back huge leads. Based on minutes, they should not be worn down anyway as only Aldridge and Roy are playing over 30 minutes a game and Aldridge is only playing about 31 minutes a game.
Worse, the players are showing signs of pressure in close games. Against Denver the Blazers bricked five free throws that would have either tied the game or given Portland the lead in the closing minutes. It was a team effort with Roy, Aldridge, Miller, and Oden all contributing to the key misses.
The team has been searching for answers. The local Portland paper referenced a Roy interview where he discussed the malleability of the rotation which indicates a certain lack of cohesion. This would point to a strength actually being a problem.
Let me say in advance that I think Nate McMillan is an excellent coach and will get that problem sorted out. Yet I would be remiss in not saying that one thing the Blazers certainly need is for him to settle on roles for each player and more or less stick to them which will go a long way towards clearing up rotation questions.
In High Above Courtside: The Lost Memoirs of Johnny Most, the late Most was quite clear on what he believed caused the collapse of the Celtics in the late seventies. For Most, it was not lack of talent but rather too much talent where players refused to accept roles and the coach therefore lost control of the rotations. As players began struggling to find roles, Jo-Jo White lost the team, the record went south, he ended up fired and the players ended up in other uniforms.
That is a very real danger for this Blazer team. Just take a look at some of the potential conflicts:
Brandon Roy. He just signed a max deal and may feel pressure to prove his worth. Yet his style of play demands to dominate the ball, which is more difficult because;
Andre Miller. A near All-Star starter his whole career, a pace-pushing, penetrating point guard, he now has to interact with Roy, who is playing the role Miller is used to, in a slow-down offense that is at or near the bottom of the NBA in pace, all while backing up;
Steve Blake. An underrated distributor who never dazzles anybody with his numbers, but relies on hitting the open trey off penetration by players like Roy. His suspect defense, nick-named Blake-fense, and lack of ability to penetrate the lane causes problems for the Blazer big men.
Meanwhile, Rudy Fernandez wants to expand his game. He wants more minutes. He wants to dominate the ball a bit more. Unfortunately, he is backing up Roy, who leads the team at over 38 minutes per game. Furthermore, whether Fernandez is paired with Roy or Miller, that player is going to have the ball in their hands far more often than Fernandez.
Travis Outlaw wants to get paid. He wants to start. However, on this team, his game does not mesh well with the starters which means Portland needs him to come off the bench, play energetic defense, create his own shot, and be a dominating sixth man...a role Outlaw is adept at but rumored to resent. This is a contract year for Trout, and he wants to use it for that big-money deal. Can he get minutes?
LaMarcus Aldridge, like Roy, is coming off signing a huge deal that will keep him in Rip City for several years. He wants to show he is worth it. He is on record as wanting to be an All-Star. He is also on record as being confused about when to go down on the blocks and when to defer to Greg Oden. Thus he sometimes gets lost on offense and, instead of improving his numbers from last year, has seen his scoring dip noticeably while his fouls have increased.
Greg Oden, meanwhile, wants to start. He wants to erase the memories of an injury plagued college career, a missed rookie season, and a much-maligned actual rookie season. He wants to score. He wants to prove he is worthy of a number one pick. But he is at best a third option, and probably more like a fourth option among Blazer starters behind Roy, Aldridge, and Martell Webster. Being a fourth option does not jibe well with wanting to show he is a worthy number one.
Which brings us to Webster. He wants to show he is back and better than ever after missing all but six minutes of last season. Yet he alone has shown he is willing to do what it takes to make the team work. Start, come off the bench, concentrate on defense, shoot the three, drive to the rack...it can be argued he has been one of the most effective all-around players the Blazers have so far this season. Yet he knows that McMillan is on record as saying Batum will be the starter when he returns. How will that sit with Webster? He needs to show enough now to get minutes later.
Thus we clearly see it is possible the Blazers are playing with a bunch of personal agendas at the cost of team chemistry, cohesion and effectiveness.
It is still very early in the season. It is way to early to hit the panic button. This is a team capable of getting hot, going on a run akin to the Rocket 20+ win streak of a couple seasons ago, seizing the Northwest Division in a death grip and not letting go.
It is also a team capable of degenerating into a mix of players trying to get theirs, chasing personal agendas and regressing to a .500 team.
It is instructive to note where they sit right now. Tonight I was idly watching some Hornets-Mavericks action and every so often a score would catch my eye. The Celtics were losing to the Timberwolves by six late in the third or early in the fourth. The Lakers were losing to the Rockets by a few points.
I pretty much laughed when the commentators talked about the Celtics being in danger of losing their perfect record in the game, or about how the Rockets were handling the challenge. The thing about Championship contenders is you just have a feeling they will pull out those close games, particularly about inferior teams.
This again is no knock on either the Rockets or T-Wolves. The Rockets play as hard as any team in the league and Rick Adelmen should get Coach of the Year consideration if they continue to play this well. And the Wolves are building something promising.
But neither team should be confused with a Championship quality team, and any time the Celtics or Lakers lose to either of those teams, regardless of what floor it is played on, it is an upset.
THAT is the level the Blazers are aspiring to get to. As it stands now, they are definitely not there. In fact, they are so far from there, I am ready to contradict myself.
One of my brothers asked me if the Blazers were favored against the Nuggets prior to the Blazer home game last Tuesday. I said they were ALWAYS favored at home, regardless of the opponent, that they would lose a couple games over the course of the season, but any home game should favor the Blazers.
I take it back. As it sits, I think it would be a mild upset if they beat the Spurs tomorrow. Far from being the level they need to be, the Blazers have regressed that far, that fast.
Fortunately, one great thing about being a fan instead of a player or coach is that hope springs eternal. I can sit here and believe that Roy will say the right words, McMillan will find the right rotation, the players will find cohesion, and the early season struggles will end tomorrow as they take on the Spurs.
That is the best part about the NBA. Knowing what I know, I can still believe that.
Oh, and for the record...yeah, the Lakers and Celtics both won. Sometimes I hate it when I am right.