Subsequent to Portland Trail Blazer‘ Loss to the Milwaukee Bucks On Monday night, the team is locked in its first legitimate losing streak of the season. The 119:111 defeat follows the home defeat Utah jazz and Brooklyn Networks, dropping Portland’s record to 10-7, good for 8th place in the NBA’s Western Conference. That’s a far cry from the exhilarating first place the team took just last week.
The short spike is causing parts of the Trail Blazers nation to… worry? I want to say, “Stay crazy,” but that might be an exaggeration. Easy. This morning the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag was full of ideas, solutions, criticism and a few complaints. I would normally reprint several, but it’s easier to summarize. According to submissions, any of the following could be to blame for the fall: Chauncey Billups’ coaching, Anfernee Simons’ patchy offense, lack of depth, turnovers, an unbalanced roster, or Jusuf Nurkic just existing.
There were more but you get the idea.
Rather than address each of these individually, let’s take a step back and look at the situation a little. And chill. We need a lot of chill.
Yeah, the Blazers are losing right now. Game after game they give back their hot start. On the final 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 win all week. With Marlow nearly flawless, let’s go further and expect Portland to drop their fourth straight game tomorrow.
OK. So what?
Realistically, that came about…not because the Blazers are bad, but because the Blazers are a basketball team. In all of franchise history, only two rosters have avoided losing streaks: the 1977-78 Blazers, before Bill Walton was injured, and the 1990-91 roster with Clyde Drexler at the height of his power, a star-studded group of starters around him around. and Danny Ainge and Cliff Robinson come off the bench.
Those were unique dream formations. The current blazers are good. You played well. This is still not a one-off roster, or at least not yet. These guys have spent a total of 17 games together. We don’t yet know exactly what they are, let alone what they will become. We know they won 10 of those 17, many of them against good opponents. That’s commendable, period.
Compare the Blazers to the 9-6 Sacramento Kings. Hometown fans and NBA glitterati are now nodding to Sacramento and heaping praise on them for playing hard and retiring, at least temporarily, from the NBA basement. You know who was in the NBA basement last year and was pretty much down for a couple of seasons before that? The blazers. Portland is currently stuck with the Kings, but the descriptions of the two franchises couldn’t be more different.
We can go even further. Compare the Blazers to the conference-leading Jazz. Portland lost to them on Saturday, making a general standings relegation all but inevitable. Utah is in first place with a 12-7 record. The Blazers are a game behind at their low 10-7 mark. A game. That’s all that separates the Western Conference Top 8 for now.
Had a few shots ricocheted differently this past weekend, the Blazers would have been No. 1 in the conference and Utah would have languished in a low playoff position. And it would mean just as little as it did when Portland soared in the standings last week.
Momentum is a mean partner: fun to flirt with, but toxic in a long-term relationship. This series is against Portland right now. But let’s reverse 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 for both; In the beginning it wasn’t easier, now it’s not much more difficult. The data coming in any other order will not make the final result the completely different.
Of course there is more to it than that. There are several specific reasons why blazers don’t look as good as they used to at the moment.
First comes what no one mentions: Damian Lillard is either ill or absent. Portland won games without him a few weeks ago, but that should be seen as a bonus, not a pattern. Take a UPS driver’s shoes off. When they do their rounds barefoot in a week, they are duly celebrated and amazed at their dedication. They then don’t expect to be able to do the same thing on a regular basis.
Lillard looked terrible against Utah before going out. He hasn’t played Milwaukee and won’t be for a couple of weeks. Until he’s sanely dressed, the Blazers should be commended for every victory they win, not the ones they miss. 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 an energy/effort guy, but Shaedon Sharpe goes rookie, and Portland’s frontcourt wasn’t built to carry games alone.
Without Lillard, the Blazers are dancing on a floor that could collapse beneath them at any moment. The moves look the same, but ultimately you’re never sure if they matter or if it’s just a pretty way to crash into the basement. If they want more certainty, Lillard has to back them up.
The Blazers have also shown vulnerability to opposing Superstars. This is nothing new. Devin Booker, De’Aaron Fox and Luka Doncic brought them together earlier this season. In this series, the focus shifted to the forwards, with Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way.
Portland has a nice, connected defense this year, something like one of those well-woven doilies Mom uses to decorate the Thanksgiving table. It’s a lot prettier than the cat hairballs they’ve been dropping around the dining room for the last few years. But if the opponent brings a carving knife, the doily still doesn’t hold up very well. It can hold quite a bit of weight, but it’s still easy to cut through.
In this series, the Blazers also had trouble stopping opponents in paint. Technically, paint scoring is supposed to be Portland’s gig this year. When the other guys do better, the gap is bigger than you think.
To make matters worse, the Blazers didn’t earn the extra points they needed to make up for the paint issue. You didn’t shoot well enough from the three-point bow. They lacked the bloated advantages in free-throw attempts that fueled their performances last season. Their bucket has been leaking slowly but steadily, and they haven’t made enough squirts to refill it.
Despite this, the team is fighting hard. Those games weren’t bald outliers. The margins are still in single digits. The caution, of course, lies with Portland wins came the same way. That shows how precarious these things can be. Last-minute heroics are like energy drinks: there’s nothing wrong with topping up on one every now and then, but if that’s your steady diet, you’re going to eventually collapse. Portland’s caffeine headache is showing up now.
But no worry. This will turn around. The season becomes unstable. No one in the west is faring significantly better than the Blazers. You will be in the mix.
If we were expecting them to fight for a title, that explanation would pale in comparison. Thou shalt not go with the crowd; you should be better But those dreams quickly fizzled after the 2019 Western Conference Finals run in Portland proved to be a mirage. For what they are and where they are, the Blazers are still doing remarkably well. They left room to grow and get better and maybe become the team we can expect more from. If you look back on the arc of the last decade, even saying that phrase is progress.
Don’t panic, Portland faithful. We know the road will be bumpy. We don’t yet know where this will lead. Give them half a season to figure out if they need to make any trades, a full season to gauge what they’re doing as they progress. Driving any three games, up or down, will only make you car sick in this twisty year. Instead, enjoy the scenery. At least it’s different, and that’s something.