The Portland Trail Blazers came into the 2016-17 season with the hope of building on last spring’s impressive showing against the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors in the West playoffs. It may be time to readjust expectations based on their first few weeks of play. While the Blazers are over .500 and hold a playoff spot in the standings, they have certainly not played like a possible contender. The defense has been one of the league’s worst, the offense has been merely OK, and even their best wins have come with asterisks.
Thursday night’s 126-109 road loss to the Houston Rockets was perhaps the worst yet. The Blazers were dogged by inconsistency throughout and surrendered a combined 79 points in the first and third quarters. It was bad enough that star point guard Damian Lillard did not mince words after the game. From Casey Holdahl for Blazers.com:
“We kind of suck right now,” said Damian Lillard. “We’re usually a pretty good offensive team, we’ve been bad on offense and bad on defense. We’re trying hard but we’re not always making the smartest plays, sometimes letting the offensive end effect the defensive end. It’s not good enough. We’re not very good right now.” […]
“I know we’re going to be fine, but it’s just frustrating for us to be doing the same things, hurting ourselves in the same ways, for all of us, myself included,” said Lillard. “We try hard as a group, we’ve just got to be better. We’ve got to stay with it.”
It’s worth noting that the Blazers are not in free fall. A 7-6 record is good enough to give them the No. 8 spot in the West, although it’s only theirs due to a meaningless tiebreak with the Utah Jazz. For that matter, Lillard and 2016 Most Improved Player C.J. McCollum still look like worthy foundational pieces, and plenty of role players continue to do their jobs well. Plus, plenty of teams have surrendered big nights to James Harden already this season.
Yet there are plenty of red flags. The defense has been legitimately terrible — the Blazers entered the game against Houston ranking 27th in points allowed per 100 possessions, or seven spots lower than in 2015-16. That status would perhaps be less concerning if the offense wasn’t suffering a similar dip from the No. 7 to No. 14 slot. Those stats obviously don’t mean much 13 games into the season, but the Blazers aren’t exactly staying with the league’s best teams right now. Their two most impressive wins have come against the Utah Jazz without Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors on opening night and at the Memphis Grizzlies in Chandler Parsons’s first game back — two contests in which their opponents were unsettled.
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Several of the recent losses have been much more concerning. The Blazers lost to the Bulls by 25 on Tuesday, at the Clippers by 31 last Wednesday, and to the Warriors by 23 on Nov. 2. Those margins are major enough to raise significant questions over Portland’s ability to stick with the league’s best teams. Do they simply take advantage of other shoddy defenses and struggle to contain the elite?
These answers will not be clear for some time, but it’s worth noting that the Blazers were not exactly without flaw last season either. As our Dan Devine noted this summer, the 11-20 Blazers hit Christmas ranked 25th in defensive efficiency before a 22-8 stretch that included blowout wins over both the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Yet that same team finished the season 11-10, claiming the No. 5 seed thanks to failures by the competition and lucking into mid-series injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in the first round. The evidence may suggest nothing more than that the Blazers have never been much better than “pretty good.”
A reading of their current situation arguably relies on nothing more than the analyst’s tendency towards optimism. On one level, the Blazers can take comfort in knowing that they pulled themselves out of a similar situation just last year. At the same time, they could be a streaky team that has to hope it gets hot when it matters most.
Lillard’s correct that Portland sucks right now. We will see how long it takes them to turn things around, and for how long.
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