Two games, six lackluster quarters, one blowout loss, and now one very restless fan base. The Portland Trail Blazers have reached a fork in the road nearly a month into the season. Though their record is a respectable 7-5, the Blazers have yet to produce a quality win against a top shelf contending team in the Western Conference. The last two games have been downright pitiful, with the Blazers lucky enough to have come back against the Denver Nuggets on November 13th after a dreadful first half. But, against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night, it was a different story as the Blazers came out in exactly the same sorry manner and lost 113-88. The Blazers came out with less energy and motivation than a 2016 voter and received a Lucille-like beating against a decent, though not spectacular, Bulls team. So, what is going on here?
The Blazers were hoping to build a contender from the inside, something that is increasingly rare in this day and age of the NBA with big name free agent signings and the desire to build super teams like, you know, the New York Knicks. However, 12 games into the season, we are seeing a very different team from last year. There seems to be little passion, little heart, and a whole lot of blowout losses. This is not the team the organization signed up for. This is not the feel-good team of last year.
We could understand if Portland had the same record, had endured the same losses to the same teams, but lost while putting up a fight. In what has been the biggest surprise so far this NBA season, the Blazers are putting up zero fight. While Portland’s offense remains mostly potent, their defense has taken a serious nose dive. The promise of shoring up a soft defense has not come to fruition, neither by individual or team expectations. Rebounding has also been a problem for the Blazers, ranking 25th in the league. Role players who were so vital to last year’s squad have regressed. We have yet to see the Al-Farouq Aminu of a year ago, same too for Moe Harkless, Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis. Though, we did see a glimpse of the old Davis during the Chicago game when he was the only player visibly expending energy while playing a game of basketball.
Let’s forget, for a moment, about the $75 million paid to Allen Crabbe to score 10 points a night. Let’s forget about the $40 million owed to Meyers Leonard who has underwhelmed dramatically this season. Let’s forget about the $70 million signed to Evan Turner, the Blazers only offseason acquisition, who continues to be the ultimate enigma. What exactly I’m I seeing on the court? The answer to that is disheartening.
Where is the fight in this team? Has money and expectations dulled it? When I watch this team, I see complacency where urgency used to reside. I see players not fully engaged where Coach Terry Stotts used to have his players all in, every game. I see a team giving up after getting knocked down early, when that is when they used to fight the hardest. Worst of all, I am watching a team that is no fun to watch. After a season in which there was a lot of joy in viewing a team play cohesive and unselfish basketball, this team, like binge watching an entire season of a Kevin James comedy, has been unbearable to watch for long stretches. If not for Damian Lillard’s gaudy numbers and late-game heroics, the Blazers would be lucky to have four wins today.
Though still early in the season, it may be time for the front office to start asking the tough questions. Is this the team we feel comfortable with going forward? Or, is it time to make some moves in order for this team to grow? Right now, the latter seems the answer. There are rumors of a DeMarcus Cousins trade in the works and Portland’s name has been whispered as a potential landing spot for the mercurial All-Star. Cousins would be a bold move and far from a sure bet, but with Lillard as the teams’ undisputed leader I would feel more comfortable with the Blazers acquiring someone like Cousins knowing Lillard wouldn’t take much garbage from him. In fact, coming from an organization like the Sacramento Kings to one like the Blazers could be just what Cousins needs, a franchise with a more stable culture and a bona fide leader on and off the court.
After 12 games and one memorable, unexpected season, we may have reached the ceiling with this team as is currently constructed. I am not anywhere near calling for Stotts’ head. I feel Turner can still be a valuable player within the right rotation. But, something just isn’t clicking yet and the players don’t seem as comfortable or hungry as last season. Something has to change. If it can’t change from within, it must be done from outside.
With the Blazers embarking on a five game road trip beginning tonight in Houston, we may well find out what’s next for this team sooner rather than later. Will they find the unity and fight that once defined this team and propelled them into the playoffs last season? Or, will it be all the more clearer that it’s time to shake things up a bit. The fork in the road is here. It’s time for the Blazers to choose a path forward.