As December settles into Rip City, with sub-freezing temperatures and frenzied holiday activities, the Portland Trail Blazers find themselves stuck in the old proverbial rut.
Losers of five of their last six games, the Blazers have run the gamut of ways to drop contests. They’ve blown leads, lost heartbreakers at the final buzzer, and straight-up got their asses kicked. It hasn’t been enjoyable to watch for the fans, and it sure hasn’t been enjoyable for the players—though, like true professionals, they’ll accept a rough patch with grace and feed the media all the old clichés teams spew when things aren’t going their way.
What interests me, however, is not that the Blazers are losing games; they’ve been in streaks before where nothing has gone right. I want to examine WHY the Blazers are dropping these games, beyond the truthful and obvious reason–they got outplayed.
Three things occur to me currently:
- Maurice Harkless is back in the starting lineup, and not doing too hot. Since coming back to active status at Milwaukee, Harkless has averaged about 16 minutes and three points per game, and the Blazers have gone 1-5. I understand the need for Moe to get back up to speed ASAP; the Blazers will be at their deadliest with Harkless and his long arms out there. I’m not sure that this slate of tough games was the best time to bring the rusty forward back into the fold.
- Evan Turner is having Achilles issues, and has been day-to-day. Turner is and will always be grossly overpaid, no matter how well he’s doing coming off the bench. That doesn’t mean that he has no value to the Blazers, or that he isn’t filling an important role. Any absence or prolonged health issue affecting a Blazers regular has the potential to wreak havoc on their play; despite the reserves’ improvement from last year, Portland is still a bit thin on quality NBA players. Bargain bin pickups like Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry are bargain bin guys for good reasons, and Portland will get what they pay for if/when the Villain misses extended time.
- The other guys are pretty good, too. Over the last six games, only Orlando has presented the Blazers with somewhat easy pickings—and the Magic are a young and frisky team that hasn’t yet fallen back to Earth after a decent start. Other than the win over the Magic, the last couple weeks have seen the Blazers play against some tough customers. Milwaukee is a near-elite team with a top-five player, and Golden State is an elite team with a top-five player. The Clippers were leading the freaking West for a while, Denver is vastly improved, and San Antonio may be down in the depths of the West, but the divide separating one and fourteen is so thin, it’s damn near invisible. Every game was difficult, and the Blazers either got unlucky, lazy, or severely outplayed in each. It sucks when it happens, but it happens.
Elaborating on the Harkless point, it’s not as if Moe has been some indispensable piece for Portland. He’s been constantly in and out of the rotation. He may be physically gifted, but at 25 years old, he’s nearing his peak as a player—and if this is his supposed peak in the NBA, he might be taking a job in China once his Portland contract runs out.
Harkless has the talent to be a hustle guy, a glue guy for this team. He just seems like a guy who doesn’t want to do the unglamorous work that his counterpart, Al-Farouq Aminu, does so well for the franchise. His knee and his rust can be excuses for only so long.
All games are available on AM 620 Rip City Radio.
Tuesday, Dec. 4: @ the Dallas Mavericks, 5:30 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: Luka Doncic has seized the soul of the city of Dallas…or the part of the soul that isn’t obsessed over the Cowboys’ latest display of fools’ gold. (Winning this year’s NFC East is like saying you’re the shiniest, least odious dog turd. That may be true, but guess what? You’re still a dog turd.) Lukamania, Halleluka, the Doncic Dream, whatever you want to call him, the Slovenian rookie forward has earned the monikers so far.
Even after sitting out the last game with a hip injury, Doncic is averaging 18-6-4 with 38 percent shooting from three. His turnovers are very high—nearly four a contest—but he is a rookie ball-handler. Young guys screw up all the time running the show in the NBA; Damian Lillard (three turnovers a game his rookie year) was no different. It’s the passes he does make that excites, as well as the smoothness and crispness of every action he takes.
The polish on Doncic is evident, and he can go to high places. He’s some unholy cross of Brandon Roy, pre-injury Gordon Hayward, and Ricky Rubio. He can either be the top guy on a title team (Dallas’ hope) or a very talented second banana on a perennial contender (where I think his ceiling is), or just a better Hayward at the helm of a constant playoff team.
The issue regarding Doncic is the shoddy team-building practices the Mavs have engaged in over the years. Dallas has had trouble putting quality players around Dirk Nowitzki for his entire career, except in 2011, and they only won the title then because LeBron James and Dwyane Wade didn’t know how to play together yet…and Dirk also donned the basketball version of the Infinity Gauntlet and vaporized everybody in sight.
As for the contemporary Mavs: Harrison Barnes is overpaid. Mark Cuban got DeAndre Jordan two years too late and might see the center walk after this season. Nowitzki is in his 40s and recovering from elbow surgery in his final season (he and Doncic have yet to play together in an NBA game). Dennis Smith Jr., the other prized youngster on the roster, is a slasher who does best with the ball in his hands, even if he doesn’t know quite what to do with it yet. Dallas has not been able to attract free agents, and they’ve handed out draft picks like candy on Halloween. Doncic and Smith are the only young players of prominence Dallas has drafted since Dirk himself—and they don’t know how to make each other better.
Despite being in the middle of the West, I expect Dallas to drop off in the coming months. They’d be better served by getting a decent pick in the lottery and adding more youth to the roster while saying goodbye to their franchise icon in Nowitzki. Knowing Cuban and Rick Carlisle, however, I highly doubt that will happen. They’ll get a late lottery pick, trade it for another washed-up veteran, and let the systemic issues between Doncic and Smith fester until they’re forced to choose which one to build around and which one to ship out of Texas.
Matchup to Watch: Luka Doncic vs. Maurice Harkless. Moe needs to be able to slow down the rookie some.
Prediction: I think Portland takes it in a close one.
Thursday, Dec. 6: vs. the Phoenix Suns, 7:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: Quick unrelated note: Thursday is usually a very light day in the NBA schedule, as close to a showcase night as the grindy Association sked has. It seems like Portland has had a Thursday game every other week this season; most teams get only one every several weeks, or even a couple months. Very weird.
The Suns have their own highly touted rookie in center Deandre Ayton, the first overall selection of the 2018 Draft. The current book on the 7’1” Ayton seems to be that he’s a gifted offensive talent but has no inkling on how to play NBA defense. Ayton also doesn’t have an outside shot…and shooting plus defense at the rim (and in space, for the super-elite) are the two things that are most in demand from big men nowadays.
Ayton isn’t a Jahlil Okafor type of situation; the 20-year-old has athleticism and speed to spare. I’d say it was a young player’s issue, if it weren’t for assertions by people better acquainted with the kid than I that Ayton lacks the basic instincts for defending the rim.
I honestly don’t know what to believe. It took Anthony Davis years to properly learn how to leverage his unique gifts on defense; now he swarms around like some mutant hybrid of Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. And Ayton never had to learn how to defend because he was bigger and stronger than everyone…which is true for every big man to come up through the ranks and reach the NBA.
On the other hand, fellow rookies Wendell Carter, Jr. and Jaren Jackson, Jr. have shown amazing aptitude for the defensive side of the court for rookies. Triple J has the tutelage of Marc Gasol to lean on, while Carter has experience already defending as a primary job—he was teammates with Sacramento rookie big Marvin Bagley III at Duke. Still, those young fellas were able to grasp the rudiments of NBA D, as well as our own sophomore big here in Portland, Zach Collins.
Also, Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota has no idea how to defend, either. It drove Jimmy Butler to call him soft, and probably drives his coach, Tom Thibodeau, insane. They see the next Garnett, when all Towns wants to be is a millionaire’s Rashard Lewis.
At least Towns can shoot a three. Ayton hasn’t shown any aptitude or inclination for shooting beyond the restricted area. It’s still very early. It would be irresponsible and absurd to make a solid judgment on a player 23 games into his career.
That still won’t stop people from talking. He’s one of the faces of the new era in Phoenix.
Unfairly or not, every flaw will be scrutinized with intensity.
Matchup to Watch: Devin Booker vs. Damian Lillard. The other face of the franchise, Booker is the main perimeter spoke of the Suns’ future. This matchup isn’t about a literal matching up, per se, but about who can outscore the other. These two are a couple of the premier volume scorers in the league currently, with Booker averaging 23 PPG and Lillard recording 27 per.
Both teams can score, and both teams also currently can’t stop anyone. Expect a score of 130-120, or somewhere in that neighborhood.
Prediction: Phoenix is the only easy team in the West. Blazers snag this game.
Saturday, Dec. 8: vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves, 7:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: After trading Butler to Philly a few weeks ago, the Wolves have clawed back into the extremely crowded Western picture, in 12th but a game within eighth-place Dallas. Minnesota is 7-3 without the irascible Butler, and Towns is probably feeling like a 10-ton weight is off his chest right now.
Now, if only Thibodeau were gone….
Towns has had a few bad games after Butler departed; his yips and passiveness weren’t solely because of Butler and are not also totally caused by Thibodeau’s preference to let Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose dribble the air out of the ball. Still, the monster games that happened so rarely with Butler on the court are making more frequent appearances, like the game against Chicago on the 24th, where KAT had 35 points, 23 rebounds, six assists…and six fouls.
Double-doubles litter Towns’ game logs P.B. (Post Butler), and I expect that to continue. It’s certainly leading to a significant amount of team success, even if Towns can’t stop a toddler from dunking on one of those Nerf hoops his defense is so bad. He’s locking in in fits and spurts, but with him on the verge of starting his new max contract, fits and spurts aren’t going to be good enough, or accepted…no matter who coaches him when that contract kicks in.
Matchup to Watch: The Wolves’ bench vs. the Blazers’ bench. More specifically, Derrick Rose and Dario Saric vs. Seth Curry and Zach Collins. Rose is still an inefficient shooter who relies too much on athleticism that’s eroded badly thanks to multiple knee injuries, but he can still provide some offense off the bench, as can Saric.
Curry will have to do his best to supplement the Lillard-CJ McCollum attack with a few threes, while Collins will need to defend the rim—without getting cheap fouls courtesy of the crafty Croatian Saric.
Prediction: Wolves defeat the Blazers as Towns—who played poorly last time these teams met—redeems himself.
Trail Blazers’ Record Last Week: 1-2
Trail Blazers’ Record Overall: 13-10
Jared’s Picks Last Week: 1-2
Jared’s Picks Overall: 10-13 (More pessimism needed)