Blazer opener: What did we see that is sustainable? And what isn't?

Blazer opener: What did we see that is sustainable? And what isn't?

Yes, it was just one game. The first of 81 to come. And you certainly don't want to overreact to just one game. But did we see anything Tuesday night in Moda Center that we can expect to continue? Maybe. Let's take stock:

  • Damian Lillard came to the rescue of the Trail Blazers in the fourth quarter. Is he going to have to do that often? Better hope not. Not that he isn't capable of it but it's a lot to ask. And if he needs to score 39 for Portland to win, it's going to be a difficult year. But he's primed for a monster season and I don't think there's any doubt about that. His ability to finish at the basket has taken a leap forward. If you can get to the basket, get to the foul line frequently and make threes, you're going to be a big-time scorer at any level. Lillard has arrived at that level.
  • The Trail Blazers had trouble with their defense through much of this game. Utah put Portland's guards in a blender in the first quarter, bouncing them off rapid-fire screens and it was effective. And the Jazz hit those mid-range jump shots Portland encourages. Early in the game, too many of those jumpers were uncontested. There is a sincere effort to improve the defense but it will take time. More shots must be contested.
  • When Portland went to small lineups, the Jazz -- to their credit, I believe -- stayed big. Center Rudy Gobert played more than 40 minutes, in fact. And more than most teams do, Utah made a real effort to post up smaller players. It will be interesting to see if other teams attempt to do that because the size did give the Trail Blazers' small lineup trouble on the boards and on defense.
  • Don't forget, by the way, that Utah played without Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, two critical starters, and acquitted itself very well considering those absences. Make no mistake, Utah is good.
  • The Portland bench is going to be a very big regular-season factor. That unit is going to be more potent than nearly every team Portland will play and have a big impact on results. As you know, that advantage isn't nearly as impactful in the playoffs, where starters often play much longer minutes and rotations are shortened.
  • Noah Vonleh? Still not sure. There's always been talent there but I want to see if he can sustain the confidence he seems to suddenly possess. Where did this come from? How did it happen? He's gone from a nonentity to being a force. And it happened suddenly. Can he sustain it? I'll need to see more of it to promise it's for real.

Blazers put NBA-record win streak on the line opening night

Blazers put NBA-record win streak on the line opening night

Portland Trail Blazers (0-0) vs. Utah Jazz (0-0)

Tuesday, Moda Center, 7 p.m.

Television: Rip City Live (5:30) CSN; Utah vs. Portland (7 p.m.), KGW; Talkin' Ball (9:30), CSN.

There are traditions, and then there are traditions. The Trail Blazers have established a meaningful tradition that has been in the making since the turn of this century and it's an NBA record.

Portland has won a league-record 15 consecutive home openers and that's the task facing the visiting Utah Jazz Tuesday night in Moda Center. Utah lost to the Trail Blazers twice during the exhibition season. But those games were meaningless and, quite obviously, for these two teams on the rise that are often predicted to be fighting over the same playoff berths this season, this game is not.

Utah and Portland are loaded with young players expected to develop into cohesive units. The Jazz has made its reputation on defense, built around shotblocking center Rudy Gobert. Portland is a high-scoring unit that is offensively efficient and looking to improve at the defensive end.

I would expect these teams to be fighting for the fourth or fifth playoff spots in the Western Conference. And I certainly believe Portland, if healthy, is capable of churning out 50 wins this season. The Trail Blazer leader, Damian Lillard, says his team is ready for the season.

"Seven preseason games and a lot of workouts, I think we're prepared to go," Lillard said Monday after practice. "We played them twice in the preseason and over the years, we know that they're going to defend. they have great length, they play hard -- they're a competitive team capable of coming in here and beating us. We've got to be sharp. We've got to put our best foot forward.

"It's always great to open up the season at home. You know you're going to get that excitement from the crowd. Our guys will be pumped to play in front of crowd and have that homecourt advantage. But just because we're the home team doesn't mean it's going to be a fun, easy game. We have to go out there and attack the game and be ready to play."

Terry Stotts believes his team is prepared.

"I think everybody is ready," he said. "October was good, the preseason games were good and I think everybody's ready to go."

"I think they're going to have a very good season," Stotts said, when asked about the Jazz. "Just the addition of some veteran guys like George Hill and Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson -- guys who have played at a high level on 50-win teams. One of the problems the Jazz had last year was closing out some games. I think that experience will help them along with just that internal growth that they'll have. Obviously without (Gordon) Hayward it will be a little bit of a challenge for them."

Hayward is out a few more weeks with a broken finger on his left hand and forward Derrick Favors is nursing a sore knee that kept him out of the latter part of the preseason schedule. The Trail Blazers will be without center Festus Ezeli, who did not participate in the exhibition season because of a medical procedure on a knee.

As of Monday afternoon there were still a limited number of tickets available for the game.

So is it time for the Ducks to officially start playing for next season?

So is it time for the Ducks to officially start playing for next season?

The Ducks and Bears turned a football game into a marathon Friday night, a seemingly endless mix of thrilling plays, touchdowns and bewildering penalties that was befitting two of the Pac-12's lesser teams. This one wasn't pretty, especially from the Ducks' side of the field, at least until a late comeback gave them new life and some degree of hope for the remainder of what appears to be a very disappointing season. Some thoughts about this game:

  • California opened the game with little regard for Oregon's weak defense, twice going for it in their own territory on fourth down and picking up first downs. But maybe the Ducks were unwittingly setting a Bear trap. In the second half California failed on a fourth-down conversion and also made an ill-advised pooch punt that went just 10 yards while trying to make the Ducks think they were again going to go for it on fourth down. It's interesting when you allow teams to think they can gain yards against you anytime and in any field position -- it tends to make them careless and arrogant. And it allowed the Ducks a chance to make a comeback -- which they jumped on.
  • Justin Herbert is showing all the signs of eventually becoming a big-time quarterback and it's going to be interesting to see how the coaches develop him. It appeared that they were being very careful with him against Washington and in the first half of this one, not asking too much. But behind by three touchdowns in the second half he was almost in full gunslinger mode and I liked that a lot. If you're just going to mail this season in and build for the future, you might as well take the wraps off him and let him fire away.
  • That begs the question -- is it time to to commit fully to next season? A bowl game at this point seems impossible, so why not? Well, part of that "why not" is a fan base that expects -- and is paying for -- something better. This is a question that faces pro teams and college teams in every sport -- when do you resign yourself to a lost season and use the remaining games to build for the following season? When do you surrender a battle to win a war?
  • I've been saying all season that defense wasn't this team's only problem and I think it showed in this game. Oregon's offense sputtered in the first half and it cost the Ducks the game. Yes, the defense is monumentally bad ... but if the offense can at least keep things from getting out of hand, the Duck defense is usually going to get a few second-half stops, perhaps just because the opponent's offense is exhausted from all the running. It's not the way you want to win games, but it's the only way to win right now. And there is still enough offensive talent at receiver and running back to rack up some high scores.
  • And speaking of the defense, if you're going to commit to a 4-3 alignment, that's fine. Obviously, the Ducks don't have the kind of talent necessary to make it effective. So why not commit to more pressure on quarterbacks? Why not a few more line stunts? Why not bring the house once in a while? You're giving up points at an alarming rate anyway, why not roll the dice once in a while just to give the other team something to think about?
  • Yes, the offensive line is young. Yes, the quarterback is a freshman. But really, a young team should be improving as the season goes along and we're not really seeing much of that so far -- particularly on the defensive side.
  • Let me say this one more time because I keep seeing my critical remarks about the Ducks being misinterpreted: I am not campaigning for Mark Helfrich to be fired. I don't believe that is going to happen nor do I think it should happen. What I'm doing is pointing out things I see that need to be corrected. I'm second-guessing, quite frankly. That's often considered unfair but really -- it's what we do. I mean, until they give me the chance to first-guess, I'm stuck with it. And, of course, there's a lot to second-guess.
  • Let me tell you what seems to come through whenever I speak with former Duck players who are disappointed in what they're seeing on the field this season. They talk about the culture of Duck football and how it's changed. About how, under Chip Kelly, it was a VERY disciplined program -- and that meant every player from top to bottom was held accountable. What I hear from multiple players is how feared Kelly was by the players. They knew he insisted on certain things and if you didn't do them, you'd sit -- no matter who you were. And from that came a toughness and discipline that they aren't seeing in the program now.
  • A team's culture is a fragile thing that can take a wrong turn at any moment. And it's changeable -- for better or worse. My hope would be that if there's something amiss in Oregon's culture right now, it can be corrected. And forget about all the stuff you see on the field from the Ducks, it's the issue of the team's culture that eventually could lead to a coaching change. If the culture goes south, you've got a serious problem no matter how talented or well-coached you are.
  • I don't doubt for a moment Oregon could be tougher. More disciplined. Those traits must be rediscovered.

Podcast: Dwight Jaynes with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum


Podcast: Dwight Jaynes with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum

This week's podcasts features the Trail Blazers backcourt duo. It's a great listen.

Be sure to check back every week for a new podcast. Past episodes have included guests such as Kevin Calabro, Mike Parker, Festus Ezeli, Darwin Barney, and more.

You can subscribe on iTunes right here:

The Trail Blazer defense... as we slog through the exhibition season

The Trail Blazer defense... as we slog through the exhibition season

There is little doubt in my mind that the NBA exhibition season -- like all the other sports' pre-season activity -- is too long. You could say the same thing about baseball and football, of course. Cut it down to four games instead of seven or eight, start the regular season sooner and do away with some back-to-backs.

Instead, we now hit training camp's dog days, where everyone begins to yearn for games and performances that actually count. Games that mean something besides determining the 15th spot on a roster.

But this is a good time to take stock, too -- to try to make some sense of what we've seen so far. Let's begin by going back to the goal of this team from the beginning of camp -- that would be defensive improvement. So how's that going?

I'd say not so good so far, but change never happens over night. A few points:

  • I think Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have made a solid effort to improve, particularly in the area of getting over screens. It would be a big deal for the Trail Blazers if the guards could improve at that because it's been a problem in the past.
  • Speaking of such things, pick-and-roll defense is still shaping up to be a problem but, quite frankly, it is for most teams in the NBA. Things will get better when there is a consistent player rotation so that they can become accustomed to playing with the same people.
  • Fouling was a big problem for this team last season and that still appears to be troublesome. Portland's centers, Mason Plumlee and Meyers Leonard, don't have great lateral movement and when they get beat, they often just surrender to the situation and either grab an offensive player or give him an obvious shove, bump or reachover. They are going to have to either learn to get better position, be more subtle with their fouls or simply let the other guy go when he beats them. It's just not acceptable to get tagged with as many obvious fouls as these players get. And Leonard, in particular, is going to eventually become a target for cheap shots if he doesn't quit delivering unnecessarily hard fouls on players in a vulnerable position.
  • There have been times during the exhibition season when I think I've seen genuine defensive improvement but it hasn't been consistent. And I believe that this team's core group of players has been in the league long enough, and been together long enough, that it's time to see improvement. There is a system in place and if the players can't get better at executing it, there will eventually have to be a change in systems or a change in players. To climb any higher in the standings, there simply MUST be improvement at the defensive end.
  • That includes transition defense, too -- which is mostly just hustle.
  • I know, communication is important, too. Any defensive system requires players staying connected so they move in coverage as a unit, rather than separately. It is a must in the NBA, where many players cannot be stopped by one-on-one coverage.
  • Without Damian Lillard playing very hard -- maybe too hard for the exhibition season -- this team would be 1-3 instead of 3-1. It's time for a few more of the veteran players to chip in.


Blazers tonight: A first look at a summer addition who could really help

Blazers tonight: A first look at a summer addition who could really help

The Meyers Leonard Project begins anew tonight. And no, I'm not talking about his vow to let his hair grow out this season.

Leonard, Portland's 7-1 center-forward, has been an enigma through his four seasons with the team. His shooting from long range is at times eye-popping. He's a solid low-post defender but away from the basket he can be frustrating. He's looked alternately to have great confidence and no confidence. Blazer fans -- expecting a low-post power center -- have never quite understood him.

But this is a player who could conceivably be a critical piece for Portland -- a strong post defender who can draw his own defender away from the basket with consistent three-point shooting, a useful skill in today's NBA. Two seasons ago he shot 51 percent from the floor, 42 percent from three-point range and 93.8 percent from the foul line in limited duty -- incredible shooting for a seven-footer. Or anybody else, for that matter.

But so far, Leonard has been a tease. You see the skills but not the consistency. After surgery on his left shoulder that he's spent the summer rehabbing, he has come into camp with a new attitude and resolve. And remember -- the Trail Blazers made a playoff run into the second round last season without him. If Leonard can reach his potential this season it would be as if Portland got a new player.

He's been cleared to play tonight in Los Angeles against the Lakers and the game is set for NBA-TV at 7:30.

Keeping it real on Helfrich status... and better times ahead real soon for Ducks

Keeping it real on Helfrich status... and better times ahead real soon for Ducks

Some thoughts about Mark Helfrich and his suddenly downtrodden Ducks:

  • I know there are a lot of people figuring that Oregon isn't going to make any sudden move to fire its head football coach because it just doesn't do such things. It's been 40 years, in fact, since it fired a football coach. But that is really not very relevant. The current school and the athletic department administration hasn't been around through that time and there's really no way to predict what the current administration might do. Is AD Rob Mullens the kind of guy who would make an impulsive move? I doubt it, but I don't really know. He's got to be under some pressure. The situation in Eugene now is a lot different than any time I can remember at Oregon. There are expectations in Eugene that were never there during the Rich Brooks or even Mike Bellotti tenures. Nobody was demanding a bowl appearance every season or consistent residence in the Top 10 or even Top 25.
  • The real question is what the big-money boosters are thinking. Is Phil Knight OK about sticking with Helfrich after this season? Are there others writing big checks who are itchy for a change? That's what's really going to matter. My guess is that Knight is the last person in the world to want a quick change.
  • I would never favor firing a college football coach in the middle of the season. Interim coaches are usually not successful and I'm not sure the Ducks have anybody on their staff who could adequately -- or willingly -- fill the role.
  • The real key to replacing your head coach is whether you think you can bring in somebody better to take his place. That's what causes athletic directors to be cautious about making big moves. It's usually just easier to do nothing -- ride it out and hope things get better.
  • I don't expect Oregon's losing streak to last any longer. Oregon State (and kudos to the Beavers) rolled for 559 yards against the Bears Saturday and 474 of them were on the ground, where OSU averaged 9.5 yards per attempt. Yes, Cal is going to score on the Ducks -- but not enough to overcome what Oregon is going to put up against the Bears. The Ducks should run Cal out of its own stadium. I'm calling it right now, with a bye week to prepare, Oregon won't lose that game.

QB change? Ducks were just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic

QB change? Ducks were just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic

It was a controversial move by Oregon Coach Mark Helfrich last week when he decided to turn the keys to his team's offense over to true freshman Justin Herbert. Was this the right time? Why not wait until after a bye week? Why do it against one of the nation's hungriest, quarterback-gobbling teams?

Well, Helfrich probably knew something we didn't know -- that it didn't matter. Herbert played just fine for a freshman. It was not a special performance but he seemed to get through it without injury, which was one of my concerns. What difference does it make who plays quarterback if you're going to allow 70 points?

Helfrich's move was just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The Ducks are sinking fast. Might as well play the young kid if you're going to get your tailfeathers kicked anyway. At this point, Oregon needs to forget about that "Win The Day" stuff and think about "Win A Day." Or "Win A Game."

A bowl game? Seems impossible at this point.

Yes, the Huskies have more talent than Oregon -- the result of apparently out-recruiting everyone in the conference by a wide margin over the last couple of years. But should we be surprised? No -- Coach Chris Petersen beat Pac-12 teams with players he could attract to Boise, Idaho -- he ought to be able to recruit better ones to Seattle. You may remember Petersen, by the way. He'll forever be known as the guy Oregon should have begged to take its head-coaching position when it gift-wrapped the job for Helfrich.

But that's ancient history, as is Oregon's swagger and aura of dominance. The Ducks were never in this game... never made anyone think they had a tiny chance of winning. All the glitz, glitter and glamor of the Oregon program -- the locker rooms, the uniforms, the study center, the medical treatment facility, all of it -- has suddenly been rendered meaningless. The Ducks used to have teams beaten when they strutted out on the field behind that motorcycle. But those days are gone.

All season, Duck apologists have been whistling the same tune: "Fans have been spoiled. Don't panic. Every team goes through times like this. These guys were in the national championship just a couple of seasons ago. It's cyclical and this is just a momentary speed bump."

It doesn't look like that to me. In college football, if the recruiting and coaching slides just a little bit, the dropoff in performance can be steep. It can go fast -- very fast. If you aren't moving forward you are falling behind. Just repeating what's been done before simply doesn't work.

All those things that used to be Oregon advantages are now commonplace, just a couple of years later.

Oregon beat teams with its tempo and an innovative spread offense -- which has little impact now because everyone is doing it. The uniforms were a big recruiting deal -- but a lot of teams are fiddling around with their uniforms. Fancy locker rooms? Just about everybody in the conference has built a new operations center, locker room, practice area, study center and/or training facility.

What's left is coaching, which also means recruiting. And keeping players focused.

Look, I'm not in that locker room or on the sidelines but for all those people who are saying they are worried the Ducks might quit on this season, I must tell you -- it sure appeared they've already quit.

And really, that's the best possible excuse for what happened Saturday night in Autzen.

Because if it's strictly a talent issue... If the Ducks didn't quit, well, it's a sobering thought for this program to come to grips with suddenly being 50 points worse than a team it had beaten 12 seasons in a row.


Stotts may not use 14 players, but many will play Friday vs. Suns

Stotts may not use 14 players, but many will play Friday vs. Suns

Coaches have quite a task during the exhibition season -- balancing the playing time needed for their regulars while still getting a look at other players trying to earn rotation or merely roster spots.

"Hopefully Noah (Vonleh) and Jake (Layman) will be able to play, so that will change the rotation a little bit," Portland Coach Terry Stotts said Thursday after practice. "Playing 14 guys the last time, I think the guys like Dame and CJ and those guys will play about the same amount and then after that we'll see how it goes."

Vonleh and Layman are coming off injuries but have practiced the last two days and it is expected they will be ready to go when the Phoenix Suns visit Moda Center for the Trail Blazers' second exhibition game.

Lillard played 22:58 in the first game and McCollum played 22:02 and that will probably remain fairly consistent through at least the early part of the exhibition season.

Can Stotts manage to play more than 14 of his available healthy camp roster of 16?

"That was probably pushing it at 14," he said with a smile. "Our guys (meaning his regular rotation players) like to play and trying to keep their minutes under 20 is difficult. The more their minutes go up, it's difficult to get those other guys in there."





A true frosh starting at QB against the Huskies? Bad idea

A true frosh starting at QB against the Huskies? Bad idea

If this story is true, if the Ducks really are going to start freshman quarterback Justin Herbert against the No. 5 team in the country Saturday, there are a whole lot of things wrong with that idea. Let me mention just a few:

  • A true frosh without a redshirt season -- is he ready? There were times earlier in the season when the coaching staff could have given him more playing time but did not. I'm still not sure why.
  • Giving a young quarterback his first start against a team that appears to dine on even the most experienced of quarterbacks, could end up as an offensive disaster and worse -- an injury to a kid who may not be as skilled as he could be in evading the pass rush.
  • Why not wait for the bye week to follow and use him against California? Wouldn't that make more sense?
  • Most teams, most coaches, I believe, have always tried to put their young quarterbacks in a position to succeed in their first start -- not be beat up, battered and perhaps overwhelmed. An assignment against the hungry Dawgs from the north might prove to be a detriment to his development. Quarterbacks who get hit a lot, especially young ones, can get a little timid.

Let me suggest that the only good thing that could come of this is for the Ducks to either win the game or perform well enough to keep it close. And, of course, get Herbert -- who by all accounts is a terrific young player -- through the game without incident. I'm certain somebody on the Oregon coaching staff must believe the kid is ready for this assignment and can handle it.

But you know what? It seems like a real panic move to me. And something else, too.

It appears to me that Dakota Prukop is being made the scapegoat for the team's three-game losing streak. And that's not at all fair. Has he been terrific? No. But he's been OK and hasn't cost this team games, either. There are plenty of reasons the Ducks are not playing well and the blame can go from the top down in the program. I hate to see a one-season transfer who has been in uniform for less than half a season take the rap for this team's problems.

Especially if we're looking at a coaching staff that just flat doesn't know what else to do but change quarterbacks.