CHARLOTTE – Something is wrong with the Trail Blazers and everybody knows it, but no one has a simple explanation, let alone a plausible theory.
So perhaps it wasn’t surprising Wednesday that star point guard Damian Lillard flipped the roles after another loss Wednesday, this time by 22 points in Charlotte, and asked the questions.
After he finished answering questions for nearly seven minutes – which included questions about the team’s sometimes morose energy levels and whether coach Terry Stotts is still reaching the players, Lillard turned his Iphone to two local reporters as if he was a media member asking a question.
“What you all think the problem is?’’ Lillard asked.
Much like his teammates during this confusing 18-26 start, we shrugged.
From one locker stall over, Lillard’s close friend and offensive cohort CJ McCollum chimed in.
“If we knew, don’t you think we’d fix it by now,’’ McCollum said.
As much as fans would like there to be an unearthing of sexy storylines like locker room discontent, or dislike for the coach, or players unhappy with roles, it doesn’t appear those disruptive forces are in play with these Blazers.
But with each passing practice, and each postgame letdown, more and more is being revealed about this Portland team, with Wednesday’s postgame in Charlotte offering perhaps our greatest window into the inner struggle of this young group.
Mason Plumlee was the most pointed, calling out not the team’s effort, but its energy level, which is an important distinction. Never has it appeared this team is dogging it on the court this season, but it has become almost palatable how lifeless and dull the game has become for the team.
They are playing, but not with energy. They are trying, but they are not having fun.
“I don’t think our energy is good, man, honestly,’’ Plumlee said. “It is in spurts. We will rally sometimes but it’s not sustained. That has to change.’’
How does that change?
“I couldn’t tell you,’’ Plumlee said. “You just have to want it. You have to want it.’’
Lillard, the unquestioned leader of the team, was not more than three feet away when Plumlee made the pointed remarks and later he echoed the same sentiment.
“I think our energy has to be much better, more consistently,’’ Lillard said. “When things go well, you get energy … (and) I don’t think we are giving ourselves enough situations to feel good about what we are doing, often enough. Our energy drops because of that, and teams take advantage.’’
Lillard pointed to Wednesday’s game, during which the Blazers closed a 14-point deficit to 79-72 at the end of the third quarter. The push was punctuated by a Noah Vonleh rebound basket in the final seconds of the quarter. Vonleh is one of the most well-liked players on the team, a guy everyone is pulling for, a guy whose success almost always elicits some of the more animated reactions across the team.
But when the Blazers gathered at the end of the quarter, there was little if any reaction.
“We cut that lead to seven. You know, we’ve got a ballgame. We should feel good about, excited about, the way the game is going,’’ Lillard said. “Our energy – we should be excited about that – and when we come to the bench, it should be loud, we should be ready to come go out there and get after it in the fourth quarter.’’
Instead, the Blazers trudged out for the fourth with the enthusiasm of a TSA agent checking IDs. The result: Charlotte scored the first nine points of the fourth and within two minutes, it was a 16-point deficit.
“It wasn’t there, the way it should be,’’ LIllard said of the energy. “That’s because we didn’t have enough plays to feel good about to pick ourselves up as far as our energy. That’s not going to get it done. That’s not good enough.’’
Sometimes when a team looks like the Blazers – lifeless and clearly not having fun -- it signals a disconnect between the players and coaching staff. That doesn’t appear to be the case here, as Lillard staunchly defended coach Terry Stotts and his staff.
And to Stotts’ credit, he has searched for ways to engage and involve this team, from taking suggestions from the bigs to employ more traps and blitzes, to implementing a dodge-ball game during a practice, to encouraging the players to speak up in Tuesday’s film session in Charlotte.
Is Stotts still able to reach the team?
“That’s a given,’’ Lillard said. “We all respect the hell out of Coach Stotts, the entire coaching staff. That’s another thing that is frustrating for us as players: the amount of joy we get out of playing for our coaching staff, and how much time we know they spend in preparing us and how sharp they are … and us not executing it to the best of our ability.
“We want to go out there and bring W’s for the effort they put out,’’ Lillard said. “They have our attention, we respect them. It’s more so us than everybody else. Coaches aren’t the ones out there shooting. They are not the ones out there turning it over. They are not out there having to play defense. I … I … don’t think that is even close to the issue.’’
So what are the issues?
Clearly, defense is at the top of the concerns. Out of 30 NBA teams, the Blazers rank 28th in defensive efficiency. As was painfully obvious in the blowout loss to Washington, elite guards such as John Wall and Bradley Beal have no problem penetrating and getting to the rim. It has been a season-long problem and one that has unfairly put the Blazers interior defenders in the spotlight as being unable to protect the rim.
Also, the expected strength of the Blazers’ second unit has been a decided weakness. Depth figured to be an asset for this team, but there have been drop-offs from last season in the play of Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis, while Allen Crabbe mixes a superb game between four or five non-descript games. Meanwhile, Evan Turner has recovered nicely from his slow start but still seems like an awkward fit to the flow and rhythm of the team.
But more than anything, the vibe of the team seems off. As Lillard noted after his brief role as reporter Wednesday, the Blazers last year just had more “fight” to them during games. They would “ugly” the game up with fouls, and would do a better job at dictating the pace and feel of the game.
Where that fight went, where the fun of playing the game went, is hard to pinpoint. This still seems like a close team, and the players still remark that they like each other and enjoy hanging around each other.
But as one key player noted, that type of chemistry – liking each other and being a bunch of nice guys – is overrated and doesn’t always translate to winning games. There is no one willing to rock the boat, no one who speaks out, no one who calls it like it is – all things which veteran Chris Kaman was so masterful at the last two seasons.
Also, much of this team’s vibe last season, and through the opening weeks of this season, were fueled by the powerful force that is Lillard and his exceptional play.
He was a player who would take over games, or establish a tone early, and the team seemed to feed off that and take on an air of invincibility.
Over the past couple months, that swagger this team felt in having one of the game’s takeover players has not been present, in part because Lillard hasn’t been that type of player lately.
That’s not to say Lillard isn’t trying. He is, in reality, probably trying harder than he ever has in his career. He has at times this season bristled that outsiders doubt him – especially following the team’s improved play while he was injured -- and he has vowed that he will carry the team, remarking that people shouldn’t underestimate the burden he can shoulder.
“We are trying, we try hard,’’ Lillard said. “Guys try hard, guys want to do the right things, want to help the team, and it’s a little bit tough when you try so hard and it goes the wrong way.’’
But for every blank face in the Blazers locker room after these losses, there is still a surprising and overriding feeling that this can turn around. And slowly but surely, it seems the issues plaguing this team are bubbling to the surface – be it through communication in the Charlotte film session to questions about the team’s energy the next night.
“When you have hard times, which is what we are having so far this season, you have to be a man,’’ Lillard said. “You have to be man enough to say we haven’t been good enough, but you also have to be strong enough mentally to keep pushing forward. That’s what we have to keep doing – pushing forward – but also understand we haven’t been good enough.’’
Next up: Blazers at Philadelphia, 4 p.m. Friday (CSN).