Editor's note: With the arrival of the NBA All-Star Break, CSN looks at the five most relevant/pressing issues with the Trail Blazers. The final installation features a look at the Blazers' mindset heading out of the break as they prepare for the season's final 26 games.
This is an uneasy time for the Trail Blazers, who are a battered, bruised and beleaguered bunch as they head out of the All-Star Break.
A winter spent dealing with frustrating underachievement has been compounded by recent injuries to Evan Turner (broken hand) and Al-Farouq Aminu (knee sprain), and a nagging ankle injury to star Damian Lillard. And now there is the uncertainty of an approaching trade deadline that has already improved two of the teams in the playoff hunt with the Blazers.
“We are in a tough place,’’ Damian Lillard said of the 23-33 Blazers. “I don’t think we have ever been in this position … even in my rookie year, I think we were at least playing good basketball. Right now, it’s very up-and-down for us. We’re not being consistent at anything.’’
The good news is the Blazers are only two games behind Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot. The bad news is they are only a half-game ahead of New Orleans, which greatly improved its roster when it acquired All-Star DeMarcus Cousins in a trade this week.
When the Blazers reconvene in Orlando for a Wednesday practice, they will have 26 games remaining and what is mostly considered a favorable schedule that includes 10 of their final 12 games at home.
“You have two options: Either run from it, or … come back and man up,’’ Lillard said.
Of all the Blazers, Lillard has been the most visible in his unhappiness with how the season has transpired. After the Blazers went into the break with a 111-88 loss in Utah – the team’s third straight and fifth in six games – he stayed in the arena long after his teammates left and was last seen sitting under the bleachers talking with assistant coach David Vanterpool.
Lillard has long looked at the Blazers’ success as a reflection of himself, and he entered the break knowing his play has dipped since returning from his sprained left ankle in early January. But he said he would take the break to regroup and recharge and rejoin the team in Orlando ready to make a push.
“I don’t want to say I’m excited, because it’s not a good position to be in,’’ Lillard said. “But I’m excited for the opportunity to rise to this struggle. I’m looking forward to it.’’
Others, like CJ McCollum, said the team needed the break.
“Did you see what happened in the game?’’ he said after the Utah rout.
By the time the Blazers play their next game – Thursday in Orlando – the NBA trading deadline will have passed four hours earlier.
Portland appears to be gearing toward the 2017 NBA Draft, where they have three first round picks (10, 22 and 28 as of today) , while also stating it is prepping for a playoff push.
Coach Terry Stotts said his message after the Utah game heading into the break was to the point: “Enjoy the break and come back to Orlando ready for a sprint to the end.’’
The players went into the break uneasily awaiting word of their future while also wondering which direction top executive Neil Olshey is going to take with the NBA’s third-highest paid roster.
“I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about (getting traded),’’ Ed Davis said. “Everybody thinks about it. I think everybody on this team, pretty much for the right price, is there for the taking except Dame, and possibly, CJ. If the right deal comes in that is best for the franchise, they are going to have to call that shot. That’s their job and what you are supposed to do.’’
Whether Olshey tries to acquire more picks, or whether he pairs one or more of the picks with a player to get some perimeter defense, or whether he chooses to stand pat, remains to be seen. The only insight Olshey has provided is that the league has been active in talks leading up to the deadline, with one blockbuster already going down.
New Orleans, a team that is 2.5 games out of the playoffs and just one-half game behind Portland, traded for DeMarcus Cousins. And Denver, which sits in the eighth spot, acquired Mason Plumlee from Portland in exchange for the less-accomplished Jusuf Nurkic, seemingly improving two of the teams Portland is battling with for the final spot.
The Blazers, rightfully so, are more concerned with themselves. Of their 26 remaining games, only 10 are against teams with winning records, which is a good thing considered Portland has only seven wins this season against teams with winning records today (Utah, Memphis twice, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Cleveland and Boston). Plus, with Turner out until mid-March and Aminu recovering from a knee sprain that kept him out of the last game, and Lillard still effected by his December ankle sprain, the Blazers know it will be an uphill march.
“I think of it as a test,’’ Lillard said. “It’s hard. Everybody has something to say about it, but it’s hard. I just tell myself that sometimes you have to go through a struggle. Since I’ve been here, we’ve had a good run. We’ve had good runs, and I always feel like when you go through tough things, you have a chance to make it special at the end.’’
McCollum said the Blazers’ standing could improve if they just close out games better. This year, the Blazers are 7-12 in games decided by five points or less. Last year, Portland was 9-11 in games decided by five or less.
“The year hasn’t gone as expected, however it’s not like we are out here getting shellacked,’’ McCollum said. “We’ve had some bad losses and we’ve had some good wins. But if you look at the difference of this year and last year, you can break it down to close losses. We are losing close games. Against good teams and against bad teams, we are losing close games. The difference is buzzer beaters, one stop, one rebound, one missed assignment.’’
It has added up to the worst All-Star record in Stotts’ five seasons in Portland (25-28; 36-17; 36-17; 27-27; 23-33), which brings Lillard back to that scenario with two options: run or man up.
“Personally, I’m going to use this break, I’m going to go relax, and I’m going to man up,’’ Lillard said. “Period. That’s what has to happen.’’
Part 1: The Rise of CJ McCollum
Part 2: Can Blazers be a title contender with Lillard/McCollum backcourt?
Part 3: Health of Lillard's ankle central to team's playoff push.
Part 4: Can newcomer Jusuf Nurkic infuse some hope?