Stuck in the mud with the Blazers

I dunno. To me it says "Walk all over us."

I spent a few hours the last couple of nights looking in on the Trail Blazers. They were at the quarter pole of the long NBA regular season, and I had told myself when the current campaign started that I would wait until Thanksgiving to start forming any judgments.

The team had started off the season unexpectedly strong, posting a 7-3 record out of the gate. But since then, they've gone 4-8, and disturbingly, they've lost seven out of their last eight games.

It all started to go bad when the team's star, Damian Lillard, strained a calf muscle – at least, that's the official description of his injury – and tried to play through it. The team began losing, and then Dame was hurting so bad that he had to sit out. They say he's coming back by this coming Sunday, but at what strength and for how long are big question marks. He's been in only 11 of the 22 games so far, this after missing most of last season with an abdominal injury that required surgery.

The young guys the Blazers have around Lillard have a whole lot of talent. There's Anfernee Simons, who can shoot the lights out, and a couple of stone-cold ballers in Jerami Grant and the rookie Shaedon Sharpe. But they're kids, they need leadership, and honestly, they don't seem to be getting much of it.

I keep trying to give head coach Chauncey Billups the benefit of the doubt, but his lack of experience is really showing. The other night the Blazers blew an 18-point lead late in the third quarter at home against the Clippers. The Clips were without their three best players, and a guy who just got off the bus from the G League played the whole fourth quarter, owning the Portland squad with defense and on the glass. If you can't counter that kind of chess move and you wind up losing the quarter by 19 points, maybe you're not a very good coach.

A professional writer who follows the team way more closely and knowledgably than I ever could summed it up here:

Tuesday night was about the successful gambles Ty Lue made to defeat his former assistant coach Chauncey Billups. And while it may not be for the next game, or even several games from now, Billups hopefully learned a lesson from his former mentor when it comes to maintaining the flexibility of thought.

While Billups has every right to be frustrated with his team for allowing Norm Powell to get to his right hand, he also has every right to be upset with himself that his former mentor outmaneuvered him and he was too late to respond. Whether it was Batum covering Simons nearly full court in the 4th quarter and not finding alternative ways to get into the offense, or Lue going with recent G League arrival Moussa Diabate to switch out onto Simons on ball screens, forcing others to create offense – the Blazers failed to answer the questions Lue demanded of them.

Could they score if Grant and Simons weren’t able to get to their spots? Could they play a 5-out style for an entire quarter? The answer was no and the Blazers even got lucky with a few desperation shots from Justise Winslow going in. Foul trouble for Drew Eubanks complicated things, but that’s exactly why tonight was trouble for Billups. The comforts he has leaned on weren’t there and his inability to properly adjust was a difference, if not the ultimate one. Both coaches were working with limited decks, but only one stopped shuffling.

The Blazers are limited at the guard spot suddenly and Lue might be the best coach in the NBA so he asked them to play a game based on guard skills. Asking the Blazers to play a 1-on-1 game without Dame proved to be a smart move, even more so when Grant fouled out of the game. But Billups also made it hard by continuing to go with Justise Winslow over Shaedon Sharpe, even with Grant out of the game.

The Blazers were killed in that contest by a couple of players they let go, Powell and Robert Covington. Those guys seemed to know more about what was happening than Billups did. Powell scored 32. Old man Nic Batum, another Blazer castoff, made a key shot and played some tight defense down the stretch against Simons. The Ghosts of Moda Past convincingly prevailed.

Last night, the Blazers had to fly down to L.A. on no rest and face the creaky old Lakers, who were ready for them and didn't look too tired. The Blazers played the first half pretty much even, but they fell behind to start the third quarter and were never anywhere near being in it after that. They lost by 19.

And so as much as I was hoping to be able to give Billups a grade of B so far, I'm afraid it's a B-minus at this point, and it may be a C-plus by Christmas.

Maybe Lillard will come back healthy and turn things around, but it will probably take a while, clutching and scratching as the record slips below .500. I hope for his sake that the latest injury is just a blip, but those calf things have a way of becoming Achilles tendon things, and that would be a disaster for both him and the team. 

All that said, I refuse to despair. The euphoria of those first few weeks is something we all want to feel again soon. Lord knows, Portland needs something to be going right. So go Blazers! Just don't bet on them.


  1. I think they are secretly in stealth mode tanking. They don't have the talent- especially shooters besides the big 3 of Dame, Grant, and Simons. They also don't have enough length. Billups has been OK, but responded way too late in the 4th.

    The Laker game was more of the same. Winslow going 3-3 from 3 is NOT going to happen that often. That said, I'd rather have him than Josh Hart, even though Josh is a great rebounder and runout specialist. Just not enough size or shooting and he is more tradeable.


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