PORTLAND, Ore. — After another dispiriting loss Tuesday, the slumping Trail Blazers have lost six of seven, eight of 11 and are making a quick descent down the Western Conference standings.
It's time to check in on the Blazers with another edition of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast.
This week, we discuss what's next for this team, why the defense has fallen apart and predict the outcome of the Blazers' next four games.
Listen to the most recent edition of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast:
1. After the first-round playoff sweep last season, many fans were calling for major changes. It's happening again. A vocal contingent of Blazers fans, no longer mollified by the Blazers' strong start (it seems so long ago), are now filling Twitter and Reddit with thoughts on big trades, big rotation changes and big coaching changes. So, where should the Blazers go from here?
Orlando: BLOW. IT. UP. I’m kidding, but I understand why so many are ready for change. It seems to be an annual occurrence around this time. Last year, they had the same exact record through 24 games and were in the middle of a five-game losing streak. Two years ago, they were 12-12 and on their way to losing 10 out of 11. The year before that, they were 10-14. This has become par for the course and Blazers fans are clearly used to it. This is who they are and as long as you didn’t get caught up in the early success, you knew this was coming. You also know where it’s heading. A tight race in the West where a couple of games could decide who’s fourth and who’s ninth. The urgency has to pick up, the defense has to be better and the slow starts have to stop. Where did the bench go? Remember when that was a strength? Terry Stotts has raised his voice and Damian Lillard reportedly spoke to the team at halftime in Dallas, but the losses are mounting right now and so is the frustration. It’s all about effort to me, but lose a couple more games this week and big changes could be a reality.
Nate: This is not a front office that overreacts, perhaps to a fault, so I don’t expect any big changes. Nothing’s changed from the offseason in terms of trade assets, and it’s not the time of the season when splash moves happen. So, a big deal isn’t going to happen. I don’t anticipate a major rotation change because, with the exception of Evan Turner, no one on the bench has played well enough to warrant being plugged into the starting lineup. And a big coaching change would be a knee-jerk reaction that doesn’t actually fix the team’s current deficiencies. Blazers fans worried about this possibility before the season: That they would see the same type of team who hovers slightly above .500, flirts with taking the next step, but comes back down to reality. This is the make-it-or-break-it season for the Blazers’ core group. It’s up to them to make it, and like Damian Lillard said, they have to fight. There isn’t going to be anyone else walking through the door to save the day.
Jared: Well, it’s clearly time to trade Damian Lillard. Just kidding! Nobody’s calling for that (except Lakers fans). I don’t think Blazers fans want a total teardown of this roster. But many do want to see changes and some are asking for major moves, even if those don’t constitute a complete rebuild. The most common big-ticket suggestions right now are to fire Stotts and trade CJ McCollum. I don’t think they should fire Stotts. He’s a good coach and firing him would upset Lillard, which isn't a wise move. Nor do I think they should trade McCollum, at least not yet. What the front office should do is use the next month as a definitive evaluation period. The schedule the next month is full of playoff contenders, the same kind of teams Portland is likely to face in the playoffs. If the Blazers can’t win more games against those kind of teams than they lose in the next month, then the front office should begin planning to make moves to change the makeup of this roster. The schedule eases up in January and the front office can't afford to be duped by a likely surge against weaker competition. The evaluation needs to be happen over the next 30 days.
2. The Blazers have a lot of problems right now, but chief among them seems to be the defense. Over the past 11 games, Portland's defense ranks 29th in the NBA, surrendering 117 points per 100 possessions (shudder). What is wrong with the Blazers' defense?
Nate: Terry Stotts mentioned a number of reasons for the defensive struggles from communication, to defending 3-point shots, to not stopping the ball in transition. At this point, I think it’s an effort issue. Maurice Harkless said it himself after the Mavericks loss: “I think it’s more of a mentality thing.” The Blazers haven’t come out with any urgency on the defensive end to start games. In six of their last eight games, they’ve given up more than 60 points in the first half. During this stretch when the Blazers have lost six of seven, they’ve allowed opponents to shoot better than 50 percent and their defensive rating is 119.5, both second worst in the NBA. We know the Blazers have the ability to play better defensively. They were a top-five defensive team through the first 10 games this season and were top 10 last season. We’ve seen Portland make comeback attempts in the second half of these losses, in part due to improved defensive play. But for whatever reason, they seem to lack intensity on that end of the floor to start the game. To me, as Harkless said, that seems like a mentality issue.
Jared: The Blazers are doing a lot of things wrong on defense. Their rotations are slow or non-existent, their closeouts are half-hearted or not at all, they’ve been unable to deter penetration, and their communication is lacking. It’s all a mess. But I think the biggest problem is the performance of the guards on this roster. They took a step forward on defense last season, but this season, both Lillard and McCollum have regressed considerably. Once again, they rank among the worst defensive players in the league. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus, McCollum ranks 421st in defensive RPM (out of 442 players) and Lillard ranks 419th. The rest of the guards in the rotation aren’t much better. Nik Stauskas is the worst defender on the team, ranking 432nd in the league. And Seth Curry ranks 315th. That performance has wasted the consistently strong defensive efforts of players like Jusuf Nurkic (22nd in the NBA in defensive RPM) and Al-Farouq Aminu (47th). Until the Blazers see better defense from their guards, they will continue to struggle.
Orlando: During camp and into the preseason, there seemed to be an obsession with defense. Players brought it up all the time. That was the focus. Not sure where that mentality went. In Dallas, bad offense turned into poor defense — 22 points off 19 turnovers. In San Antonio, the Spurs were so comfortable, they shot 70 percent from three and 60 percent from the field. They’re giving up an average of 121 points per game in their last six losses and most of those games they’ve trailed by double digits in the first half. I know the competition has picked up, but this feels more like a mentality/effort issue than anything else.
3. The Blazers play four games between now and the next time we meet: Thursday vs. the Suns (4-19), Saturday vs. the Timberwolves (12-12), Tuesday at the Rockets (11-12) and Wednesday at the Grizzlies (13-9). Which games do the Blazers win and which do they lose?
Jared: It’s hard to see the Blazers winning any games right now. That said, I do think they’ll beat the Suns at home. Phoenix has won just four games this season. They rank 28th in both offense and defense and have the worst net rating in the NBA. This is a game the Blazers should win. I’m going to pick the Blazers to lose the other three games, though. Until I see this team put forth the kind of consistent defensive effort it takes to win games against teams with a pulse, I can’t pick them to win. Over the past seven games, the Blazers are 1-6 and have the worst net rating in the NBA, losing games by an average of 13.1 points per 100 possessions. During that same time frame, the Timberwolves have the second-best net rating in the league. The Rockets rank 16th and the Grizzlies 18th. I think the Timberwolves are clearly better than Portland right now. The Rockets’ offense has been good enough that they can win a shootout at home against the Blazers. And the Grizzlies should be able to slow it down and beat up on a Portland team playing the second night of a back-to-back on the road. I hope I’m wrong.
Orlando: Phoenix seems like the perfect opponent to get right with. If not, this will be the lowest point of the season. The Suns are bad. That should be a win. The Blazers and Timberwolves split the last two meetings this season. Both winning on their home floor. Portland has been a much better team at the Moda Center and Minnesota is 2-8 on the road this season. I like the Blazers at home. Houston is struggling the same way Portland is. The Rockets have lost five of seven. Two teams desperate for a win. I like it. I’ll take the Blazers to beat the Rockets in what should be a very close game. Memphis has cooled off recently and has lost 4 of 5. These are winnable games, folks! Since this will be the second game of a back-to-back on the road for the Blazers, I’m going to give the edge to the Grizzlies. This week, Portland goes 3-1.
Nate: This team has been so inconsistent, these picks seem to get tougher as the season drags on. The Blazers end their three-game losing streak by beating Phoenix at home. They’ll follow that up with another win against Minnesota, who continues to struggle on the road this season. But given the last four pitiful road performances Portland has put together, I can’t pick them to win on the road against Houston or Memphis. Blazers go 2-2.
SEASON PREDICTION RECORDS
- Jared: 11-10
- Nate: 10-11
- Orlando: 10-11
MEET THE 3-ON-3 BLAZERS TEAM
Orlando Sanchez is the sports anchor and reporter for KGW News, Sports Sunday and Friday Night Flights. Orlando has covered multiple NBA Finals, NCAA Basketball Tournaments and World Series.
Jared Cowley is a digital media producer who writes about the Blazers and other topics for KGW.com. Jared has written about the Jazz and Warriors as a sports editor at two daily newspapers.
Nate Hanson is a digital producer who contributes to KGW.com’s coverage of the Blazers, Ducks, Beavers and high school sports.