PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers won two games in a row over the weekend to get back to .500 on the young season, but that wasn't enough to impress national NBA pundits.
A look at this week's NBA power rankings from ESPN, The Athletic, NBA.com and Sports Illustrated show the Blazers sliding in somewhere between 14 and 19 on the list. Is Portland's placing in these rankings fair? Based on the Blazers' early season performance, they could be placed a bit higher. Portland ranks eighth in net rating, according to NBA.com and sixth in the same metric by Cleaning the Glass (their metrics exclude data from garbage time).
But it's easy to understand why everyone is down on the Blazers right now. Looking at the big picture, Portland is a franchise in shambles. The team's performance has been up and down through the first 10 games, with the Blazers playing well at home (5-1) while still looking for their first road win. But more than the on-court performance, it's off-the-court issues that have plagued Portland for months and cast a shadow over the franchise.
News broke over the weekend that the organization has hired an independent, outside firm to investigate the Blazers' workplace environment under president of basketball operations Neil Olshey. Add to that a chaotic offseason in Portland — the front office bungled the hiring process for a new head coach, the team's franchise player publicly weighed his future in Portland for the first time, and one of the team's assistant coaches was placed on leave after he was charged with defrauding the league's retirement health-care plan — and it's no wonder NBA pundits are quick to doubt the Blazers.
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The cloud hanging over the franchise may not dissipate for a while, but on the court, the Blazers have a chance this week to prove they aren't completely inept away from the Moda Center. Portland begins a road trip Tuesday, with four games in six nights against the Clippers (5-4), Suns (5-3), Rockets (1-9) and Nuggets (5-4).
Here's how the Blazers fared in the latest batch of NBA power rankings:
ESPN: Blazers rank 18 (down 1)
What they wrote: The Blazers capped off a tumultuous week by winning their second straight game and blowing out the short-handed Lakers 105-90. But it was a tough week in Portland, not only because they were on a three-game slide earlier in the week. The franchise announced last week that it had hired an independent firm to investigate and review concerns about the workplace environment under general manager Neil Olshey. It's just another storyline to add to the drama that has surrounded the Blazers since the offseason, with speculation surrounding Damian Lillard's future and some pushback over the hiring of Chauncey Billups as head coach. — Ohm Youngmisuk
The Athletic: Blazers rank 14 (up 1)
What they wrote: The Portland Trail Blazers’ problem the last couple years (aside from injuries) has been their offense is great and their defense is mediocre at best. So far this season, they’ve been a top-10 offense, and their recent wins over the Lakers and Pacers have helped boost them from a bottom-10 defense to middle of the road. How much of this should be attributed to a trend in the right direction? Is Chauncey Billups changing the defensive exploits of this team? The Blazers aren’t sending opponents to the free-throw line, and they’re rebounding tremendously. But they still give up a high percentage of made shots, especially from deep. I do think their defense will struggle and this thing hasn’t turned in the right direction on that end of the floor. But also, their offense has been good, and Damian Lillard hasn’t even really gotten rolling yet. I do think this is pretty much the same old Blazers as previous seasons, but that’s often been good enough to have them in the top four in the conference by season’s end. So maybe it won’t be so bad this time? — Zach Harper
NBA.com: Blazers rank 14 (up 1)
What they wrote: With how pronounced Damian Lillard's early-season struggles have been, there are probably multiple factors (including an "irritated" core injury) involved. As noted last week, the Blazers' offense is different, having seen big jumps in both ball and player movement. Lillard's touches per 36 minutes (82) are at the same level as they were last season, but a higher percentage of those touches are originating in the frontcourt. He's had possession of the ball for 18% of his minutes on the floor, down from 23% last season. And the percentage of his shots that have come after seven or more dribbles is down from 44% to 34%. Lillard's shooting (34% from the field, 22% from 3-point range through Friday) is still the strangest storyline of the first three weeks. The nadir might have been a blown layup to take the lead late in Cleveland on Wednesday. It led to a Cavs fast break and dropped the Blazers to 0-4 on the road, where they've allowed more than 115 points per 100 possessions (the league's second worst road mark). Robert Covington hit three big 3s late to help them come back against Indiana on Friday, and Lillard drained a season-high six 3s against the Lakers on Saturday. Time will tell if that was the start of the inevitable hot streak. The start of the Blazers' four-game trip is their third meeting with the Clippers already. They've split the first two meetings, and neither one was close. — John Schuhmann
Sports Illustrated: Blazers rank 19 (down 4)
What they wrote: Damian Lillard's shooting slump mercifully ended against the Lakers on Saturday, with Lillard connecting on six of his 14 three-point attempts. The Blazers have been better defensively, but ugly losses to the injury-ravaged Sixers and Cavaliers on a recent road trip showed they have a long way to go. — Chris Mannix