Each week, Blazers: Roses and Rain will take a look at three things going well for the Portland Trail Blazers and three things that are going poorly or need improvement. I was out of town last Friday, so it’s been two weeks since our last edition. The Blazers might as well have been on vacation too since they haven’t won a game in those two weeks and now find themselves with an 11-18 record.
Rose #1: Damian Lillard Says He Feels Good
Lillard returned to the lineup last Sunday against the Minnesota Timberwolves. After the game he said his abdominal issue felt good. He then went on to play in both games of a back-to-back situation on Tuesday and Wednesday. It is encouraging that the cortisone injection he received a couple weeks ago combined with resting for ten days appears to have worked for now. However, it could flare back up at any point which is why it seems crazy to play him 37, 47, and 38 minutes when the Blazers had 3 games in 4 days. Head Coach Chauncey Billups has to find a way to not put such a toll on Lillard, especially while losing games anyway.
Rain #1: 7 Game Losing Streak
The Blazers have dug themselves in a hole that they couldn’t afford to get into this season. After somewhat surviving a difficult early season schedule, the bottom has fallen out. This was supposed to be the month they rose in the standings. Instead they’ve fallen out of the playoff picture, currently sitting tied for 11th in the Western Conference. It’s hard to believe that at one point this team was 10-8. Since then they’ve only had one victory in their last eleven games. That one win was against the Detroit Pistons who have the worst record in the NBA.
Rose #2: Silver Lining to Losing
The team and specifically Lillard aren’t going to give up on making the playoffs. While the spirited competitiveness is great to have, making the playoffs and losing in the first round and therefore also losing their first round draft pick this year (if they don’t make the playoffs they keep it and it goes to the same scenario next year) will potentially hurt this team more than help it. If the losses continue to pile up, maybe Lillard would warm up to the idea of getting his abdominal surgery out of the way now so he is healthy heading into next season. The worse the Blazers end up being this year the better odds they have at getting one of the top picks in the NBA Draft Lottery. There are two things that make this intriguing. The first is that the higher the pick is the more value that asset becomes in a trade for an established player. The second is that there are three prospects that are considered potential game changers at the top of almost everyone’s draft board. Two of those players, Paolo Banchero and Jabari Smith, are long and athletic wings that could possibly come in from day one and change the course of this team.
Rain #2: CJ McCollum’s Collapsed Lung
A scary diagnosis for McCollum after a CT scan showed he had pneumothorax. Initially the injury was thought to be a bruised rib. Thankfully, the imaging found what was really going on after McCollum’s pain worsened. The offense has been dreadful without McCollum, as their offensive rating has dropped to 14th in the league and they are now ranked 25th in net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating). The defense hasn’t improved without him either.
Rose #3: Moves Should be Coming
Interim General Manager Joe Cronin can’t let this continue much longer. While he doesn’t want to just make a move to make a move, it is painfully obvious this roster needs a shakeup. Cronin finds himself in a situation where he really has nothing to lose by taking a big swing in a trade. If he’s unable to pull off any noteworthy deals, then it’s unlikely he’d be able to keep the job moving forward. If he’s able to right the ship and pull off some good moves then he’s in a good position to have the interim tag removed and be the GM moving forward. Cronin, Billups, and Lillard all seem to be communicative and share a common goal, which should help them identify which each of the three needs to be successful in their positions.
Rain #3: No Signs of Improvement On the Court
When a new style is implemented there will undoubtedly be growing pains. After 29 games, the visible mental mistakes should be getting fewer and fewer. Players should be playing the way their coach wants them to play more consistently. Those bad habits they claimed to have heading into the season should be starting to dissipate by now. That tough and scrappy defense that Billups said they had to play hasn’t come close to showing up yet. On offense, there is still way too much stagnation and reliance on pick and roll. Lillard could go on a tear and mask the problems as they get back into the playoff chase, but that wouldn’t change the fact that this team has hardly done any of the things that Billups said they needed to do to improve. If the players aren’t executing the game plans, then where is the accountability?