Damian Lillard's defensively deficient Blazers battle burden of expectations
After last season's surprising success, Portland is trying to shrug off its slow start
Damian Lillard has noticed that he's getting different kinds of questions this season. Instead of the easy stuff about the Portland Trail Blazers' chemistry and his leadership, he has to answer for the Blazers' shortcomings. No more are they the NBA's feel-good story. That was last season.
Now that Portland is coming off a 44-win season, a trip to the second round of the playoffs and a summer in which ownership spent $348 million in long-term salary commitments, progress is expected. Mistakes are magnified. Being dead last in defensive rating is not acceptable, and neither is having a losing record. The 9-10 Blazers have mostly the same roster as a year ago, but are dealing with a completely new challenge: staying poised against a background of early-season disappointment.
"You gotta stay into the moment," Lillard said in the middle of a recent road trip that featured four losses in five games. "I think that's huge because each game, guys like yourself and others, media members, you got a job to do. You've gotta write about every game, the highs, the lows. You gotta kind of be that, and make sure the people read and they see what's going on. And when you don't stay in the moment, you get caught up in what this person said, and then things start to seem like it's worse than it really is."
The franchise player, by the way, isn't complaining about the coverage. You can't do that after telling reporters that "we kind of suck right now" following a blowout on the road. He's just more concerned about what's happening internally.
"I mean, there can be as much expectations as people want there to be," Lillard said. "They can expect what they want, but if we don't expect a lot from ourselves, then it doesn't really matter. I'm proud of the fact that we expect a lot from ourselves, and it means something to us. The fact that we've dropped games and we haven't done things as well as we want to do 'em, it bothers us. And we want to be better at it. That alone gives me confidence."
Before a recent loss, Portland coach Terry Stotts joked that it pained him to keep describing his team's deficiencies on defense. Then he fired off a list of problems: "Individual defense, pick-and-roll defense, transition defense, defensive rebounding, communication. That's the start of it."
Portland is 25th in the league in defensive rebound percentage, and it is sending opponents to the free throw line more frequently than any team other than the Phoenix Suns. It was not exactly shutting everybody down last season, either, but it finished 20th in defensive rating and was significantly better than that during its surge in January and February. No one saw this kind of drop-off coming.
"I'm a big film guy, I like to study film, I like to look at numbers and understand what isn't working, why it's not working," Blazers big man Meyers Leonard said. "A lot it hasn't been, I don't think, statistical or film-oriented. It's more communicate in transition defense, like that second effort -- and I've noticed it with myself as well sometimes. On film, you're like, Dangit, you could have went and got that rebound or you could have had a deflected pass there. Whatever it may be, that little second-effort type stuff really helps a team."
Part of it is personnel. Al-Farouq Aminu, the Blazers' best and most versatile defender, has been sidelined since straining his calf on Nov. 8. Stotts had penciled him in as their starting power forward before the season started because he showed he could battle stronger players and stay in front of smaller ones. In the 209 minutes that he played, Portland allowed 103.1 points per 100 possessions, a middle-of-the-pack mark that would be perfectly fine for this roster.
"He's always usually good in the plus-minus, his defensive rating is always high," C.J. McCollum said. "He can rebound, block shots and stretch the floor. So we definitely miss him a lot, and it's showed."
Offseason addition Evan Turner, meanwhile, has the worst raw plus-minus and real plus-minus in the NBA. The Blazers have been outscored by 16.7 points per 100 possessions when he has been on the court. McCollum acknowledged that integrating a third playmaker has been "a process," and Turner said that it has taken time for him to get used to Portland's pace and Stotts' thick playbook.
While Turner has looked more comfortable lately, it seems overly optimistic to rely on Aminu's return simply sliding all the pieces into place. Nonetheless, the Blazers have tried not to panic. Leonard pointed to the fact that a bunch of them went to play pickup at the new court in the National Basketball Players Association's office on a recent off-day in New York. Big man Ed Davis, 27, laughed when describing himself and the 28-year-old Turner as this young team's "OGs." Lillard said the struggles will make them better in the long run.
"I know that we're going to be just fine," Leonard said. "Sometimes things, for whatever reason, take a little time. I know Dame talked about it the other day, and I've been here with Dame five years now, and I can see it, really, we're just about there. Sometimes it doesn't look it, we go through some lulls of five, six, seven minutes where we can't score and we're not getting stops. It'll all iron itself out. I can see it."
That mindset might be necessary for Portland to stay steady, but perhaps it has needed more of a sense of urgency. On Monday, Stotts decided to not only hold a long, demanding practice, but precede it with a brutal film session that focused on "basically all the things we did wrong," as Lillard put it, via Sean Meagher of the Oregonian. Stotts did something similar last January, and the hope is that this, too, will trigger a turnaround.
To some extent, expectations have warped the perception of these Blazers -- it was never reasonable to think that they absolutely had to win 50-plus games. What's going on now, though, clearly isn't good enough for the players and the coaches, who are all tired of discussing dismal defense. Forget building on last season's success; if they're going to just match it, then they need to figure things out soon. They all remember their magical 22-wins-in-30-games run, but they can't sneak up on anybody anymore.
"You don't want to have to rely on that, man," Davis said. "We played crazy in that stretch last year, and we don't want to have to fight that hard late in the year. We want to be cruising around April, March, you know what I mean? Resting guys and things like that. So that's where we really want to be at. But we'll keep fighting. We'll get there."
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