For most of the last two weeks, I’ve rationalized the Blazers’ struggles in various ways. The Utah game? Well, the Jazz have made a name for themselves this season coming back from double-digit deficits in the fourth quarter, and besides, Portland didn’t have Brandon Roy to put the team on his back late like he usually does. What about the second loss to New Orleans? Easy. Roy was trying to do too much and struggled to fit in with the rest of the offense in his first game back from injury. The first three games of the team’s 0-fer road trip that mercifully ended last night could also be explained away. The Celtics are the defending Eastern Conference champions and are favorites to repeat. The Blazers did an admirable job of hanging with them but in the end, the better team won out. The losses to New Jersey and Philadelphia hurt more, given that they were against worse teams (at least on paper) than Portland. But those games were also played without Sean Marks, and as silly as it sounds to call Marks an X-factor, having no big bodies besides Marcus Camby to bang with Shaq and Brook Lopez will come back to bite you. It’s just a rough patch, I kept telling myself. They’ll be fine. That’s what we do as fans–we give our team the benefit of the doubt and hope for the best.
But then I watched the second half of last night’s game against the Washington Wizards, and everything changed. I thought Joel Przybilla’s return would give the team a much-needed lift in the middle, and he looked as good as we could have ever hoped given that he had not seen the court in almost a year. But he was just about the only redeeming thing about that game. I can’t say for sure, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a more pathetic, disheartening, and demoralizing twenty-four minutes of professional basketball I’ve watched in several years. You’d have to mine the depths of the Jail Blazer era to find an equal to this game, and this may have been more painful. During those dark years, we knew the Blazers were a 30-win team at best, and weren’t surprised when they didn’t show up for games against bad teams. But these Blazers are supposed to be contenders. Analysts like John Hollinger were floating them before the season as a possible team that could challenge the Lakers. And why not? Given that they won 50 games last year despite playing a large stretch of the season with Juwan Howard starting at center and put up an admirable fight against Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs despite a clearly-not-100-percent Brandon Roy, why wouldn’t they make a leap this year?
There’s no clear answer. That’s what’s most frustrating about this. You can’t point to one trade, one off-season signing, or one player or rotation issue as the reason the Blazers have lost six in a row and might be looking at a return to the lottery. Switch Martell Webster and Jerryd Bayless out for Wesley Matthews and you’ve got almost exactly the same roster the Blazers fielded going into the playoffs last year. They’ve been relatively lucky with injuries–the operative word being relatively, although compared to last year’s almost comical list of casualties, any amount of injuries seems reasonable. Rudy Fernandez is supposedly happy. Andre Miller is now fully comfortable with Nate McMillan’s style after some issues at the beginning of last season. Rookie Armon Johnson is showing promise. Camby was a godsend at last year’s trade deadline, and so far this year he’s been just as much of a consistent force in the middle, capable of putting up at the minimum at least a respectable showing against any big in the league. LaMarcus Aldridge looks a lot more comfortable as a second scoring option. It’s all there on paper, but something just isn’t quite right.
Last night, there was plenty of blame to go around. There’s no excuse for a team with as many weapons as the Blazers to fail to break 80 points against a defense as bad as Washington’s, but nobody in a Portland uniform seemed to be able to execute. Washington gave them plenty of chances to run away with the game. They didn’t play particularly well, and made almost as many turnovers and took almost as many bad shots as Portland. The way the Wizards played, there was no reason the Blazers shouldn’t have won by double digits. But coming out of halftime with a 12-point lead, Portland did everything wrong. In the third quarter, it seemed at times as if they were posting more turnovers than points. They couldn’t convert on second-chance opportunities. It seemed briefly like Miller was going to ignite a fourth-quarter run, but it simply didn’t materialize. And normally, we’d be able to chalk up a poor performance like this to the team simply having an off-night. But not this time. Not after the way they’ve played the last two weeks. This is real now.
So what needs to be done? That’s the thing–we don’t know. Fire Nate? Maybe. I’ve always had a lot of respect for him, and he hasn’t made any radical changes to his style of coaching this season. I hate to be that guy who dumps on the coach when things get rough (for instance, I feel terrible for Erik Spoelstra having to be the fall guy for a Miami team that clearly just doesn’t know how to play together), but there must be something the players aren’t responding to anymore. With that said, though, whom would you suggest the Blazers hire as a replacement? Is there any available coach who would be able to come in and make this team respectable again overnight? Which players do you trade, and for whom? The last time the Blazers were at a crossroads like this, there were a few bad-character guys that were no-brainers as to who needed to who needed to go. There’s no Zach Randolph/Darius Miles-like cancer this time, which makes it harder to suggest specific ways to improve.
All we can do right now is wait for Rich Cho to make a move. What move that will be, we don’t know. But something’s got to give. When we look back on this season, the Wizards game will be the turning point, the moment when an unfortunate losing skid turned into something truly worth panicing over. If the Blazers turn it around, this road trip could be a blessing in disguise. But if the season continues to go down the tubes, we will be able to point to these four games in November and December as the end of an all-too-short era in Trail Blazers history. Either way, it’s going to be a long rest of the season.