After a 4-1 road trip and a stretch of dominance against weak teams which saw them run their record to 12-5, the Blazers are suddenly in danger of getting Nate McMillan fired, missing the playoffs, and being moved to another city.
Fingers are pointing everywhere. It's the offense that is sputtering because Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge can't adjust to Greg Oden's presence. It's Brandon's fault for not adjusting to Andre Miller. It's Miller's fault for adjusting to his new role by pouting and being lazy. It's Nate's fault for making too many adjustments and throwing his team off-balance. It's the injuries to Nicholas Batum and Travis Outlaw, which have caused everyone to have to adjust.
About the only guy who can't be blamed is Greg Oden, which must be refreshing for him. Well, Joel Przybilla's played pretty well, too.
The truth of the matter is: the entire team, with the exception of Oden, seems to have taken being good for granted. It's a typical sophomore jinx, and it's almost unavoidable.
It's one of the reasons the Blazers and their fans knew they needed more veteran leadership if they were going to take the next step. Veterans know things young players don't, at least, those that have been successful do.
If you watch the Blazers, you see a team that probably thinks they are playing hard, when in reality they are not. You see a team that somewhere, in the back of their minds, decided that they are good enough to coast in the early season and save themselves for the playoffs. Clearly, Brandon Roy has taken this approach, going so far as to avoid playing basketball in the off-season.
While Nate McMillan is not happy about his team's effort, there is probably very little he has been able to do about it. After all, as easy as the opponents have been, the team's schedule has been grueling. It's difficult to try to coax more effort out of a team that is short-handed and has played more games than any other NBA team, especially when they already think they are playing hard.
Moreover, the Blazers have had scant opportunity to practice, so it's no wonder the offense has been out of sync.
To Roy's credit, he sounded the alarm about the team's offensive problems earlier than anyone else. For his trouble, he was accused of being the source of the problem, and his pronouncements were seen as self-serving.
However, if Roy was thinking like a veteran, he would understand that the offense is not the real problem. It's all about the effort. Specifically, it's about the effort on the defensive end.
When a team in any sport is struggling offensively, it's up to the defense to make up the ground. In baseball, teams with Cy Young caliber pitchers can win games even when their offense is slumping. In football, teams like the Ravens and Steelers of recent years have won Super Bowls without great quarterbacks, because the defense covers a multitude of sins.
In basketball, this is a fact that veteran players learn over time. The offense may be hit and miss, but the defensive effort is something you can always control.
The Blazers are a group that has played great defense against poor teams. That's typical of a young team: when things are clicking and the game is fun, everybody gets in on the act. You start chasing loose balls, going for steals, rotating more quickly, moving your feet, etc.
Against good teams, the defense has struggled at times, especially when the team is tired. And that means that there is no cushion for the sloppy offense.
Ideally, Portland would have a veteran leader on this team who would be talking about defense all the time. More importantly, they would have a player who would be leading by example on the court by always giving great defensive effort.
On the Blazers, the four players who consistently give good effort on defense are Joel Przybilla, Steve Blake, Greg Oden, and Nicholas Batum. Unfortunately, Joel doesn't play enough minutes and isn't really a vocal kind of guy; Blake gives great effort but not great results; Oden is not a veteran and sits on the bench a lot with fouls, and Batum is injured.
Now, the Blazers did bring in two veterans this year, supposedly to provide leadership: Andre Miller and Juwon Howard. Howard has been a great influence, but doesn't play enough to make a difference. Miller simply doesn't play defense, so he's no help at all in this regard. Moreover, he seems to endorse the idea of coasting early in the season, having come into camp out of shape.
Ultimately, of course, this team belongs to Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Greg Oden. These are the big three, like Bird, Parish, and McHale. All the others are all supplemental players. The fate of this team rests on the shoulders of those three, and they will have to figure things out, offensively and defensively.
Blazer fans have to hope they figure out how to be veterans in a hurry.