Backup point guard, the most glaring problem spot, had seen a major upgrade with near-All Star Andre Miller coming in at the addition-by-subtraction cost of turnover-machine Sergio Rodriguez.
The second most glaring problem was resolved with the return of Martell Webster. While Nicolas Batum was clearly the best Blazer defender, Webster presented them with an offensively dangerous option.
Furthermore, team strengths were also improving. Greg Oden looked to have regained his speed and agility and was looking so improved that a guy who should have gotten some consideration for team MVP last year, Joel Przybilla, became a reserve.
Yet 20 games into the season Portland
has already lost four home games, including a blowout loss to the Memphis Grizzlies
, has trailed for 11 consecutive quarters, and worse yet, looks like they are a team that does not care.
In some ways, it is a team effort. The players who have improved this year from last can be limited to two: Greg Oden and Martell Webster.
Oden is doing more than asked. He controls the boards, blocks shots, stays within himself offensively, and shoots at a high clip. He plays hard and has a huge impact at the defensive end of the floor.
Webster had a shaky start but has come on to look like the Blazers best player much of the time. He has taken on Batum's role as defensive stopper and does a creditable job. He is not a premier defender yet, but there have been moments and stretches where he has been.
So if those two are improved, who has gotten worse?
Naturally, since credit starts at the top, so does blame. And Brandon Roy unfortunately deserves much of that blame.
Unlike past seasons where he has been an efficient scorer, this year his offense has been disruptive and low percentage.
Part of that is due to the officiating. My bias is obviously pro-Blazer, but I genuinely believe he is poorly officiated. It is very frustrating to see him drive the lane, bounce off of three defenders, and still not get the call, while at the other end a Blazer picks up a hand-check foul on players like Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, or even Rudy Gay.
Roy should be going to the line more than 10 times a game with the way he plays, but he is not officiated the same way other slashers are and regularly takes a great deal of contact without drawing the foul.
As a result, he becomes frustrated, knowing no foul will be called, and overcompensates with some wild drives that result in ugly shots and, even worse, turnovers that lead to fastbreaks the other way. This does not excuse his play, but certainly makes it understandable.
Nor is he playing well defensively. He gets torched repeatedly on the occasions he makes it down the floor at all.
But his disappearance pales in comparison to that of Steve Blake. Blake somehow forgot who he was.
Gone is the steady point guard who hits the three and doesn't turn the ball over. In his place is a guy who makes unbelievably bad turnovers, makes them at the worst time possible, plays worse defense than Jeff Pendergraph is playing* to the point where I have labeled it Blake-fense.
Even my favorite player, LaMarcus Aldridge, must share some of the blame. He has lost a lot of the aggression he showed in the past two seasons. He does not demand the ball on the block, does not dominate defensively the way he should, and has looked lost and out of place all too often.
He is far more talented than he has shown.
Przybilla has seemed disinterested, no longer the defensive force he used to be. He is not moving his feet, not blocking out, not blocking shots, and not bringing the attitude he used to.
To be fair, the Blazers miss Travis Outlaw a great deal and probably more than many fans realized they would. His explosive scoring potential and game-changing athleticism, along with his clutch fourth quarter play, are being missed game after game
Yes, Portland lost two key rotation players in Outlaw and Batum. Yes, they have played a hectic schedule.
These are not valid excuses.
They have also played a cupcake schedule and there are several inexcusable losses on it. If they want to be a playoff team, much less a contender, then they need to show the heart it takes to be one and win the games they should without making excuses.
For example, they choked away home games to the Nuggets
. They lost to a Warriors
team playing seven guys. They lost at home to Memphis
, giving up a 31-4 run on their own floor. They did not even try against the Heat
The amazing thing in that game was that the Heat shot 53.3 percent. What is amazing about it is that the number was so low. All night, every shot was wide open with no Blazer in the picture.
Nor has that been a one-game phenomenon.
The Blazers are out of sync right now. When there is a pick and roll, often the Blazers elect to defend neither player. Nor do they defend well one-on-one, and when the big men provide help defense, no Blazer provides rebounding coverage.
Defensively, they are discombobulated and lack any sense of cohesion. Offensively, they are only marginally better.
Yet for all that, I think there is one more huge element that deserves some blame for the question, "What is wrong with the Blazers?"
That is people like me. Fans. Fans who love this team. Fans with expectations for this team.
When the team was built around Zach Randolph, we expected to lose. We knew we would lose to the Clevelands of the league, struggle against the Utahs, and try to eke out wins against the weak sisters like the Warriors, Clippers
, and other NBDL teams masquerading as NBA
We knew who those teams were because we were one of them.
But we got spoiled. We got used to seeing Super-Trout (Travis Outlaw in super-stud mode) and B- Roy dominate games, in seeing Portland win every possession, even if the other team scored, by putting out superior effort, functioning as a cohesive unit, and winning virtually every home game.
We got spoiled by watching Roy and Aldridge go from good draft day picks to cornerstones of the franchise. We got spoiled by a meteoric rise from irrelevance to 54-win team.
And we got used to it.
Instead of coming to the game planning to enjoy the action and have a win be icing on the cake, we now show up expecting a win and being upset if the Blazers struggle. Sure, not all of us do that, but we fans are a team just as the Blazers are and must all take responsibility for what we do.
That includes the poor taste in booing the home team in each of the last two home games. It includes the raucous booing whenever a Beaver or Duck shirt is shown.
Yeah, I know, Beaver fans hate the snobbish, arrogant Duck fans. And Duck fans hate their also-ran little cousins and make a point of booing loudly...and often.
So often they have made little kids cry when the kids were shown on the big screen wearing Beavers gear and been booed mercilessly. The obnoxious Duck fans drowned out the music when the OSU dance team on the floor, a favor the Beaver fans did not reciprocate when the Duck dancers hit the floor.
The point is the fans are more frequently found silent or booing or complaining than cheering the team on, possibly because we became complacent before we won anything.
Now, it is much too early to panic. This is a very talented basketball team with a lot of good wins in front of it. Roy will get it figured out. Blake and Miller will get past their little unspoken feud. Aldridge will find his place on this team. And they will win plenty of games by the end of the year.
The question is whether Blazer fans will be patient while that happens.
So buck up Blazer fans. You are still winning at a .600 clip. You are still fine. The team will find itself. You just need to go back to being optimistic team supporters, stop ripping them at every opportunity, and enjoy the trip.
And yes, I realize the irony of saying that after writing this. But thanks for noticing.
* For those unaware of Pendergraph, he is currently on the injury list and hasn't played all season. Hopefully now that joke (?) makes sense.