Why Haven't the Portland Trail Blazers Taken That Next Step?

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterDecember 14, 2016

PORTLAND, OR - DECEMBER 13:  Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers is guarded by Russell Westbrook #0 of  the Oklahoma City Thunder at Moda Center on December 13, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — There's no place like home, especially after a long road trip.

So many of the problems that plagued the Portland Trail Blazers through four straight losses outside the Moda Center seemed to melt away during their 114-95 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday.

The Blazers' Charmin-soft defense? It held the Thunder to 37.9 percent shooting.

The unproductive bench? It outscored OKC's without much fuss, 44-38.

The late-game struggles? Not even Portland, after blowing three consecutive fourth-quarter leads, could give away a 26-point edge in the final frame.

But one good game—even one that gave the Blazers their first win this season on the second half of a back-to-back—can't soothe all the concerns that cropped up during a 1-4 road trip, especially with the paper-thin Thunder missing their second-leading scorer, Victor Oladipo.

Portland's defense sits toward the bottom of the NBA's barrel. Its bench has been one of the least productive in the league. And the team has still underwhelmed in clutch situations, despite sporting one of basketball's best backcourts between Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

"When you're an average team, you're trying to get better in a lot of different areas, and different things can crop up," head coach Terry Stotts said prior to Portland's 121-120 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, giving the Blazers an 0-3 record against the team they ousted from the 2016 playoffs.

Many of the same problems popped up in Portland last season during a campaign that, all things considered, was a rousing success.

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Blazers' Slippage
2015-16 (Rank)2016-17 (Rank)
Defensive Rating105.6 (20th)109.2 (28th)
Clutch Time Net Ratingminus-2.9 (15th)minus-2.3 (17th)
Bench Scoring34.9 (T-16th)31.3 (21st)
NBA.com/stats

Those Blazers won 44 games, ousted the Clippers after Chris Paul and Blake Griffin went down and gave the Golden State Warriors a tough five-game series in the face of Stephen Curry's knee and ankle issues (which knocked him out of the first three).

For a team trying to replace four stalwart starters (LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez), Portland shot past even the most optimistic preseason expectations.

PHOENIX, AZ - NOVEMBER 02:  Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers high fives C.J. McCollum and Evan Turner #1 after scoring against the Phoenix Suns during overtime of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on November 2, 2016 in Phoenix, Ar
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The 2016-17 season offered an opportunity for the Blazers to take a step forward, courtesy of continuity and room for internal growth. Evan Turner, who inked a four-year, $70 million deal over the summer, was the only major addition to a roster that returned nine of its top 10 scorers—four of whom (McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard) also cashed in on the NBA's cap bonanza this past summer.

With a handful of last year's veterans dumped into free agency—all were minor contributorsthe Blazers have Turner (28), Ed Davis (27), Mason Plumlee (26), Al-Farouq Aminu (26) and Lillard (26) as the de facto old heads. The returnees are a year more experienced but haven't played with the sort of consistency expected from a group that stayed relatively intact.

"Last year at this time, I think [the process] was more acceptable because we were a younger team and it was kind of easy to gloss over," Stotts surmised. "I think we're still a young team. I think that other teams are probably better prepared for us than last year at this time, and we're fighting through some of that. We're still a young team; that hasn't changed. We have to step it up another notch."

Back then, the Blazers were still figuring out who or what they would be as a team. They were 10-15 on Dec. 13, 2015, following a 112-110 home loss to the New York Knicks, with Rip City far from panic mode.

A year later, they stand at 13-14, eighth-best in the West, but have been dogged by questions and concerns about what's gone wrong so far and where they're headed next.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 12:  Terry Stotts of the Portland Trail Blazers argues a foul call on his team in front of DeAndre Jordan #6 and J.J. Redick #4 of the LA Clippers during a 121-120 Clipper win at Staples Center on December 12, 2016 in Los Angele
Harry How/Getty Images

Granted, the pieces (and expectations) are there for the Blazers to be better.

Lillard (27.3 points per game) and McCollum (22.4 points) are both scoring more than they ever have. Harkless (12.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 36.1 percent from three) has emerged as a reliable three-and-D wing. Plumlee, who ranks second among centers in assists at 4.3 per game, has become a plucky playmaker on both ends.

The roster, though, looks ripe for a makeover. 

Between Plumlee, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, Leonard and Festus Ezeli (who has yet to play), the Blazers are crowded up front. If general manager Neil Olshey can find a way to turn that surplus into, say, a defensive-minded swingman or a big who can score, Portland could shore up some of its problem areas enough to scale another rung or two in the Western Conference standings.

With or without reinforcements, the Blazers are confident they'll correct their mistakes, particularly on defense, and find themselves as a team in time.

"I know it will come together. We've got too many guys who care," Leonard said. "But it's just little things here and there. One time, we don't talk in transition. One time, let's say a guard doesn't crack back on a big. One time, a big messes up a switch. It's top-to-bottom. We have to continue to trust each other, continue to build our chemistry the same way we did last year."

PORTLAND, OR - DECEMBER 3: Meyers Leonard #11 and Evan Turner #1 of the Portland Trail Blazers react during the game against the Miami Heat on December 3, 2016 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees th
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

The good news is that the team's tenor hasn't wavered, even if the tones themselves have been out of tune at times. The Blazers been through the ups and downs before and emerged more unified on the other side. A summer minicamp in San Diego that Lillard hosted only strengthened that bond.

Whatever bumps the road ahead may bring, Portland believes it has the spirit to keep fighting. 

"We have a competitive group of guys," Stotts said. "They have a lot of character. I don't worry about having to pick them up, because they come to play every night."

                

All stats are accurate as of games played on Dec. 13, 2016, and are via NBA.com unless otherwise noted. All quotes obtained firsthand. 

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and listen to his Hollywood Hoops podcast with B/R Lakers Lead Writer Eric Pincus.