Discover more from The Rose Garden Report
'Nothing is Ever an Easy Fix': Trail Blazers' Tailspin Comes to a Head With Collapse to Lakers
After a new contender for the worst loss of the season, the Blazers find themselves at a crossroads.
PORTLAND, Ore. — The Trail Blazers needed a game like this.
They won the second quarter against the Lakers 45-13, the single largest scoring margin in a quarter in franchise history and appeared to be cruising to a blowout that would have erased a lot of the bad feelings from the past two games being outclassed by two contenders in the Nuggets and Sixers. With the bottom-dwelling Spurs coming up in less than 24 hours, it would have been an opportunity to start a winning streak and put the worst of the self-proclaimed "funk" of the past month behind them.
In truth, whatever is plaguing this team is anything but "behind them," and blowing a 25-point halftime lead at home to a Lakers team right with them in the standings, missing Anthony Davis, makes that impossible to paper over.
Chauncey Billups talks nightly these days about the team's—and his own—lack of experience. At this point, they've got plenty of experience losing these kinds of games. The two-week stretch at the end of January was always going to reveal a lot about what these Blazers were and what they could be, and that could have gone one of two ways. Right now, it's definitely going in one of those possible directions.
This loss on its own would be a low point; that it caps off the month they've had makes it the kind of loss that could bring about real change.
What kind of change?
It's not going to be on the coaching front, as much as an increasingly vocal segment of the online fanbase wants that. A trade? With just over two weeks before the Feb. 9 deadline, we'll see what general manager Joe Cronin comes up with.
A change to the starting lineup? Billups was asked about that after the game and didn't exactly shoot the idea down, as he has in the past.
"There's a lot of things that I think about," he said. "Our staff, we talk and kick things around. We'll be continuing to talk about it. Obviously, I'm not going to expose those possibilities to you guys before I talk to my team, but of course. When you're in these type of ruts, you're always looking to shake it up and see what you could possibly do. So we'll see."
The Rose Garden Report is a fully independent, reader-supported publication. Purchasing a premium subscription unlocks exclusive content and helps make the coverage of the Portland Trail Blazers the best it can be.
That sure sounds like a yes, and my guess is it will be Nassir Little replacing Josh Hart at small forward. Skill-wise, Little has always made more sense with that unit and Hart with the bench unit, but Hart earned the job with a strong training camp and Little's season has been hampered by injuries. Now, with Little healthy and Hart having seemingly lost all his confidence on the offensive end, the change is a no-brainer.
But changing out the starting small forward isn't going to magically fix a team that is, if not broken, certainly not anything close to fine.
"Nothing is ever an easy fix," Damian Lillard said. "I don't think anything is ever just an easy fix in the NBA. A lot of things have to be lined up. Whether it's chemistry, pieces fitting together, guys caring. I don't ever think it's just like, 'Oh, let's do this' and then you fix all your problems. Especially with how we're struggling right now, it's usually a little deeper than that. We need to try to find some solutions right now, what we can do better. Maybe you write a list down of, 'Where are we struggling? Why are we bleeding like this?' And then you try to figure out your way out of it. It's tough. I don't know how else to describe it. It's not how I saw things happening."
In my years covering Lillard, his level-headedness has been his defining quality. That's been true all season, even as recently as three days ago after the Blazers came out flat against Philadelphia to continue their slide. You can tell the losing is starting to weigh on him now, though. They've dropped more than a few winnable games, starting with the two in Oklahoma City last month, and it's snowballed.
It's hard to blame anybody for being on edge. They're saying all the right things about good process and connectedness, and I've never gotten the feeling that they don't believe what they're saying. But the results aren't changing, and it's coming to the point in the season where real decisions have to be made.
Even with this Blazers season being, by everybody's admission, an evaluation year more so than a real push for contention, there's a bigger sample of games with the same result to evaluate now.
"There's things that you've got to try to teach and coach and keep going over, but that's kind of where we are," Billups said. "A lot of the losses that we've been having, they hurt. These are bad losses. But that's where we're at. We've got to get better. I've got to get better. I've got to keep coaching, keep teaching. That's just where we are. Let's just face it."
I asked Billups what specifically he thinks he needs to get better at, and how much of the team's current predicament he puts on his own coaching as compared to lack of execution and the lack of experience he brings up so often.
"I'm also one that's not very experienced," he said. "Just like we're patient with them in the locker room, I'm patient with myself. So I think everything I need to get better at. But no matter what happens, I'm always gonna come up here and raise my hand first. I'm always gonna look in the mirror and say, 'Damn, what could I have done better? How could I have prepared my guys for the third quarter?' No matter what I said in [the locker room], when we have those droughts, I'm always going to raise my hand and say I need to be better, because that's the type of leader that I am."
Wherever anyone wants to land on the job Billups has done in his first non-tanking season as a head coach, and there are plenty of criticisms to be had with his lineups, there are two things that are true. One is that he's more than willing to adjust his rotations and gameplan when things aren't working, which is why I believe a lineup change is coming. The other is that, as discombobulated and listless as they can look on any given night, he hasn't lost the team. The locker room follows Lillard's lead, and Billups still has Lillard's trust and belief right now, through these growing pains.
I did find it notable that Lillard took exception to a line of postgame questioning about how far his patience will go for the way this season has been going.
"I'm confused as to why y'all are asking these questions right now, honestly," he said. "I respect it, but the bottom line is, we're at the midway point of the season. We're struggling right now, we're not playing well. We've been in a lot of these games. None of these games are like, we've been getting blown away. So as far as basketball goes, there are things we can do to be better and we win some of these games. But I watch a lot of NBA games and looking around the league, there's maybe one or two teams that I watch and I'm like, 'That's a dangerous team.' I'm not looking around like, 'Nobody can be beat.' I think for people that's on the outside looking in, the problems and struggles we have are obvious. I don't think it's fair for you to be asking me those questions right now. I think it's kind of a weak move. Our team is struggling right now, and I've been transparent about why we're struggling. But y'all are putting me in a position to answer questions that I don't think is cool."
A reporter replied that Lillard is being asked these questions because by virtue of his being here in the tail end of his prime, the franchise is operating on his timeline.
"I understand that," Lillard responded. "But there's people that you can ask those questions to. And even if it's on me or whatever, they can answer your questions. So even if they did ask me a question and I give them my opinion, they're going to give you whatever answer that they give you based on what reality is. But I don't think it's cool for y'all to be putting me in that position, especially after a tough loss. We're in a tough stretch right now, and that ain't cool. I answer all y'all's questions, and to me, that feels like a lack of respect to put me in that position."
Chalk it up to the boiling over of frustration with where the team is at. I don't think it's particularly unfair to ask the franchise player about his level of patience with a season going off the rails. But I also get why Lillard's tolerance for being asked about it right now is low. A prolonged losing skid makes anyone defensive, especially when they feel they've been doing and saying all the right things as those losses pile up.
The imminent trade deadline can only be adding to the built-up stress and anxiety that's permeating this team right now. Hart has to know he's among the most likely to be moved. Jusuf Nurkic only played 16 minutes against the Lakers despite only picking up four fouls and didn't play at all in the fourth quarter, a benching that it's hard not to read as deliberate. The other young players, including Jabari Walker, Keon Johnson and Trendon Watford, have seen their minutes come and go as lottery pick Shaedon Sharpe continues to play nearly 20 minutes a game despite it being glaringly obvious he isn't ready for that kind of responsibility yet.
This is all normal stuff in an 82-game season for a team whose top decision-makers came into the season knowing it was an unfinished product. Lillard has never liked to get involved in trade talks because he values his personal relationships with his teammates and isn't comfortable advocating for them to be traded. But much like the summer of 2021, when the Blazers' previous general manager's insistence that the roster didn't need real upgrades didn't land right with the superstar, he isn't very good at hiding what he wants.
Lillard and Cronin talk often, and visibly. More days than not, when the arena bowl is open to media hours before a game starts, I see them sitting on the bench together for 30 or 45 minutes at a time. One of the reasons I've been inclined to believe those involved when they say things are going to turn around is because I genuinely believe, based on my own observations and conversations, that the three most important voices in the organization—the star player, the head coach and the general manager—are on the same page about what their short- and long-term goals are.
Executing the roster part of those goals, at least this phase of it, is on Cronin over the next 18 days.
"I want us to be in the best position to win," Lillard said. "My job is to play point guard and be prepared and go out and do what I do. Everybody has a job. Right now, we're not winning. We haven't been consistent. But it's not my job to say who goes where or what needs to happen as far as the roster. That's not my job. What I will say is right now, we're not getting it done. I do want to win. It's no secret that I want to win. We've got to do whatever we need to do to be in a position to win. I'm all for whatever that means."
Billups' own answer Sunday to the question of what his hopes for the deadline are was similar to the one he gave after the loss to the Sixers when I asked him about the roster's lack of size, if more than a little more defiant. Again, everyone is on edge right now because of the losing.
"Y'all see us fighting every single night," Billups said. "You see what we have, what we don't have. I'll let you do all the talking. One thing about me, I'm gonna be riding with my guys. Period. Win, lose or draw. We're down 25, we come back, I'm gonna ride with my guys. Until that changes, until those guys change, until whatever happens, I'm riding with my dudes. Y'all can do all the speculating, write your stories about what we need, what we don't have, what I'm doing, what I'm not doing, it is what it is. I ride with my guys, though."
The Blazers are now four games below .500, a game and a half out of the play-in with the worst record in the Western Conference out of the teams that are currently trying to win. The home-heavy January schedule that was their reward for surviving a brutal November and December hasn't worked out in their favor. They're never going to be bad enough to pivot the other way, but if they want to avoid falling even further behind in a still-crowded but slowly separating playoff race, the time to get back in the win column is now.
"Y'all know I'll always feel confident about coming out of it," Lillard said. "But you can be right there for 10 more games. We can be saying that for 20 more games. 'We're right there.' But at the end of the day, you've got to come out on the other side. You want to learn in wins. You've got to learn in games that you win. We are right there. We were up 25 points, and that part about staying sharp and winning games, we weren't able to do and we lost. A lot of teams are able to say, 'We're right there.' But you can still continue to lose games until you just decide to be there. Right now, we're not there."