Jason Quick

Trail Blazers hire former referee Don Vaden as a consultant

Trail Blazers hire former referee Don Vaden as a consultant

There is a new member on Trail Blazers, but Friday’s transaction had nothing to do with adding shooting, perimeter defense or veteran leadership.

Still, the addition of Don Vaden gives the Blazers something no other NBA team currently has: a former NBA referee to serve as a consultant who offers everything from education on league rules, background on referee personalities and tendencies, and views into how to avoid, or draw, fouls.

Although Vaden signed on Friday, he has been around the Blazers since January and has already offered these insights and coaching tips to players and coaches:

*Vaden has instructed rookie Zach Collins that his defensive style of vertically challenging shots – which often drew fouls early in the season – is fundamentally sound and will eventually earn the respect of the officials.

*Ed Davis, who has been called for a rash of pushing fouls underneath the basket, needs to keep his arms closer to his body if he intends to get away with the move.

*And if you thought Damian Lillard has increasingly tried to draw fouls while attempting three-pointers, it’s because Vaden admits with a sheepish chuckle: “That’s being taught.’’

“He’s going to be a tremendous resource,’’ coach Terry Stotts said.

Vaden has 30 years of experience between the NBA and WNBA. He spent 15 seasons as an NBA referee, retiring in 2003, and spent 15 years in the WNBA, where he worked as the director of referees and their officiating programs.

The position is unique in today’s game, but not groundbreaking. Vaden says the Houston Rockets years ago employed a former referee for a similar role. Vaden says his company, Interactive Consulting, is open to signing with other teams.

Vaden was at Thursday’s Blazers-Pacers game and offered the team a few observations and explanations. While CJ McCollum prepared to shoot a jumper, a foul was called under the basket as a Pacers defender wrestled with Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic. McCollum made his shot, but after review, the basket was disallowed and play resumed after an inbound.

Vaden explained that the basket would have counted had McCollum been in the upward shooting motion of his shot when the foul occurred, and Nurkic would have been awarded a free throw.

Also, he pointed out how a player should have been called for an offensive foul while going up for a layin, because his off-ball arm was extended beyond a 90-degree angle.

And he also eased the mind of Blazers guard Pat Connaughton, who thought he was fouled on a shot. Vaden confirmed he was.

He said he hopes these types of observations and comment can help clear the minds of players and better educate them why fouls are, or are not, called.

Vaden’s hire comes at a time when tensions between players and referees have escalated.  He said he hopes that escalation doesn’t reach the Blazers.

“I look at it this way: We are in the same office. They have to be able to work together and they have to figure it out,’’ Vaden said.

“There is enough problems in the league between referees and players that I don’t want it to happen here, and I don’t want it to happen within the league. So the more we can help figure that piece out, and open the lines of communication, the better off we will be.’’

Did Damian Lillard being injured help the Trail Blazers? Star guard thinks so

Did Damian Lillard being injured help the Trail Blazers? Star guard thinks so

OKLAHOMA CITY – Damian Lillard knows it sounds crazy, but the best thing that might have happened to the Trail Blazers this season is his recent bout with hamstring and calf injuries.

With Lillard forced to miss seven of the team’s past nine games, a funny thing has happened to the once struggling Blazers: the offense has found its groove, role players have emerged, and the team has gone 6-3.

Blessing in disguise?

“Definitely,’’ Lillard said of his time on the sideline. “The last two years that’s what it seems to be the case. I get hurt and guys have to step up.’’

The latest and most emphatic example came Tuesday in Oklahoma City, when the Blazers routed the Thunder 117-106 behind an All-Star-like 27 points from CJ McCollum, an efficient 20-points from Jusuf Nurkic, and another steady fill-in performance from Shabazz Napier (21 points). Topping off the best performance of the season was sterling bench contributions from Pat Connaughton (10 points), Zach Collins (nine points) and Maurice Harkless (nine points).

It was another affirmation that the team’s dormant offense was awakening. In the last five games, the Blazers have scored 124, 110, 110, 111 and now 117 – outputs that have been punctuated by rapid ball movement, crisp cutting and a blend of inside and outside play.

“We are forced to play that way because I’m not playing,’’ Lillard said after the Thunder win. “Because we have to lean on each other. That’s not to say we don’t when I’m playing, but there’s so much more opportunity out there.’’

Around an already smiling Blazers locker room, nothing caused players to laugh more than to suggest Lillard’s theory that his absence may turn out to be a good thing. 

“I don’t think Damian Lillard getting hurt is ever a blessing,’’ Connaughton said. “However, I think it has allowed guys to at least see what an extended role in their NBA career would look like. And that has value. There’s validity to the fact that guys have stepped up and have shown things they can do that they might otherwise not.’’

Added Ed Davis: “Obviously, we want him out there, but when your star player goes down, other guys have to step up and there is going to be more shots, more movement and that helps us in the long run. Confidence wise guys like Pat, Bazz is playing well, Moe … it has helped them. So sometimes it’s a blessing in disguise.’’

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Lillard said he is unsure if he will play Wednesday in Houston. On Tuesday, he had a morning workout, then an extensive pregame workout where he pushed himself, followed by a conditioning session that left him drenched in sweat and catching his breath.

The next hurdle, Lillard and his teammates say, is keeping the same rhythm and momentum when he does return to the lineup.

“The biggest thing is making sure when he gets back, that things don’t change,’’ Connaughton said. “In the sense of guys are still being aggressive, guys are still moving without the ball, and things that we can and have done in the past.’’

Napier, who has been a star in Lillard’s absence, said he thinks the Blazers were beginning to find their offensive footing even before Lillard became injured.

“No one person can make up what he does, so it has to be a collective group, everyone has to pitch in,’’ said Napier, who in six starts is averaging 18.7 points. “But I always felt like we were trending that way when he was playing.’’

Lillard agreed, saying the Blazers’ loss at Cleveland and home rout of Atlanta were the first steps to show the offense was coming along.

“So I think (when he does return) I just have to play the same way as always – make the right plays,’’ Lillard said.

Right now, that once sputtering offense that had a devil of a time making layins and close-range shots, is starting to cook. Nurkic is starting to make more of his layins, McCollum has found a better balance of passing and shot-making, and the team has made more cuts and dunks in the past week than seemingly all season.

“The shot making is the biggest thing,’’ Lillard said. “You make shots and you keep defenses honest. Tonight, we were running offense and (Oklahoma City) didn’t know what to do. CJ and Bazz were hitting, Nurk was finishing, Moe was cutting … now you get down the stretch, and they are trying to make a run, and we are picking them apart. Because we had been doing it all game. It’s not like this is a flash in the pan.’’

So maybe, just maybe, the player the Blazers could least afford to be injured was a good thing. Or maybe the team was already trending in this direction. Either way, it was symbolic of the Blazers offense that McCollum left the locker room feasting on some bread.

The Blazers’ offense is back, eating up opponent’s defenses once again.

“We have been saying so much about our offense: ‘It’s going to come around … It’s going to come around ‘… and y’all like, When?’’ Lillard said with a smile. “And now, it’s happening.’’

Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard wakes up to good news

Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard wakes up to good news

OKLAHOMA CITY – Good news greeted Damian Lillard when he awoke on Tuesday morning: His injured right calf felt markedly better.

“It felt better today than the first game that I came back,’’ Lillard said, noting the Jan. 2 game at Cleveland, when he returned from a right hamstring injury.

It was during that Cleveland game that Lillard felt a twinge in his right calf, which was later iagnosed as a strain. He played one more game – Jan. 5 against Atlanta – but unexpectedly sat out Sunday’s  game against San Antonio, then again is being held out Tuesday in Oklahoma City.

Lillard said he still considers himself “day-to-day” and wouldn’t speculate on his availability for the Blazers’ next game, Wednesday in Houston.

“I mean, I’m not going to say much about it because I don’t know,’’ he said. “I think it’s day by day. I felt really good today. I did a workout this morning, worked out (pregame) again, did some conditioning, and felt good.’’

On Friday, the usually optimistic Lillard was dejected and short in describing his health. He had a dramatically different outlook on Tuesday after going through his extensive pregame workout.

“It’s weird, usually when I get the most frustrated or discouraging coming back off an injury, that’s usually when (the pain) quits,’’ Lillard said. “When I had plantar fasciitis (two seasons ago), they cleared me to practice after I missed like five games, and I tried to run up the court, and I couldn’t do it.

“So the next two days, I was like ‘Damn.’ And I was pouting,’’ Lillard said. “Then a couple days later, it was right. That’s kind of how this felt … a couple days went by and I’m feeling like, damn, then I woke up today feeling better.’’

Shabazz Napier will continue to start in Lillard’s place. While filling in for Lillard, Napier is averaging 18.2 points, 5.4 assists and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 47.8 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from 3-point range.

Lillard said Napier’s play has helped him not rush back to the court, but he admitted Tuesday that sitting out Tuesday’s game against the Thunder was killing him. The Blazers (21-18) and Thunder (22-18) are in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.

“I live for this type of stuff. These matchups,’’ Lillard said. “It’s early but it’s a big game. Division game. We win this game, we are in 5th place and 2-0 against them.’’

Lillard this season is eighth in the NBA in scoring at 24.9 points and is averaging 6.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds in 33 games. 

Time for Stotts to go? No chance if you ask the Trail Blazers players

Time for Stotts to go? No chance if you ask the Trail Blazers players

A Trail Blazers team unable to gain traction this season while playing below their own expectations has found something to fight for: their coach.

Amid chatter that Terry Stotts is on the coaching hot seat and in jeopardy of losing his job, several Trail Blazers players said their coach not only has the team’s attention and respect, but has become a rallying point for the players.

“We all know what’s going on,’’ veteran Ed Davis said. “The guys on the team, we read about it, and I know Coach does … that ‘Hot Seat’ stuff and things like that. Everybody sees it, and I know while I’m here, (along with) a bunch of the rest of the guys in the locker room, we are going to fight for Coach. Every night. There is no quit in us. He’s our leader.’’

The Blazers (20-18) are seventh in the Western Conference, but have a losing record at home (9-10), and have scuffled for much of the season with inconsistent, disjointed play that several times has led disgruntled Moda Center crowds to leave games early, and in exodus.

[Quick: Trail Blazers need a more consistent Nurkic]

Stotts, who is under contract through next season, has become a lightening rod for fan discontent as the team has struggled offensively and at times looked unmotivated as it dropped games to bottom-tier teams like Atlanta, Brooklyn and Sacramento.

In November, after a loss to the Kings, team captain Damian Lillard took to social media to defend an Instagram post criticizing Stotts, noting that it wasn’t Stotts who was missing late-game free throws, making crucial turnovers, or forgetting plays.

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On Friday, after the Blazers’ victory over the Hawks, Lillard said the players all hear criticism of Stotts, and just like in November, he says it is unwarranted. The players, he says, are 100 percent behind Stotts.

“And I think it’s unanimous for a reason,’’ Lillard said. “Like I always say: we play for a great person, and whatever struggles that we have, it’s not his fault. I will tell you that: it’s not his fault.’’

The support from the locker room is not a surprise. In his sixth season in Portland, Stotts has always been well liked by players for his communication skills and his philosophy of teaching through positive reinforcement rather than pointed criticism. His style of play also empowers players to make their own decisions and play with freedom.

Those traits have painted Stotts as a “players’ coach,” a label that can often be interpreted as soft, or unwilling to discipline, which could be a reason why the players want to keep him around.

Lillard tensed up when offered that reasoning.

“I don’t work well with soft people,’’ Lillard said. “So, if he was soft , I would be like, he soft. I would tell you, he soft. I mean, he will call guys out … and he will … he does his job. He’s not a guy trying to be a hard ass, but when he needs to harden up he will harden up.’’

Case in point: A recent practice, when Stotts said three words that are seldom uttered in an NBA gym.

**

During a December practice in Portland, when the Blazers were in the midst of a six-game home losing streak that included several blowouts, the players heard what is largely an unspoken phrase in the NBA.

“On the line.’’

The stern command was from Stotts, and it was prompted after yet another mishap during the practice. The order was for the players to toe the baseline for a running drill – a common punishment tactic for high school and college coaches – but virtually taboo at the professional level.

“You don’t do that in the NBA,’’ Lillard said.

If there was a fracture in the ranks, making an NBA team run would surely reveal it.

[Quick: Trail Blazers need CJ to elevate his play to All-Star level]

As the players squeezed between each other along the baseline, Stotts barked another command. They had to run the length of the court, and back, in less than 10 seconds.

“I’ve played with players who would have looked at him and been like (sucks teeth) ‘Man, this dude trippin’ … whatever,’’ Lillard said. “And they would have missed (the 10 second cutoff) on purpose.’’

Without a word uttered, each Blazer toed the line and took off.

“Everybody made it,’’ Lillard said. “Down and back. Ten seconds. Sprinted hard. To me, that is a sign of respect.’’

It was vintage Stotts: pointed, yet not abusive or disrespectful.

“In an NBA sense, most coaches don’t do that,’’ Davis said. “But the point wasn’t that we have to run, the point was him making a statement that ‘You (expletive) up, let’s go.’ It was him saying ‘I’m going to grab your attention … without having to yell.’ ’’

Stotts, who earlier this week declined an invitation to talk about coaching this season amid growing criticism, did say that a common misconception is that he is easy on the players. He pointed to the film session last week after the Blazers lost at Atlanta, the team with the NBA’s worst record,.

“It wasn’t pretty,’’ Stotts said of the film session.

The players agreed, noting that Stotts this season has become more direct and more forceful in calling out mistakes during film sessions.

“He’s turned up the dial,’’ Meyers Leonard said. “And to be honest, I like it.’’

**

A telltale sign of a coach in trouble is when players stop listening, stop responding and stop playing for a coach.

It has happened in Portland, when the 2011-2012 Blazers rebelled against coach Nate McMillan and what they felt was an outdated offense, and it happened to Mike Dunleavy in 2000-2001 when he could no longer reach or control Rasheed Wallace.

This season, the Blazers players say Stotts still has their full attention, and full respect, and that he has not lost the locker room.

[Quick: Trail Blazers need a more aggressive Evan Turner]

“I see everybody in this locker room,’’ CJ McCollum said. “We go to dinner. Some come to the house. I see them on the plane. We are around each other more than we are around our families. If he has lost the locker room, I would know. But we believe in him.’’

During the final months of McMillan’s tenure, the locker room became toxic. Players like Raymond Felton, Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby could be seen huddling and whispering after games, a scene Davis said can become common when a coach has lost a team.

“Usually when a coach is starting to lose the locker room you have guys who are like, ‘Ah, coach doesn’t know what he is doing.’ We don’t have that right now,’’ Davis said. “Obviously we have guys who are going to be upset if they aren’t playing; I’m upset if I only play 12 minutes. But we don’t have a cancer or bad energy. We are in this together. And it starts with Coach and it starts with Dame.’’

Lillard in 2015 said as long as he is in Portland, he wants Stotts to be his coach. On Friday, he said one of the main reasons he chose to re-sign with Portland was because of Stotts.

 “How he is as a coach, and how he is as a person, is what I want to play for,’’ Lillard said. “When I signed up to be here and go through the rebuild and to move forward, he was a huge part of that. It’s because of our relationship and what I think of him and what I know of him to be to a team.’’

**

As the Trail Blazers near the season’s midpoint, several questions abound:

Why is the offense, ranked 25th out of 30 teams, so bad?

Why can’t a roster with 13 returning players, including all five starters, seem to gel?

Is the roster adequately constructed? Or are there too many bigs and not enough shooters?

And what happened to the fun, fluid Blazers who used to outwork opponents on a nightly basis?

The players say they only have one answer to the many questions: The problem is not Stotts.

“Everybody wants everything to happen right away,’’ McCollum said. “But it takes time. It takes time.’’

The question is how much time is owner Paul Allen willing to give? With the NBA’s sixth highest payroll, and a group that has largely been together for three seasons, this was supposed to be a season of progress.

The Blazers have improved in two key areas – defense and their record on the road – but have dramatically slipped in two areas that are usually a hallmark of Stotts and Portland teams – offense and homecourt advantage.

Along the way, there has been key injuries to Lillard (five missed games), Al-Farouq Aminu (13 games), and Jusuf Nurkic (three games) – and subpar play from much of the roster, which has prompted Stotts to use nine different starting lineups and several iterations of a playing rotation. No starting lineup has played more than eight games together, and only within the past 10 days has Stotts settled on a nine-man playing rotation.

Lillard said he has a relationship with Allen, but the owner has never asked him his thoughts on Stotts or personnel. Lillard also has an open relationship with Neil Olshey, the architect of this roster, that involves input and conversations about the team.

If Olshey approached Lillard and indicated the team was making a coaching change?

“I would want to know why,’’ Lillard said. “Because I honestly don’t feel like he is the issue. As players we have to do things a lot better. I honestly feel like he is one of the better coaches in the league as far as being an offensive coach, but also in giving players an opportunity, and connecting with the players, too. And then we have a great coaching staff. That is not the issue.’’

The issue is whether the team can turn it around. The next five games are against teams with winning records, four of them on the road.

“There’s a sense of urgency because we should be better, but we are not,’’ McCollum said. “That’s the reality of where we are. We have to build on it, win games at home and … I think it’s coming.’’

So they will forge ahead, pointed toward improvement, aiming for the playoffs. And playing, in part, for their coach.

“That’s our guy,’’ Davis said.

The mystery of Moe Harkless: Is the Blazers' wing about to resurface?

The mystery of Moe Harkless: Is the Blazers' wing about to resurface?

Of all the confusing things going on with the Trail Blazers – from the wonky offense, an inability to make close-range shots, and the unsettled rotation – perhaps at the top of the list is the disappearing act of Maurice Harkless.

He considers himself the moodiest person on the team, and that has morphed into his on-the-court personality as well – at times (like during a promising preseason) a bundle of energy who can impact a game, and at other times (like for the past two months) a sullen and drifting player who becomes almost invisible.

Those swings have resulted in a yo-yo-like season that has seen him go from starter, to reserve, to out of rotation, to starter and then back to out of rotation.

“To me, that’s just how it goes,’’ Harkless said. “It comes and goes.’’

It has been one of the defining traits of his career, and in particular his two-plus seasons in Portland, where right when it appears time to give up on him, he resurfaces, effective as ever.

Case in point, the Blazers’ last game, a 95-92 win Saturday at the Lakers. Harkless had a team-high 22 points to go with six rebounds and two blocks, which included the go-ahead three-point play with 21.4 seconds left.

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The performance came after Harkless was buried on the bench for all but 9:04 of the team’s recent five-game trip. The 22-points matched his output since he first lost his starting job on Nov. 24 in Brooklyn.

Harkless points to his L.A. performance as a sign of his maturity, and being able to stay mentally engaged. Yet, he is either unable to process, or unwilling to say, why he continually finds himself falling out of rotations every season.

“I know my stuff will come around. It always does,’’ Harkless said. “It’s just a matter of when.’’

**

When he is right, Harkless is the type of player who can impact a game from a variety of areas.

He can be a pogo-stick rebounder, beating opponents with his second leap off the floor. He can be a shutdown defender, invaluable with his ability to switch on pick-and-rolls, and rare in his passion to defend. He can also be a reliable shooter, finishing at 35 percent from three-point range last season, and a crafty slasher.

But so much of those skills are incumbent upon his own motor kick-starting the effort. And for large parts of the season, Harkless’ motor has been quiet.

“(Energy) has to be consistent,’’ Harkless said after the Lakers game. “For me, I just have to figure out a way to do that every game. Bring energy. Sometimes I don’t. I just have to bring it every night.’’

He started the season’s first 18 games and averaged 26:32 minutes, but was largely ineffective, averaging 5.9 points and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 40 percent from the field and 24 percent from three-point range. He was pulled from the starting lineup after an 18-minute performance in Philadelphia, when he had one point and zeroes in every other statistical category.

After he lost his job, it appeared he also lost his confidence. He passed up shots – many of them in the key – and spent much of his time drifting around the perimeter.

Harkless on Wednesday, however, sharply denies losing his confidence.

“No. No, I didn’t lose my confidence,’’ he said. “When you come in the game, a lot of times … never mind.’’

He paused, then continued.

“When you come in the game, you have to get a feel for it. Sometimes you are not able to do that in a five-minute stretch. Everybody has their strengths. Pat (Connauhgton) is a shooter. Jake (Layman) is a shooter. Shabazz (Napier) creates with the ball. For me, I’m not a shooter. I mean, I can shoot, but I’m not a shooter.

“When I come in the game, the first time I touch the ball, and it’s a wide-open three, part of me doesn’t want to shoot it, but I have to, because I’m wide open. So I shoot it, but that’s the first time I’ve touched the ball, so likely, it may not go in. That’s just part of the game.

“The more you feel the ball the more you the more you get a feel for the game, the more comfortable you will feel out there. That’s part of it in the Laker game,’’ Harkless said. “We were just out there playing, we weren’t worried about coming out of the game. Shabazz as well. You could tell he was a lot more comfortable out there knowing he probably had a longer leash with Dame being out. It’s all about being comfortable in this league, if you have an opportunity and you know if you make a mistake, and you will be able to play through it, I think that’s huge. It helps guys. You look at a guy like Noah (Vonleh) as well. I think he’s another guy that has to be able to play through his mistakes. It’s just not the situation he is in.’’

**

If there has been an encouraging aspect to the Harkless dilemma, it has been how he has remained engaged with his teammates.

During his time in Orlando, when he fell out of favor with the coaching staff and management after the franchise drafted Aaron Gordon, he recoiled in the face of adversity.

“Back then … I was a lot more selfish,’’ Harkless said. “I kind of had a mindset where everyone was out to get me, a mad-at-the-world type mindset.  That’s not always good to have. It’s good to have on the court, but not in the locker room or when cheering your teammates on. At the end of the day we are a team, so we all need each other. Whether or not in the game, I’m going to support my teammates and be ready to go when number is called.’’

After he lost his starting spot to Connaughton in Brooklyn, Harkless was among the players to wait by the scorers table and exchange encouraging daps to the Blazers’ starters. When Connaughton made his way toward Harkless, there was no dap. Harkless embraced him and whispered into his ear.

Connaughton said what Harkless whispered was the same type of encouragement he used to give Harkless before he went out for the opening tip, and he said he meant the world to him.

“That’s just been one of our things,’’ Harkless said. “We give a hug, and say ‘Be confident, stay aggressive.’’’

And last week in Minneapolis, at the end of a five-game trip during which Harkless played only once – a nine-minute, four-second stint at Miami – he didn’t mope or grouse in the locker room.

Instead, he fished through his backpack and pulled out an envelope of money, taking from it a crisp $100 bill. He walked across the locker room to the stall of rookie Zach Collins, who was buttoning his shirt with his back to the approaching Harkless. With a pat on the back, Harkless mumbled something to Collins and slipped the $100 bill under a bottle of water, shaking off Collins’ protests.

“Thank you,’’ Harkless said.

Turns out, Harkless earlier this season didn’t have cash on him to pay for a pregame locker room meal, and Collins picked him up. Collins said he had long forgotten about it, and didn’t expect to be paid back.

“It wasn’t $100, though,’’ Collins said. “So that was Mo being generous.’’

Collins said Harkless’ generosity isn’t the only impression he has made. He has noticed Harkless since his demotion, and he says he has remained the same guy – the one with a contagious machine-gun laugh, the one everyone wants to be around.

 “As far as being a good teammate, Mo is up there with the best of them,’’ Collins said. “Him falling out of the rotation, it didn’t break his spirit at all. He has been the same guy as he was when he was playing. That’s something I could learn as I move forward.’’

**

The good news for Harkless is he has been through these types of trials before, both in Orlando and in Portland.

“I didn’t come out of it the way I would have liked to in Orlando,’’ Harkless remembers. “ I just kind of crashed and burned.’’

In his first season in Portland, he see-sawed with Gerald Henderson for playing time, eventually losing out to Henderson in January. But in mid-February, Vonleh sprained his ankle and Harkless was called upon to start in Houston, during which he was placed on James Harden.

Harkless responded with a solid performance, and soon enough, he became the team’s starting small forward during a late-season run that extended into the second round of the playoffs.

Now, he is back in the same situation, on the outside looking in.

“It’s something I’ve been through before,’’ Harkless said. “It’s a little different this time around; I know how to handle it, so to say. Last time I was in situation was when I was in Orlando and I didn’t know how to handle it, so it turned out a little different. I wasn’t always ready to play when I did play, but that’s part of me just being more mature now, and understanding that everything comes back around, so just be ready whenever it does.’’

The million-dollar question now is not how he handles the low points, it’s how to prevent himself from getting there in the first place.  It’s a question Harkless both struggles to answer and doesn’t like hearing.

“It’s different with every team. This team, it’s unique,’’ Harkless said. “Not everybody is Dame and CJ, where they are going to start every night. Coach is going to make changes, especially when the team is struggling. You just have to deal with it.’’

Whether this is the start of another mid-season awakening for Harkless, or just another wrinkle in a confusing season, will begin to unfold when the Blazers resume play Thursday against the 76ers.

The only known in the equation is Harkless is coming off the best performance of his season. The crux of the problem – where has it been all season? – is only muddled by Harkless’ response to that question.

“Sometimes I play well,’’ Harkless said. “Sometimes I don’t. That’s all that is.’’

What to make of the Trail Blazers: Good team waiting to blossom, or average team revealing who they are?

What to make of the Trail Blazers: Good team waiting to blossom, or average team revealing who they are?

If you can’t figure out after 30 games who the Trail Blazers are, you are not alone.

The Blazers, themselves, are wondering as well.

“We are a team trying to find our way,’’ Damian Lillard said.

Their path has included struggles at home, while finding ways to win on the road, none of it easy, none of it smoothly, as they seem to take one step forward, two steps back, then another step forward.

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It has left them with a 16-14 record and in a tie with Denver for fifth in the Western Conference, a team whose direction seems to change by the week. One week, they are surging, coming back from 17 down in the fourth to win at Washington, offering a signature moment on a 4-1 trip. The next week, they are losing all four home games, three of them with massive deficits and the other after losing a 14-point fourth quarter lead to the NBA’s top team.

And now, they return home after a murky 3-2 trip, which included three less-than-impressive wins over struggling teams, and a heartbreak loss at Minnesota after losing a 10-point fourth quarter lead, which ironically was their best performance of the trip.

It has been the most undefined of starts – neither good, nor bad -- which has created a rather confounding question: Who exactly are the Blazers?

It is a question that will become increasingly relevant for top executive Neil Olshey over the next seven weeks as the Feb. 8 trade deadline approaches.

**

During their latest trip, I struggled with which lens to examine the Blazers. and shared my conundrum with three of the Blazers’ leaders – Lillard, McCollum and Ed Davis.

Should they be viewed as an upper-echelon team in the West, capable of securing homecourt advantage in the first round? Or are they what they have been for the past three years – an average, middle-of-the-road team that struggles with consistency?

None of them really endorsed the team as upper echelon, perhaps knowing the body of work the last two-plus seasons has shown otherwise, but they all said they were banking on things turning, and viewed the Blazers’ situation with glass-half-full optimism.

After a nine-minute back-and-forth with McCollum, he patted me on the shoulder and walked away, knowing he offered little help in answering those questions.

“You don’t know whether to write us off or give people hope,’’ he said smiling. “That’s your job.’’

A curious rallying point for all of them is taking solace in the scuffling of other Western Conference teams like Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Denver and Utah.

“Obviously, we would like to be better, but considering how we have played … we have to count it as a blessing,’’ McCollum said. “I mean, look at OKC. It could be worse.’’

Lillard predictably said no matter which team he is on, he always views it as a contender, a feeling that existed even when he was at Weber State, and he viewed his team as a candidate for the NCAA title.

He said he hopes one day this season it will click for these Blazers, much like it did years ago for Golden State.

“I think it’s important for us to view ourselves highly, and have that belief, but you have to earn it,’’ Lillard said. “Ups and downs, winning some, losing some … looking like we turned the corner, then it looking like it was just a few games that we were turning the corner … I think it’s one of those thing you will never know until it happens.

“Like, we could have this type of stretch, then have a strong rest of the season and say we do get a top four seed and get to playoffs and get to Western Conference Finals? I understand your view of it, like should we just accept we are mediocre? But I think with a lot of teams, it just ends up clicking.’’

Davis, meanwhile, was curious before the trip, when the Blazers were mired in a lethargic slump at home.  He said I should come talk to him after the final game, in Minnesota. He was confident then, he said, the Blazers could right the ship. But he added, if the Blazers were 1-4, it would be a team in trouble.

The Blazers went 3-2, but didn’t play well until the final game, a loss in Minnesota. Two of the wins – at Orlando and at Charlotte – were sloppy and generally bad basketball, wins because of the opponent, not because of how well the Blazers played.

In Minnesota, at the morning shootaround, Davis said he wasn’t concerned with style points in December.

“At the end of the day, all that matters is wins and losses,’’ Davis said. “When I check the scores, I don’t look at – oh, they played well, they should have won – I say, oh, they won. They lost.  That’s how I look at things. And if you look around league, there are so many teams in same position as we are. It’s not like we are a mystery team – we obviously want to focus on us - but you have to look around the league and there is a lot of teams – OKC, the Pelicans, everyone in that 5-to-9 range … you just don’t know.’’

By the end of the Minnesota game, Davis said he emerged from the trip encouraged by where the team is headed, but agreed it was difficult to determine the type of team Blazers were.

“We know are a playoff team,’’ Davis said. “But you know, are we home court advantage in the first round team? Or are we going against Golden State in the first round? That’s a big difference.’’

**

Few thought the Blazers would find themselves in this undistinguishable middle ground.

This is the third year since the dismantling of one of the franchises more popular and successful cores (Lillard, Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez), and perhaps never has the roster felt more stale and more distant from returning to a 50-win team.

There was hope the Blazers would build off the lightening-in-a-bottle magic from late last season, sparked mostly by Jusuf Nurkic’s February arrival. In addition, the Blazers figured the continued emergence of McCollum and the comfort of Turner in his second season would translate to measurable progress.

But we have discovered Nurkic is not so much a savior as much as he is a 23-year-old project with suspect ball security and raw touch around the basket.

And while McCollum has been good, his All-Star destiny is probably another year away, his bouts of turnovers, shooting slumps and erratic late-game play still keeping him from being elite.

And Turner, for all his intangibles on defense, still can’t shoot and still has a knack for wild, head-slapping turnovers, appearing more and more like an odd fit in this Blazers’ system.

Meanwhile, Maurice Harkless has become invisible. A key starter last season, Harkless is now a mental pretzel, his mind so twisted amid his own frustrations of where he fits that he can’t remember that he is best when he plays hard and aggressively to create his own opportunities.

And the players showing promise –Davis, Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton, Meyers Leonard – have had trouble carving a niche in what is a confusing and undefined rotation.

On the bright side, Aminu is having the best shooting season of his career and ranks second in the NBA three-point percentage, Lillard continues to be a stellar player and leader, and the team has done an about-face on the defensive end, ranking fifth.

Yet, the Blazers are roughly in the same position as last season's disappointing campaign – approaching Christmas with a so-so record, with bloated salaries and limited upside on the horizon outside of rookie Zach Collins.

To be fair, three years isn’t enough time to expect a team to rise from the ashes and contend with the Golden State’s and Cleveland’s of the NBA. But it is not unreasonable to expect some signs of measurable progress, or at least reasons for hope.

Olshey often trumpets the team’s average age (at just more than 24 years it ranks fourth youngest in the league) but those notes are becoming out of tune.

This is an experienced core that has played the greater part of three seasons together, which should translate to upside and cohesion. I don’t think any fans are considering Damian Lillard young. Same with CJ McCollum. And Ed Davis. And Al-Farouq Aminu … Evan Turner … Meyers Leonard … Maurice Harkless. They are all on their second contracts.

The Blazers’ youth is largely weighted in the back of the roster. Of the Blazers’ main rotation players, only 23-year-old starting center Jusuf Nurkic and 22-year-old reserve Noah Vonleh can be considered young.

It’s why questions about this era are becoming increasingly valid as the Feb. 8 trade deadline begins to come into focus.

For the past two seasons, postgame interviews and offday media scrums have been dominated by fruitless question-and-answer sessions trying to uncover why this team is struggling with this, or failing at that. Last season it was defense and closing out games. This season it’s the offense and the inability to fast break.

Some players have their theories, but don’t want to become a headline by voicing them publicly. Others are either speechless or have become defensive why their games are always being nitpicked.

Maybe it’s time to stop prying and prodding the players and accept the roster for what it is: an average team that lacks shooting and role players who can consistently produce.

Or maybe it’s time for that day to arrive, the one Lillard has been waiting on, when the Blazers show they are ready to take the step from middling low-tier playoff team, to one that is relevant and hosting a playoff series.

In the meantime, the fans, the players, and probably Olshey wait with a curious eye.

 “We could be a mediocre team. We could be an above average team. Or we could be a great team,’’ McCollum said. “ It’s hard to tell, because we have to be healthy and when we are healthy we have to play well.’’

The Blazers today are healthy. Will they now play well?

The Trail Blazers, neither elite nor sub-standard, are trying to find their way

The Trail Blazers, neither elite nor sub-standard, are trying to find their way

If you can’t figure out after 30 games who the Trail Blazers are, you are not alone.

The Blazers are wondering themselves.

“We are a team trying to find our way,’’ Damian Lillard said.

They are a team that struggles at home, and has found ways to win on the road, all while never clicking, seemingly taking one step forward, two steps back, then another step forward, leaving them with a 16-14 record.

One week, they are coming back from 17 down to win at Washington, offering a signature moment on a 4-1 trip. Then the next week, they are losing all four home games, three of them with massive deficits and the other after losing a 14-point fourth quarter lead.

And now, they return home after a murky 3-2 trip, which included three less-than-impressive wins over struggling teams, and a heart break loss at Minnesota after losing a 10-point fourth quarter lead.

It has created a rather confounding question: What are the Blazers?

“We know are a playoff team but you know, are we home court advantage in the first round team? Or are we going against Golden State in the first round? That’s a big difference,’’ Ed Davis said.

There was hope entering this season that the team would build off the lightening-in-a-bottle magic from late last season, sparked mostly by Jusuf Nurkic’s February arrival. In addition, the Blazers figured the continued emergence of CJ McCollum and the comfort of Turner in his second season would translate to measurable progress.

But we have discovered Nurkic is not so much a savior as much as he is a 23-year-old project with suspect ball security and still raw touch around the basket, leading to some nights of dominance and others of dejection.

And while McCollum has been good, his All-Star destiny is probably another year away, his bouts of turnovers, shooting slumps and erratic late-game play still keeping him from being elite.

And Turner, for all his intangibles, still can’t shoot and still has a knack for wild, head-slapping turnovers while he tries to figure out how he best fits in this system.

The good news is that Al-Farouq Aminu is riding the best shooting of his career, becoming the 3-and-D player the Blazers have so needed; Damian Lillard continues to be a stellar player and leader; Ed Davis is making an impact off the bench and Shabazz Napier has proven to be a reliable shooter.

But the rotation has been a mystery, the role players unsure how long, or even whether they will play, and the Big Three have all gone through their own early-season slumps, leaving the Blazers in the most undefined places in the West – neither elite nor substandard.

“We could be a mediocre team, we could be an above average team or we could be a great team,’’ McCollum said. “ It’s hard to tell, because we have to be healthy and when we are healthy we have to play well.’’

Up next are the Spurs on Wednesday and the Nuggets on Friday, two tests that should reveal a little more about this Blazers team.

Trail Blazers will be without Jusuf Nurkic against Houston

Trail Blazers will be without Jusuf Nurkic against Houston

Trail Blazers starting center Jusuf Nurkic will miss Saturday’s game against Houston because of a sprained right ankle suffered in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s loss against Washington.

Nurkic, who is averaging 15.1 points and 7.8 rebounds in 28 minutes a game, rolled his ankle after taking a shot with 6:28 left in the fourth quarter. He did not practice on Thursday and Friday, although he was seen walking off the court Friday without a limp.

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Coach Terry Stotts did not say who would start at center against the Western Conference leading Rockets (19-4) and starting center Clint Capela, who is averaging 13.5 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 66.1 percent from the field.

Candidates to start for the Blazers are Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard, rookie Zach Collins and Noah Vonleh.

In other injury news, forward Maurice Harkless, who regained his starting spot Tuesday against Washington, is listed as questionable for Houston because of a bruised left quadriceps suffered in the first quarter of Tuesday’s game.

Five ways the Trail Blazers can break out of their slump

Five ways the Trail Blazers can break out of their slump

It’s no secret these days that the Trail Blazers are reeling.

They have lost three in a row, all at home, and all while trailing by 19 or more points.

Making matters worse, starters Jusuf Nurkic (right ankle) and Maurice Harkless (left quad bruise) did not practice Thursday, making the next game – Saturday at home against the Western Conference-leading Houston Rockets – appear even more ominous.

So what do the Blazers (13-11) have to do to turn it around?

Here are five things that would help their cause:

1. CJ MCCOLLUM BREAKS OUT OF SHOOTING SLUMP

The Blazers’ silky shooting guard is in the midst of one of his worst shooting skids of his five-year career, despite his insistence that his shot feels good and his satisfaction with getting the shots he wants.

McCollum has four consecutive games in which he hasn’t made at least half of his shots, only the fifth time that has happened in his career. During the four-game skid he is shooting 34.2 percent (25-of-73), which includes just five of 20 from three-point range.

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The 34.2 percent shooting is the third worst slump he has endured in his career, behind a five-game slump in December of 2015 when he made only 29 percent (27-of-93) and a six-game slump in January of 2016 when he made 33.3 percent (39-of-117). That six game skid matches a spell in November and December of 2016 of his most consecutive games without making 50 percent or better of his shots.

One of the more confident players on the team, McCollum said he won’t change anything, except maybe try to get to the free throw line more.

“I’ve had some good looks,’’ McCollum saud. “I just have to continue to be aggressive.’’

2. TAKE BETTER CARE OF THE BALL

Two of the Blazers’ losses this homestand were defined by sloppy play that resulted in 19 turnovers. Against Milwaukee, it led to 29 points for the Bucks, while Washington cashed the mistakes into 23 points.

It’s not just the amount, it’s the type of turnovers – mindless passes directly to the defender. Dribbling the ball off the foot out of bounds. Passes into the stands.

After the Blazers’ practice on Thursday, Damian Lillard pointed to ball security as the number one priority moving forward.

“Having quality possessions and also valuing the ball,’’ Lillard said. “I think when we defend so hard and work so hard on the defensive end and come down on offense and don’t execute well and turn the ball over … that takes the life out of the team, takes the life out of the game … we have to be much better about it.’’

3. PLAY WITH SOME ENERGY

Speaking of life … the Blazers have shown little to none on this homestand. Lillard said it was fair to say the Blazers have been “flat.”

McCollum said it isn’t that the team is not showing effort, it’s that they aren’t executing, giving the appearance of a flat performance.

So how do the Blazers show some life, or "swagger" as Lillard called it after last game?

For one, says he will lead by example.

“I’m going to look to myself first,’’ Lillard said. “I’m going to hold myself accountable and I’m going to go out there and be the energy to start it off and get guys to vibe from that. Feel that, and want to get on the same page. I think everybody wants to win, everybody on the team are real team players so I think if the train goes that way, that’s what everybody is going jump on and do.’’

4. GET HEALTHY

Nurkic rolled his right ankle with about 6:30 left in Tuesday’s loss to Washington and although X-rays were negative, he was unable to practice Thursday. McCollum said he only saw Nurkic on the training table and on the exercise bike.

Harkless, meanwhile, bruised his quad in a first-quarter collision with Otto Porter and did not return for the second half. After the game, Harkless was optimistic he would be able to play by Saturday.

Nurkic, obviously, is a big part of the Blazers’ improved defense while Harkless was just put back in the starting lineup on Tuesday before suffering his injury. Harkless first made his name in Portland two seasons ago when he defended Houston’s James Harden well during a February game in Houston. It earned him a look in the starting lineup that he never relinquished until last month.

5. GET OUT AND RUN

The Blazers are in the bottom third of the league in offense, and are dead last in the NBA in fast break points, but several players Thursday said they welcome the matchup against the Rockets because it will likely mean a fast-paced game with increased possessions and open-court play.

“It’s more possessions, so kind of ride a wave, get a high-scoring total … an opportunity to somewhat get buckets,’’ Turner said. “That’s the focal point everybody is focusing on – why we haven’t been getting scoring at a high level – so maybe trick the message.’’

The Rockets, behind MVP candidate James Harden – who is leading the league in scoring and assists – are the league’s second highest scoring team, and have the best record in the West, which both McCollum and Lillard said is just the type of opponent the Blazers need.

“Why not?’’ McCollum asked with a smile.

“It’s perfect,’’ Lillard said. “Our next two games are against the best two teams in the West. Losing three straight games, what better situation than to have a chance to take a shot at the two best teams. To me, it’s the perfect situation to put something together.’’