What can Blazers do to fix their season? They better do something!

What can Blazers do to fix their season? They better do something!

OK, as we finish up a healthy post-Christmas break and near the end of the calendar year, it's probably a good time to assess the Portland Trail Blazers.

Portland sits in a tie for the seventh spot in the Western Conference, with a 17-16 record. So far, the Blazers have been the definition of a .500 team -- win a few, lose a few, neither sinking nor swimming but just treading water.

It's really not much different than the past two or three seasons. But I sense the natives are getting restless. It feels as if Trail Blazer fans are tiring of it all. Where is the excitement? Where  is the buzz? There hasn't been much so far.

So what must a franchise do? Just stay the course and hope that the anticipated roster improvement expected this season finally kicks in? Or is time to make a move?

I think it's time for a change.

And I mean something that changes the nature of this team. Something that changes the course of the franchise.

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What are we talking about here? Well, there's only so much that can be done. But the first order of business would be to figure out the nature of the problem. Is it the roster or is it the coach? When you examine that question you could find answers on both sides of the issue.

This team's roster isn't balanced. It isn't complete. But it's a very high payroll for a .500 team seemingly headed nowhere.

Or is the problem on the sidelines with the coaching staff? Is Terry Stotts getting the most out of his team? Are they playing hard for him? Is the team fully prepared for each game?

If you believe the answers to the questions above are "yes" then you must look to the front office. Has Neil Olshey done a good job of putting a winning roster together? Has he drafted and traded well? Is he doing a better job than could be done by somebody else? And you ask the same question you'd ask with a coach -- is there someone out there available who could do a better job?

I often look at the Portland roster and think it's not ideal for the kind of offense Stotts favors. There aren't enough outside shooters, for sure. But then the question becomes this: Is this Olshey's fault for not getting his coach the pieces he needs to do his job or is it the coach's responsibility to take the talent given him and tailor his offense to their talents, rather than stick with his own system?

Of course, we haven't even talked about the players yet. Changes can come there, too.

Is it finally time to give up on the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt? I ask that question because it seems to me the only trade piece of real value would be one of those guards. Most likely that would mean McCollum. What could you get for him? Do you really want to give up on a player on the verge of all-star status?

And what about Jusuf Nurkic? Once thought to be the team's franchise center of the future and a reason to be excited about the team's potential, Nurkic is shooting just .458 from the field and acting sa if he doesn't have a care in the world. Nurkic Fever? So far this season he seems to be infected with a bad case of Nurkic Disinterest.

But would any team be willing to take Nurkic in a deal? Maybe -- but not with a lot of value in return. And that's the case with a good many Trail Blazers. Highly paid doesn't necessarily mean highly valued.

So where do you go with the Trail Blazers? What do you do? How do you fix this?

All I can say is that this point you better do SOMETHING before it's too late to salvage the season. This franchise is begging for a change of direction, a momentum-changing event. The fans are, too.

And it's time.

The Blazers' path toward trust started with a Maurice Harkless vent

The Blazers' path toward trust started with a Maurice Harkless vent

Seemingly in the blink of an eye, the Trail Blazers season has turned from mediocre to meteoric.

But coaches and players say Portland’s recent 13-game winning streak was not the product of an ah-ha moment when something clicked, nor was it a brilliant strategic move, or that of a lineup suddenly clicking.

Rather, this late season run was the culmination of several subtle factors coming together – some earlier than others – to form what has become one of the more entertaining, team-oriented brands of basketball in the league right now.

Looking back, there are some red-letter dates that stand out.

In Oklahoma City on Jan. 9, Terry Stotts implored the team to start taking more three-pointers.

During the All-Star Break, Jusuf Nurkic vowed to clean up his shots around the basket.

But the earliest seeds of change were planted in November, in the hours before the calendar turned to Thanksgiving Day.

That’s when team-captain Damian Lillard read a just-published story detailing the frustrations of teammate Maurice Harkless following a 20-point loss in Philadelphia earlier that night.

Harkless felt the team’s offense had become stagnant, and was too centered on three players – Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. While those three players took the majority of shots, Harkless said he felt he was just “running track” up and down the court.

“We gotta figure out ways … not only for me, but ways to get other people going,’’ Harkless said that November night in the Philadelphia locker room. “Every game it’s the same thing … we play through three people.’’

By the time the team reached New York later that night, Lillard had finished the article, and had something to say.

In the hotel, he found Harkless.

“I see what you are saying,’’ Lillard remembers telling him. “I hear you.’’

That hotel conversation would initiate the steps in achieving what has become one of the defining traits of this late-season run: trust.


For much of the early season, there was something between tension and unease inside the team.

There wasn’t any personal friction – it was and still is a team that enjoys each other - but there were a handful of players who felt under utilized, yet they were unsure of how to address it.

Nobody questioned that Lillard and McCollum were the best offensive players, and they all said the two should take the majority of the shots. And with Nurkic, everybody remembered how he helped carry them into the playoffs, and they could see the size and skill of the 7-foot center.

But somewhere along the way, players like Harkless and Evan Turner felt they were just roaming and drifting to the corners while watching the Lillard and McCollum go to work.

Looking back, Lillard didn’t disagree.

“It had always been that way,’’ Lillard said of he and McCollum being ball dominant.

It created a predictable and often times stagnant offense, which in turn resulted in bouts of 1-on-1 play, or shots that were difficult, and forced. And when the role players did get chances, they often hesitated or passed up shots.

“Not taking an open shot can mess up an offense,’’ McCollum said.

By late November, the lack of movement, both player and ball - was just one facet of things going wrong for the Blazers.

Nurkic was missing point-blank shots at an alarming rate. The volume of three-point attempts, once among the tops in the league, had dramatically dipped. And the team’s assists were at or near the bottom of the league.

The result was a ho-hum 10-8 record against what computed to the easiest schedule in the league, which included losses at home to Brooklyn and at Sacramento.

For Lillard and McCollum, the clunky start added to their already heightened sense of responsibility to carry the team. And when Nurkic’s struggles mounted, Pat Connaughton’s hot start cooled, Al-Farouq Aminu badly sprained his ankle, and Harkless began to drift into anonymity, the star duo took even more upon themselves.

“I think you try to control your destiny,’’ McCollum said. “When we win or lose games, it starts at the top … and a lot of times you feel like it’s on you to win games.’’

Added Stotts: “When things aren’t going well offensively – and at that time we weren’t finishing well, we weren’t shooting well -- so when that happens, guys like Damian and CJ feel like they have to take more responsibility. And that can kind of snowball in one direction or another.’’

After the 20-point blowout loss in Philadelphia, it was clear to Harkless which way the snowball was headed. So he vented.

As Lillard read Harkless’ comments that November night, he paused.

“I automatically looked at (Harkless’ comments) and I looked at myself,’’ Lillard said.


When Lillard approached Harkless in the New York hotel, it opened a dialogue.

“That night, Dame came up to me and showed me the article, and was like, ‘Talk to me.’ And we had a conversation about it,’’ Harkless said. “I think it opened his eyes, because there’s a lot on Dame’s shoulders, and because of that, sometimes he doesn’t realize what’s going on around him sometimes, you know?

“He didn’t see the frustration I had, or that ET had … but (Lillard not noticing) was never malicious. He is always trying to do what’s best for the team, and that’s the 100 percent truth,’’ Harkless said. “So I knew when he came to me, it was genuine. And that goes a long way. Because a lot of guys might have gotten an attitude about it. But the way he came to me, he knew I wasn’t really mad at him, I was just frustrated with the way we were playing.’’

Throughout December, Lillard said he and McCollum started watching game film with an added focus.

They looked for examples of where they could have made an extra pass. How they could cut and move to create better space for Nurkic. Or instances where they missed Al-Farouq Aminu or Turner open on the weak side for a corner three.

By January, things started to turn.

On Jan. 1, the Blazers beat Chicago, and Stotts noted that McCollum had his best passing night of the season.

The next night, in Cleveland, the Blazers lost, but the offense was as good as it had been up to that point. The ball was moving, players were cutting hard, and shots were falling.

A team that had been averaging 18 assists a game, had in back-to-back nights recorded 25 assists.

“The Chicago game was where we turned things around offensively,’’ Stotts said. “That was kind of the turning point, and then the month of January continued to be a good offensive month for us.’’

Much was going on during January. The team started taking, and making, more three-pointers after Stotts’ made a quip about the need to shoot more as he boarded a team bus in Oklahoma City. Lillard became healthy after battling hamstring and calf injuries. And Nurkic started to work out his kinks around the rim.

But perhaps the biggest development was a realization by both McCollum and Lillard.

Lillard noticed that the more Aminu was given the ball, the more locked-in he was on defense. The more Harkless touched the ball, the more involved he became in the game. There was a direct correlation to effort and how much a player felt the ball.

“Everybody,’’ McCollum said, “needs to touch the leather to stay engaged.’’


Of all the theories and factors used to explain the Blazers’ success, the players unanimously point to one: trust.

The more Lillard and McCollum set up players, and made the extra pass, the more it became contagious among the team. Soon, Harkless’ play started to elevate. So too did Aminu. And Turner. And Zach Collins.

By the time the All-Star break arrived, Lillard and McCollum no longer felt they had to carry the load for the team to win, and as a result, the role players were as engaged and empowered as ever. Eventually, the Blazers became a team in the truest sense.

The latest example was Tuesday’s streak-ending loss to Houston, when Aminu, Nurkic, Harkless and Turner had big nights, which was nearly enough to beat the NBA’s best team, even though Lillard and McCollum struggled offensively.

The guards still play much the same, but they think the game differently.

“In reality, you have to make the plays that are there,’’ McCollum said. “So I think we’ve grown, and guys have stepped up and are more comfortable at doing certain things.’’

It is the culmination of months of film study, and games where players like Aminu, Turner and Harkless have backed up the growing roles the stars have afforded them.

It started on that November night, when Harkless vented his frustration, and opened Lillard’s eyes – and ears. After that night, the team captain began to notice more, hear more.

“I don’t think guys were upset, but it was just like, we could be better if we do some other things sometimes,’’ Lillard said. “That’s what they want … they are NBA players who want to help the team win.’’

And now, it’s all the Blazers helping the team win. One of the telling traits of the Blazers’ late-season run has been the different contributions up and down the roster on different nights.

“When everybody touches it, it keeps the defense honest and it keeps everybody engaged and motivated,’’ Harkless said. “Any competitor is going be to be frustrated running up and down the court. That’s not fun basketball. And the biggest thing about how we are playing lately is it’s been really fun. We are trusting each other, and it shows.’’

Harkless says he has no regrets about making those November comments, except maybe making them publicly before talking to the team first. But Lillard said he is glad Harkless aired them.

“When he said that, I’m sure everybody saw it, but nobody took offense,’’ Lillard said. “Everybody was like, ‘Well, maybe he has a point.’ … The thing is, it made us better. It needed to happen.’’

The streak is over, but high hopes remain for a deep playoff run


The streak is over, but high hopes remain for a deep playoff run

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum both struggled vs. the Rockets, going a combined 9 for 32 from the floor as the Trail Blazers 13-game winning streak was snapped by the best in the West. Up next the Blazers look to rebound vs. the Boston Celtics on Friday night. 

Box Score: Houston 115, Portland 111

Quick Hit:


The Blazers bunch... That's the way they became the Blazers Bunch

The Blazers bunch... That's the way they became the Blazers Bunch

It's the story
Of the Portland Trail Blazers
Who have been busy winning 13 straight games
They were 15 men
Leaning on each other 
And they knew they weren’t all alone

No one knows that one day when things started clicking
And they knew that it was much more than a hunch
That this group must somehow form a family
That's the way we all became the Blazers bunch

The Blazers bunch, the Blazers bunch
That's the way they became the Blazers bunch

Lean on Me: Blazers streak defined by familiar theme

Lean on Me: Blazers streak defined by familiar theme

LOS ANGELES – On Sunday night, shortly after Portland had won its 13th consecutive game, an odd thing happened in the Trail Blazers locker room.

In separate interviews, at separate times, three different players used the same phrase to explain the Blazers’ sudden rise to NBA prominence:

“We are leaning on each other.”

First Maurice Harkless said it. Then Shabazz Napier. And finally, Damian Lillard.

Certainly, it seemed, with so many players saying the same thing, this had become a rallying cry, or at least a concept driven home by coach Terry Stotts and his staff during what has become the second-longest winning streak in franchise history (16 is the Portland record).

But in a fitting example that mirrors their about-face, the lean-on-me trait was more organic.

“We haven’t talked about it,’’ Damian Lillard said. “It’s just the best way to describe it. That’s just what we are doing. You just have to trust (teammates) will make the right play, trust they will knock down the shot, trust they will be there in help-side (defense), trust they will tell you a screen is coming. And we are just doing it.’’

The lean-on-me concept has taken shape in different forms. Sometimes, as Lillard pointed out, it can be in a play such as Al-Farouq Aminu coming to double-team as Tobias Harris tried to post up Lillard Sunday.

Other times, it can be a player picking up another teammate for an entire game, as the streak has been best defined by different players emerging in starring roles on different nights.

If Jusuf Nurkic has struggled, Ed Davis has been there to pick up the slack. And if Davis fouls out in 11 minutes, as he did Sunday against the Clippers, Nurkic is there to record a double-double while adding four blocks.

And while Lillard has been spectacular, including put-the-team-on-his-back moments in miracle comebacks at the Lakers and Suns, there have been plenty of co-stars along the way.

Napier made a big steal of Isaiah Thomas in the final seconds of the Lakers win. Zach Collins had a coming-of-age performance against Oklahoma City. Al-Farouq Aminu has made game-clinching three-pointers against Miami, Cleveland and Detroit. Evan Turner played important late-game defense against Golden State and made a clinching basket against Cleveland. Harkless was a spark against the Clippers. Ed Davis has had more big moments than he can flex at, and CJ McCollum has had dominant scoring stretches, particularly against the Cavaliers.

“That’s what teams do,’’ Stotts said. “Not everybody is going to have a night every night, and whether it’s Shabazz or Pat (Connaughton), or Ed … we’ve had different guys off the bench to have an impact. Different guys have the ability to make plays.’’

For the past month, Lillard has been trumpeting the well-rounded performance of the roster. He says he is trusting and his teammates more than ever before. As a result, the Blazers’ surge has been empowering for the roster.

“In the past, when teams have made a run, I’ve gone out there and tried to will us in the right way, or CJ will try it,’’ Lillard said. “But this year, we are leaning on each other … we are trusting each other and guys are coming through, getting big time blocks, big time steals, big rebounds, free throws. The more connected we are, the better we will be, and it’s showing.’’

On Tuesday, the Blazers will go for 14 in a row against Houston, the team with the NBA’s best record. Who will be the star? Who will make the big shot? The big defensive play?

Unlike in year’s past, that answer is hard to say for sure. And that, the Blazers say, is what defines them, and this streak.

“I think it just shows how much we are leaning on each other,’’ Harkless said. “We are trusting each other. We are doing this together, and that’s going to be important moving forward.’’

Blazers go Hollywood for lucky number 13

USA Today

Blazers go Hollywood for lucky number 13

If you see a member of the Trail Blazers in public, try not to get too close. There is a high chance you could burn yourself because this team is on fire! The Blazers went to Los Angeles on Sunday and dismantled the Clippers, 122-109 for their thirteenth win in a row. That’s right – 13 wins in a row! Portland continues to hold on to the three seed in the Western Conference, and now has a two game lead on No.4 Oklahoma City. 

Box Score: Blazers 122 – Clippers 109

Next up:  The Blazers play host to the league leading Houston Rockets (56-14) on Tuesday night. Tipoff is set for 7:30pm at Moda Center. 

Quck Hit: 

Make it a dozen in a row!


Make it a dozen in a row!

You've heard it a lot lately, but it happened again. The Blazers have now won 12 straight after running the Detroit Pistons out of Moda Center on Saturday night. Damian Lillard played a complete game finishing with 24 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds. Up next, the Blazers go for a baker's dozen tomorrow night in LA vs. the Clippers. 

Box Score: Portland 100, Detroit 87

Quick Hits: 

With emergence of trust in teammates, Lillard Time expands for Blazers

With emergence of trust in teammates, Lillard Time expands for Blazers

While much of the glory has been given to Damian Lillard during the Trail Blazers’ 11-game winning streak, a subtle development has emerged on the fringe of the spotlight:

More than ever before, Lillard is trusting his teammates.

And they are delivering.

Lillard’s trust was on full display Thursday during the Blazers’ 113-105 victory over Cleveland, when he made two heady assists in the closing minutes that thwarted a LeBron James-led comeback.

“People during this streak have asked me about leading the charge,’’ Lillard said. “But I keep telling them that I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing unless everybody else was carrying their weight.’’

On Thursday, much of the weight was carried by fellow star CJ McCollum, who scored 29 points, but it was two late-game plays by Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner that illustrates the team’s growth, and Lillard’s trust.

On the heels of a 14-2 run, Cleveland was within 105-102 with just less than three minutes left, which usually triggers that special trait in the Blazers’ point guard known as Lillard Time.

Sensing this, the Cavaliers put James on Lillard, and when Lillard took James to the basket, it drew Jordan Clarkson into the paint. But instead of forcing a shot, Lillard kicked out to Al-Farouq Aminu, who nailed a three-pointer with 2:38 left.

On the next Blazers’ possession, Lillard missed, but the rebound was tapped back to him in the corner with Cleveland’s Kyle Korver in front of him. As Lillard sized up the situation, James came to Korver and indicated he would guard the Blazers’ star.

Inside the Blazers, Turner is hailed as one of the team’s smartest players, and he instantly recognized that with James on Lillard, it meant Korver would be left to guard him.

“Personally, I thought they were trippin’,’’ Turner said. “I was like, this is the best thing that could possibly happen. They are really switching. I mean, Korver is a great player and a great shooter and all that, but I feel great in the post, and over the years I’ve had a decent amount of success against people his size and smaller.’’

So Turner slashed through the lane and immediately established post position on Korver.

Flashback to last season and think of a six-point game, less than two minutes left, in the middle of a playoff push  … would Lillard give up the ball there?

“No,’’ Lillard said. “It’s not that I wouldn’t have recognized that play, but I feel like  … ET has gotten comfortable and we’ve seen him go to the block and be successful.’’

So instead of taking it upon himself to seal the game, Lillard didn’t hesitate and fed Turner the ball. Turner immediately went to his bread-and-butter and backed Korver down into the paint, where he scored with 1:49 left.

“Very unselfish,’’ Turner said of Lillard. “It was huge. In that part of the game, a critical part, to trust me enough in a mismatch, and be aware of my strength … it was great.’’

Does Turner think Lillard would have done that last season, Turner’s first in Portland?

“I don’t really know,’’ Turner said. “Because I don’t want to take away from Dame. He’s smart and always tries to do the right thing. But I will say, one thing we have been doing great lately is moving the ball.’’

Blazers coach Terry Stotts said he didn't want to read too much into one play, but he liked what he saw late from Lillard.

"That was a sign of trust and recognition,’’ Stotts said.

Lillard says the two late-game plays – part of his nine-assist night - were an illustration of how the Blazers have become a more well-rounded and dependable team. Sure, during this streak he is averaging 31.7 points, and has willed this team to victories at Phoenix and the Lakers, but he no longer feels the burden to do it all himself.

This team, he says, thinks. This team communicates. And this team has different players elevate their play on different nights.

“Us leaning on each other is as big as anything,’’ Lillard said. “We have to lean on each other.’’

Not one, not two, not three... ELEVEN in a row


Not one, not two, not three... ELEVEN in a row

Another game night and another Trail Blazers' victim as Portland extends its winning streak to 11 games by taking down LeBron James and Cavs! Portland's dynamic duo did it again as CJ McCollum (29 points) and Damian Lillard (24 points, 9 assists) led the charge. LeBron James poured in 35 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. Up Next: Detroit on Saturday night.

Box Score: Portland 113, Cleveland 105

Quick Hits:

Awaiting birth of his son, Damian Lillard eyes schedule

USA Today

Awaiting birth of his son, Damian Lillard eyes schedule

For Damian Lillard, the Trail Blazers’ playoff push isn’t the only thing in a stretch run these days.

Lillard and his girlfriend are expecting a son, with March 19 as the projected due date. That could affect the star guard’s availability - the Blazers are in Los Angeles on March 18 for a game against the Clippers, and Lillard said he would fly home and miss the game if his girlfriend went into labor.

Lillard, who is enjoying the best season of his six-year career, said being a father has been on his mind throughout this season, but he said it hasn’t changed his play.

“I’ve always known it was going to happen; I mean, he’s going to come,’’ Lillard said.

The Blazers also have games March 20 against Houston and March 23 against Boston, but both are at home. The Blazers then go on a five-day, three-game trip to Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Memphis.