Damian Lillard on his All-Star selection: 'This one is different'

Damian Lillard on his All-Star selection: 'This one is different'

This one, Damian Lillard said, was different.

The Trail Blazers guard was chosen to his third All-Star team on Tuesday, and Lillard said this selection has a different feel than those in 2014 and 2015.

"It's different because it came after the beginning years,'' Lillard said. "(In 2014 and 2015) I was on a team with vets. This one is on a team I've been the leader of. Like, I had to really earn my spot more this time around. Feels like I've done three years of work for this one spot.''

Lillard was selected through a vote of coaches. He is averaging 25.2 points, 6.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds in 40 games. 

Lillard the past two seasons was bypassed as a reserve, perhaps because the Blazers had a subpar record, perhaps because coaches didn't value his defensive skills, or perhaps because he competed in a star-studded Western Conference.

But this season, with a marked improvement in his defense, and the Blazers at 25-22 and in 7th place in the Western Conference, Lillard made the cut over noted stars Chris Paul and Paul George and the breakout season of Lou Williams.

In his first All-Star appearance in 2014, Lillard played nine minutes and finished with nine points and one rebound while shooting 3-for-8. In 2015, he played 16 minutes and finished with 11 points on 4-of-12 shooting. 

The All-Star Game is Feb. 18 in Los Angeles. 

The Western Conference will be represented by starters James Harden (Houston), Stephen Curry (Golden State), Kevin Durant (Golden State), Anthony Davis (New Orleans) and DeMarcus Cousins (New Orleans) and reserves Draymond Green (Golden State),  Klay Thompson (Golden State), LaMarcus Aldridge (San Antonio), Jimmy Butler (Minnesota), Karl Anthony-Towns (Minnesota) and Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City).

The Eastern Conference will be represented by starters Kyrie Irving (Boston), DeMar DeRozan (Toronto), LeBron James (Cleveland), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee) and Joel Embiid (Philadelphia) and reserves Kevin Love (Cleveland), Bradley Beal (Washington), John Wall (Washington), Kristaps Porzingis (New York), Kyle Lowry (Toronto), Al Horford (Boston) and Victor Oladipo (Indiana).

 

Damian Lillard weighs in on meeting with Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen

Damian Lillard weighs in on meeting with Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen

Nearly three weeks ago, Trail Blazers captain Damian Lillard was asked whether he had much communication with owner Paul Allen about the direction of the team, and specifically about the coaching staff and personnel.

“Me and Paul speak, but it has never been anything like that,’’ Lillard said on Jan. 5.

Last week, that changed.

Lillard on Tuesday confirmed an ESPN report that he met with Allen on Jan. 18 to discuss the future of the franchise.

The gist of the meeting?

“Very simple,’’ Lillard told NBC Sports Northwest. “What are our plans to get closer to becoming a contender?’’

Lillard on Tuesday said he would not reveal the details of his meeting with Allen, and he was vague in identifying what changed in those 13 days, when his interactions with the owner went from surface level, and then escalated to a private meeting. 

“Opening up the line of communication,’’ Lillard said. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with communication.’’

At first blush, the optics of the Lillard/Allen meeting painted a franchise at a crossroads. But on Tuesday, both Lillard and Neil Olshey -- the team’s president of basketball operations – said there was much ado about nothing.

Lillard said he didn’t view the meeting as doing anything behind anybody’s back.

“I’m not a secretive person,’’ Lillard said. “And I have a good relationship with everyone, so I didn’t feel that anyone would think I was going about it that way.’’

Olshey said he always encourages players to visit with Allen, and said the owner briefed him immediately after the meeting. The subject matter of the meeting, Olshey said, mirrored previous conversations he had with Lillard this season.

The ESPN report says Lillard questioned some of Olshey’s moves in the meeting, including the 2015 trade of Will Barton to Denver. But Lillard on Tuesday said that is not entirely accurate.

“The only thing I said about Will Barton is that he could be good on our current roster,’’ Lillard said. “Never once mentioned having an issue with the trade. That was three years ago.’’

It’s not the first time a Blazers star has met with Allen. LaMarcus Aldridge often expressed his view with the owner and Brandon Roy also gave input on occasion. Allen on Tuesday declined an interview request.

And now, with a Blazers team flirting with a .500 record for the third consecutive season, Lillard for the first time reached out to establish a line of communication with the longtime owner.

Allen on Monday was in Denver to watch the Blazers’ 104-101 loss to the Nuggets, which included the Blazers losing a late-game lead. Wearing a grey Blazers baseball cap and a blue Seahawks jacket, Allen after the game shuffled out of the arena with his head down, knowing that 1.5 games separated the Blazers from 5th place in the West, and from 9th place, and out of the playoffs.

How much of his conversation with Lillard was on the mind of Allen as he walked into the chilly mile-high air is unknown, but this much is certain: With the Feb. 8 trading deadline nearing, perhaps never before has there been more focus on Olshey, Allen, and the direction of this iteration of the Blazers.

Blazers' Jusuf Nurkic receives timely lesson before return to Denver

Blazers' Jusuf Nurkic receives timely lesson before return to Denver

Jusuf Nurkic says he is “super excited” to make his first appearance in Denver as a Trail Blazer on Monday, so perhaps it was good timing Saturday that he received a stern message from his mentor, team captain Damian Lillard.

The message: Be smart. Don’t take the bait.

In the Blazers’ past two games, Nurkic has received a late-game technical after initiating confrontations with an opponent. On Saturday, Lillard quickly got in front of Nurkic and pushed him away from a dustup with Dallas center Sal Mejri.

As the referees reviewed the play, which would result in a Nurkic technical, Lillard sternly talked to Nurkic.

“You just have to be smart enough and sharp enough not to take the bait,’’ Lillard said. “If it happens two games in a row, it’s like, come on now. We don’t have to be tough with nobody; be smart.’’

The previous game, with the Blazers up eight over Indiana, Nurkic was given a technical with 2:02 left for talking trash after blocking Victor Oladipo, who was also given a technical by retaliating with a push to Nurkic’s chest.

On Saturday, the Blazers were up 10 over Dallas with 4:36 left when Nurkic and Mejri became entangled under the basket, which was punctuated by Nurkic pushing Mejri.

Lillard and Nurkic have formed a tight bond since Denver traded the 7-footer to Portland last February. Nurkic has said Lillard is the best thing that has happened to him in his life, and he nodded Saturday as Lillard scolded him.

“Do what we have to do to win the game,’’ Lillard said. “It just doesn’t make sense. I think if there is a two-point game, or three-point game, and it happens the way it happened tonight – they shot three free throws in row - that could cost you a game. So Its better to get that across and learn that lesson in a game like tonight where we have a cushion and you let people know  … you can’t take the bait.’’

It could be an apt discussion in preparation for Monday’s game at Denver, where Nurkic became disgruntled and outspoken about what became a diminished role. The Blazers and Nuggets have faced each other three times since the trade, but all three meetings have been in Portland, including one last season in which Nurkic wished the Nuggets a “happy summer” after leading the Blazers to a key victory that all but assured them a playoff spot over the Nuggets.

Monday’s matchup also figures to play heavily in the postseason conversation. Portland (25-21) is in sixth in the West, two games ahead of  Denver (23-23), which is one spot out of the playoff hunt.

“That’s a game I look forward to, definitely,’’ Nurkic said Saturday. “Super excited … looking for another win.’’

Nurkic, who is averaging 14.4 points and 8.0 rebounds,  smiled and shrugged when asked how he thought he would be received by the Pepsi Center crowd.

“I don’t care,’’ he said. “I had ups and downs there, but I still love it. I have friends and almost a family there. At the end of the day, it’s part of the job. It’s not going to distract me, whatever they do.’’

Lillard, for one, figures to be on high alert. He said after three encounters, Nurkic should be over the emotions of facing his former team. Still, in the grand scheme, Lillard said he hopes Nurkic, and the rest of the Blazers, understand the importance of keeping their heads as the playoffs become more in focus.

“I know all my teammates pretty well,  and I don’t think we have one soft person in here,’’ Lillard said. “I don’t think there is one person in here who has to back down from an altercation if it came down to it. But two games in a row we’ve had situations where we have a lead, we have to secure the game and put the game away, then something like this happens. We have to be smart.’’

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.

(UPDATED): Isaiah Thomas will play vs. Blazers, but Kevin Love is ill

(UPDATED): Isaiah Thomas will play vs. Blazers, but Kevin Love is ill

UPDATED WITH CLEVELAND ILLNESS: At first glance, the NBA schedule has dealt the Trail Blazers a tough hand Tuesday night.

After an overtime win in Chicago Monday, Portland travels to Cleveland for a game tonight vs. the Cavaliers -- a back-to-back contest vs. one of the league's very best teams. But sometimes, the first glance doesn't tell the whole story.

Cleveland is facing a back-to-back, too -- and the backstory there is worth examining.

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” premium-game Blazers streaming package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest – $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

The Cavaliers' back-to-back features a trip to Boston on Wednesday night to play the Celtics -- a big rivalry game made even more heated by another matchup between the Celts' Kyrie Irving and his former team. The Trail Blazers' best hope would be that Cleveland is looking past this home game against Portland to that contest against the Celtics. The Cavaliers are also on a three-game losing streak, although those were road games and the Cavs have won 12 straight home contests.

Tuesday also will mark the season debut of Boston guard Isaiah Thomas, who has been sidelined with a hip injury. Is that good or bad for Portland? Thomas is expected to be on a strict minutes restriction against the Trail Blazers and will not play Wednesday at Boston against his former team. Often, the first game back after a prolonged injury absence can be a little rough, which would be another bonus for Portland.

Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are expected to welcome Damian Lillard back to the lineup after a five-game absence due to a hamstring injury.

It's worth noting that last season at Cleveland, former Lake Oswego High School star Kevin Love was impossible for Portland to control. Love scored 34 points and made eight three-point field goals in the first quarter, the most points a player has ever scored in the opening quarter of an NBA game. Love is enjoying an outstanding season and has scored at least 20 points and hit at least three three-pointers in six consecutive games.

UPDATE: The bad news for Cleveland is that Love missed shootaround this morning and word is that he's suffering from food poisoning that has caused him to lose 10 pounds in two days. LeBron James is also suffering from a cold.

Coverage starts on NBC Sports Northwest at 3 o'clock with Rip City Live.

 

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.

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.

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" premium-game Blazers streaming package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest - $34.99 - click to learn more and buy]

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?