Breakfast with the Blazers: An overview of what we do, don't know

Breakfast with the Blazers: An overview of what we do, don't know

What has been a productive and borderline impressive preseason for the Trail Blazers comes to a close tonight with an exhibition against Israeli professional club Maccabi Haifa.

Since much of the regulars will rest or play limited minutes, here is a look at what we know, what we think we know, and what we don’t know after this Trail Blazers’ preseason.

WHAT WE KNOW

Rookie Caleb Swanigan is going to play: The No. 26 overall pick looks and acts like he belongs and has brought an edge and toughness on both offense and defense. He is averaging 7.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in 16 minutes and has shown an ability to score inside and outside. Twice he has stood up for himself and held his ground – once against Toronto veteran Serge Ibaka, and Wednesday against Phoenix center Alex Len – both times drawing technicals. He was ejected for his altercation with Len.

“I think if we haven’t already, (we know that) Caleb is not backing down for anybody,’’ Coach Terry Stotts said after the Phoenix game. “And I think we will expect that.’’

Evan Turner is comfortable: There is a tendency to write that Turner is better this season, but it’s not like his skills have improved. He is just more comfortable with the playbook and his teammates and what is expected out of him than he was during his first season in Portland. As a result, Turner has been an incredibly effective weapon for the Blazers this preseason. He has been a beast on the block, posting up opposing guards and either scoring over them or drawing a double team and picking apart the defense with a pass.

He has also been excellent defensively, guarding every position during the preseason. Turner’s defensive rating (74.2) is No. 1 in the NBA during the preseason.

“I think he is just a lot more comfortable now,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “He knows his spots and how to be effective in certain situations. It takes time sometimes, for a guy coming into a new situation, especially a guy coming in who is used to having the ball so much then coming here and not having the ball as much. But I think he’s done a tremendous job adjusting and I think he is only going to get better.’’

Turner this preseason is averaging 8.8 points, 3.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds in 23 minutes while shooting 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range (3-of-6).

But the stats don’t show everything. Just by the way he is dribbling, the way he is attacking, the passes he is making, you can tell he is playing free rather than thinking and worrying whether he is doing the right thing.

“He’s just been assertive,’’ Damian Lillard said. “He has been more comfortable having the ball and being in attack mode … He has played really well.’’

Pat Connaughton has earned rotation spot: In August, there was a question whether the Blazers would pick up Connaughton’s $1.4 million option. Two months later, the guard has won a rotation spot with a diverse and effective preseason.

If you still think Connaughton is just a spot-up three-point shooter, you haven’t been watching closely. He has shown the ability to create off the dribble and make mid-range pull ups, he has been an athletic defender who regularly contests shots.

A nice snapshot of Connaughton this preseason was in Los Angeles, during a hotly contested game against the Clippers. He blocked a driving attempt by Lou Williams, then came down and drilled a deep, 27-foot three-pointer with a hand in his face.  

“I’ve always thought very highly of Pat, so I’m happy to see him actually get out there and do it in the flow of action,’’ Lillard said. “He’s always done what he is doing, it just looks better now, look more comfortable. He’s getting things done … making shots, attacking the basketball, getting his hands on the ball. It’s good to see Pat stretch himself, and I guess be a little more impactful on the floor.’’

The Blazers’ defense is much, much better: This might be the biggest development of the preseason, but everyone from writers to coaches to players have been wary of overhyping the Blazers’ defense because, well, it’s preseason.

Still, what the Blazers have shown has been impressive. Very impressive.

The last four opponents have shot below 41 percent, and overall in the preseason, opponents are shooting 40.6 percent. Overall, the Blazers have the 10th best defensive rating in the preseason, and the fourth best net rating in the NBA, behind Houston, Utah and Boston.

After last year’s disaster on the defensive end, the Blazers talked a lot about defense in training camp, and they have backed it up in the preseason.

“I think we have more focus and better communication,’’ Ed Davis said. “I feel if we are a top 15, top 10 defensive team we are going to be well off once the regular season starts, because we know are going to be a top 10 offensive team. On a bad day we are a top 10 team offensively. So as long as we lock in on the defensive end, that’s where we are going to win games.’’

Ed Davis will be backup center: Stotts said before Wednesday’s game in Phoenix that he is viewing Davis as a center, more or less ending any thoughts that Davis would be the opening-night starter at power forward.

Davis has been very effective this preseason and is the clear-cut backup to Jusuf Nurkic at center.

Davis famously set a goal to win the open power forward spot during Media Day, but he said that was more or less something to psyche himself up.

“When I said that, I wasn’t trying to make it a big deal … it was just something I said, so it’s not something I’m disappointed about, or feeling some sort of way, like hurt or anything,’’ Davis said. “It is what it is. The main thing is winning and coach is going to do what is best for the team. There’s going to be all different kinds of lineups on the floor. I just have to be ready each time my number is called.’’

The Big 3 are ready:  The biggest thing we know from preseason – the Big 3 of Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic are ready.

McCollum hasn’t shot the ball as well as he would have liked (35.4 percent from the field) but he has made 11-of-26 three-pointers (42.3 percent) and constantly looks like he is toying with the defense.

Nurkic has been dominant at times and Lillard looks as good as ever.

WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW

This section is the gray area between what our eyes are telling us and what Stotts won’t confirm or reveal.

Starting lineup: I think it has been clear that Stotts will open the season with Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Nurkic as his starting lineup, but he has yet to confirm it.

This group knows each other and it shows on the court. Offensively, this unit flows. There is great ball movement, nice spacing and an overall familiarity that is invaluable in today’s NBA.

Defensively, the pairing of Harkless and Aminu is well documented. The two can switch on pick-and-rolls and both are among the Blazers’ better defensive players. Harkless in particular has been very “handsy” -- getting his hands on a lot of deflections, steals and blocks.

Second unit: Part of the equation in deciding a starting lineup is plotting the second unit and how the substitution patterns play out. If Stotts indeed goes with the above starting lineup, that leaves his second unit with McCollum at point guard, Connaughton at shooting guard, Turner at small forward, Swanigan at power forward and Davis at center.

There are a couple of intriguing aspects to this second unit. Offensively, it allows Turner to have the ball in his hands more often, which is when he is most effective. If he is paired with Lillard and McCollum – both of whom command the ball – it takes away much of Turner’s playmaking strengths while forcing him to uncomfortable spots on the floor as a spacer.

And defensively, this is a tough and solid unit. Davis and Turner are plus defenders and Swanigan has shown he can rebound. Connaughton has great hops and is smart, and McCollum has sneaky defensive moments where he will block a shot or anticipate and disrupt passing lanes.

It also reminded me of what Turner said this preseason when I asked him what is important in deciding lineups. I was expecting him to say something like spacing, or balance, but he said he found the best teams had a second unit that had an identity. It could be offense, defense, toughness, run-and-gun … but an identity.

I think this unit could have a physical, rough-and-tough defensive identity while still remaining dangerous offensively with McCollum’s brilliance and Turner’s playmaking/post game.

Anthony Morrow will win 15th spot: If there is one thing left to decide in tonight’s game against Maccabi Haifa, it’s probably the final roster spot, although I think Anthony Morrow won it last week against Toronto, when he made four three pointers in eight minutes.

The competition is between Morrow, Archie Goodwin and Isaiah Briscoe.

Goodwin’s chances probably evaporated Wednesday in Phoenix when he didn’t hustle for a loose ball, which the Suns scooped up and took in for an uncontested layin. It wasn’t an egregious lack of effort by the former first-round pick, but it lacked the intensity and wherewithal you want to see from a guy trying to win an NBA roster spot.

Briscoe, a rookie point guard from Kentucky, has actually been good during mop up time throughout the preseason, but there’s no way the Blazers keep a fourth point guard.

That leaves Morrow, the sharp-shooting 32-year-old, who also appears to be a good locker room guy.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

What happens when Noah Vonleh returns? Vonleh on Wednesday said he is on schedule with his rehabilitation of a right shoulder strain, and is three weeks away from returning.

Vonleh has started at power forward for parts of the past two seasons and is valued by Stotts for his rebounding and defense. What happens when Vonleh returns?

I’m guessing Vonleh plays right away, and it will likely be at the expense of some of Swanigan’s minutes.

How much does Zach Collins play? This might be at the top of my curiosities entering the season. I can’t get a feel of how the team views Collins right now.

Make no mistake, they are encouraged and pleased with the No. 10 overall pick, and think he is going to be a star down the road. But I don’t know how they view him in the immediate. I could see him sitting the bench and getting spot minutes, but I could also see him playing during meaningful games.

With Collins, I think fans are going to have to look deeper than his points and rebounds. He is exceptional at protecting the rim. Absolutely fearless. Perhaps, even, the best on the team at protecting the rim. He is also very good at moving his feet and being in the right spots defensively. These two factors could get him on the court.

That being said, he gets pushed around very easily, which is why Stotts said the team mostly views Collins right now as a power forward, because he has trouble holding his ground against bigger centers.

But I’m interested in seeing how Collins is used out of the gate.

Where does Shabazz Napier fit in? One of the few letdowns of the preseason has been the unavailability of point guard Shabazz Napier, who hurt his left hamstring on the second day of training camp. Neil Olshey gushed about Napier at Media Day, and there was some intrigue of what the point guard who scored 32 and 25 points as a late-season starter last year would bring.

It sounds like Napier has a chance at playing tonight against Haifa, as his status has been upgraded to questionable. It may take some time for him to get up to game-time speed, but I’m imagining Stotts using Connaughton and Napier interchangeably depending on opposing lineups.

In case you haven’t noticed, Stotts is in for a heckuva juggling job this season. He has an obvious nine-man rotation (Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic, Turner, Davis, Connaughton, Swanigan) and I’m guessing he will extend his rotation early in the season to 10 and maybe 11 to work in Vonleh and Napier. If Collins is in that equation, that makes 12. And what if Meyers Leonard keeps playing like he did Wednesday in Phoenix, when he had 17 points and 8 rebounds?

Lot of questions ahead, but they are mostly good questions. This has been an exceptional preseason for the Blazers, one that has offered a lot of encouraging signs, and one that keeps leading me back to one thought:

This team is going to be better than people think.

Today's Blazers links:

Blazers' radio voice Brian Wheeler is taking a leave of absence.

A preview of tonight's preseason finale.

On the road, Evan Turner taught room service a lesson.

 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts says lineup, rotation not decided

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts says lineup, rotation not decided

SACRAMENTO -- Terry Stotts said he has yet to decide on his opening night starting lineup or his playing rotation, even after he coached what appeared to be a dress rehearsal for the regular season on Monday night in Sacramento.

Stotts started both halves with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic and played them all about 29 minutes. Through the first three quarters, he only played four reserves – Evan Turner, Ed Davis, Caleb Swanigan and Pat Connaughton.

Nobody inside the Blazers locker room said they have a clue how Stotts will approach the season opener, which is now just eight days away, but several intimated that it wouldn’t shock them if Monday’s game against the Kings is how the Blazers approach the Oct. 18 opener at Phoenix.

“I think obviously, everybody knows who the horses are,’’ Turner said. “And the rest of us have to stay prepared and stay ready for whatever the situation is. I think the biggest thing in the rotation situation is defensively … are we getting better defensively?’’

The only debate is how Stotts handles the forward position, and it seems the leading candidates from the start of camp have been Harkless and Aminu, who have developed a familiarity and defensive chemistry over the past two seasons. The other options are having Swanigan in place of Aminu, or perhaps Turner instead of Harkless.

But for a team whose offense is well defined with Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic, it seems the defensive cohesion between Harkless and Aminu – they are able to switch easily on pick-and-rolls – has long been attractive to Stotts.

“The continuity – we finished out the year like that for the most part and I think we are all comfortable with that group out there,’’ Harkless said. “I don’t know if that’s going to the be group we start with on opening night, but whether it is or isn’t, I think that group we have out there is good offensively or defensively.’’

Stotts usually likes to play nine or 10 players, and his biggest decision will likely come in early November, when Noah Vonleh returns from a shoulder strain. Vonleh has been a part-time starter over the past two seasons and figures to command playing time because of his rebounding and defensive play. Also, point guard Shabazz Napier – who has been unable to play in preseason because of a hamstring injury -- figures to be considered alongside Connaughton at guard, depending on matchups.

“We have a lot of lineups out there, but it will ultimately be coach’s decision,’’ Lillard said.

Stotts also typically likes to have one preseason game when he plays it similar to a regular season game, and it appeared Monday against the Kings was that night. The Blazers’ two remaining preseason games figure to be exercises in caution and the final auditions for the 15th roster spot.

Portland plays Wednesday at Phoenix, and Stotts has previously said he is leery to show much of his regular-season package against the Suns considering the Blazers open the season in Phoenix on the 18th. And Stotts has already said in the preseason finale – Friday at home against Israeli professional club Maccabi Haifa –he plans to rest many of his main players.

After what appeared to be a dry run during Monday’s 97-83 win at the Kings, Turner said there doesn’t appear to be much left to decide in this preseason.

“I guess who is going to be on the team,’’ Turner said, laughing. “But other than that, we have to figure out rotations so guys know their roles,  and I think we are getting closer and closer to it.’’

Here’s a look at Stotts’ substitution pattern/lineups and how they fared in the first three quarters Monday:

Starters: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 6:11, Kings 16-15.

1st sub: 5:49 -- Connaughton for McCollum. Lineup: Lillard, Connaughton, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 2:40, Blazers 11-2.

2nd sub: 3:09 -- Davis for Nurkic; Swanigan for Aminu. Lineup: Lillard, Connaughton, Harkless, Swanigan, Davis. Time played together: 27 seconds, no scoring.

3rd sub: 2:42 – McCollum for Lillard; Turner for Harkless. Lineup: McCollum, Connaughton, Turner, Swanigan, Davis. Time played together: 7:22, Kings 12-11.

SECOND QUARTER (Blazers lead 29-24)

4th sub: 7:20 -- Lillard for McCollum; Harkless for Connaughton. Lineup: Lillard, Turner, Harkless, Swanigan, Davis.  Time played together: 18 seconds. Blazers 1-0.

5th sub:  7:02 -- Nurkic for Davis. Lineup: Lillard, Turner, Harkless, Swanigan, Nurkic. Time played together: 1:47. Kings 3-0.

6th sub: 5:15 -- Aminu for Swanigan. Lineup: Lillard, Turner, Harkless, Swanigan, Nurkic. Time played together: 1:46. Blazers 7-0.

7th sub: 3:29 -- McCollum for Turner. Lineup: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 3:29. Kings 10-9.

HALFTIME: Blazers lead 54-43

THIRD QUARTER

Lineup: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 12 minutes. Kings 22-17.

Today's Blazers Links:

On NBC Sports Northwest's Talkin' Ball, Dwight Jaynes says he thinks Pat Connaughton is in for breakout year.

ESPN's Zach Lowe weighs in on the Blazers

Matt Moore at CBS Sports previews the Blazers' season.

Casey Holdahl with the Trail Blazers says not much was decided in Sacramento.

Breakfast with the Blazers: Return of Ed Davis already being felt, and heard

Breakfast with the Blazers: Return of Ed Davis already being felt, and heard

Sometimes, the value of a player can’t be measured by metrics or statistics.

On the Trail Blazers, perhaps nobody exemplifies that better than Ed Davis.

Davis, you see, is not only a ferocious rebounder, intimidating defender and savvy veteran, he is also the team’s champion trash talker.

“You guys have to listen to him,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “He talks all day long in practice. It’s just …’’

Harkless started laughing before finishing his sentence.

“… Annoying.’’

Davis’ presence in the team’s training camp – which comes after he missed the final two months of last season because of left shoulder surgery -- has been noticeable. Both visually and audibly.

“Ed,’’ Al-Farouq Aminu said, smiling, “hasn’t missed a step on talkin’.’’

Perhaps that is why several players have said this training camp has carried an exceptional feel. Some players have noted that while the practices have been long, physical and grueling, the spirit has been fun, light-hearted and enjoyable.

And Davis, with his deadpan wit and quick-on-his-feet verbal jabs, might be the biggest reason.

“Players and coaches alike just enjoy having him out there,’’ coach Terry Stotts said.

Added Damian Lillard: “You know, practice is definitely different with Ed Davis as opposed to without Ed Davis. For me, Ed is like a big picker-upper.’’

So what is it about Davis that adds so much to the Blazers?

For starters, Evan Turner says, Davis is an old soul.

“He always says he hung out with older people, and he plays cards, so he probably picks it up at the card table,’’ Turner said. “But he’s definitely dope.’’

For Lillard, it’s not only what Davis says, but how he says it.

“It’s not loud or super aggressive, it’s just real slick. He’s a slick talker,’’ Lillard said. “If he block your shot, he’s saying something. If he guards you and you make a shot anyway, he’s like, ‘You are supposed to make that … good shot though’ then he shakes your hand.’’

CJ McCollum says that sometimes, it can be as simple as a look from Davis.

But usually, it’s something quick and clever. Last week, Davis barbed Harkless during a scrimmage. Harkless received a $500,000 bonus last season for shooting 35 percent from three-point range, which was achieved in part by not attempting a three-pointer in the final four games. During the scrimmage last week, Harkless sized up a three-pointer while Davis rushed at him with a hand up.

Harkless missed the shot, and Davis scored the dagger.

“He started walking away and said ‘Man, you gotta play the percentage: 35 on the head, 35 on the head,’’’ Harkless said, chuckling. “Stuff like that. It’s funny. He constantly talks.’’

Davis said he establishes parameters for his trash talking.

“I keep every PG, everything friendly, man. No disrespect,’’ Davis said. “Just out there having fun, that’s it. But honestly, I do it for myself. It helps me get going during practice … sometimes these practices are so long and you need something to get you going.’’

Of course, the Blazers and Davis hope his impact goes beyond keeping things light and witty in practice. Two seasons ago, before his shoulder injury, he averaged 6.5 points and 7.4 rebounds and was one of the most productive big men reserves in the NBA. His 599 rebounds was a franchise record for rebounds by a reserve.

This season, he is competing for the starting power forward job while also being a likely candidate to be Jusuf Nurkic’s backup at center.

“Just being back out there and getting timing right … It’s just fun for one,’’ Davis said. “When you are on injured reserve, you take things for granted, just being able to be at practice, laughing and joking on the sideline. It’s just not the same. Just being out there with the fellas is a good feeling.’’

 The feeling is mutual.

“For me, it’s a lot of fun because he picked up the energy level of practice,’’ Lillard said.  “The competitive level is just higher when he is out there.’’

Today: Fan Fest at Moda Center, 1 p.m. (Broadcast live on CSN)

 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Sunday is Fan Fest, a free event to see team scrimmage

Breakfast with the Blazers: Sunday is Fan Fest, a free event to see team scrimmage

Sunday is the Trail Blazers’ 13th annual Wells Fargo Fan Fest, which is essentially a chance to see the Trail Blazers scrimmage for free at the Moda Center.

If you have never been to the event, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s free, first-come-first-serve on the seating, and a chance to see the Blazers’ players in a setting that is relaxed and intimate.

“It’s like they came to a practice, and we are just hoopin’ in front of them,’’ Damian Lillard said. “Like a pickup (game) … that’s pretty cool.’’

Doors open at noon and the team will scrimmage around 1 p.m., which will consist of four six-minute quarters played on a running clock except for the game’s final minute.

To receive a free ticket, click here or go to www.nba.com/blazers/fanfest.

It will be Blazers’ fans first look at rookies Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan, the first chance to see what a slimmed down Jusuf Nurkic can do on the court, and to see for themselves whether Meyers Leonard has improved.

But more than anything, it’s a chance to interact with the players and see them without the pressure of a game weighing on them.

“It’s good for the people who can’t afford to go to the games,’’ Ed Davis said. “And it’s a good chance to be up close and see us.’’

Coach Terry Stotts said he puts very little stock into what happens during the scrimmage, so don’t expect a player to win or lose a rotation spot because of what happens Sunday, but he also stressed that the event is not a time for horseplay.

“I like that our players are able to interact with the fans during certain parts of it, and from a basketball standpoint, we make it a competitive game,’’ Stotts said. “It’s not a practice, but it’s not like we are just out there screwing around. It’s a competitive game and guys are trying to win. And we use it as an opportunity to work on the things we’ve been working on in camp.’’

Lillard, who has won the Most Valuable Player of the event three times, says he doesn’t plan on winning it this season. He said plans on playing only limited minutes in order to give the rookies and other players a chance to showcase for the fans.

Then again, he said the same thing last season then came out on fire, hitting his first five three-pointers, which prompted him to keep playing. Not so this year, he says.

“This year, I will probably play very, very little,’’ Lillard said. “I’ve been here five years, they’ve seen me play, they know what I’m going to do. They want to see who else is out here, who has improved.’’

In past years, the event has drawn anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 fans. If you aren’t able to attend, you can watch on CSN at 1 p.m.

Either way, it’s an event worth watching.

“As players, we enjoy playing in front of a crowd,’’ CJ McCollum said. “We enjoy being able to provide them with a free experience. I know a lot of fans don’t necessarily have the time, or the money, to go to as many games as they would like to. So to be able to go in and sit courtside at the arena … it’s a good environment. And it’s a first chance to look at the new guys.’’

Today's Blazers Links:

I wrote about teammates praising Meyers Leonard after first week

Dane Carbaugh listed five questions the Blazers must answer this season.

The Oregonian's Joe Freeman has a story on Anthony Morrow and his fight for the 15th spot. 

Terry Stotts and his defensive dilemma: To change or not to change?

Terry Stotts and his defensive dilemma: To change or not to change?

It was somewhat a conflicted Terry Stotts this summer when it came time for him to address the defensive blueprint of this season’s Trail Blazers.

The Blazers’ coach admitted his team’s defense for much of last season was bad. Historically bad.

But after a February trade that brought in 7-foot center Jusuf Nurkic, the team’s defense dramatically improved – going from 26th out of 30 teams to tied for 10th in the NBA over the final 26 games, when Portland went 18-8.

All told, the Blazers finished the season with the 21st ranked defensive rating, just ahead of Cleveland and just behind Washington.

It left the sixth-year Portland coach feeling as if he was in the spin cycle, not knowing which team or which time frame to believe … and more importantly, whether it was his system, his personnel or just happenstance that led to the wide disparity.

“I think myself, and we as a staff, have struggled with where we are, and who we are, defensively,’’ Stotts said Tuesday after the Blazers’ first practice of the season.

Perhaps most vexing was his team had a similar Jekyll and Hyde defensive trait the season before, when only after three poor defensive months did a January turnaround on the defensive end propel the Blazers into the fifth seed in the West.

“So, was that success for real?’’ Stotts asked of the strong defensive turnarounds the last two seasons. “I mean, 25 games is a good sample size. So, do we do what we do better because we’ve shown that it can work? Or do we need to change things up?’’

Last season, as the team was foundering as the NBA’s worst defense in December, he did change things up by opting to trap teams like Chicago and Minnesota which struggled from the three-point line. The decision, in part, came from a suggestion from the team’s big men, who felt an aggressive trapping style better fit their skillset and strengths.

It worked for stretches, but not enough for Stotts to make a complete overhaul.

“There was a cry for us to be more aggressive last year with active bigs and that didn’t work, but you know, we tried,’’ Stotts said. “So it’s challenging to find, for lack of better word, a defensive system that is appropriate for us because we had one. And now, is that still the one for us, or not?’’

Stotts’ has more or less kept the same defensive system which he implemented his second season, when the team acquired center Robin Lopez. Because Lopez was a cerebral player and a fearless rim protector, Stotts used a pick-and-roll defense that kept his big back and invited the ball handler to take a contested mid-range jump shot.

Outside of the pick-and-roll, a Stotts’ defense is generally considered conservative: His team’s don’t gamble for steals, rarely double team and are more cognizant of staying with shooters than leaving to help stop penetration.

Those principles led to defensive stability for two seasons with the group of Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Lopez. And over the last two season, there have been stretches – about 20 to 25 games each season – in which the system has been effective.

“I believe in the system we had, with the people we had …  you could be a good defensive team,’’ Stotts said. “Maybe we had better defensive players, I don’t know. But we showed that what we were doing, you could be successful.’’

So that leads us back to this summer, and Stotts’ dilemma about his defensive system. Was it the system? The personnel? Or simply the need to do what they do better, for longer periods?

“What weighed on me was the inconsistency,” Stotts said.

So it came down to a question for Stotts, one that even he is probably not sure of the answer.

“Were we a good defensive team last year or not?’’ Stotts asked rhetorically. “That’s probably the question. If we were a poor defensive team then maybe you make changes. But were the last 25 games with Nurk for real? Then we were a good defensive team. So that’s where the question lies.’’

By the time Tuesday’s first practice arrived, Stotts had made his decision: stick with the same defensive plan, with a few “tweaks” that will cater to certain player tendencies.

Also, he wants this season to improve upon the Blazers forcing turnovers.

“I’d like to be a little bit more aggressive … one of the things we have struggled with is turnovers. Can we create more turnovers?’’ Stotts said. “I think we can create more turnovers maybe by being more aggressive on the ball, but also maybe by being better on the weakside by having more focus and alertness.’’

When Tuesday’s practice started, it was with defense, a less-than-subtle reminder of its importance.

“I think our team is better committed to being defensive,’’ Stotts said, realizing as he said it that it might ring hollow. “I think you guys have heard that for six years now, it’s nothing new.’’ 

Notes: Rookie Zach Collins did not practice Tuesday because he was in the NBA concussion protocol after being elbowed in the jaw on Friday by Isaiah Briscoe. He said he expected to be cleared later on Tuesday and be ready to participate in Wednesday's practice ... Veteran big man Ed Davis took part in full-contact practice for the first time since February, when he left the team to have season-ending surgery on his left shoulder. "Ed had his bounce back,'' Stotts said. "Ed looked like the Ed from two years ago: he was lively, energetic … it was really good to see him out there.''

Blazers' top stories: The maturation of Lillard and McCollum and Swanigan's emergence

Blazers' top stories: The maturation of Lillard and McCollum and Swanigan's emergence

Observations, notes and top stories from the Trail Blazers’ media day on Monday:

The maturation of Lillard and McCollum

One of the most encouraging things I heard throughout Monday’s media day came from the team’s two stars, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

There are often phases that an NBA player goes through during their career, one that former Blazers coach Nate McMillan first brought to my attention years ago. It usually evolves something like this: young player wants to make a name for himself; then he wants to make money, buy fancy cars, soak in the fame. But eventually, some players find they have enough fame and enough money. That’s when winning becomes paramount in their careers.

Some never come to that realization. For others it comes late in their careers.

On Monday, after listening to Lillard and McCollum, the concept of winning-above-all has already resonated with the Blazers’ two stars.

When asked by The Oregonian’s Jen Beyrle what would be a successful season for him, Lillard gave an answer that spoke beyond his 27 years.

“For me, it’s how much can I impact everybody else?’’ Lillard said. “I don’t think stats will tell the story, I don’t think making an All-Star Game will tell the story. I just think how much I can impact everybody else and lift everybody else up to make us a stronger team overall. How can I empower everybody else to where we are a winning team? That’s the next thing for me – how can I make this team go, how can I help us win games?’’

Later, after McCollum talked about being more concerned with winning games than his stats, I asked him about that evolution in his thinking. He said once he fought to show he could play, then secured a long-term contract, it was easier to get to the core of what it is all about: winning.

“There comes a time when you mature and understand that for one, you make a lot of money … so I have a comfort there, and a confidence because I worked hard, but now it’s about winning,’’ McCollum said. “I’ve proven myself. And I’ve said before, I will be a better player this year and the numbers may show it, they may not. But the complete package – from leadership to doing the right things off the court to making the extra pass, to defending, to boxing out – whatever it takes I just want to win. Because as you’ve seen in the past – people forget about certain things but they don’t about winning. Winning lasts forever.’’

Lillard, I believe, has long held winning above all else. This isn’t a revelation to him. But I still cringed at times when he rattled off his offensive stats in defense of his defense, or became consumed with his resume of All-Star appearances and the like. To hear him prioritize making players around him better, and concerning himself with figuring out ways to elevate those around him? It’s another sign that he is headed for greatness.

For McCollum, who will be playing in the first year of his $106 million deal, it is another indication of how he values his place and his legacy. Perhaps more so than any other Blazer, McCollum seems to have a career plan carefully mapped out, right down to his retirement portfolio. That plan is centered around leaving a legacy, as he likes to say, both on and off the court. Just 26, McCollum knows that the foundation of a legacy is better rooted in wins than stats.

Can’t ask to hear better stuff from your team’s stars.

Nurkic and the Blazers’ ‘trash’ defense

One of the more entertaining – but meaningful -- exchanges on Monday involved Blazers’ center Jusuf Nurkic who tried to suggest these Blazers take on the tough guy persona of the Bad Boys era in Detroit.

But aside from his questionable grasp of history (he likened the Bad Boys not to Bill Laimbeer, Isiah Thomas, etc. but instead to Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace), his point was spot on: The Blazers need to be tougher and play better defense.

“We need to play defense, number one,’’ Nurkic said. “Our defense was trash, to be honest, before … and we are going to be better. We are going to prove that. It’s simple: if you want to win, you have to play defense.’’

We’ve heard September talk by the Blazers about the importance of defense before, without great follow through until a mid-to-late-season breakthrough. The Blazers’ late-season defensive improvement last season coincided with Nurkic’s February arrival and the improved health of Al-Farouq Aminu, but it will be interesting to see if this team can establish a defensive identity early.

Do Blazers have a Biggie surprise?

Perhaps nothing raised the eyebrows more than hearing Blazers’ veterans heap effusive and widespread praise upon rookie big man Caleb Swanigan.

From the sounds of it, the No. 26 overall pick has the stuff to crack the rotation.

After Lillard said Swanigan had caught his attention over the last month during pickup games at the team’s practice facility, I asked Lillard if what he was seeing from Swanigan was good enough to play right away in the NBA.

“Yeah,’’ Lillard said confidently. “He’s definitely good enough to play right now.’’

The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Swanigan, who averaged 18.5 points and 12.5 rebounds for Purdue last season, appears to have a blend of Jerome Kersey hustle and Zach Randolph savvy around the basket.

“Very impressive,’’ Lillard said. “Just his confidence, how physical he was, and he has a knack for finding the ball … He’s just very sure of himself, and you don’t see that in rookies all the time.’’

Maurice Harkless said Swanigan “definitely” surprised him during pickup games.

“In my opinion, he’s been great so far,’’ Harkless said, adding that he too thinks Swanigan can play right away.

Portland fans can get their first views of Swanigan -- who goes by the  nickname "Biggie" -- on Sunday at the team’s Fan Fest (1 p.m.) or the team’s first exhibition on Oct. 3 against Phoenix.

What will they see?

“Constant effort,’’ Swanigan said.

Ed Davis back, and with a goal

Probably the most direct goal on Monday came from veteran Ed Davis, who says he wants to win the team’s vacant starting power forward spot.

Davis, a key element to the Blazers’ 44-win team two years ago, said he was cleared Monday by doctors to compete in 5-on-5 action after having his left shoulder surgically repaired last spring.

Last season, the Blazers first started Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward then transitioned to Noah Vonleh after Aminu struggled with injuries. Entering Tuesday’s first practice, Vonleh is out for at least a month because of an injured right shoulder and coach Terry Stotts said he envisions playing Aminu this season at both forward positions.

“My goal is I want to start,’’ Davis said. “I feel like that four position is open.’’

Davis, who is entering the final year of his contract, said he doesn’t need much to motivate him.

“I’m self motivated. I don’t need to go on Twitter or Instagram to get extra motivation … but it is a good thing as a player when you know there’s a chance you can start and play big minutes.’’

Harkless goal: Improve free throws

One of the biggest complaints from fans I hear over the years is why more NBA players don’t prioritize improving at the free throw line.

So it was refreshing to hear Monday that Harkless spent part of his summer working on his free throw stroke. Last season, Harkless shot 62.1 percent from the line, which raised his career percentage to 59.6 percent.

Harkless said he has set a goal for what he wants to shoot at the line, but declined to reveal it.

“My goal, my business,’’ he said.

The key to becoming  better at the line, Harkless said, is focus.

“A lot of it is just being able to focus more, block out everything else going on,’’ Harkless said. “I’ve always been a good shooter in practice and when I’m by myself. But over the course of a game a lot of things go in and out of your head when you are at the free throw line … I just have to be able to block out everything else.’’ 

Five reasons Blazers could be better than you think: A healthy Ed Davis

Five reasons Blazers could be better than you think: A healthy Ed Davis

On the surface, it would appear this offseason brought little to no help to the Trail Blazers amid the NBA’s whirlwind summer of blockbuster trades and free agent acquisitions.

Aside from a salary-cap motivated move of Allen Crabbe to Brooklyn, and the drafting of 19-year-old center Zach Collins and Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan, the Blazers are largely the same group that went 41-41 and finished eighth in the Western Conference.

The Las Vegas betting line on Trail Blazers wins for the 2017-2018 season is 42.5 games, which would place them eighth in the West:

1. Golden State (67.5)

2. Houston (55.5)

3. San Antonio (54.5)

4. Oklahoma City (51.5)

5. Minnesota (48.5)

6. Denver (45.5)

7. LA Clippers (44.5)

8. Portland (42.5)

Of course, Las Vegas has been wrong before about the Blazers (remember 2015-2016 when the Blazers won 44 games after Vegas set the line at 26.5?), and it’s easy to get swept up in the headlines from an offseason that saw Chris Paul move to Houston, Paul George to Oklahoma City, Jimmy Butler to Minnesota and Paul Millsap to Denver.

But behind the sexy headlines and tumultuous turnover, the Blazers have been  doing what has become a hallmark of this franchise: relying on improvement from within.

With that in mind, CSN this week will unveil five reasons the Blazers this season could exceed 42 wins and be better than people think:

Today: The return of a healthy Ed Davis.

**

Last season, Trail Blazers’ big man Ed Davis reached a point in his season that he is almost embarrassed to reveal.

Standing under a basket, he couldn’t make five consecutive layins with his dominant hand. The reason? Shooting pain emanating from his left shoulder.

 “Just mentally, what that does to you,’’ Davis said Monday. “I tried playing through it, but it was tough.’’

He had a torn labrum in his left shoulder, and in March he decided to have season-ending surgery after appearing in 46 games (12 starts). He finished with averages of 4.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in 17 minutes a game.

He had become a shadow of the energy-infusing and often game-changing play he showed in the 2015-2016 season, when he became a crowd favorite and one of the NBA’s top interior reserves.

During the 2015-2016 season, Davis finished second in the NBA among reserves in rebounding and offensive rebounds behind Oklahoma City’s Enes Kanter. His 599 rebounds off the bench that season are a Trail Blazers' record.

All the while, the 6-foot-10 lefty was an emotional spark who embodied a team that refused to be outworked, or back down from more talented teams, and one of the reasons he was named the team's Maurice Lucas Award recipient.

“I feel a lot of people forgot how much I helped the team in Portland that year,’’ Davis said. “I want to get back to that.’’

There doesn’t appear to be anything hindering his quest. Next week, when the Blazers open training camp, Davis said doctors have cleared him for full contact in practice.

“I feel great. I’m cleared for the first day, and I can do everything,’’ Davis said.

With a repaired shoulder, and a feeling of something to prove – both to redeem last season and to garner interest for a new contract after the season – Davis could be one of the factors that lead to another Rip City Revival.

“Whenever anybody is in a contract  year, you want to play well and be rewarded, but for me, it’s more for the fact that I didn’t play well last year,’’ Davis said. “I felt like I could have brought more to the table; it was a roller-coaster year. But I learned a lot. It was a humbling experience not being able to play game you love. So I’m excited to be back out there on the court and continue the journey.’’

Blazers at the Break: Amid injuries and distractions, Blazers brace for 'sprint' to finish

Blazers at the Break: Amid injuries and distractions, Blazers brace for 'sprint' to finish

Editor's note: With the arrival of the NBA All-Star Break, CSN looks at the five most relevant/pressing issues with the Trail Blazers. The final installation features a look at the Blazers' mindset heading out of the break as they prepare for the season's final 26 games. 

This is an uneasy time for the Trail Blazers, who are a battered, bruised and beleaguered bunch as they head out of the All-Star Break.

A winter spent dealing with frustrating underachievement has been compounded by recent injuries to Evan Turner (broken hand) and Al-Farouq Aminu (knee sprain), and a nagging ankle injury to star Damian Lillard. And now there is the uncertainty of an approaching trade deadline that has already improved two of the teams in the playoff hunt with the Blazers.

 “We are in a tough place,’’ Damian Lillard said of the 23-33 Blazers. “I don’t think we have ever been in this position … even in my rookie year, I think we were at least playing good basketball. Right now, it’s very up-and-down for us. We’re not being consistent at anything.’’

The good news is the Blazers are only two games behind Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot. The bad news is they are only a half-game ahead of New Orleans, which greatly improved its roster when it acquired All-Star DeMarcus Cousins in a trade this week.

When the Blazers reconvene in Orlando for a Wednesday practice, they will have 26 games remaining and what is mostly considered a favorable schedule that includes 10 of their final 12 games at home.

“You have two options: Either run from it, or … come back and man up,’’ Lillard said.

Of all the Blazers, Lillard has been the most visible in his unhappiness with how the season has transpired. After the Blazers went into the break with a 111-88 loss in Utah – the team’s third straight and fifth in six games – he stayed in the arena long after his teammates left and was last seen sitting under the bleachers talking with assistant coach David Vanterpool.

Lillard has long looked at the Blazers’ success as a reflection of himself, and he entered the break knowing his play has dipped since returning from his sprained left ankle in early January. But he said he would take the break to regroup and recharge and rejoin the team in Orlando ready to make a push.

“I don’t want to say I’m excited, because it’s not a good position to be in,’’ Lillard said. “But I’m excited for the opportunity to rise to this struggle. I’m looking forward to it.’’

Others, like CJ McCollum, said the team needed the break.

Why?

“Did you see what happened in the game?’’ he said after the Utah rout.

**

By the time the Blazers play their next game – Thursday in Orlando – the NBA trading deadline will have passed four hours earlier.

Portland appears to be gearing toward the 2017 NBA Draft, where they have three first round picks (10, 22 and 28 as of today) , while also stating it is prepping for a playoff push.

Coach Terry Stotts said his message after the Utah game heading into the break was to the point: “Enjoy the break and come back to Orlando ready for a sprint to the end.’’

The players went into the break uneasily awaiting word of their future while also wondering which direction top executive Neil Olshey is going to take with the NBA’s third-highest paid roster.

“I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about (getting traded),’’ Ed Davis said. “Everybody thinks about it. I think everybody on this team, pretty much for the right price, is there for the taking except Dame, and possibly, CJ. If the right deal comes in that is best for the franchise, they are going to have to call that shot. That’s their job and what you are supposed to do.’’

Whether Olshey tries to acquire more picks, or whether he pairs one or more of the picks with a player to get some perimeter defense, or whether he chooses to stand pat, remains to be seen. The only insight Olshey has provided is that the league has been active in talks leading up to the deadline, with one blockbuster already going down.

New Orleans, a team that is 2.5 games out of the playoffs and just one-half game behind Portland, traded for DeMarcus Cousins. And Denver, which sits in the eighth spot, acquired Mason Plumlee from Portland in exchange for the less-accomplished Jusuf Nurkic, seemingly improving two of the teams Portland is battling with for the final spot.

The Blazers, rightfully so, are more concerned with themselves. Of their 26 remaining games, only 10 are against teams with winning records, which is a good thing considered Portland has only seven wins this season against teams with winning records today (Utah, Memphis twice, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Cleveland and Boston). Plus, with Turner out until mid-March and Aminu recovering from a knee sprain that kept him out of the last game, and Lillard still effected by his December ankle sprain, the Blazers know it will be an uphill march.

“I think of it as a test,’’ Lillard said. “It’s hard. Everybody has something to say about it, but it’s hard. I just tell myself that sometimes you have to go through a struggle. Since I’ve been here, we’ve had a good run. We’ve had good runs, and I always feel like when you go through tough things, you have a chance to make it special at the end.’’

McCollum said the Blazers’ standing could improve if they just close out games better. This year, the Blazers are 7-12 in games decided by five points or less. Last year, Portland was 9-11 in games decided by five or less.

“The year hasn’t gone as expected, however it’s not like we are out here getting shellacked,’’ McCollum said. “We’ve had some bad losses and we’ve had some good wins. But if you look at the difference of this year and last year, you can break it down to close losses. We are losing close games.  Against good teams and against bad teams, we are losing close games. The difference is buzzer beaters, one stop, one rebound, one missed assignment.’’

It has added up to the worst All-Star record in Stotts’ five seasons in Portland (25-28; 36-17; 36-17; 27-27; 23-33), which brings Lillard back to that scenario with two options: run or man up.

“Personally, I’m going to use this break, I’m going to go relax, and I’m going to man up,’’ Lillard said. “Period. That’s what has to happen.’’

Part 1: The Rise of CJ McCollum

Part 2: Can Blazers be a title contender with Lillard/McCollum backcourt?

Part 3: Health of Lillard's ankle central to team's playoff push.

Part 4: Can newcomer Jusuf Nurkic infuse some hope?

Trail Blazers limp into the All-Star Break after lopsided loss in Utah

Trail Blazers limp into the All-Star Break after lopsided loss in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY – Coach Terry Stotts says the All-Star Break comes at a good time for every team in the NBA, but perhaps no team will welcome  the break more than the Trail Blazers.

Portland limped into the All-Star break Wednesday with its third straight loss and fifth in six game with a 111-88 loss to Utah at Vivint Arena.

Portland (23-33) fell to a season-low 10 games below .500 and will resume play Feb. 23 sitting two games behind Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Utah (35-22) ended a three-game losing streak as All-Star Gordon Hayward had 22 points, seven assists and six rebounds and fill-in starter Joe Ingles added 18 points.

Lost in the numbing end to Wednesday’s game, when Utah led by as many as 22 in the fourth quarter, was the successful debut of  Jusuf Nurkic, the 7-foot center acquired from Denver on Sunday in a trade for Mason Plumlee.

Nurkic finished with 13 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes and he showed a little of everything from passing, to defense to being an inside presence. He first entered with 4:22 left in the first quarter and immediately lost the ball while trying to make an offensive move, but he later made a nifty touch pass to Allen Crabbe, blocked a Derrick Favors shot at the rim, and scored off an offensive rebound. All told, he made 5-of-5 shots, 3-of-4 free throws and added two steals, two blocks and an assist.

The Blazers also used a new starting lineup, with Ed Davis replacing Noah Vonleh at power forward and Meyers Leonard starting his second straight game at center. Leonard hit his first two three pointers in the opening minutes of the game, but was quiet thereafter, finishing with 10 points and one rebound in 24 minutes. Davis finished with seven points and five rebounds in 18 minutes.

The Blazers made a 15-0 run at the end of the first half and into the third quarter, erasing a 40-26 deficit to take a 41-40 lead with 11:31 left in the third.

But Portland could never get a sustained offensive push as its two stars – Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum – had off shooting nights. Lillard went 3-for-19 and finished with 13 points, seven assists and six rebounds.

McCollum picked up three fouls in the first quarter, anchoring him to the bench for all but the final 2:42 of the half. After missing his first five shots, he came in and made his next three to ignite the 15-0 run, but he suffered through an 8-for-19 night despite leading the team with 18 points.

Both teams struggled shooting in the opening quarter, with Utah missing its final 10 shots, allowing Portland to get within 18-17. Utah shot 6-of-21 (28.6 percent) in the quarter and Portland made 30.4 percent of its shots (7-of-23) as McCollum (0-for-5) and Lillard (1-for-7) were uncharacteristically off.

Next up: Blazers at Orlando, Feb. 23, 4 p.m. (CSN)

 

Inside the Trail Blazers: A look at what is ailing the team

Inside the Trail Blazers: A look at what is ailing the team

CHARLOTTE – Something is wrong with the Trail Blazers and everybody knows it, but no one has a simple explanation, let alone a plausible theory.

So perhaps it wasn’t surprising Wednesday that star point guard Damian Lillard flipped the roles after another loss Wednesday, this time by 22 points in Charlotte, and asked the questions.

After he finished answering questions for nearly seven minutes – which included questions about the team’s sometimes morose energy levels and whether coach Terry Stotts is still reaching the players, Lillard turned his Iphone to two local reporters as if he was a media member asking a question.  

“What you all think the problem is?’’ Lillard asked.

Much like his teammates during this confusing 18-26 start, we shrugged.

From one locker stall over, Lillard’s close friend and offensive cohort CJ McCollum chimed in.

“If we knew, don’t you think we’d fix it by now,’’ McCollum said.

As much as fans would like there to be an unearthing of sexy storylines like locker room discontent, or dislike for the coach, or players unhappy with roles, it doesn’t appear those disruptive forces are in play with these Blazers.

But with each passing practice, and each postgame letdown, more and more is being revealed about this Portland team, with Wednesday’s postgame in Charlotte offering perhaps our greatest window into the inner struggle of this young group.

Mason Plumlee was the most pointed, calling out not the team’s effort, but its energy level, which is an important distinction. Never has it appeared this team is dogging it on the court this season, but it has become almost palatable how lifeless and dull the game has become for the team.

They are playing, but not with energy. They are trying, but they are not having fun.

“I don’t think our energy is good, man, honestly,’’ Plumlee said. “It is in spurts. We will rally sometimes but it’s not sustained. That has to change.’’

How does that change?

“I couldn’t tell you,’’ Plumlee said. “You just have to want it. You have to want it.’’

Lillard, the unquestioned leader of the team, was not more than three feet away when Plumlee made the pointed remarks and later he echoed the same sentiment.

“I think our energy has to be much better, more consistently,’’ Lillard said. “When things go well, you get energy … (and) I don’t think we are giving ourselves enough situations to feel good about what we are doing, often enough. Our energy drops because of that, and teams take advantage.’’

Lillard pointed to Wednesday’s game, during which the Blazers closed a 14-point deficit to 79-72 at the end of the third quarter. The push was punctuated by a Noah Vonleh rebound basket in the final seconds of the quarter. Vonleh is one of the most well-liked players on the team, a guy everyone is pulling for, a guy whose success almost always elicits some of the more animated reactions across the team.

But when the Blazers gathered at the end of the quarter, there was little if any reaction.

“We cut that lead to seven. You know, we’ve got a ballgame. We should feel good about, excited about, the way the game is going,’’ Lillard said. “Our energy – we should be excited about that – and when we come to the bench, it should be loud, we should be ready to come go out there and get after it in the fourth quarter.’’

Instead, the Blazers trudged out for the fourth with the enthusiasm of a TSA agent checking IDs. The result: Charlotte scored the first nine points of the fourth and within two minutes, it was a 16-point deficit.

“It wasn’t there, the way it should be,’’ LIllard said of the energy. “That’s because we didn’t have enough plays to feel good about to pick ourselves up as far as our energy. That’s not going to get it done. That’s not good enough.’’

Sometimes when a team looks like the Blazers – lifeless and clearly not having fun -- it signals a disconnect between the players and coaching staff. That doesn’t appear to be the case here, as Lillard staunchly defended coach Terry Stotts and his staff.

And to Stotts’ credit, he has searched for ways to engage and involve this team, from taking suggestions from the bigs to employ more traps and blitzes, to implementing a dodge-ball game during a practice, to encouraging the players to speak up in Tuesday’s film session in Charlotte.

Is Stotts still able to reach the team?

“That’s a given,’’ Lillard said. “We all respect the hell out of Coach Stotts, the entire coaching staff. That’s another thing that is frustrating for us as players: the amount of joy we get out of playing for our coaching staff, and how much time we know they spend in preparing us and how sharp they are … and us not executing it to the best of our ability.

“We want to go out  there and bring W’s for the effort they put out,’’ Lillard said. “They have our attention, we respect them. It’s more so us than everybody else. Coaches aren’t the ones out there shooting. They are not the ones out there turning it over. They are not out there having to play defense. I … I … don’t think that is even close to the issue.’’

So what are the issues?

Clearly, defense is at the top of the concerns. Out of 30 NBA teams, the Blazers rank 28th in defensive efficiency. As was painfully obvious in the blowout loss to Washington, elite guards such as John Wall and Bradley Beal have no problem penetrating and getting to the rim. It has been a season-long problem and one that has unfairly put the Blazers interior defenders in the spotlight as being unable to protect the rim.

Also, the expected strength of the Blazers’ second unit has been a decided weakness. Depth figured to be an asset for this team, but there have been drop-offs from last season in the play of Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis, while Allen Crabbe mixes a superb game between four or five non-descript games. Meanwhile, Evan Turner has recovered nicely from his slow start but still seems like an awkward fit to the flow and rhythm of the team.

But more than anything, the vibe of the team seems off. As Lillard noted after his brief role as reporter Wednesday, the Blazers last year just had more “fight” to them during games. They would “ugly” the game up with fouls, and would do a better job at dictating the pace and feel of the game.

Where that fight went, where the fun of playing the game went, is hard to pinpoint. This still seems like a close team, and the players still remark that they like each other and enjoy hanging around each other.

But as one key player noted, that type of chemistry – liking each other and being a bunch of nice guys – is overrated and doesn’t always translate to winning games. There is no one willing to rock the boat, no one who speaks out, no one who calls it like it is – all things which veteran Chris Kaman was so masterful at the last two seasons.

Also, much of this team’s vibe last season, and through the opening weeks of this season, were fueled by the powerful force that is Lillard and his exceptional play.

He was a player who would take over games, or establish a tone early, and the team seemed to feed off that and take on an air of invincibility.

Over the past couple months, that swagger this team felt in having one of the game’s takeover players has not been present, in part because Lillard hasn’t been that type of player lately.

That’s not to say Lillard isn’t trying. He is, in reality, probably trying harder than he ever has in his career. He has at times this season bristled that outsiders doubt him – especially following the team’s improved play while he was injured -- and he has vowed that he will carry the team, remarking that people shouldn’t underestimate the burden he can shoulder.

“We are trying, we try hard,’’ Lillard said. “Guys try hard, guys want to do the right things, want to help the team, and it’s a little bit tough when you try so hard and it goes the wrong way.’’

But for every blank face in the Blazers locker room after these losses, there is still a surprising and overriding feeling that this can turn around. And slowly but surely, it seems the issues plaguing this team are bubbling to the surface – be it through communication in the Charlotte film session to questions about the team’s energy the next night.

“When you have hard times, which is what we are having so far this season, you have to be a man,’’ Lillard said. “You have to be man enough to say we haven’t been good enough, but you also have to be strong enough mentally to keep pushing forward. That’s what we have to keep doing – pushing forward – but also understand we haven’t been good enough.’’

Next up: Blazers at Philadelphia, 4 p.m. Friday (CSN).