Evan Turner

How the Blazers can trade for Kawhi Leonard

How the Blazers can trade for Kawhi Leonard

NBA Twitter was on fire Friday morning when news broke that Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard reportedly wants out of San Antonio. There isn’t a team in the NBA that wouldn't want to add Leonard to their roster, but trades are always easier said than done. That being said, let’s see how the Portland Trail Blazers can trade for Kawhi Leonard:

Two things to keep in mind before we lay this out: The Seven Year Rule and the Stepien Rule.

  • The Seven Year Rule states that teams can trade future first-round draft picks up to seven years in advance. Since it is still technically the 2017-2018 season, the Blazers can trade their first-round picks from now through 2024.
  • The Stepien Rule states that teams cannot trade future first-round picks in consecutive years. For example, if the Blazers trade the 2018 first-round pick right now, they cannot trade their 2019 first-round pick.

Now that these two rules are out of the way, let's break down how the Blazers can land Leonard.

Option 1 – Evan Turner + Picks in exchange for Kawhi Leonard.

  • This option is unlikely, but we suggest it because it is the simplest trade financially. Turner makes $17.1 million, while Leonard makes $18.9 million. This works within the NBA’s 125% rule for taxpaying teams. Since the return on talent to San Antonio isn’t high, Portland would likely have to throw in every pick they can – following the Seven Year Rule and the Stepien Rule, Portland tosses in multiple first-round picks to San Antonio. 
  • Blazers get Kawhi Leonard
  • Spurs get Evan Turner and the Blazers first-round picks in multiple years (maximum four 1st rounders).

Option 2 – Any two-player package of Meyers Leonard/Maurice Harkless/ Al-Farouq Aminu + Picks in exchange for Kawhi Leonard.

  • Financially, any pairing of those three Blazers would work to get Kawhi Leonard. However, for what the Spurs would need talent wise the best package would be Aminu and Harkless. Sending away Kawhi would leave a void at small forward that both Harkless and Aminu could fill. But still, like the Turner trade, the Spurs would need more to sweeten the pot. This is where the picks come into play. This deal may be able to get done by adding two future first-round picks, but if you want to leave zero doubt you might have to add more.
  • Blazers get Kawhi Leonard
  • Spurs get Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and multiple first-round picks

Option 3 – CJ McCollum + 2019 1st Rounder for Kawhi Leonard and Derrick White (As suggested by ESPN)

  • For the Spurs to realistically part with Leonard they are going to need a substantial amount of talent in return. Enter CJ McCollum. McCollum is the most talented player the Blazers have outside of Damian Lillard and could be an attractive piece for any team on the trade market. However, it is a tough trade to work out financially with the current cap holds and impending free agents each team has. So, in this scenario, the Spurs send Derrick White to make the financials work. The Spurs get a a ball-dominant guard in McCollum to run the offense. The Spurs core could be McCollum, Danny Green (if he picks up his player-option), LaMarcus Aldridge, and Pau Gasol. That's really not bad considering they are losing Kawhi Leonard. Portland may still have to add picks in this trade, but would probably try to keep the No.24 pick to draft a guard.
  • Blazers get Kawhi Leonard and Derrick White
  • Spurs get CJ McCollum and the Blazers 2019 first round draft pick.

Isn't summer fun?

Trail Blazers notebook: Stotts eyes lineup change, lauds Collins' play

Trail Blazers notebook: Stotts eyes lineup change, lauds Collins' play

NEW ORLEANS -- Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said he is considering lineup changes as his team heads into Thursday’s Game 3 in New Orleans in an 0-2 hole. 

One of the lineup changes might be forced upon him: Evan Turner, who started at small forward the past 11 games, is questionable with a bruised big toe suffered in Game 2. 

“Evan is always positive and he said he will be ready to go,’’ Stotts said Wednesday in New Orleans. “We will see how it goes tomorrow. He was in no position to play last night (after suffering the injury).’’

Maurice Harkless is a likely candidate to move into the starting small forward position after making his series debut in Game 2. In his first game since he had surgery March 28 to clean out his left knee, Harkless played 27 minutes, hitting all five of his shots and finishing with 10 points, five rebounds and a block. Stotts said the 27 minutes exceeded what he and the health-and-performance team had outlined.

FREE-THROW DROUGHT

Damian Lillard isn’t the only one not getting to the free throw line – the Blazers as a team have been kept off the line.

Lillard, who finished seventh in the NBA in free throw attempts (538), which included a 7.4 average per game, has attempted only four free throws in two games. And the Blazers, who averaged nearly 21 free throws a game in the series has attempted only 22 total in the first two games.

“That’s a touchy one,’’ Stotts said when asked about the dip in free throws. “They haven’t been calling a lot of fouls.’’

With Lillard, he said there isn’t an adjustment to be made to get him to the line more. 

“It’s a little frustrating at times because the ball is in his hands and he is getting pressured and getting to the basket,’’ Stotts said. “I don’t know that you can do anything else to get more calls.’’

FAMILIAR ROLE

Stotts said if there is one good thing about the Blazers standing in this series it’s that they are back in a familiar spot: the underdog.

“We are good in an underdog role,’’ Stotts said. “This team has been resilient, this team has been written off, and it has bounced back.’’

AREA OF CONCERN

When the Blazers met Wednesday in New Orleans for a film session, one area was a point of contention: hustle.

Several times throughout the series, and in particular at the end of Game 2, the Blazers were beaten to loose balls or to rebounds. Stotts says he noticed it and was concerned enough to address it in front of the team.

“It was brought up to the team,’’ Stotts said. “Those are possessions that determine winning and losing.’’

Lillard noted the Pelicans’ will after Game 2. 

“I think these first two games came down to a lot of 50-50 balls,’’ Lillard said. “They were just more grimy than we were, they played a more physical game. They gutted it out more than we did in both games.’’

BLAZERS ON HOLIDAY

An emerging storyline in the series has been the play of Pelicans’ guard Jrue Holiday. Coming into the series, the talk was of his defense, but the guard has averaged 27 points while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. 

Stotts on Wednesday was asked who has guarded Holiday the best.

“I’d be hard pressed to give an answer to that,’’ Stotts said. “Because I don’t think we have guarded him very well.’’

ROOKIE BRIGHT SPOT

Blazers rookie Zach Collins has been a bight spot in the first two games, in particular his Game 2, when he had 12 points and five rebounds.

For the series, Collins is averaging 10 points and 3.5 rebounds in 22 minutes a game.

“I’ve been very pleased with Zach,’’ Stotts said. “He doesn’t shy away from the moment. He’s been aggressive in his post-up mismatches and defensively his length has been helpful around the rim.’’

Stotts said three times late in Game 2 Collins was switched on Holiday and the Pelicans’ guard scored only once. 

“There’s a lot to like,’’ Stotts said. “And it’s a great experience for him, but I’m not playing him to get experience, I’m playing him because he’s been able to put us in position to win.’’

Memorable Trail Blazers season has notable night in New Orleans

Memorable Trail Blazers season has notable night in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS –In a season that is becoming as memorable as it has been notable, the Trail Blazers outdid even themselves on Tuesday.

It was a night of suspense and drama both on and off the court, and by the time the Trail Blazers left New Orleans they had two fewer players, one more victory, and a mood that was somewhere between emboldened confidence and tenuous optimism.

On the court, the Blazers won their seventh straight road game behind another remarkable fourth-quarter outburst from Damian Lillard and some gritty perseverance that is becoming a hallmark for this team.

Off the court, the team was hit with both expected and unexpected news after it entered the locker room following the 107-103 victory over the Pelicans.

First, coach Terry Stotts delivered some unexpected news: starter Maurice Harkless needed surgery on his left knee. Although it is believed to be a minor procedure – an arthroscopy to remove a loose body -- the team won’t know how long Harkless will be sidelined until after Wednesday’s surgery.

Shortly after, the players learned that Lillard had received word from Portland that his girlfriend was nearing birth of their son, ending a more than week-long waiting game. As players dressed, Lillard packed a carry on bag and said goodbyes.

It created one of the more unique departures of the season: a chartered jet with the Blazers aboard leaving for Memphis and a private jet carrying Lillard and Harkless pointed toward Portland.

Both takeoffs mirror the trajectory of what has become one of the NBA’s hottest teams. Portland (46-28) has won 17 of 20 and has all but secured the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference. With eight games left, the Blazers hold a 2.5 game lead over Oklahoma City and 3.5 game lead over San Antonio and New Orleans.

Portland can clinch a playoff spot as early as Wednesday with a win over Memphis (20-54) and a loss by the Clippers at Phoenix.  

All in all, it was a whirlwind of a night, with yet another tense and suspenseful game in which the Blazers didn’t blink almost taking a back seat to the unease of Harkless’ surgery and the elation of Lillard’s impending fatherhood.

The fun started when the team bus rolled into the Smoothie King Center.

“It just so happened that when I hopped off the bus, Coach said ‘You might not know this, but Mo ain’t playing tonight,’’’ Evan Turner said. “And I was like … I would have taken a nap if I knew that.’’

**

Turner and the rest of the Blazers looked like they were sleeping when the game started.

Both CJ McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu missed their first six shots. The team missed nine of its first 10 three-pointers. But even though New Orleans would hold several nine-point leads, it could never distance itself.

It has become one of the more encouraging traits of this Blazers team – the team’s success is not predicated on shots falling.

Behind some solid interior play by Jusuf Nurkic (21 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks) and dirty-work duty from Aminu (seven offensive rebounds, three steals, one block) the Blazers were able to hang around, even when Anthony Davis (36 points, 14 rebounds, six blocks) helped push the lead to as many as 11.

“I was really proud of the way we just kept competing,’’ coach Terry Stotts said.

Stotts said his message throughout the game was consistent: Even though the shots aren’t falling, keep playing.

It was a message that took extra meaning at the end of the third quarter. It was then that he and Lillard crossed paths and found they were thinking the same thing:

This game called for Lillard Time.

**

It is unusual, but not rare, that Lillard starts the fourth quarter. Because he plays so many minutes during the game, Stotts tends to rest Lillard for the first three to four minutes of the fourth to have him fresh for crunch time.

But on Tuesday, with the Blazers trailing 75-71, both he and Lillard agreed this was one of those games where the team couldn’t afford to have him sit.

“I was like, man, we have to roll. I don’t want to come out,’’ Lillard said. “I didn’t want the game to change, them to go on a roll. I didn’t want anything to be out of my control and me not be able to have an impact on whatever happens.’’

Stotts said between the third and fourth quarters Lillard asked to stay in the game, but Stotts said he had already made the decision that Lillard would remain in.

“I thought he had a good bounce all game ,’’ Stotts said. “An I made the decision early that I wasn’t going to take him out. Don’t know if he got tired or not, but I thought having him on the floor was really important.’’

Truth be told, Lillard said he was gassed. But he had the sense the game was there for the taking.

“Sometimes when I (ask), he will be like, Dame I gotta get you out,’’ Lillard said. “But he trusted me. We’ve developed a relationship that when I do it – I don’t just say it all the time – I say it when I really feel a way … so we’ve really grown into a trust with that.’’

Immediately, Lillard made an impact.

“Bang, bang, bang,’’ Lillard recalled.

He scored seven quick points to open the fourth and the Blazers suddenly had the lead. It would be the start of a 20-point quarter and the finishing touches on a 41-point game.

“We needed every bit of them,’’ Stotts said.

**

Tonight in Memphis, without Lillard and Harkless, the Blazers will need every bit of their roster, even though the Grizzlies have the NBA’s second worst record. Earlier this week, Memphis won in Minnesota.

“I think a bunch of us are going to have to step up,’’ Turner said. “It means more minutes for Pat (Connaughton) , more minutes for myself … and bench wise even Jake (Layman). … We’ll figure it out.’’

It has been a defining trait of this team. Some how, some way, they figure out a way.

“The biggest thing is we are being battled tested right now, sometimes with backs against the wall you respond in the right way,’’ Turner said. “And that’s huge coming into the playoffs and the last stretch.’’

The team knows Lillard will only miss the Memphis game, and will be back for Friday’s home game against the Clippers. As for Harkless? The players were optimistic their defensive ace and game-changing forward could return soon.

Lillard said his first reaction was to ask the severity of Harkless’ injury.

“Once they told me it would be something light, something quick, I was like ,cool,’’ Lillard said. “We have some time. The next guy has to step up. The fact that it wasn’t serious, I wasn’t too bothered by it.’’

So now the Blazers enter the final stretch, emboldened by their latest road wins over Oklahoma City and New Orleans. They have proven they are a playoff team, and they have proven they can win on the road, and they have proven they can beat elite teams.

What’s left to prove?

“That we can sustain it,’’ Lillard said. “The last two (wins) we’ve shown that we weren’t just feeling ourselves in a winning streak. We’ve been able to create and sustain these habits and this style of play. I think it shows our growth, and that we are a different team.’’

When push comes to shove, these Blazers are holding their ground

When push comes to shove, these Blazers are holding their ground

OKLAHOMA CITY – As each game passes, it seems the Trail Blazers are revealing more about the fiber that makes up the fabric of their character.

On Sunday in Oklahoma City, the Blazers did more than just beat the Thunder for the fourth straight time this season, they did so while displaying as much toughness as we’ve ever seen from this group.

It was varying forms of toughness – physical, mental, and spiritual – and together it formed a certain grit that figures to serve this team well as it heads to the playoffs.

Whether it was the Blazers holding their own inside and outrebounding the Thunder, or the poise to withstand losing all of an 18-point lead (seemingly in a blink of an eye),  or the spunk shown by Evan Turner and company when things got a little rough in the third quarter, this looked and felt a little different than previous Blazers teams.

“I always thought we were pretty tough, but now it’s more of a collective toughness,’’ Damian Lillard said. “It’s not just in spots. Now its like, we know who we are, we know what we have to do, we know we have to trust each other and lean on each other to get things done.’’

Seventy three games into this season, it’s safe to say this team will not be bullied. This team will not wither. And this team will hold its ground when push comes to shove.

“I know these guys pretty well … You know who really boxes in their spare time,’’ CJ McCollum deadpanned.

McCollum, who played both a beautiful and brilliant game against the Thunder, was referring to Turner and Lillard – both boxing aficionados who also train in the ring during the offseason.

It was Turner who was at the epicenter of Sunday’s kerfuffle, which started in the third quarter when Ed Davis threw tumbling Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson off his knees as if he was a piece of luggage.

As the troops convened on the scene to begin the NBA ritual of pushing, followed by retreat, Turner pushed and held his ground, his feet seemingly in concrete, as Russell Westbrook charged.

It was a fitting stance for what this Blazers team has become: Stoic, solid, unwavering.

Lillard, for one, took notice of Turner.

“I wasn’t surprised,’’ Lillard said. “I actually noticed it. As soon as I saw a couple of guys coming his way, I knew he was going to stand his ground.’’

Lillard has a special bond with Turner because of their love of boxing. They not only appreciate the science, they both have implemented it into their training.

“I’ve said it plenty of times – I’m a huge fan of combat sports, and if there’s anybody on the team who is equally as much of a fan, it’s ET,’’ Lillard said. “He is equally a fan and a participant, in the ring, training in forms of combat. I do the same thing. ET is not looking for confrontation, but if it comes his way, he will stand his ground just like that.’’

By no means were the Blazers thumping their chest about the third-quarter fracas as a calling card to the NBA that they’ve arrived as some kind of rough-and-tumble team. Far from it.

Turner, for one, was remorseful, saying he would pay Ferguson’s $1,500 fine for his role in the youngster getting a technical. The only thing to be taken from it, Turner says, is what the Blazers already knew: they have each other’s backs.

“The biggest thing is the mental capacity of it – just not backing down,’’ Turner said. “And that was it.’’

What the third-quarter tussle did was elevate an already intense game that had every bit the feel of a do-or-die playoff game. This game was played on edge, with ferocity, and with significant emotional swings.

Through it all, Portland not only persevered, it almost seemed to thrive. Jusuf Nurkic was neutralizing the mammoth Steven Adams. Maurice Harkless was blocking shots left and right. Al-Farouq Aminu was in the thick of every scrum. And Lillard was chesting up and taking charges.

It wasn’t long ago the Blazers were viewed as mostly a finesse group, a young group, both between the ears and in physical stature.

Now – not because of Sunday, but over the course of the season – they have matured into what is looking like a hardened group.

“It’s collective now, and that makes the look different,’’ Lillard said. “It’s more obvious, and it shows a team toughness.’’

He was talking about both a mental toughness and physical toughness, and it might be the one trait where other teams had an edge in past playoff series against the Blazers.

Now, the Blazers think it just might be an edge.

“It makes us a much better team,’’ Lillard said of the toughness. “To be successful against good teams on the road you need that , but in the playoffs you need to rely on that a lot of times, because that’s when it’s the toughest – people playing for that championship. So I think that’s something that will really be on our side in the playoffs.’’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the hotel, he found Harkless.

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

Looking back, Lillard didn’t disagree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

By January, things started to turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More than ever before, Lillard is trusting his teammates.

And they are delivering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hecklers and naysayers have no room in Evan Turner's world these days

Hecklers and naysayers have no room in Evan Turner's world these days

There is a fan at Trail Blazers home games who takes great effort to heckle and chastise Evan Turner.

It reached a head a couple weeks ago, during a blowout win over Sacramento, when the heckler harped on the fact that Turner had only two points as the Blazers were closing out the Kings.

“Hey Evan! I see you got your typical two! Your typical two!’’’ Turner said, recreating the scene.

He shakes his head thinking back to it.

“All year … That’s what you call a true fan, huh?’’  

Turner says he understands he might have to take some ribbing in the give-and-take of a fan-player relationship at a game. But the season-long chiding by this fan had, in Turner’s mind, become harassment.

So, late in that Sacramento game, Turner faced the “dumb redneck,” who sits three rows back from the court.

“When I turned around and cursed him out, he turned bright red,’’ Turner said chuckling.

That Turner stopped absorbing insults and dished back is indicative of where he is in his second year in Portland: comfortable enough in his role and his performance to no longer care what the outside noise is saying.

In telling the middle-aged heckler to “shut the (expletive) up,” Turner might as well been speaking to all who still harp on his 4-year, $70 million contract.

“First off, let me say one thing: Everything I have done, I have earned,’’ Turner said. “My contract – that’s my bread, and I earned my bread. So, kiss my ass. Dead serious. Write that. I earned that (expletive) money.’’

In Portland, his teammates call him one of the smartest players on the team. And his coach says he is invaluable both for his defensive versatility and for his array of offensive weapons, from posting up, to shooting mid-range to passing to running the offense. And above all, they all say he is team first, all the time.

“All I’m doing is what my coach asks,’’ Turner said. “I’m trying to help the team, truly and genuinely help the team. Because I’ve been on teams where I’m putting up 20, and nobody gave a damn because we were losing.’’

Never before has Turner’s wide-ranging value been more on display than during the Blazers’ nine-game winning streak that has vaulted them to third in the Western Conference.

His defense was instrumental late in Friday’s win over Golden State, when got up-close-and-personal while forcing misses from Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Earlier in the week, against Oklahoma City, he had 17 points – which included three three-pointers – to fuel the season-series clinching win. And in an important victory against Minnesota, he had a team-high six assists and zero turnovers.

“He doesn’t get enough credit, but we know what he does, and that’s all that matters,’’ Maurice Harkless said motioning around the locker room.

And, perhaps, that’s the key, Turner says. He doesn’t care whether he gets the credit. And he doesn’t care if people think he is worth $70 million.

“At the end of the day, winning matters,’’ Turner said. “Character matters. And what you are willing to sacrifice matters. I think my biggest steps and growth are being able to compartmentalize the things that really matter. I used to waste a lot of time worrying about things that don’t matter. Who gets credit and all that stuff … it doesn’t matter.’’

One thing that does matter: A smile.

**

It is Thursday, the day before the Blazers will play Golden State in a matchup of two of the NBA’s hottest teams, when Turner stops after practice to pose for a picture to model his Li-Ning shoes.

Even though the shot is for his shoes, Turner adorns the biggest and cheesiest of smiles, for which he is playfully ribbed.

“Hey, a smile can mean a lot. I can murder somebody, and if the judge looks at my smile, it can be the difference between 30 years and life,’’ Turner said.

What makes this rationalization even more funny is … he’s serious.

“That’s why I smile on my driver’s license,’’ he said, dead serious. “You never know.’’

His teammates are often left shaking their head, either in confusion or in a can-you-believe-this-dude wonderment.

“He’s the funniest guy on the team, and the funniest guy on the team, accidently,’’ Harkless said. “And we all love him for it.’’

The Blazers are a mostly serious group, very dedicated to their craft, and it is natural over the course of the long NBA season for players to be uptight, or find themselves in moods.

And probably never in the last decade has there been a more off-the-wall personality than Turner to prevent that tension from escalating.

“ET helps us out a lot, not just on the court, but his personality,’’ Ed Davis said. “Every day, he comes in and mixes things up. Little things that you need in a long season, like you come in and are feeling like, damn, I don’t feel like hearing Coach’s mouth today, or I don’t feel like seeing Shabazz … but ET will come in and bring that unique energy and everything changes.’’

Turner’s outlook changed midway through his career, shortly after he contemplated quitting the NBA while he was in Indiana. He was involved in a practice scuffle with Lance Stephenson, fell out of the playing rotation and felt like his career had hit a dead end.

“It was after the Pacers incident,’’ Turner said. “I guess I reached an age when I realized what was important. You start equating that to the real sentimental stuff and you starting putting stuff into perspective.’’

His perspective now?

“This is basketball. It should be fun,’’ Turner said. “Sports are for kids, and adults mess it up. For me, I was one of those people, who overly, overly, overly took it serious. To the point where it wasn’t fun. So now, I make sure I have fun with it. This is a dream. A game.’’

**

Although Turner doesn’t like to admit it, much of the fun of last season was squashed by the burden of his new contract. Fans had expectations for a player making $17 million a season, and Turner couldn’t help but feel those expectations as he tip-toed through acclimating himself on an already established team.

He averaged 9.0 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 25.5 minutes a game while shooting 42.6 percent form the field and 26.3 percent from three-point range.

Both Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier said they have either seen or heard Turner struggle about the burden of his contract.

“A lot of players get judged on their salary,’’ Davis said. “If he was making, let’s say 8 million a year, they would be like, ‘He’s the best player in the league’ … that’s just how life is. But I always tell him: That’s a good problem to have. I’d rather have someone talk (stuff) to me if I was making 17 million a year than 6 million a year. So that’s a good problem.’’

This season, much of that burden seems to have subsided, in part because he says he is “focusing on positivity” and in part because he knows he is an invaluable cog to the Blazers’ machine. 

As a result, he neither has the time nor the energy to waste in justifying his contract.  In fact, he borders on being offended having to defend it.

“I don’t mean to be harsh, but I get tired of it being brought up,’’ Turner said. “And it’s really not my focus. Who am I supposed to prove it to? Some might be of the opinion that I help the team a lot.

“But as long as there are radio personalities who are nowhere near the team, and there’s people who have never played basketball giving their opinion and making up blogs, there will be stuff out there,’’ Turner said.

This season, he is averaging 8.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists while shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from three-point range. They are not standout statistics, but coach Terry Stotts and the Blazers players say stats will never capture Turner’s true worth.

“I can talk all day about him. Not a lot of people understand the value he has for this team. And they don’t understand because he is not a conventional player,’’ Napier said. “But he is our best post-offense player. Defensively he is able to guard Kevin Durant, then switch and guard Steph Curry or Klay Thompson. But it’s also his leadership skills, and his charisma, his camaraderie – the things people don’t see. They are the things that make up ET. And it’s those things that make him a great player to us.’’

Napier often refers to “intangibles” when talking about Turner, noting a recent piece of advice he gave to Zach Collins – to spin immediately after getting a pass in the post. Collins immediately implemented the advice and scored.

“He calms guys down, gets guys in right spots … he’s just the leader we need,’’ Napier said.

**

That some Blazers fans, including the third-row heckler, are slow to see what his teammates see, is not surprising to Turner.

He was energized this summer on a trip to China, during which he found a renewed zeal for the game. He filmed one of his workouts, of him shooting 3-pointers, and posted it on social media. He was stung to see negative comments about his shot.

And upon his return, during a conversation on ride with an Uber driver, he was taken aback at the narrative about his game. It caused him to recoil, and it started his obsession to seek only positivity.

So when he was asked if he is appreciated, he was quick to answer.

“From my teammates, of course. Absolutely,’’ Turner said. “I don’t really care outside, nor is it really worth digging into. I get the love. I really only pay attention to the positivity.’’

With the NBA’s longest current winning streak, never have the Blazers been surrounded by more positivity, and Turner has been in the middle of it all.

“We’ve won nine straight. I mean that’s dope as (expletive),’’ Turner said.

Perhaps that’s why he snapped back at the heckler, and why he has become more adamant in standing up for his contract.

“I’ve come from the mud,’’ Turner said. “I had nothing. I had a pair of shoes. My mom worked hard to put me in the situations I’m in. I rejected a lot of negativity and a lot of cop-outs growing up to stay focused and get to situations like this. That’s why I’m fired up about it. I’ve never taken (expletive). I’ve only taken what I’m supposed to take, never tried to dip out on people, and I’ve tried to live life the right way. What’s mine is mine. It’s my (expletive) money. And if it ever got taken away, I’m strong enough to go get more.’’

So the hecklers can heckle, and the voices on the radio can take shots. Turner is busy listening to the positivity of the NBA’s hottest team.

“I know this is just the way sports is,’’ Turner says, thinking back to the heckler. “And to whom much is given, much is expected. But perception is reality, and it takes a while to change perception.’’

Stotts, Blazers' newest dilemma: What to do with resurgent Mo Harkless?

Stotts, Blazers' newest dilemma: What to do with resurgent Mo Harkless?

SACRAMENTO – A developing subplot in the Trail Blazers season has been the reemergence of Maurice Harkless over the past week.

In what has largely been a disappointing season for the one-time starting small forward, Harkless has recently flourished while being reinserted into the rotation because of injuries.

Last Sunday, he hit all five three-point attempts in Boston en route to a 19-point, 8-rebound performance. And late in an overtime win against Charlotte on Thursday, he made a key block and a flushed a game-clinching dunk off an offensive rebound. He then scored 15 points Friday at Sacramento, and was a key element in the Blazers putting away the Kings in the fourth quarter.

Coach Terry Stotts, who through the first two months of the season went through a somewhat trying exercise in reaching a nine-man rotation, now has an intriguing decision ahead of him: What to do with Harkless?

“Let’s just talk about tonight,’’ Stotts said Friday when asked about his dilemma.

Harkless started the first 19 games of the season, but drifted into anonymity and eventually onto the bench amid poor shooting and energy-less play. To his credit, he remained ready after his demotion. He was the driving force in a December victory at the Lakers, scoring 22 points, and he was a boost with 19 points in a January home win over San Antonio.

This latest development was spurred first by a toe injury to Shabazz Napier, creating an opening in the Boston game, then a calf injury to Evan Turner, which has pushed Harkless into the starting lineup as Turner missed one game and has been on a minutes restriction the past two games.

Stotts started the season with Harkless in the starting lineup because he liked the defensive versatility he provides while paired with power forward Al-Farouq Aminu. The two long and lanky forwards can switch defensively on pick-and-rolls, and when energized, Harkless has athleticism unique to the Blazers.

Plus, with Harkless in the starting lineup, it allows Turner to assume an offensive role off the bench that is more suited to his strengths. With Turner on the second unit, he can be more of a ball-handler and initiator, and it puts less pressure on him to be a spacer alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

So, what does Stotts do?

On Friday at least, the coach conceded that he will probably extend his rotation from nine to 10, at least for the time being. Most coaches -- particularly late in the season -- like to limit their rotations to nine players in order to give them adequate playing time to establish a rhythm. If Harkless forges a regular spot back in the rotation, it will likely have to come at the expense of Napier, the team's third guard.

 “Moving forward I’m sure (Harkless) will be playing,’’ Stotts said. “Evan with the minutes restriction, you know, kind of makes it a little easier on me. Now, I assume Evan’s minutes will be going up, so they will have to come from somewhere. ‘’

This development almost mirrors how Harkless broke onto the scene in Portland two seasons ago. Lost and out of the rotation in February, he flourished as a spot starter in place of the injured Noah Vonleh and became a key element to the team’s late season push.

Now, Lillard is seeing some of the same things from Harkless.

“We get those sprint backs, those block, the deflections, the finishing in the paint, the offensive rebounds, knocking down 3s … when we get that from Mo we are a completely different team,’’ Lillard said. “I literally get excited when I see him doing those things. That’s why I will be the first guy to tell him: ‘We need you like this all the time. Nobody else on our roster can do what you do, and what you bring to the table.’’’

Harkless on Friday said nothing has changed for him, except the opportunity.

“I think it’s just being back in the rotation,’’ Harkless said. “It’s hard to not know if you are going to play, how much you are going to play, then get thrown out there for six minutes. It’s tough to play like that and be consistent.’’

For the immediate future, at least, it sounds like Stotts will give him another shot. What he does with it might determine the course of the Blazers rotation, and season.

“I will be ready to play, whatever role it is,’’ Harkless said.

Terry Stotts lays into Blazers after they nearly blow game vs. Charlotte

Terry Stotts lays into Blazers after they nearly blow game vs. Charlotte

After some sharp words from coach Terry Stotts, the Trail Blazers on Thursday received a message: It’s time to get serious about this season.

“I can’t call back exactly what he said,’’ veteran Ed Davis said. “But it had to do with we have big aspirations and we are not playing up to that.’’

After blowing a 17-point lead with seven minutes to go against a subpar Charlotte team, the Blazers were pushed into overtime, where some big plays from Maurice Harkless finally got them over the hump in a 109-103 victory.

Normally a mild-mannered coach who teaches through positive reinforcement, Stotts, players say, laid into his team afterward, and it left a mark.

“He knows we are capable of much more,’’ CJ McCollum said. “We haven’t played our best basketball. We have been pissing away games and not executing. We have to do some things better so we are not in those situations where … we could have lost tonight.’’

Often times this season, the Blazers players have been outwardly positive following wins with subpar play. Not Thursday.

“Unacceptable,’’ Davis said. “We want to be one of those elite teams and elite teams don’t play around at home, especially a game we are supposed to win and had control of the whole game.’’

In his postgame address to the media, the Blazers coach was terse, choosing to release one sentence answers through pursed lips in what probably stands as his most uptight and irritated session during his six seasons. 

Maybe it was because it’s that time of year. Or maybe it was because the Trail Blazers were so spectacularly awful in the fourth quarter. Or maybe Stotts had just had enough of  the up-and-down play.

Whatever the reason, he let the team have it.

Harkless said it was the most angry Stotts has been after a victory, and Meyers Leonard said “he was definitely upset with us” – but both Damian Lillard and Ed Davis said it wasn’t a notable tirade.

“It wasn’t like he was m’fing this, m’fing that – but it was like, ‘This is what it is: we are playing great basketball for three quarters then we (poop) the bed in the fourth and give a team that is not supposed to be in the game a chance to win.’

Lillard said he has seen Stotts more angry, and he noted that the group even laughed at one point.

That humor came via Evan Turner.

According to the players, Stotts at one point realized he was harping after a victory. He caught himself, and said, “I don’t want to be …”

As Stotts started to search for the right word, Turner chirped from his corner stall.

“A Debbie Downer?” Turner asked.

“No,” Stotts said. “I need another one …”

“Negative Nancy?’’ Turner retorted?

As Stotts pondered Nancy, Turner added another one:

“Emotional?”

The last one busted up everyone in the room.

“It definitely helped lighten the mood,’’ Harkless said.

The win ended a three game losing streak and pushed the Blazers’ home winning streak to nine, the longest home run in five seasons. Portland (30-25) is in sixth place in the West, one-half game behind Oklahoma City.

As the team boarded a plane later Thursday night for a flight to Sacramento for Friday’s game against the Kings (17-36), it was a group that knows time is running out to back up their own talk that they can be an upper-echelon team.

“We are at a point in the season where we have to start separating ourselves,’’ Davis said. “The games where we need to blow teams out, we need to do that, and tonight was that night.’’

Instead, they got a talking to from their normally laid-back coach.

“He gave us the same message we’ve been preaching all year: we have to be consistent,’’ Harkless said. “When we are consistent we are a pretty good team. But over the course of one game, we can go from really good to average, to good, to average … we just have to maintain.’’

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

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

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

The Blazers, themselves, are wondering as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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