At halftime in Brooklyn on Sunday, after the Blazers' league-worst defense coughed up another 64 points to the lowly Nets, Meyers Leonard approached Damian Lillard with a plea: "Maybe it's time for you to talk one-on-one with some guys about their defense," Leonard told Portland's franchise player. "Everyone respects what you say."
Lillard considered it, but decided to stay quiet. "The defensive issues -- I'm a part of it," Lillard told ESPN.com the next day. (Leonard would admit he is, too.) "I didn't want to go telling people, 'You need to do this or that.' Enough talking has been done."
Lillard eventually confronted Evan Turner, Portland's struggling free agent splurge, after Turner -- caught on a switch -- let Brook Lopez dribble from the 3-point arc all the way to the rim. "That can't happen," Lillard told Turner. Beyond that scolding, Lillard shut his mouth and played harder.
The Blazers, coming off a feel-good jaunt to the second round and a subsequent spending spree, are confident this sort of healthy team chemistry will see them through early malaise; they're 8-8 with a ghastly point differential and a few discomfiting blowout losses. Lillard sets the tone with his work ethic, and he wields his influence with care. Get on teammates every day, and the words lose power.
The players love Terry Stotts, because he is honest and respects their independence. They hang together off the floor; Leonard, Ed Davis, and Al-Farouq Aminu are part of a regular dinner gang, and they still follow Chris Kaman's rule of stashing away their phones during meals.
No one worried all the new money -- including $145 million combined to Turner and Allen Crabbe, both backups -- would fracture the locker room, even as Davis jokes that Portland "was smart to get me on a cheap deal when they could." They insist they will not be the next version of the Goran Dragic-Eric Bledsoe Suns -- a plucky team that blew past projections, only to come undone the next season amid infighting and heavy expectations.
"We got no haters here," Lillard said. "Guys are happy for each other."
They also warned us all that spending would not necessarily translate into an immediate jump up from the NBA's middle class. "We are probably not going to make the quantum leap the salaries might indicate," Stotts told me in July.
Stotts never expected Portland to rank next to last in points allowed per possession heading into the quarter pole -- especially given the scheme and most of the personnel are the same. "It's just disappointing," Stotts said. "We should have picked up where we left off last season. We haven't." Their stagnation has renewed doubts around the league that Paul Allen overpaid for gold-plated mediocrity.
Portland still dips way back against the pick-and-roll, baiting opposing ball-handlers into midrange jumpers:
If done right, that lone big man keeps the ball in front of him -- meaning all of Portland's other defenders can stick with outside shooters instead of darting inside to help. On some surface level, it's working; only three teams have allowed fewer corner 3s, and opponents have hit just 55.9 percent of shots within the restricted area -- third-stingiest overall.
But enemies are generating about four more shots per game at the rim this season, and shooting almost 50 percent from the swath of paint between the restricted area and the foul line -- the highest such mark in the league, per NBA.com.
Opposing point guards see those Portland bigs dropping back, and they don't care -- especially if a screen wipes out Lillard, C.J. McCollum, or whatever Blazer is supposed to be on their hip:
Davis, a stalwart last season, just hasn't been the same player. He packed on almost 20 pounds in the summer, but insists his increased weight - he has kept about a dozen of those extra pounds -- hasn't slowed him.
Floaters are tough shots; that 50 percent mark will come down. But the floaters are easier this season. Portland's guards are falling too far behind, a chronic issue for Lillard and McCollum, and their big men are surrendering a long runway.
"There's a big difference between a 14-foot floater and a 7-foot floater," Stotts told ESPN.com. "Our guards have to pursue. Our bigs have to put doubt in the driver's mind."
Allow any NBA player entry into the deep paint, and bad things happen -- including panicky help from the wrong places:
The Blazers have spent more than a year mastering this conservative scheme, and they don't want to turn back. "You ask yourself: Should we maybe try something different?" Stotts said. "But I think most coaches would say, 'Let's do what we're supposed to be doing better before we go changing things.'"
In that sense, it's almost encouraging how cartoonishly bad the Blazers have been at almost every aspect of defense. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit to pluck. They are a confused train wreck in transition, even when everyone gets back; guys just run to the wrong spots and leave someone wide open.
"It's just a lack of communication," McCollum told ESPN.com.
Opponents are straight toasting the Blazers one-on-one, and feasting on botched rotations that follow:
Miscommunication is rampant. Well-meaning help-and-recover missions have ended in catastrophe:
The Blazers should be above this nonsense. It carries the whiff of a team that thought it might be good enough to coast in some games.
For the second straight season, Portland is fouling the hell out of everyone. Some hacks are the natural result of breakdowns higher in the chain; opponents slice through an opening, and the only way to stop them is to hit hard. The Blazers compound that by sticking their hands in the cookie jar at bad times. "We just foul way too many jump-shooters," Stotts said.
The Blazers are smallish, and they'll probably end up around league-average in defensive rebounding. Their cautious defensive system naturally yields few turnovers. Those weaknesses are baked into Portland's structure, and they give the Blazers a small margin for error with everything else. They just can't afford as many blips of miscommunication like this one between Turner and Leonard -- two guys still figuring each other out on bench units that are bleeding points:
"We're learning each other," Turner told ESPN.com. "I have to trust the defense he calls out. We'll get it down."
Turner will be the scapegoat if Portland, now carrying the league's third-highest payroll, ends up trapped in the middle. (He was almost as stunned as you by Portland's mega-offer, by the way, which turned out to be for four years and $70 million. Turner's agent made him promise not to tell anyone about the proposal until he signed it. Turner was too giddy, though. He hung up with his agent, immediately called Andre Iguodala, still a close friend and mentor, and blurted out, "Yo, Dre! They offered this!" Turner recalled, laughing. Iguodala told him to take the deal right away.)
He needs the ball to do his thing, and he has been a predictably awkward fit alongside two stars -- McCollum and Lillard -- who will always have it more than he does. When Lillard and McCollum run the show, Turner can be a liability -- a stationary non-shooter that defenses ignore to smother the lane:
The Blazers know this, and they've accommodating by building what amounts to a separate offense for him. It's heavy on scripted play calls and bare bones "horns"-style sets that start with both big men at the elbows:
Those are pathways for Turner to catch the ball in one of his sweet spots. They unfold more slowly than Portland's typically flowing offense, with much less room for improvisation. The ball gets sticky.
"I direct things a lot more when Evan's on the court," Stotts said. "I think it helps him for now."
Turner admits it has been hard fitting in. "The consistency of it has been a challenge," he said. "I have to adapt to how they play -- all that looping around like they do -- and they have to adapt to me."
You occasionally see glimpses of how it might blend, with everyone flying around, and Turner leveraging inattention from defenses by catching the ball and plowing through a chasm:
"I think it will eventually evolve into something more like what you might identify as our style," Stotts said.
It will take time. Portland will be fine on offense regardless; they're 11th in points scored per possession. They were fine without Turner. There are reasonable ways to justify Portland's spending spree -- I dived into their long-term trajectory over the summer. But he was always going to be semi-redundant as a third ball-handler, even if McCollum and Lillard are dangerous off the ball, and you don't pay $70 million to fill the minutes when one of them hits the bench -- especially since those minutes shrink in the playoffs.
Portland's issues on the other end might nag. Both Turner and Crabbe are miscast as wing stoppers. They're solid, but they don't scare anyone. Aminu and Maurice Harkless -- the latter looking way more dynamic on offense so far! -- are better, and earn combined about what Turner and Crabbe make solo.
You just don't feel Portland's defense. They are like the anti-Bulls. Chicago has its flaws, but they are huge and mean. Play them, and you know you're gonna be hurting the next day.
Portland is small and a little squishy on the perimeter, and the back line can't quite make up for it. Aminu's return will stabilize the power forward slot, but the frontcourt rotation is murky despite a crowd of interesting names. It lacks a little oomph.
Davis is still skinny. Mason Plumlee tilts that way, too, and he's a below-average defensive rebounder for his position. Festus Ezeli's long-term health is (to be generous) uncertain. Leonard is probably a center, but the Blazers have rarely trusted him to anchor their defense; they usually pair him with Plumlee or Davis, and have those guys defend opposing power forwards -- a makeshift solution.
Noah Vonleh is promising, and the Blazers have recently experimented with a Vonleh-Leonard partnership that makes some theoretical sense on offense; Vonleh can rampage to the rim while Leonard spots up for 3s. The team is understandably pessimistic they can hold up on defense.
Portland looks ripe for a trade. Neil Olshey, the team's one-step-ahead GM, chased Hassan Whiteside in free agency, and has a well-documented fondness for old-school low-post brutes like Brook Lopez, Greg Monroe, Nikola Vucevic and others. (It's tempting to pitch a Crabbe/Lopez swap since the Nets lavished Crabbe with a massive offer sheet, but Brooklyn cannot acquire Crabbe until the offseason -- at least under current league rules.)
Portland has long been my favorite Vucevic landing spot, though the Magic should probably just stop taking Olshey's calls after gifting him Harkless for nothing. Just about everyone is overstocked with centers. Portland might call Denver about Jusuf Nurkic, and it wouldn't stun me if they expressed some interest in Tyson Chandler -- even though Chandler is a decade older than some core Blazers, with two years left on a bloated contract. (Related: It still looks unlikely that the new collective bargaining deal will include an amnesty provision, though you never know what crazy stuff might happen in those addled final hours of negotiation.)
Someone should be trying to steal Kosta Koufos from the Kings. As for another popular suggestion, let's just say the league doesn't quite know what to make of Nerlens Noel.
The Blazers are in win-now mode with Lillard and McCollum in their primes, but it's unclear how much they really have to trade. They have an extra first-round pick from the Cavs, and some need to offload a big contract in the face of what could be hilariously huge tax payments starting next season. Harkless and Aminu are valuable trade chips, but they are more valuable to the Blazers as players. Crabbe and Turner look untradable.
Portland also has to decide whether any of those centers moves the needle. They are better rebounders than Plumlee, and beefier obstacles. Plodders tend to do well hanging back in Stotts' scheme. Having another scoring fulcrum like Vucevic or Monroe on the block would help. The league has adjusted a bit to Portland's spin-cycle offense, and several players said they are finding it harder to get to some of their pet looks this season.
But some of those guys are sieves on defense. None are as adept as Plumlee making plays in space on the pick-and-roll.
That's a critical skill for any Portland screen-setter. Playoffs opponents will trap Lillard and McCollum way out on the floor, and force them to give up the ball. Plumlee can catch it around the 3-point arc, dribble, and sling the right pass to an open shooter. Some of those potentially available centers are good passers, but they typically do their dishing from the elbows and in.
Perhaps that is where Turner comes in -- as a release valve who can do damage off the bounce.
The bolder move would be to sniff out the trade market on McCollum. He and Lillard form an undersized duo; there may be a hard ceiling on how far a team can go leaning heavily on both of them. But McCollum is damned good, and the Blazers have shown no interest in flipping him.
Portland is still in wait-and-see mode on all this. They should be. It's early, and Turner is a tricky fit. This was never going to be a 50-plus win powerhouse. The realistic scenario was to hang in the mid-to-high 40s, grow through continuity, and land on some development that would catapult them up in two or three years -- Lillard reaching a new level of superstardom, a young guy popping, or some trade that works better than anticipated. This should still be a solid playoff team, but 20 games in, the route to something better is a little cloudier.
The brass would be comfortable with incremental improvement, and the players are reveling in the journey. "We're together," Davis said. "No one is panicking here. We're gonna be fine."
10 Things I Like And Don't Like
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, rim protector
This is getting scary. Antetokounmpo is averaging more than two blocks per game, and opponents are shooting just 45 percent at the rim when he's nearby -- a top-shelf mark for a center, let alone for whatever Antetokounmpo is.
He is beginning to realize how much damage he can do as a long-armed help defender. He covers so much territory with a single stride; he almost teleports from the 3-point arc to the rim. Dudes who think they are about to drop in an easy layup have no clue what horror awaits them.
The Bucks have plopped Antetokounmpo into shot-blocking territory more often by having him (mostly) defend power forwards, leaving Jabari Parker on wings. That has the trickle-down benefit of engineering a cross-match when Milwaukee goes the other way on offense; opponents don't want their big guys chasing Antetokounmpo, and the Bucks sometimes catch defenses scrambling to find their matchups in transition.
2. The Clippers' switchery
The numbers don't necessarily support this strategy, but it's healthy for the Clippers to experiment with more switching on defense -- especially with Blake Griffin. It's a tool they will need if they encounter Golden State again in the playoffs.
Griffin can contain most guards, and if the Clippers get a stop, the matchups are jumbled -- a confusion that revs up L.A.'s transition attack. Griffin can go coast-to-coast against a little guy, or bum-rush into post position -- dragging help defenders down with him, and opening up shots for someone else.
The Clips are lethal when they mix in more fast-break attacks. They won't win the title with Chris Paul walking it up 95 times per game.
There are downsides, of course. Toggling Griffin and Jordan onto a guard leaves L.A. vulnerable on the glass. Jordan can't keep from tiptoeing back to the paint after a switch when he should be worried about the shooter he's guarding. One switch can trigger second and third switches, and the Clippers can break down when there is too much happening.
But the potential upside outweighs those hiccups.
3. Serge Ibaka's stagnant post-ups
Be careful what you wish for, people. Ibaka is posting up way more than he ever did in Oklahoma City, and the results have been ugly. He's hit just 12-of-32 on post-ups, per tracking by Synergy Sports, and the shooting percentage isn't really the issue.
The math on post-ups works only if the offense can use them as a vehicle to occasionally get something better. That isn't happening with Ibaka. Teams rarely double him, and when they do, he's not a good enough passer to make them pay. He doesn't get to the line; he has literally drawn zero shooting fouls on post-ups this season, per Synergy.
This is about both Ibaka and the lack of offensive talent surrounding him. It reminds a little of all those Harrison Barnes isolations in Dallas, though Barnes draws more help on a team that has almost no healthy scoring. Barnes is getting buckets, but the team-wide impact isn't robust. That will obviously change as the Mavs get healthy, and rely less on Barnes' one-on-one game.
4. Luke Walton, carrying the elevator doors forward
Golden State made the elevator doors a fad, and fads die fast. Defenses were on such high alert, it became harder and harder to slip a shooter through those closing doors.
But precede it with enough misdirection, and you can still fool suckers. It's fitting that Walton, a Golden State alum, is sprinkling the Lakers' playbook with ever more complex build-ups to the elevator climax:
God, the Lakers are just fun as hell. Lou Williams is a flailing, flopping fireball for a Lakers bench mob that expands leads.
5. Timekeeper choke jobs
Is it me, or are we seeing more of this than in previous seasons? And I'm not even talking about whatever temporary insanity engulfed the end of the Toronto-Sacramento game over the weekend, costing Terrence Ross a game-tying buzzer beater. The Spooky Mulder wing of the Toronto fan base is back in full force.
Referees have had to stop a bunch of other games right after tip-off -- and sometimes two or three more times after that -- due to some clock synchronization snafu. Can we smooth this out, please?
6. Tommy Heinsohn, wearing that tie loose
Heinsohn sounds like he's commentating on games from his barstool, so it's refreshing that he looks that way whenever the camera cuts to him. His hair is disheveled, and the tie knot hangs way down chest level. He's unwinding after a tough day of work, just like a fan.
7. Gordon Hayward's Oscar-winning cuts
Guys who have the rock a lot don't necessarily make for good off-ball cutters. Good on Hayward for becoming a nifty, unpredictable cutter who tricks defenders with little eye and head fakes one way before bolting the other direction:
This is how teams with multiple ball-handlers maximize their talents. Now the Jazz just need to get healthy. The clock on this core is already ticking.
8. Slo-Mo, petering out early?
The Spurs bench is doing its usual thing, in part because Gregg Popovich is smart about keeping a starter out there with them, but it feels a little rickety this time around. How many of these guys beyond Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills do you trust -- and how many will Popovich trust -- when the games really matter?
A lot of this queasy feeling comes down to Slo-Mo just not happening yet. Kyle Anderson still can't shoot, he never gets to the line, and he's too sluggish off the bounce to scoot by anyone -- and let his passing skills sing. The Spurs need someone off the bench to pop, and they were hoping it would be Anderson. Jonathon Simmons has passed him in the rotation, but Simmons has fallen back to Earth after his out-of-body experience against Golden State in the opener.
On bad Pau Gasol nights, San Antonio feels like it might have only one reliable big man in LaMarcus Aldridge. The natural pivot would be to go small, with Kawhi Leonard bumping up to power forward. But you need extra wing depth to do that over extended minutes, and the Spurs may not have quite enough against the very best teams.
9. Houston's announcers having some fun with 3s
Every announcer will occasionally use the conceit of saying some player just nailed a triple from some nearby city: "And Kyle Lowry hits from Mississauga!"
When he's feeling feisty, Bill Worrell, Houston's longtime play-by-play guy, has made game of coming up with obscure Houston-area towns to estimate the length of another Rockets 3-pointer. Clyde Drexler and Matt Bullard, Worrell's partners, will chuckle and say they've never heard of the place -- leading to matter-of-fact description of it from Worrell.
The bit works. Here's hoping Worrell takes it to absurd lengths as the season goes on.
10. MKG, tapping his inner bully
Finally. Kidd-Gilchrist is in the earliest stages of developing a back-to-the-basket game to punish teams who hide their weakest defenders on him. Deal with this, Monta Ellis:
MKG is 4-of-6 on post-ups this season, per Synergy Sports. That's not much. But he attempted just four shots out of the post in 55 games during his most recent healthy season in 2014-15. Baby steps. When things slow down in the playoffs, Kidd-Gilchrist needs a couple of workable post moves in his bag.