OAKLAND, Calif. -- An up-and-coming Portland Trail Blazers squad that won 44 games and exited in the second round of the playoffs last year finds itself grossly underachieving this season.
Before the season, sportsbooks in Las Vegas had picked Portland to finish fifth in the Western Conference. The Blazers (15-21) sit in 10th as the midseason point approaches.
Coach Terry Stotts' job is not in jeopardy, league sources told ESPN. Damian Lillard, the unquestioned leader of the team, has stressed player accountability. The organization isn't panicking, believing that, when healthy, the Blazers will work their way back into the playoff picture.
To understand the state of the team, one must examine what occurred last summer.
Portland went into 2016 free agency with $24 million in cap space. General manager Neil Olshey wanted to address two dire needs: add another ball handler to combat the opposition blitzing Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and secure a legitimate rim protector.
Turner and Ezeli were the team's only unrestricted free-agent acquisitions.
The Turner signing has been heavily scrutinized. Given his fit with the team and the amount Portland forked out, it was considered one of the most head-scratching transactions of the offseason.
But considering the Trail Blazers intended on signing oft-injured small forward Chandler Parsons -- who has played in only 11 games for Memphis -- with a max deal of four years, $94 million, Turner has proved to at least be a durable, versatile addition.
Portland's summer objective was to keep players under contract and spend every penny of its cap space, knowing the team wouldn't have cap room moving forward.
The big-man market was established when center Timofey Mozgov landed $64 million from the Los Angeles Lakers after coming off an atrocious season in Cleveland. Because of Ezeli's past complications with his left knee, his deal was always viewed as a cheap, low-risk, high-reward maneuver. Still, the Trail Blazers probably didn't envision their $7.5 million in remaining cap space leading to a season-long on-court production of zilch.
The plan was for Ezeli, a 6-foot-11 center, to play around 15-20 minutes in about 55 games, sitting out the second game of back-to-backs and participating in limited practices. That plan quickly evaporated.
In late August, Ezeli received injections with a bone marrow aspirate concentrate and Orthovisc in the knee to relieve discomfort. It's the same knee he had arthroscopic surgery on six months earlier as a member of the Golden State Warriors.
During training camp, to everyone's surprise, Ezeli decided to partake in a handful of practices. ESPN sources said he ran the court well, had some impressive blocks and defended the pick-and-roll effectively with no signs of swelling in the knee.
Players were overwhelmingly impressed.
The team and coaching staff were ecstatic. They were under the impression their paint enforcer was only a week or two away from being activated. But it was premature enthusiasm -- Ezeli shut it down soon after, indicating he wasn't ready to return to game action.
It didn't take long for the harsh realization to hit the locker room: Ezeli wasn't likely to play a game as a Trail Blazer this season, maybe never. At some point this season, it is expected Ezeli will undergo season-ending surgery, league sources told ESPN.
For some within the franchise, this route has been puzzling and difficult to digest. On the road last month, during one of the team's toughest stretches of the season, the frustration spilled outwardly.
After suffering a challenging, 115-107 loss to Milwaukee, Ezeli, in street clothes, addressed the team in the locker room with a stern speech centered on playing with urgency, sources told ESPN. Then two games later, after a crushing defeat in Memphis, Ezeli once again started giving a team speech, but he was cut short.
McCollum interrupted Ezeli in midsentence and told him that was enough, sources told ESPN. Portland was in the midst of an emotionally draining December, losing 11 of 13 games. Players were desperately pouring out every ounce of effort trying to change the trajectory of the season, and being lectured by someone who wasn't even playing wasn't received favorably.
In a summer in which virtually every team was equipped with cap room because of the infusion of revenue brought on by the league's television deal, the small-market Trail Blazers found themselves watching attractive bigs sign elsewhere.
Portland could have offered Whiteside a four-year, $94 million deal. With taxes figured in (the state of Florida has no income tax, while Oregon carries a 9.9 percent tax rate), Whiteside would have left millions on the table if he had signed with Portland.
Joakim Noah was pursued, but he was enamored with the prospect of playing in his hometown of New York for a massive $72 million over four years.
Dwight Howard was the Blazers' next option. Cap wise, Portland wasn't in a position to commit to extending him a max offer. The team would have had to renounce one of three restricted free agents (Moe Harkless, Allen Crabbe or Meyers Leonard), a move Olshey wasn't inclined to exercise.
Because of Howard's extensive injury history, Portland was willing to do only an experimental short-term pact, but Howard, too, returned home with a deal in place with the Atlanta Hawks for three years and $70 million.
With the upper-tier big-man market dwindling rapidly in the first few days of free agency, Portland made a grab for Pau Gasol. On this occasion, the team was prepared to renounce a player to free up salary and make a two-year, $32 million offer for him; the educated assumption is that Leonard would have been released. Year 1 of Portland's proposal would have been fully guaranteed for $16 million, with an extra $4 million paid should they part ways in Year 2.
But San Antonio opted instead to call Utah and unloaded Boris Diaw and the 2022 second-round pick for the Jazz's 2015 second-round selection, Olivier Hanlan. The transaction helped the Spurs clear the space needed to absorb Gasol's two-year, $31.7 million salary.
Once again, state income tax wasn't in Portland's favor. Texas has no state tax, making Gasol's deal with the Spurs worth more than the Blazers' offer.
Nearly a week into free agency, Portland was still without a shot-blocking center. And then there was the matter of the four-year, $75 million offer sheet Brooklyn handed Crabbe. Sources told ESPN that Blazers owner Paul Allen never thought twice about matching. There was no dialogue, no consultation. Crabbe was being retained.
Additionally, Leonard re-signed for four years and $41 million; Harkless re-signed for four years and $40 million; and McCollum was locked up with a four-year, $106 million extension. Allen was adamant that he wasn't going to allow talent to get away, even if it meant going into the season with virtually the same roster and the third-highest payroll in the NBA.
The Blazers spent approximately 40 percent of this year's cap on retaining players. They have always had problems luring big-time free agents, which has made player retention imperative.
Portland's defensive scheme has been structured around its best defender in Al-Farouq Aminu at the 4-spot. His being in and out of the lineup, coupled with Ezeli's absence, has contributed to the Blazers giving up 111.5 points per game, which ranks 28th in the league, and posting a defensive efficiency rating of 110.3, which ranks dead last.
Although starting center Mason Plumlee has been solid offensively in his role as a Draymond Green-type distributor out of pick-and-roll action, the jury is still out on whether his defensive skills are enough to offset complications that stem from Portland starting a small backcourt.
Leonard, Crabbe and Harkless aren't eligible to be moved until Jan. 15. The team isn't looking to trade McCollum or Turner, league sources say. And if they won't include McCollum, no deal the Blazers make will bring back a player capable of moving them into the tier alongside the likes of Golden State, San Antonio and presumably Houston.
Olshey is open to a roster-tinkering trade, but not just for the sake of executing one. In the meantime, the Blazers will try to right the ship. Lillard is not expected to return to the lineup until Thursday's home game against the Lakers after missing the past three games with a sprained left ankle, and the team recently incorporated an aggressive defensive approach to manufacture more turnovers and easy baskets.
Olshey told ESPN that he accepts responsibility for the team's slow start, but made it clear that he believes the first 36 games have not revealed who the Blazers truly are.
It has been a disappointing start for the Rip City faithful, but the upside is still present. In the six games since Aminu returned from a back contusion Dec. 21, the Blazers rank sixth in defensive efficiency (103.0). In the past four games, they rank second (97.8).
The Blazers are the second-youngest team in the league. But most important, they're equipped with a leader who welcomes the daunting task ahead of them.
"You'd be surprised by what my shoulders can handle," Lillard told ESPN. "I'm built for this. Bring it on."