This was supposed to be a rebuilding year. A year to build some cap space, let Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard learn, and try and compete next year. Then the wins started rolling in, and as late as February 4th, the Blazers were two games over .500 and in eighth place in the Western Conference as they started a five game road trip.
Sometime along that trip, the wheels came off the bus. Seven straight losses, five of them to teams under .500, punctuated by a 36 point blowout disaster February 13th against the 20-37 New Orleans Hornets. The skid mercifully ended upon Sunday in Portland, where they held off the Rondo-less Boston Celtics, 92-86.
So what went wrong?
Was it that opposing teams finally figured out Damian Lillard? The rookie had been an efficient scorer all season to this point, even if his passing skills were not quite at an NBA level yet. During the seven games, Lillard shot 38 percent, not an altogether bad performance, but was wildly inconsistent, shooting ten of eighteen one game, four of fifteen the next. A solid seven of thirteen versus Houston was followed with an abysmal one of sixteen against Orlando.
Was it the lack of depth on the roster? Eric Maynor was acquired to improve what was likely the worst bench in the NBA. During the seven games, the bench accounted for just 17% of all points, and failed to break double digits as a whole four times. This put far too much pressure on Aldridge, Matthews, Batum, Lillard, and Hickson.
Is it a young team struggling on the road? The Blazers are a pleasant 18-9 at the Rose Garden and a woeful 8-21 away from Oregon.
Were the Blazers simply outplayed? They were outrebounded in five of the last seven games. They were out assisted in six of them. They allowed massive games from players that should not get them (Nikola Vucevic's 17 point, 19 rebound performance for Orlando or Goran Dragic's 16 point, 18 assist game for Phoenix). This was especially evident during the New Orleans debacle, where the Hornets outscored the Blazers first half in a single quarter, and a team that gives up an average of 97.3 points per game held a team with three of the best young scorers in the NBA to just 21 points combined, and 63 as a team.
The season is not over, not by a long shot. What that means to the Blazers and their fans is still up in the air. Twenty-six games remain, 14 of them at home. Nineteen of them are against current playoff teams. A strong finish could give the Blazers the boost they need. A slow start to the final stretch means a pit the team may not be able to dig out of.
No one expected a title this season. A playoff berth would have been nice. But would it have been better to be at the bottom all season, or have that playoff spot for so long, just to see it slip away?