The Portland Trail Blazers, to use a common contemporary parlance, are going through it.
Having lost six-straight, their longest such streak since the 2016-17 season, and nine of their last 10, no one inside of Portland’s locker room has cause to be content. Does that long of a stretch of poor play produce some grumbling? Most likely, but that’s hardly specific to the Trail Blazers. Just as winning cures all -- or at least something close to it -- losing tends to magnify every issue in a way that can make even slight annoyances feel outsized.
“Nobody likes losing,” said Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups prior to Portland’s overtime loss to Phoenix Tuesday night. “I don’t like losing, nobody in the locker room likes losing. Obviously, nobody’s happy. Nobody’s happy. However, we’re in this thing together. We know that. We’ve talked about that, and just like we dug ourselves into this hole, no one person can do it and bring us out. We got to just stick together and keep scrapping.”
While their current losing streak is easily the most pressing issue the Trail Blazers face, there are a number of ancillary issues -- some related to on-court performance, others not so much -- that one could argue have exacerbated the unease. There’s their inability thus far this season to win on the road. And season-long injury issues that have resulted in players like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum being limited, unavailable or both for relatively long stretches. And they too are dealing with the effects of living through a pandemic that seems to have no end in sight.
“It’s a lot,” said Damian Lillard. “It’s just been so much for us to deal with and play basketball. It’s a part of the business.”
And of course, there’s recent turnover has seen Neil Olshey, former general manager and president of basketball operations, released due to “violations of the Trail Blazers’ code of conduct” after a lengthy investigation. And with interim general manager Joe Cronin stating clearly that changes are likely coming, it’s fair to assume that some in Portland’s locker room are a bit unsure of what’s next.
“I think in the locker room, as long as we are transparent with each other and our relationships with each other, everybody understands that it’s a business,” said Lillard, who is no stranger to trade rumors. “I know that it’s something that could be on guy’s minds. How could you not think about it, you know what I’m saying? I don’t think it’s created tension but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s cause some discomfort in some people’s mind to wonder ‘What is it going to look like? Does that mean that’s for me?’ I think as long as you are addressing those relationships and treating people the right way and making sure that you not going the wrong way, we should be able to do our jobs and just understand that’s the business that we’re in.”
The same can be said for the sometimes blunt assessments from Billups about his team’s play. While reading transcripts of some of his comments pertaining to the team’s effort and execution might raise some eyebrows, he’s made no secret of the importance he places on accountability. So while those comments might ruffled a feather here and there -- again, nerves tend to go a bit raw when a team is consistently losing -- they are not a surprise nor much of an issue according to multiple players.
“Everything you guys hear is nothing that he doesn’t say to us personally,” said Nassir Little. “It’s not a matter of him saying something to the media and not coming at us with the same type of tone. He says it to us before he says it to you guys, so it’s no surprise. That was the thing when he got here: he’s going to hold us accountable, he’s going to tell us the truth and he’s gonna tell us what it is.”
What’s more, Billups, who often states “I need to be better” in many of those same comments, is as honest with himself about his own performances as he is with his players, and perhaps even more so.
“I’m doing that first and foremost,” said Billups. “I’m looking at when I call timeouts -- Is it the proper time? Are they on a run? What can we do? How do we do out of timeouts? -- start of quarters, things like that, rotation patterns. I’m doing that first and I learn all the time, to be honest with you. I mess it up quite a bit too and try to learn from that stuff. I always look at myself first in the mirror, then I go on to see as a team how we could be better.”
If Billups and the Blazers are able to finally figure out how to be better, most, if not all, of the issues that they’ve endured so far this month are likely to work themselves out. But until then, they’ll have to find a way to endure some uncomfortable times.
“We’re not the only team that’s going to have a struggle like this, we not the only team going through this struggle right now,” said Lillard. “But what we not gonna do is be one of the teams that fold. It’s ugly at times, it doesn’t feel good at times but we got to keep going and we’ve got to find a way because that’s just what we do.”