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Blazers still trying to take next step forward as contenders

After finishing strong in 2015-16, this season has been full of fits and starts for Portland

Fran Blinebury

By the time the Portland Trail Blazers sit down at their holiday tables later this week, they could be giving thanks for having finally figured things out … or still feeling like they’re getting beat over the head with the same week-old drumstick.

But most likely, they’ll still be trying to figure it all out.

As they head into back-to-back road games at New York tonight (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) and Cleveland night in Wednesday (7 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS), there’s no amount of gravy that can cover up what has been a turkey of a start for a team that expected more.

It’s pretty much the way things are supposed to go in the first month of the long regular season for a middling team. Which is not what the Blazers are supposed to be. Not after a strong second half to 2015-16 got them the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference. Not after taking out the injury-bitten Clippers in the first round of the 2016 playoffs and making Golden State break a sweat in a the Western Conference semifinals. This was supposed to be their time to step forward and step up.

A year ago, the thought was that if every rebuilding project went as smooth and fast as the Blazers’ one did, there would be more theoretical bulldozers on a other teams’ street corners.

After LaMarcus Aldridge flew the coop in free agency and general manager Neil Olshey pulled the trigger on a complete reboot by replacing four out of five starters, this was the season to really take off in Portland and make noise in the Western Conference. But here are the Blazers just about a month into the follow-up still stuck on the ground.

They are quite often beaten up on the boards, getting out-rebounded at one point in 12 consecutive games, and mauled in the paint. According to NBA.com/Stats, they have the worst defensive rating in the league (108.5). They have played listless to start games and been unable to finish them, at least against the better teams.

The Blazers are 8-7 and just a hair behind the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Northwest Division only because the Thunder have a bucket-load of their own problems that won’t be solved quickly.

Portland’s 20-point thumping of the Nets in Brooklyn on Sunday — smack in the middle of their five-game road trip — was more a tourniquet than a cure to what ails the Blazers, who aren’t quite sure what to say about it themselves.

One night last week after getting run off the court in Houston, point guard Damian Lillard said simply that the Blazers “kind of suck right now.” Twenty-four hours later, after getting smacked around by the lowly New Orleans Pelicans, Lillard cheerily promised: “Don’t you worry. It’s going to be fine.”

The Blazers are 3-4 without starting power forward Al-Farouq Aminu, who was expected to miss two weeks due to a strained left calf. He’s traveling with team and will be re-evaluated for his return. Back-up big man Festus Ezeli, signed as a free agent over the summer, has not yet played this season due to an ailing left knee.

It took until Sunday in Brooklyn for Evan Turner to come off the bench and provide the impact that the Blazers hoped when they signed him to a four-year, $70-million free agent deal over the summer. With 19 points, four assists and four steals, he (at last) looked confident at both ends of the court to give a boost to a bench that’s been lacking punch.

The Blazers’ defense simply hasn’t shown up in the early part of the season. They’ve guarded the pick-and-roll poorly, failed to get back in transition and don’t seem inclined to communicate.

“A little bit of attention to detail,” said forward Mo Harkless. “We’ve just got to keep our focus and execute on defense. We’re scoring enough. That’s not the problem. We’ve got to get stops.”

The Blazers are just 1-5 against teams with a winning record and even that one gets an asterisk, since the opening night victory over Utah came with leading scorer Gordon Hayward injured and missing from the Jazz lineup. They’re surviving by gobbling wins against bad teams and getting swallowed up by the good ones. That’s hardly the recipe for playoff success. Yet the Blazers can keep looking at last season when they pulled things together to finish with a 29-14 kick.

“I think it just shows how far we have to go, how much better we need to get to compete with these teams,” Lillard told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. “Like I said last year a bunch of times, who are we to say we’re concerned? We aren’t beating really good teams and they’re doing things that we aren’t doing. They’re playing at levels that we’re not playing at.”

It’s never too soon to start.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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