The Lakers are fine; Portland is not
Today, we’re going to take a look at two teams with similar records and lots of public concern and explain why they’re headed on two different trajectories.
Los Angeles Lakers
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Los Angeles Lakers are currently 12-12 with a poor -3.3 net rating1 against a cupcake schedule. They’ve inexplicably lost to an All-Above-Average college team in Oklahoma City twice, and they fell to the sad-sack Kings in triple-OT. Anthony Davis hasn’t hit a jumper since the bubble. This is all bad.
Until recently, they started a couple of players (Avery Bradley and DeAndre Jordan) who were two of the very worst starters in the league at their respective positions. The team has been unhealthily reliant upon a 37-year-old Carmelo Anthony shooting 50% from deep (he’s down to 43% now). They can’t stop fouling people. This is also all bad.
So why am I optimistic? It boils down to one stat: when LeBron, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook all play together without a center, the Lakers outscore opponents by +7.5 points per 100 possessions. The Big 3 with AD at center is doing more or less what everyone thought they would do: force turnovers and score like gangbusters in transition. This lineup has struggled to defend or get defensive rebounds ( a little weird with three ostensibly solid rebounders for their positions), but it also racks up free throws.
In the playoffs, it’s likely that this three-man lineup will play something like 25 minutes each game, so that’s a very encouraging sign for LA.
There are other reasons to be optimistic for the regular season. Lebron has only played 12 games so far; he’ll likely play more than 50% of the remaining games. Reinforcements are coming (eventually) in the form of 3-and-D wing Trevor Ariza, who was solid for Miami last year, and Kendrick Nunn, who’s the kind of two-way combo guard that the Lakers sorely need.
Westbrook has been playing significantly better since a putrid start. In the last two weeks, Westbrook is shooting 50% from the field and averaging 23 points, 8.6 assists, and 7.4 rebounds while sharply cutting down on his turnovers. He looks more at ease in the Lakers’ system and with his new teammates. Malik Monk has played better than expected, hitting an acceptable 37% from three on high volume (five attempts per game). Rajon Rondo, thankfully, doesn’t play at all anymore.
It would be ideal if the Lakers could avoid Phoenix and Golden State in the first round. From the fifth through the eight seeds, four teams are within a half-game of .500, including LA, and the Lakers need to at least claim the sixth seed to avoid the play-in and those two juggernauts. Although the schedule gets tougher from here on out, the West is weaker than it has been in years. Despite all the hoopla and negative press, the Lakers seem primed for a run.
Portland Trail Blazers
Hoo boy. This team is 11-14 and still in the play-in tournament as of now, but the vibes coming off this team are baaaad. Remember, for context, that this team has made the playoffs eight straight seasons but has been bounced out of the first round in four of the last five. The Blazers star a pair of smallish, shoot-first guards in CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, and they finished the 2020-2021 season with the second-best offensive rating and second-worst defensive rating in the league.
They’ve had the same core players and coaches for a half-decade or more, and almost always field an elite offense and a terrible defense, with limited success. The Blazers are the living embodiment of Einstein’s (apocryphal) definition of insanity, but the one thing they’ve always been is stable. Chaos comes for all teams eventually, however, and it’s certainly making up for lost time.
An abridged timeline of the tumultuous last six months:
Jun 4th: Portland’s GM, Neil Olshey, fires long-time coach Terry Stotts. A defensible move, although he raised eyebrows at a later press conference when he blamed everyone but himself for the Blazers’ struggles.
Jun 27th: The Blazers introduce former NBA player Chauncey Billups as the new head coach. Almost immediately, controversy erupts over a sexual assault case against Billups from 1997 (it was settled out of court, and Billups maintains his innocence to this day). The Blazers conduct a “sham” investigation into the incident (it is worth noting that Billups has worked at many different teams and institutions in the past before this role). The investigation’s findings are never released to the public.
July 16th: TrueHoop reports that a Lillard trade demand is imminent. Lillard responds by saying he wants to stay in Portland, but that the Blazers absolutely have to improve their roster. It’s the strongest public demand of his career.
All summer long, but we’ll call it Aug 17: Numerous outlets report that the Philadelphia 76ers are desperate to trade disgruntled star Ben Simmons for Portland’s Damian Lillard. Lillard had been unflinchingly loyal to Portland throughout his career, but a wave of backlash after his support for the Billups hiring and his demands for an improved roster have many wondering if Dame Time might be coming to an end in Portland.
Nov 12th: Trail Blazers President Chris McGowan steps down after owner Jody Allen rebuffs his request for more power to stabilize the franchise.
Dec 1st: Lilllard announces he has an abdominal injury that he’s battled on and off for four years, and will miss several games to try and get it right.
Dec 3rd: Blazers beat writer Jason Quick writes an incendiary article highlighting the tension between players and coach Chauncey Billups after an unimpressive start. Lillard and CJ McCollum, both the subject of constant trade rumors, look disconnected, and the defense somehow ranks last in the league (down from 29th the year prior) despite Chauncey’s schematic twists. Billups blasts the starters repeatedly and publicly for their lack of competitiveness. It’s clear that players aren’t playing hard, and it’s equally clear that the coaching is not doing them any favors.
Also Dec 3rd: Neil Olshey is fired after allegations of launching consistent profanity-laced tirades at underlings and creating a culture of fear within the organization are reportedly determined to be true. The investigation’s findings are never released to the public.
Dec 6th: The Athletic reports that sources close to Lillard say he wants to play with Ben Simmons, the defensive-minded 76ers star who has yet to play this year. This implicitly says that Lillard would be comfortable trading his friend and long-time running mate, CJ McCollum, as McCollum’s contract and skillset would be essential to any trade for Simmons or a similar caliber player. Lillard denies the report, despite the fact that it’s obviously 100% true.
Whew! Got all that? That’s a lot of drama for a franchise that has basically had the same key faces for a half-decade. Portland is in the midst of a full-blown meltdown, and while a trade of Simmons for McCollum and picks would be exciting, it’s hard to see it fixing all of the problems present in the franchise.
I’d like to say that things can only go up from here, but that would be a lie. It’s hard to tell who is still going to be on the team when all this dust settles. It’s clear that a trade, and possibly several, are on the way. Billups will likely be given more time to prove himself, particularly with new roster additions, but he hasn’t impressed. A new general manager must be found to replace Olshey. Chaos isn’t done with the Blazers yet.
The only certainty is that there’s going to be a lot more storm before the calm.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:
Meaning the Lakers, on average, are outscored by -3.3 points per 100 possessions.
Interestingly, the complaints largely seem to be focused chiefly around Olshey being a jerk, not necessarily doing anything illegal. While no one disputes the truth of the allegations, some people suggest that the Blazers are just looking for a way to fire Olshey “with merit,” meaning they wouldn’t have to pay him the money remaining on his contract. A few weeks later, ESPN reported that the Olshey investigation spurred the league’s executives to hasten their formation of a union.
This is absolutely wild. Apparently, league executives (especially general managers) are worried that the Olshey precedent means that they can be investigated, fired, and lose their contracts for “minor” infractions whenever a team feels like it. It doesn’t take much to imagine 29 other general managers looking in the mirror, asking themselves, “Have I unnecessarily been an a****** to people?”, feeling queasy, and calling up their buddies to suggest a joint legal defense fund.
The sad thing is that it’s really the people lower down in the pecking order, who aren’t making millions of dollars a year, who need unions for protection. The litany of investigations into toxic workplaces that the NBA has faced over the last several years has demonstrated a pattern of employees that feel they can’t trust bosses (who often are part of the problem) or HR to protect them in ugly situations.