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Middle-earthy

3/12/2014
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

About a month ago, the Portland Trail Blazers were in a bit of a shooting slump heading into a matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder. During Terry Stotts’ pregame media availability, a reporter asked the coach why the shots weren’t falling.

"Well all you guys in the media have been saying it was coming since November," Stotts responded. "So I guess now you can finally write it.”

It was a relatively banal remark, a coach’s show of exasperation with ginned-up media narratives, but it struck me for two reasons:

First, that the tone was uncharacteristically defensive for Stotts, and second, that it seemed to suggest that the team was bracing for impact on its way back down to Earth. A typical Stotts response, in a good mood, would be something like, "We’re happy with the shots we’re getting, and we’ll keep taking them." Instead, what he said was closer to acknowledging that the Blazers know they’re going to be judged by their early-season success, and they’re resigned to riding it out.

If that’s reading a lot into a single quote, it’s inarguable that the mood around the Blazers’ season has shifted, and the standard they set in November and December is a large reason why. ESPN’s own Kevin Pelton has written that the Blazers are likely "doomed" to the West’s No. 5 seed in the playoffs, a fate most fans would have called a best-case scenario in October.

Elsewhere, fans are clamoring for better play in close games, even as the Blazers recently enjoyed a two-year run as one of the more charmed crunch-time teams in the league. While the length of the NBA season has many side effects, few are more jarring than the collective amnesia it seems to induce.

But the current unease among Blazers observers gets to an interesting question: To what extent are players fixed entities, and when, if ever, can fans expect them to change? A useful reference here is Jason Quick’s recent Oregonian column. Quick argues, and I largely agree, that the Blazers have grown stagnant in close games as they revert to familiar tendencies -- post-ups for LaMarcus Aldridge, long jumpers from Damian Lillard, and a sometimes limiting determination from Nic Batum to hunt shots for his teammates.

Early this season, all these tendencies were a recipe for magic: Aldridge can get a shot on the left block against any defender, Batum has uncanny vision from the wing, and for a long while, Lillard’s hero-ball proficiency was unparalleled. But now that the bounces are going the other way, the Blazers can look unable, or unwilling, to change their formula.

All of which may just be fine. I've written in the past that the Blazers’ success stems in large part from the fact that every player is allowed to play not just to his strengths, but also to his preferences, and that allowance provides an unusually stable foundation. The Blazers are allowed to be themselves and learned early that it produces winning basketball. But when it stops working, is that, too, a referendum on the players themselves?

The Blazers are either free of, or lacking, a superstar player or coach who might offer them some structure in this regard. There are teams whose successes and failures -- LeBron’s Heat, Thibodeau’s Bulls -- revolve around the focal points of those stars, providing an easy cover when things turn south. Jimmy Butler’s shot is off? Thibs is running him ragged. Chris Bosh struggling? He’s just getting used to the spacing with LeBron in the post.

Without those high-wattage focal points, the Blazers are also without easy scapegoats. By most considerations -- and certainly by the players’ consideration -- Aldridge is the Blazers’ cornerstone, but he isn't the sort of star who exercises a gravitational pull over a whole organization. The same goes for Lillard, the only other real candidate for this designation. The Blazers’ collective approach to success is refreshing in the era of alpha dogs and hot takes, but it all denies a certain emotional satisfaction to fans craving context for the ups and downs of a season.

I can’t help but wonder sometimes whether a team’s quality is fixed, and the season is a six-month-long exercise in introducing complicated story structures. If you were to tell Portland fans that the Blazers were a .667 team that neatly lost the third of every three games, I’d imagine they could sit back and more or less contentedly await the playoffs. But the coin, even a weighted one, rarely flips so consistently, and so fans get streaks and lulls onto which they can graft their hopes and insecurities.

So depending on how you look at it, this team is either complacent or comfortable with itself, and depending on how you look at it, that's either a strength or a weakness. The Blazers have mostly sustained the relatively minor injuries they've faced, they aren't really integrating anything new, and they’re ahead of where most analysts projected them to be. They seem to be what they are, which is an uncomfortable position for fans, who would like to believe that all of the margins can be tightened and every weakness addressed.

But the Blazers believe they’re the same team now that they were in November, and it seems unlikely they’ll change their minds 64 games into the season.