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That First Blazers Game Was a Bad Omen

It was a bad night for just about everybody but Terry Stotts.

The Portland Trail Blazers have a lot to prove this season.

Coming off a disappointing first-round loss to the shorthanded Denver Nuggets in the playoffs, superstar point guard Damian Lillard stopped just short of issuing an ultimatum this summer: Stop wasting his prime with subpar rosters and construct a true championship contender.

President of basketball operations Neil Olshey responded by firing head coach Terry Stotts and, after a tumultuous search that makes Portland City Hall look comparatively stable, hiring Chauncey Billups as a replacement.

On the court, Olshey’s only significant move was swapping out Derrick Jones Jr. for Larry Nance Jr. Beyond that upgrade in juniors, the Blazers let a couple of mainstays from the bench walk, notably Carmelo Anthony, and filled out the roster with some minimum-salary additions (e.g., Cody Zeller).

Once the dust had settled, a clear message emerged. The Blazers believe that on-the-fringe roster moves and a new coaching philosophy will vault a team that couldn’t beat the Nuggets (sans their second-best player) into championship contention.

Will this plan work? It depends.

The Blazers might sneak into the top end of the Western Conference if Billups can coax a league-average defense out of a lineup featuring three 6-foot-3 guards that finished second to last in defending last season.

That also assumes the extra effort on defense doesn’t undercut the elite Lillard-charged offense. And Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little emerge as above-average reserve players. And that Lillard avoids nagging injuries despite playing in the Olympics during a shortened offseason. And a couple of the new roster additions outperform their minimum salary status to add depth.

Oh, and they have to do all of this with a guy who has less head-coaching experience than your college friend who coaches his daughter’s JV team.

Like I said, they have a lot to prove.

So far, the Blazers have proven nothing.

Now for the bad news. Outside of reasonably strong performances from Little and Simons, the Blazers proved nothing in a 124-121 loss to the Sacramento Kings in their home opener yesterday.

Despite a new defensive scheme, predicated on more aggressively jumping out on the Kings’ guards on the perimeter, Sacramento shredded the Blazers defense to the tune of 100 points after only three quarters. Flailing rotations regularly left Harrison Barnes open around the basket—he scored a career high 36 points. The Blazers perimeter players couldn’t find their assignment, let alone challenge outside shots—the Kings shot 42% on 3-pointers. Perhaps most concerningly, Billups and his players did not seem to adapt their strategy to the Kings’ personnel. Even as the defensive rotations faltered, the Blazers continued to sell out to pressure De’Aaron Fox—a mediocre 3-point shooter, at best—25 feet from the hoop.

To top it all off, Lillard played 40 minutes chasing an unlikely fourth-quarter comeback.

Here’s what Billups had to say about playing time three weeks ago: “I don’t want to see [Lillard and McCollum] playing 38 minutes. It’s a long season. God forbid somebody, like, wears down. In prior years, maybe they needed to do that.

Meanwhile, at Providence Park, Terry Stotts sipped a beer.

When is it time to panic?

There’s no way to sugarcoat this. The Blazers lost the home opener of their “win now” season to the perpetually moribund Kings. Their marquee hire got outcoached by Luke Walton days after admitting (this is an exact quote): “Dang, we are a lot further away than I thought.” If not for signs of life from Simons and Little, the night would have been a total disaster.

The good news, of course, is that championship banners aren’t won or lost on opening night. If they were, Nik “Sauce Castillo” Stauskas would be polishing a 2019 championship ring right now.

But contemporary Blazers fans also know that slow starts are not unusual for the Lillard era. They’re as status quo in Portland as performative floor speeches about the budget deficit are in D.C.:

The problem with the status quo, of course, is that most years it means 40-something wins and a first-round loss. Rinse and repeat since about 1979. This year is supposed to be different for the Blazers. A departure from the atrocious defense and semi-frequent listless play of the st few years.

Lillard and fans were promised a team worthy of his shining excellence. For this season to achieve that outcome, the Blazers must prove that their new look has broken from the past. Judging from the first night, we’re all going to need a beer.