Portland Trail Blazers searching for connectivity as regular season approaches: ‘We’re still getting to know each other’

The Portland Trail Blazers have trust issues.

They don’t trust teammates to pick up their man on defense when they rotate to an open shooter. They don’t trust one another to pass the ball when they cut or to cut when they are looking to pass.

They hesitate and wonder. Instincts become stilted. Sloppy play follows.

The result, according to Chauncey Billups, Damian Lillard and Josh Hart, is a team disconnected and playing out of sorts. The evidence could be found in four lopsided preseason losses, which featured too many turnovers and personal fouls and a bevy of poor shooting. It was paralysis by analysis, which resulted in general dysfunction.

“We’ve been kind of a mental case as a team instead of just playing the game as we know it to be,” Lillard said.

So, during Thursday’s practice, Billups told his team to push the details out of its mind and, “Just hoop.”

No drills. No complicated schemes. Limited play calls.

Let the instincts flow.

“It felt good,” Lillard said.

And the results were positive, something this team desperately needed.

The Blazers are very much an unfinished product. If not, general manager Joe Cronin should start scouting lottery picks.

But the Blazers insist that their preseason performance was not indicative of what the team could become. They simply need more time to smooth out the rough spots. Time, however, is running out. The regular season begins Wednesday at Sacramento. The first seven weeks of the season will see the Blazers play 14 of 23 games on the road and most will come against teams expected to contend for the playoffs.

Portland Trail Blazers guards Damian Lillard (#0) and Anfernee Simons listen to instructions from head coach Chauncey Billups

Portland Trail Blazers guards Damian Lillard (#0) and Anfernee Simons listen to instructions from head coach Chauncey Billups during an NBA preseason game against the Utah Jazz at Moda Center in Portland, Oregon on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022.Sean Meagher/The Oregonian

Should the Blazers not figure things out in a hurry, they could find themselves buried in the standings of the deep Western Conference before December. But the feeling at the practice facility Thursday was that the Blazers will be just fine once they become, as Billups puts it, “Connected.”

“We’ve got a whole bunch of new people and different schemes,” Hart said.

Given the roster changes, building cohesion is a legitimate concern.

The Blazers acquired Jerami Grant in an offseason trade. Following trade deadline deals last season, Hart played just 13 games with the team last season and Justise Winslow played 11. Both played only a handful of games with Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic, and they saw no time with Lillard, who missed the last four months of the season following core muscle surgery.

Second-year guard Keon Johnson, who has seemingly worked his way into the rotation, played most of his minutes last season after key players were gone from the lineup. Simons is now playing shooting guard, after running the team for two months last season as the point guard, and he is starting for the first time alongside Lillard.

Nassir Little is returning from shoulder and core muscle surgeries. His season ended in late January, so he never played with Hart, Winslow or Johnson. Second-year forward/center Trendon Watford is adjusting as well.

That’s a lot unfamiliarity for one team to work through in one offseason. When Billups arrived last year, he inherited five returning starters. This season, he has just two in Lillard and Nurkic.

“We’re still getting to know each other,” Hart said.

The time it takes for that to happen can vary, according to Lillard. During his second season, Lillard said, he believed early on that the Blazers were going to make noise and they ended up winning a playoff series. During the 2017-18 season, however, the team didn’t round into form until just prior to the All-Star break, when it won 15 out of 16, including 13 in a row.

Those teams, Lillard said, clicked. Gone were indecisions and uncertainty. They just balled.

“And that’s the point that I want to see this team get to,” Lillard said.

The Blazers held training camp in Santa Barbara, California, to begin building chemistry both on and off the court. Billups said the week proved valuable. But the next step is putting things together in games, and that won’t happen until the team becomes fully, “connected.”

Billups defines that as playing as one unit, thinking and moving together. It’s especially imperative on defense, where trust is a must.

“You have to know, not think, you have to know that everyone on the floor is going to compete, first,” Billups said. “Secondly, you’ve got to communicate.”

NBA Preseason Oct 11: Portland Trail Blazers vs Golden State Warriors

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – OCTOBER 11: Players in action during NBA preseason game between Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers at the Chase Center on October 11, 2022 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Trust and communication were shaky during the preseason. Part of the problem, Billups said, is that he has a relatively quiet group of players.

“We have some really good days and then we have some days where it’s like, dang, I gotta stop and say, ‘What are we doing?’” Billups said. ‘”I can’t year ya’ll.’”

Until that changes, Billups said, the Blazers are going to struggle on defense, which of course will affect wins and losses.

“We’re obviously not there right now,” Billups said. “We’ve got some talent. We have some grit. We’ve got some defensive-minded guys but I want us to get to a point where we’re connected. Not until we get there, I can’t tell you what’s gonna be, how far we’re gonna go. I can’t tell you until we actually get connected and start playing that way.”

Offensively, players are still learning where teammates want the ball, discovering their best spots on the court, if whether they are going to cut in or out depending on the defense. It has sparked hesitation, which leads to poor passes and turnovers.

“Guys can overthink things,” Billups said.

The natural feel players on good teams have for one another has yet to materialize for the Blazers.

“That comes with time,” Hart said.

Lillard is usually optimistic about his team’s chances no matter the situation. However, this season, he is taking a wait-and-see approach. Lillard won’t know what the Blazers are capable of, he said, until the team clicks.

“If we do, who knows what can happen?” Lillard said.

Hart said the Blazers have a group of competitive players who want to be successful and asked that Rip City remain patient and give the team time to work things out.

“Right now we’re zero and zero,” Hart said. “We’re going to get there.”

— Aaron Fentress | afentress@Oregonian.com | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook).

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