That’s right … they are “our” Blazers.
I’ve lived in Oregon for more than 35 years. In that time I admittedly don’t remember the championship season, grew amidst the Drexler/Porter/Kersey/Buck Williams near championship seasons, and suffered through the championship that wasn’t in that heartbreaking Game 7 against the Los Angeles Lakers in 2000. I’ve seen great draft picks the likes of Clyde, Terry, and LaMarcus. Bad draft picks the likes of Walter Berry, Qyntel Woods, and Sebastian Telfair (who’d later be the reason for passing on Chris Paul). And painful draft picks the likes of Sam Bowie, Greg Oden, and sadly Brandon Roy, who while responsible for paving the way to resurgent respectability, teased us with “what could’ve been” in the wake of knee injuries that wouldn’t let him do it. I’ve seen Rip City at its finest, fondly and equally sheepishly remember “Bust-A-Bucket,” and proudly collected – at the time – promotional memorabilia from games, retail establishments, and low-end fast food restaurants with trademark faces and phrases celebrating this city’s star attraction. So while many to cling to hopes of a late season run to the playoffs, I’m here to tell you: it ain’t happening.
That’s right, I said it. I know there has, is, and always will be a collection of fanatics spanning the Rose City who’ll preach “for better or worse” in the face of adversarial times, but contrary to the pessimistic labels of outsiders, I view things from the realistic perspective optimists sent to bed without supper many moons ago.
The Blazers starting 5, healthy of course, is a playoff team. Damian Lillard is a bona fide stud, LaMarcus Aldridge has solidified himself as an All-Star power forward, and Nic (sorry, pride keeps me from referring to him as Nic-o-la) Batum showed us signs over much of the season that he’s capable of the “next step” in his maturation as a player, and that he may prove worthy of the arguably inflated contract he signed last summer. In addition, J.J. Hickson has been nails and Wesley Mathews has earned respect as a tireless worker and knockdown 3-point shooter every team needs. But there’s no depth in the paint, they have less than no scoring off the bench, and the veteran leadership which should be coming from the team’s best player, Mr. Aldridge, is missing due to a personality merely not cut-out for such. The aforementioned aren’t knocks on the players already here, but rather acknowledgements of what these guys need to take the next step in a process I feel is actually ahead of schedule.
When the Brandon Roy saga came to an end prior to last season, many suggested it marked the beginning of what would be a long rebuild back to competitiveness for the franchise. But with the arrival of Lillard (Who’s exceeded expectations), the advancement of Aldridge, and Batum’s aforementioned maturation, Portland has a core capable of building a contender around. But they need a bench, in my opinion a legitimate 2-guard which would allow Mathews to come off the bench and fulfill his natural role as a sixth-man, and a veteran leader unafraid to vocalize directives at the necessary times, both on and off the court. For all LaMarcus brings to the court, he’ll never be capable of providing the type of leadership a true contender needs. That’s not a shot at an undoubtedly valuable commodity, just a reality proven over his 7-year tenure in a Blazer uniform.
Nearly 2 years ago, I had the privilege of spending nearly 6 hours in a golf cart caddying for Charles Barkley. In-between wiseass remarks, stories not appropriate for prepubescent’s, and – believe it or not – bad golf shots, we had an insightful conversation about the state of the Blazer franchise. In addition to his story of a strong desire to play for Portland prior to his trade to Phoenix, in which he said he flew here during the summer on his own dime in an attempt to persuade the organization to trade for him, he explained to me that every legitimate title contender has to have a “1” in-order to legitimately contend. In his words a “1” is someone capable of leading both on and off the court, is fearless in the wake of pressure situations, and isn’t afraid to confront a teammate in an attempt to rattle their cage. A “1” is single-minded, and a championship is that single-minded goal. If a game needs to be won, they can do it on their own … no exceptions. He then told me that Portland – while a nice and talented team – didn’t have a “1” and without one would never win a title. He said Roy and Aldridge were “2’s,” and could never be the best player on a championship team. “They’re both really good players, but they have names for guys like them: All-Stars.” He reiterated that there was nothing wrong with that and that the league had very few “1’s,” but they weren’t and until Portland had one, they’d be on the outside looking in.
I loved Roy, but he was limited. He was a talented guy who thrived in a team scenario, but as soon as Nate McMillan miscast him as Kobe Bryant and tried to isolate him offensively, he became “more” statistically while simultaneously less affective in a team atmosphere. As talented as he was, he could be stopped, and without a system capable of allowing others to help, the Blazers were limited against the league’s best.
Aldridge? A lesser version of Roy.
I actually think LaMarcus brings a similar level of talent to the table and is capable of dominating a game to an extent, but like Roy he needs help, and that’s where Damian Lillard comes into play.
I see Lillard as one of the potential “1’s” that Charles Barkley spoke about on the golf course. As a rookie, he’s displayed an uncanny level of court intelligence, has the talent to accentuate it, and appears to have that “eye of the tiger” Sir Charles said every “1” needs. Portland stumbled into a jackpot not even they could’ve foreseen with the rookie from Weber State, and due to such has hit fast-forward on a process thought to be years in the making. If they can begin work filling the necessary holes in a shallow pool of players, they can quickly advance to the playoffs and get started on a plan to do something when they get there.
But like I said earlier … this year ain’t it.
Portland won’t make the playoffs this year, that has become apparent, but with a handful of strategic moves, continual growth on the court, and a little more of the luck which seemed to have turned in their favor with the acquisition of Damian Lillard, they may be but a year away. I like Aldridge, I like Batum, and I love what we could have in a point guard that could make it all work. That’s right, I said “we,” these are our Blazers and “we’re” on the right track.
There, that wasn’t too pessimistic.