What do you see?
Are they going places? Of course. Up? Perhaps. Down? Hopefully not.
And there in lies the mystery. Where is Portland's prized basketball team headed, and will we enjoy the journey, as well as the end result?
Fans (myself included) so often forget to apply reason when looking through the scope of reality as it is pointed at the team closest to their hearts. The Blazers are headed places, and only time will tell where they end up, good or bad. At present, they are in a bit of a slump, as well as rebuilding. From a realistic perspective, we don't really know if they are any good or not.
But enough guessing. Let's take a look up memory lane for once, from both a hopeful and a dark point of view, and see what the future holds in five years, or the dawn of the 2017 season to be exact.
Let's save the best for last and start with the worst case scenario.
The Depths of Despair in Discarded Dreams
New starting point guard Damian Lillard leads the team to a respectable 30-win mark in 2013, and gives fans the hope that the future will not be as bleak as the past. Boy are they wrong to believe. What follows is an injury plagued disaster in 2014, that sees a career ending injury to LaMarcus Aldridge, and a torn ligament in Meyers Leonard's right knee, as well as a broken wrist and ankle for Lillard. Nic Batum and the remaining players limp to 25 wins, and are awarded the first overall pick by David Stern...er... pure chance via lottery. With the first overall selection in the 2015 draft, the Trail Blazers select junior center Marshall Plumlee of Duke University, who injures his foot in preseason, and is lost for his rookie year after he re-injures the foot while celebrating a fast break from the bench and dressed in street clothes. The team fires interim head coach Kaleb Canales after two losing seasons, and hires Buck Williams as his successor. Neil Olshey is fired as well, and is replaced by the owner on an interim basis.
By 2016, the team is a wreck beyond repair. Batum demands a trade, and threatens to sit out the season if his needs are not met. The Blazers cannot find a suitable trade partner for his foreseen in-house value, and opt to call Batum's bluff. Batum plays the season out, but rarely gives a full effort, and is often plagued by seemingly petty injuries such as ankle and hip flares. Plumlee starts the year off injury free, but is plagued with foul trouble and eventually hurts his ankle and foot slipping on ice while boarding a plane, and is again lost for the season. After meeting with mentor Bill Walton in the offseason, Plumlee demands to be released, which the team reluctantly agrees to do. Plumlee undergoes the first of three experimental and high risk surgeries in the offseason, and eventually finds a starting job with the expansion Calgary Canucks, where he is a rare bright spot in the mold of New Jersey-Sam Bowie whilst on a team of cast offs and draft busts (in the mold of Charlotte circa 2011).
In 2017, the Blazers clean house (drawing horrifying comparisons to their 2011 selves), and fire their coaching staff, who's responsibilities are now also absorbed by the owners. Lillard, never having recovered from his injuries, is released, as is Leonard. Batum walks away in the offseason, signing as a free agent with the eventual champion Minnesota Timberwolves, playing along side former Blazers Brandon Roy and Greg Oden as well as home town hero Kevin Love. The city of Portland is sick with envy, and the team begins its next plan to rebuild.
Well, wasn't that gruesome. On to the good portion, and ideally, the true future.
The Hope, The Dream, The Reality:
By 2017, the Blazers will be on a terror, an absolute terror. Here are a few headlines to pause and read as you re-live their recent triumphs on the microfilm reader in the years to come:
In 2013, the Blazers suffered through a losing season, winning only 35 games, but gained much needed confidence in their athleticism as well as their new found experience. Interim coach Kaleb Canales is signed to a five year contract, as the leader of Portland's team of the future.
The 2014 season sees new light for the team as point guard Damian Lillard, who is now a fully realized front man for this team, rapidly develops in to a superstar caught between the molds of Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul. Lillard leads the Trail Blazers to their first playoff series victory since the 2000 postseason, finally and fully lifting the stigma hanging around from the “jail blazers” of yesteryear. A heartbreaking loss in the second round after a banner year that saw the team eclipse the 60 win mark and secure the first seed in the west, is followed with the 2015 season that is highlighted by Lillard's first MVP award.
With Will Barton finally becoming an all-star level guard and Nic Batum becoming the NBA's best defender as well as a nightly 15/5/5 guy, the team completes a great playoff run that includes a sweep of former I-5 rival OKC in the conference finals, and a brutal win in game seven of the NBA Finals against Brooklyn. Meyers Leonard wins defensive player of the year as well as the rebounding crown, having added the necessary weight and killer instinct to become one of the greatest centers of the current crop.
Long-time fan favorite and team captain LaMarcus Aldridge, thought to be retiring after the 2015 season, vows to hang around at least one more year and help Leonard anchor the front court. The team takes the league by storm to the tune of 66 wins and the first seed in the west via a lineup of Lillard, Barton, Batum, LA, and Leonard; as well as reserves including Elliot Williams (2014 sixth man of the year) and Luke Babbit (he'll still be around, not sure why), and the aged beyond repair and rarely used backup Carmelo Anthony, who is still longing for the ever elusive first ring.
Winning their first two playoff series against OKC and the LA Clippers, they are matched with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the right to play in the Finals. Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, and former Blazers Brandon Roy and Greg Oden drive Portland to the brink, with the Blazers finally prevailing in double-overtime of game seven. A heavier, older, and wiser Oden gives Leonard a test unlike any in which he has previously experienced, but the younger player wins the battle of the giants and narrowly outduels Oden under the rim. Lillard is awarded the series MVP, although Love wins the league MVP.
In the Finals, Portland sweeps Milwaukie, who advanced to the Finals due more to the lack of overall talent in the East than based on their team's greatness.
Portland enters the 2017 season trying to become just the third team in the modern era to complete a three-peat of championships, and will have to do so without the services of Aldridge, who has decided to retire going out on a top, a two-time champion, having fully lived up to his vow to help the team defend their first title since 1977. LaMarcus is immediately asked to join the coaching staff, and with his aide, Leonard will become a much improved mid-range shooter.
And that is where our trip ends. Portland's greatness of the past is fully realized for its fans of the present, and those who stuck around are rewarded with at least a pair of titles. Lillard and Leonard more than pan out as high-risk/high-reward draft picks, as does Barton, the potential dark horse/offensive juggernaut in this lineup who more than lives up to his label.
These two potential realities are both possible, but only one can become the truth. A mid-range version of either tale is also possible, which would not be unlike the seasons you have experienced from 2006-2011. Five years can bring many things, and in differing ways.
The NBA is a “choose your own adventure” paperback for every team that calls the league home, and only time will tell who will live like kings, and who will be forced to live off the land.
Choose your own adventure Portland, and choose wisely.
What will the next five years bring?
Let's hope that it brings the reality of a dream, and not the depths of despair, or any reality in between.