I said this to somebody the other day: The best place for a sportswriter to be is covering a championship team. By sportswriter, I mean those that get paid to cover a team’s every breath, every pass, every time they say something on twitter to one of their fans about their favorite flavor of ice cream. A writer covering a championship team gets to say good things about the team they cover, which is rare. They get to be the center of the national media’s attention. They might even get on Jim Rome or PTI, or even better, get a freaking book deal.
The second best place to be for a sportswriter to find themselves is covering a team on the verge of falling apart. It’s there that the natural inclination to go negative is rewarded. It’s there that a statement can be made (the Blazers are the NBA’s biggest disappointment as a hypothetical) that’s one part maudlin hyperbole and one-part patently untrue (come on now the team being run by the NBA is 9-29) without anybody batting an eye.
The Blazers are very clearly in the latter category, and as this trip drags on and it becomes more and more obvious that whatever we thought this team was capable of achieving was wrong, there’s going to be plenty of talk about how disappointing this team is. There’s going to be plenty of people to blame. Coach Nate McMillan is going to be a punching bag. Same for Jamal Crawford. Same for Raymond Felton. Same for everybody on the roster.
Let me make a plea for sanity, and say that we try hard not to do that. When this season started, I too believed that this Portland team had something special going for it–following their win at Oklahoma City I had a breathless 30-minute conversation with my dad about how this team could make it to the Conference Finals and when it got there anything was possible–and I’m also disappointed that I was wrong. But banging my head against the wall isn’t going to help. Neither is pretending that this team was somehow destine to return the Blazers to their status as one of the West’s elite.
In many ways, this team is an experiment. An experiment that began three seasons ago when Portland started losing players to injury at such an unbelievable clip that the only explanation was some kind of curse, or–in an effort to sound like an informed person and not a lady with a crystal ball reading fortunes for a dollar apiece–the “injury bug.” Blazer brass decided way back then that instead of starting over from scratch, it made sense to find a guy to fill a gap here (Marcus Camby), or a guy to fill a gap there (Andre Miller), and another guy to take this position over here (Wesley Matthews, Gerald Wallace, Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Kurt Thomas).
At the time it did make sense to replace players piecemeal. Those years ago we thought we’d get Brandon Roy back, and someday we might get Greg Oden, and that with those two and a couple of band-aid players we’d be right back in the thick of it. Unfortunately what we’re left with when that didn’t happen is a team made up of spare parts, with basically zero fluidity, that has now seemingly lost any faith they might have once had that they can win games. So the experiment has failed. This team needs to start over from the ground up. But it isn’t as if they were three-time champs. In three straight Playoff runs, they’ve yet to crack the second round. Let’s hold of on anointing a team “most disappointing” until they do something horrific, such as fail to make the second round following back-to-back trips to the Conference Finals.
And here’s the good news, a core of LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Nicolas Batum isn’t half bad. It isn’t Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and company. But it’s a start. Portland won’t even have to find a way to cobble together three lottery picks and an All-Star point guard in one draft then slog through a season or two of total rebuilding.
I don’t need to talk too much about Wednesday’s game. If you watched it, I imagine you saw the same thing I did. Portland played well at times, but missed way too many three-pointers. Minnesota played like a team about to break into the Playoff race for the first time in a long time, meaning they mostly played well, got a little scared when they played too well, but rode their big dog to the finish. They also made threes, 10 more than the Blazers to be exact.
Minnesota flat-out outplayed Portland when it mattered, and it did matter. Every time the Blazers got close, the Wolves hit a big three. Every time Portland got a turnover, Minnesota got one back. That’s the difference between a team that expects to win and plays with confidence (the Wolves), and a team that plays much of the game with their tails between their legs (the Blazers). I don’t know why this team doesn’t think they can win games anymore, but now that we’ve reached this point it makes sense to move on to something completely different.
Portland has six games left on this swing. I imagine they’ll get at least one victory. If they get more than one, two or three even, and they build a little bit of a hot streak, we’ll be in the favorable position of being able to point at this game (this stretch of games really) and say that this was the point in the season when things got as bad as they’d get. That falling to 11th place in the conference was what Portland needed to realize just how good they could be, and it was that realization that led to a furious comeback. Anything’s possible.
I don’t have anything else to add, beyond noting that LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love is a match-up I’d pay to watch and that when the old guard at power forward finally lope off into the sunset (KG, Tim Duncan, and Dirk) there will be guys waiting to take their place, keeping that position at probably number two in overall importance. Also Luke Ridnour had a great game. And if I were asked to handicap it I would set the odds that he gets traded for Jamal Crawford or anybody else at close to zero.
Portland has a day off Thursday, then it’s East Coastin’ for real in Bean Town. Again, a winnable game.
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