Somewhere in the early going of Portland’s inspiring, and at moments even inspired, win over the Memphis Grizzlies Thursday night the worst team in the Western Conference, the New Orleans Hornets, defeated the possible contender Los Angeles Clippers.
A spirited Twitter explosion followed. Many topics were discussed. For instance, is Vinny Del Negro about to join Nate McMillan as a former NBA head coach, is Nate McMillan a good fit for Vinny Del Negro’s job, would it be weird to be replaced as head coach by a former college teammate (Vinny Del Negro and Nate McMillan again), is there anybody else besides Nate McMillan that the Clippers should be looking at when they finally decide to tell Vinny to get up and get gone?
Also, one topic that got a fair amount of play was, shouldn’t New Orleans be trying to lose games, since losing games is the best way to ensure the top pick in the Draft (or at least the second pick, the Bobcats have all but locked up the worst record in the league, although there’s no guarantee that that means they’ll get that number one ping-pong ball)?
The simple answer to that question is yes, New Orleans should be trying to lose games. They have nothing to play for this season, they’re looking at a deep draft, and they need to find a franchise player in that draft. The question is, though, how does a team go about trying to lose games, and is it even possible to lose games on purpose.
There are two parts to why I think intentionally losing games is a difficult task to pull off, and why, in reality, it’s not something any team should be doing. First, telling professional basketball players to go out and try their hardest not to win sounds a bit like point shaving, has probably never ever happened (expect maybe during a point shaving scheme), and if it did happen it probably wouldn’t work. Professional basketball players want to win. When they’re on the court they will do whatever they can to get a victory. It is against their nature to try to lose, even if somebody asks them very nicely.
Which brings me to my second point. The only way to lose on purpose would be to start and play only bench players. It doesn’t have to be the kind of thing where you bench all your good players, just say they’re hurt or something. The Blazers held Jamal Crawford out of that embarrassing loss at Madison Square Garden because they thought he was going to be traded, then when he didn’t get shipped blithely said he sat out because of tendonitis (they did acknowledge that it was also related to trade scenarios but still) that had not been reported before and hasn’t been brought up at all since. Just scratch two or three of your best guys every night, and then you’ll lose for sure.
So why does that not work? Because eventually people would stop showing up. Say what you will about how important winning games and championships and stuff like that is, in the NBA the number one thing on the list of things that matter is getting people in the door. SELLING THE PRODUCT. People come to see star players. They don’t play; people don’t come. Simple as that.
Why am I saying all this stuff? Because right now I’m sure there are some Blazer fans that are wondering how to feel about Portland’s solid win over one of the better Playoff teams in the Western Conference. Is it OK to be excited because the Blazers got a win, showed a little bit of fight, and looked, for the first time in the last three games, like a team that is willing to do what it takes to win a basketball game (I almost said basketball games, but lets not get ahead of ourselves here)? Or should we be upset because a victory, any victory, drops Portland further from that magic place where the team has two top-10 picks in a loaded draft?
Here’s my contention: be happy with the win. Here’s why: Portland is probably not going to get enough wins down the stretch to fight for a Playoff spot, but they’re just not going to be able to lose enough to get into a top-10 draft position with their own pick. It would take a colossal tank job to end up in a worse spot than two of the three teams trailing the Blazers in the Western Conference, not to mention there are six teams in the East with fewer than 20 wins. In fact, Portland has more wins than all the non-Playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.
We want this team to end up with two high picks, but in reality they’ll probably end up with one very good pick (from New Jersey somewhere below three but higher than 10) and one still pretty good pick (lower than ten but still in that neighborhood). So if the ultimate result to the 2011-12 season is the same whether the rest of the games are wins or losses, why not hope for wins?
OK, now that that’s out of the way, here’s what I have to say about Thursday. Portland played well. Not amazingly well, but decently well. Memphis is a bit of a loose team, and they made some costly mistakes at the end of this one. They also missed some free throws. The Blazers hit nine more free throws than the Grizz. They won by four. The math on that one isn’t hard.
The best thing I saw Thursday night was the play of Nicolas Batum. That best thing carried over into the locker room as well, where he talked about trying harder to become the go-to guy. That’s what this team needs from Nic. He will be a Blazer next year (I say that with 90% confidence but anything is possible). He has to know that when this team puts it back together in the off season, he is going to be a HUGE part of it. He still needs to improve the parts of his game that don’t include spot-up shooting, but it’s getting there.
He still doesn’t attack the basket with a defender on his hip all that well, but I think a lot of that comes with confidence. He grew up (in the NBA sense) watching Brandon Roy, a finesse finisher if there ever was one, but he should really try to emulate Kevin Durant. KD goes over people. Nicolas doesn’t have the total explosion that Durant has, but he has enough. Plus, when you get a reputation for being a hard finisher at the hole, you start getting calls.
So Portland gets a nice win, the Rose Garden gets to celebrate a bit, and head coach Kaleb Canales gets to breath a little easier because he’s got both a first road win and now a first home win. What looms is a match-up with the Lakers, a team that was supposed to fall way off this year, that hasn’t played well on the road, and has lost some big games at home but is somehow first in the Pacific Division and sitting all by themselves in the 3rd spot in the Western Conference.
The last time Portland played in the Staples Center they put up seven freaking points in the first quarter. That was the first real indication that this Blazer team had more wrong with it than a simple pep talk was going to cure. Portland has a chance at redemption, Friday night (albeit a slim one at best). The good thing is, all we as fans expect from this team anymore is effort. That, and a loss gives the Blazers .01% more of a chance at landing (blue chipper’s name) from (top 10 NCAA program). So really, it’s a win-win.
Couple of quick things:
- It sounds weird to say this, but I thought Jonny Flynn had a nice game. I know he only played like four minutes (3:49 to be exact), but I liked his pace and he moved the ball pretty nicely. I’m sure he would have turned it over a bunch if he’d stayed in any longer, but I was pleasantly surprised during the moments that he was on the court.
- J.J. Hickson didn’t play at all. Check out his interview with Blazersedge if you haven’t already.
- Raymond Felton finished with nine assists and zero turnovers.
- Tony Allen grabbed me while running through the tunnel out to the court at the end of halftime. It wasn’t as scary as you might think.
- The appearance of Gilbert Arenas made me think of his back court partner at Arizona, Jason Gardner. Gardner was an outstanding college player but never cracked the NBA, one of many such guys to come out of that school who face similar fates. A friend of mine and I got into a little Twitter riff down on the topic of Arizona Wildcats who killed in college but did nothing in the NBA. He ended it with this gem. In case you don’t remember, Loren Woods set a Pac-10 record when he blocked 14 shots in a game against the Oregon Ducks in 2000. He was drafted in 2001 by the Minnesota Timberwolves, played for the Heat and Raptors before dropping to the D-League Austin Toros in 2007, and currently plays for Zob Ahan Isfahan BC in Iran. Gardner is an assistant coach with Loyola University Chicago. According to Wikipedia, Miles Simon sells real estate part time in Las Vegas.
- Brandon Roy DID NOT show up.
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