Media Day is many things. It’s the first formal introduction to the media for many of a team’s new faces. It’s a chance to reintroduce old faces and talk about what has been added to someone’s game, as if in the off-season an All-Star can just walk into a basketball surplus store and pull an additional skill set off a shelf.
It’s a chance for brass to get out in front of all the stories that are germinating but are still at least a month away from coming to fruition. It’s also a time to reflect on what has been, and anticipate with guarded optimism what is to come.
Blazers’ Media Day Monday afternoon wasn’t quite the three-ring circus of the Los Angeles Lakers Media Day that jumped off at about the same time down in Southern California. But it was a full-court press of promotions, goal setting, and the getting down to business talk needed to adequately prep for the upcoming season that is now less than a month away.
In lieu of a breakdown of who said what on which topic when, I’m going to give you a quick rundown on my reactions to Media Day.
Staying On Message
In many ways, Media Day is an essential first step in the ongoing struggle between a team and those people who cover that team. We all know Portland is the smallest of small markets. GM Neil Olshey casually mentioned that there is a big difference between operating as one of five or six big-time professional franchises (as he was when he was with the LA Clippers) and leading the only show in town. He’s not wrong.
Olshey walked into a job that will be scrutinized high and low from now until the day he leaves, even if he puts together an NBA Champion. What the GM says, how he comports himself in the face of that relentless scrutiny, and how his words translate into actions on and off the court will set the trend for this new era of Blazer basketball.
That being said, the Blazers are only as strong as their weakest link. From top to bottom, everybody must buy into the team philosophy. And that brings me to staying on message.
Apart from an issue of “depth,” Olshey claims depth as a major problem to address while new head coach Terry Stotts sees it as one of Portland’s strengths, to a man, the Blazers stayed on message.
That message: We’ve got our work cut out for us, but we’re not afraid to put in the man hours needed to get that work done.
As far as expectations, they were kept general but were also made plain at the same time. A specific number of wins and losses won’t be the measuring stick with which to judge success. But improvement is expected. The Playoffs aren’t really being discussed, but they’re not out of the question either should everything come together in just the right way.
Not all the speculation about the upcoming season was left abstract and vague though. Coming into Tuesday’s camp, Portland has locked up four of its starting five. The outlier is at the center position. J.J. Hickson is the nominal starter, and I’d put money on that not changing between now and Opening Night, but when asked, almost everybody admitted that the five spot is up for grabs.
I didn’t stick around long enough to hear Hickson speak on the subject, but if there is one place to look for training camp drama and a pitched position battle, the center position is the spot.
First Chances and Last Chances
Training Camp, and to a lesser extent Media Day is different things to different players. Forget for a minute the veterans or the returning starters, and focus with me on the two groups of players that have the most on the line coming into the start of the season.
Those two types players are the rookies, highly touted or otherwise, and those poor unfortunate souls who are still grinding away trying to earn a guaranteed paycheck at the NBA level. Luckily for us, Portland has a player in each camp that is collecting more than his fair share of news coverage.
Damian Lillard was brought up long before he made his official appearance. Terry Stotts mentioned other Oakland PG legends Jason Kidd and Gary Payton when talking about his rookie. Every Blazer who was asked talked about the dynamic nature of Lillard’s game and what he can do on the court and bring to Portland. Lillard’s growing relationships with LaMarcus Aldridge was brought up on more than one occasion, an indication that the Blazers’ newest potential superstar already knows which one of his teammates is going to help him reach the next level in the fewest number of steps.
When Lillard sat down, he was clearly the interview of the day. He was questioned mostly about his expectations and how he is going to deal with the expectations placed upon him by the coaching staff, the media both local and national, his teammates, his franchise, and importantly the fan base, a fan base, need I remind you, who practically ran the last guy to play his position out of town for better or for worse.
The “Franchise” rookie handled everything that came his way. He’s got what the kids would call swagger: he said he wasn’t surprised by his explosive Summer League performances but can understand if some other people were. He knows what the Blazers are about basketball-wise: I feed him the ball, he’s an All-Star he said about LA. And most of all, he looks ready to get out on the court and prove that he is in fact worth all the hype he’s bringing to camp with him.
On the exact opposite end of the professional basketball spectrum from Damian Lillard sits Adam Morrison.
Morrison needs no introduction. He comes to Portland looking to make an NBA roster for the first time since being waived by the Los Angeles Lakers following the 2009-10 season. Morrison knows who he is, where he’s been, and what lies ahead for him. The former number three overall pick admits this is realistically his last shot at playing in the NBA. He should feel good, though, that Coach Stotts gave him a “legitimate” shot at making the Opening Day roster.
It’s a very different demeanor one has when they are clearly facing their final shot at making it as a professional basketball player. When asked about why he wasn’t wearing his signature mustache, Morrison quipped that he wants to look professional. He is trying to get a job after all.
When it’s all said and done, it’s likely all we’ll see of Adam Morrison will be camp and Pre-Season. He’ll walk away from the NBA, and probably professional basketball at any level, having accomplished very little, but at least he never gave up. Beyond that, though, his being in the locker room is a great first hand reminder to guys like Lillard that nothing is guaranteed and that the NBA runs through far more players that it turns into superstars.
The Ongoing Enigma Of LaMarcus Aldridge
As part of the Media Day festivities, the Blazers’ introduced a new set of alternative red uniforms. The uniform roll out included three players greeting the media wearing the new duds. Those three players: Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, and LaMarcus Aldridge. Think of it as Franchise Player by committee.
Among those three players, the same three who are featured on the 2012-13 media guide, though, one stands above the rest. That one of course is LA.
Nicolas Batum has some fences to mend with regards to his mercurial offseason. Wesley Matthews is as motivated as ever to prove that he’s a big-time player. But LaMarcus Aldridge will, without a doubt, be the center of attention from now until the time he leaves the Blazers.
And that’s what made LA’s Media Day appearance a little bit puzzling. LaMarcus is a very closed-mouth kind of guy. With a few of the better paid members of the local media he’ll open up, but for the most part he likes to keep his opinions and answers short and sweet. When he expands on a topic, it’s almost always strictly basketball related and very rarely strays from the script.
For example: I asked LA if he has any feelings about Brandon Roy coming back into the league, a player that he very well might be linked to for the rest of his professional career. His answer: No. I asked him if he has spoken to Brandon. Again his answer: No. Certainly not basketball questions, I’ll grant him that, but I seriously doubt LaMarcus Aldridge has NO opinion at all about Brandon’s return.
There really isn’t a problem with LA being reserved with the media. His job is to play hard and get wins on the court. He isn’t in town to win a popularity contest. However, LaMarcus is now the cornerstone of the franchise. It’s his team. For the first time he enters a season without having to worry about what’s going to happen with Brandon or Greg Oden. He doesn’t have to answer the questions about trying to make the All-Star Game because he’s done it.
When the team wins it will be because of him, most nights, and when the team loses it will fall on his shoulders to explain what happened. He could do himself a big favor by dropping his guard just a fraction of an inch.
The Paradox That Is Meyers Leonard
I know this is starting to sprawl a little bit, so I’ll wrap it up with a couple quick observations about Meyers Leonard.
First, let me explain why I think he’s a bit of a paradox. Leonard is huge but he looks like a teenager. He’s 20 but he carries himself with a seasoned maturity beyond his years. He’s overcome a lot in his life and is already thinking about the financial issues of relocating his mother and brother to Portland but he is absolutely shocked that the Blazers carry his jersey in the Fan Shop. He speaks in clichés but he’s totally genuine. He appears overjoyed to be in the NBA but he is aware of the business and entertainment side of the game.
These elements of Meyers Leonard’s personality will make him fun to watch. But they could also lead to some dark times down the road. I’m sure there was a point when Greg Oden was a smiling happy 20 year-old excited to be getting paid to play basketball.
My lasting take-away from Media Day 2012 will be standing ten feet from Leonard as he purchased two of his jerseys while figuring out over the phone which size would be best for whoever he was getting the jerseys from. Nobody in the Fan Shop had the heart to tell him that the team he plays for, the team who produces the jerseys with his name on the back, would probably throw him a few freebies to give his friends back home, and not two of the ones on sale to the public, the ones he wears in actual games that civilians can’t even buy if they wanted to.
Maintaining that type of attitude will be key to Leonard keeping his sanity through his rookie year. He claims to care a whopping zero percent about the history of Blazer centers. I’ll be the first to tell him that there are a lot of other people who don’t feel quite the same way.
So that’s my Media Day wrap-up. If you stayed all the way to the end I’ll leave you with this:
It’s happening. It’s better to prepare for it now.
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