There are two kinds of adventurers: those who go truly hoping to find adventure and those who go secretly hoping they won’t. — William Least Heat-Moon Blue Highways: A Journey Into America
The NBA is full of narratives and clichés, storylines and truisms, history and speculation. A common pro basketball adage is that teams can be made or broken on the road.
Half of the NBA season is played away from home, meaning that 50% of a player’s career is had on another team’s floor. Mathematically speaking, road games are of equal value to home games and are exactly as common an occurrence. Despite that, many teams struggle mightily on the road.
But does that mean that failure on a long road trip can be the harbinger of doom for a team? Yes and no. A bad road run is never a good thing, but from November 28th to December 3rd in 2010 the Blazers went east and dropped games to the Nets in New Jersey, the 76ers in Philadelphia, the Celtics in Boston, and the Wizards in Washington. That same season, Portland dropped three straight in the southwest to San Antonio, Dallas, and Memphis in that order. The Blazers finished the 2010-11 season with 48 wins, a good enough win total for the sixth seed in the Western Conference. Two bad road trips do not a season make.
As for the road being a proving ground and a time for bonding among a team, on this I’m a little less decided. NBA players are seasoned travelers, and have been seasoned travelers by the time they reach the game’s largest stage. It stands to reason, though, that spending a week or more checking in and out of hotels, eating meals together in unfamiliar towns, and coming together to make chartered flights at the end of every day would make a team grow closer as a whole. Whether or not that has an impact on the actual games is for somebody other than me to decide.
It makes for a good story, guys getting to know each other as they travel as a group. The road montage is really the best part of A League of Their Own. In these scenes we learned the intricacies of the individual ladies who made up the Rockford Peaches as they learned those characteristics about each other, we watched Geena Davis and Tom Hanks bond and then fall in love through their mutual love of baseball in it’s purest form, and we saw the roadhouses, highway-side motels, and bucolic scenery of America in the late 1940s through the eyes of outsiders.
The real-life story of the road probably doesn’t match Disney’s, but at the very least, Portland’s upcoming seven game road trip should give the Blazers an early chance to see just exactly what kind of stuff they’re made of. It’s unlikely that by the time the team returns to Rose Garden on December 8th they’ll all have matching BFF tattoos, but there’s a good chance we as fans will have a better sense of how this season might shake out as a whole.
I never been on the road for two weeks or however long it’s going to be. I’m sure it’s going to be tough at times, but I’m looking forward to it. — Damian Lillard
So what does Portland’s first long road swing entail? Well first let’s break down the specs.
The trip officially started today with the team leaving the Rose City the morning after their rousing Friday-night victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Counting Saturday as day one, and assuming that the team will head home immediately following their game on December 5th in Indianapolis against the Pacers, the Blazers will be on the road for a total of 12 days (13 if you count Thursday the 6th of December as a full day of travel since the Blazers probably won’t reach Portland until after midnight PST).
As for the actual games, the Blazers start the whole thing off with the Nets in Brooklyn on Sunday and it’s basically none-stop from there. Following game one, Portland is in Detroit Monday to face the Pistons, then Washington for the Wizards Wednesday, Boston to meet the Celtics Thursday, Cleveland for the Cavaliers a week from today (which is Saturday), Monday the 2nd of December in Charlotte for the Bobcats, and then closing it out with the aforementioned Pacers throw-down. Seven games in 12 nights. Two back-to-backs (Sunday/Monday Brooklyn/Detroit and then Friday/Saturday Boston/Cleveland). Only four days without games, five if you count the first travel day.
The interesting twist to this trip is that of the seven opponents the Blazers will face, only three have winning records. One of those three is the Charlotte Bobcats (at the time of this writing the Bobcats are 6-5 and facing the 0-10 Washington Wizards). Their head coach doesn’t even trust his team’s hot start, that and they’re only one season removed from the single worst record percentage-wise in the history of the league, so there’s a good chance that as the trip progresses Portland will face only two teams over .500
The Wizards are winless (See above parenthetical), the Pacers are two games below .500 and seem to be in the midst of some serious regression, Cleveland is without Kyrie Irving and as of Saturday have won a total of three games, the Pistons also have three wins but are a slot behind the Cavs in the Central Division by way of 10 losses as compared to Cleveland’s nine.
To assume that the Blazers will coast through this road trip is setting yourself up for disappointment, but there are certainly some very winnable games on the horizon. Washington, Detroit, and Cleveland look like bunnies. Indiana and Charlotte aren’t elite squads at this point in the season. Even Boston and Brooklyn look beatable, albeit maybe not by Portland. A 4-3 road-trip is certainly a possibility.
The road is my demon lover, and she knows how to rock me like no other, she’s soft as a freeway in snow. — Matt the Electrician “The Road” from Home
But there’s more to the road than just playing games, finding a Ruth’s Chris in Charlotte, and Instagraming teammates caught sleeping on the plane. Jack Black and Kyle Gass, better known as the folk-metal minimalist-arena-rock duo Tenacious D, have some sage words about the road (lyrics NSFW).
Portland will learn from this road trip. They might even give themselves a boost that could really put a stamp on the first quarter of the season should they put together a little winning streak or steal a game in Brooklyn or Boston. But the question that begs asking prior to the whole thing getting underway is, will this young team survive their first trip east.
Twelve games into the season, and the only adversity this team has faced was a game missed by J.J. Hickson in Phoenix. From that injury alone, Blazer fans should be aware that this team can’t absorb the loss of one of it’s top five guys and hope to achieve anything close to their highest level of play. With so many games in such a short time frame, with night after night of off-schedule sleep in beds that aren’t their own, the likelihood of injury from fatigue increases.
Injuries to a role player won’t derail this team, but should one of Portland’s starters miss time, things could get out of control in a hurry. As nice as a three or four game winning streak or a win in Boston would be, an O-fer on the trip or combined losses in Detroit, Washington, and Cleveland would kill the momentum the Blazers have built with its run to .500 and could very well be disastrous for the season. A game or two without LaMarcus Aldridge or Damian Lillard, and those bad scenarios could be a reality.
It’s not just about injuries though. The Blazers have the benefit, when playing at home, of having a crowd that supports them basically no matter what. As long as guys are working, the Rose Garden fans provide vocal support. That support can help a guy like Will Barton or Luke Babbitt or any of the short-minute guys build and maintain confidence even if they’re playing poorly and missing shots.
On the road, there will be no such booster. There are opportunities for guys on this roster to become part of the rotation, but they need to take advantage of the in-game chances they are given. It’s not totally unreasonable to think that a couple awful outings against good opponents away from the safety and reassurance of the home crowd could do some real damage to the fragile psyche of a first-year player. Barton, Joel Freeland, and even non first-year players can’t let that happen to them. They need to learn how to be successful in any and every gym in the country so when they get back home they’ll be better able to take advantage of the local fans.
The payoff of Portland’s big trip is a month of December with only two road games after the fifth, both California one-nighters. Should the Blazers make it out to the other side of this trip with their bodies and their record still intact, they’ll be rewarded with a couple very winnable home games.
It’s been a fun stretch of play so far, both frustrating and gratifying, but the fun is over now. If Portland wants to take wants been an exciting first month and make it into a memorable season, winning on the road is important. If Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and company want to actually be perceived as threats to the top teams in the conference, if not this point of their development as a team then at some point some time later, winning on the road is absolutely imperative.
Starting Sunday night in the bosom of basketball, the Blazers have a chance to establish a winning tradition on the road.