Consolation Prize?

Since we're playing the Spurs it seemed apropos to float a subject that's popped up again in Blazer circles since we've resumed our losing ways. (Including in a very nice diary by our own Saregister in the right sidebar.)  It's a discussion we've been having since the beginning of the season and one we'll continue to have up until draft day, I'm sure.  The question:  do we get farther ahead by winning 35 this year or by continuing to struggle and getting a shot at the #1 pick?

My usual caveat:  I am a FAN and I will root for the Blazers to win EVERY game.  

But that said I'm also a realist, and a realist who wants very much to see his team win an NBA championship again before he dies.  I'd never advocate tanking games, nor would anyone in the organization, so let's not even bring that up.  I'm not really greedy for the worst record in the league, since we all know that's no guarantee of that top pick.  But I can't help but thinking that some kind of reasonable chance at the best-of-all-picks may not only be wonderful, but necessary, if we're going to have long-term success.  The reality of the NBA, especially the small-market NBA, seems to point to the lottery as the only way to championship success...specifically the first pick in a premium lottery, which by most accounts this year's is.  

Let me hit you with this:

14 of the NBA's 30 teams reside in metropolitan areas of over 4 million in population (for these purposes designated "large market teams").  That's about 47%.  Since 1980, those 14 teams have accounted for 41 of the 52 NBA Finals appearances.  That's about 79%.  The 16 smaller-market teams have only accounted for 11 total Finals appearances in that span.

If you define success as actually winning a championship instead of just making it to the Finals the statistics are worse.  A smaller-market team has won the title only 3 times in the last 26 years.  That means large market teams account for 88% of the rings distributed in the modern era.  And all three of those championships went to the ONLY small market team to make a dent in the system...you guessed it...the San Antonio Spurs.

Now...how did the Spurs find their success?  Surely they have a great coach, a wonderful organization, and a fine system, but when you cut away all of that you have to admit that the Spurs got those rings because they had the #1 pick in the draft not once, but twice.  What's more those picks just happened to be in years when two of the five most dominant big men to play the game in this era came out.  Take away David Robinson and Tim Duncan and San Antonio can have the same coach, same executives, and the same philosophy and they're just a really friendly version of the Warriors.  Realistically we only think their system is so good because they got the kind of talent to make it work.  Duncan and the Admiral made San Antonio more than San Antonio made Duncan and the Admiral.

So here we sit, another small-market team in a big-market era.  We have some nice pieces but we lack that dominant game-changer.  And here's a draft when at least one, if not two, are supposedly going to be available.  What do you wish for?  I'd never root for the team to lose, but I don't think it's arguable that such a pick would be a mighty nice consolation prize.  In fact it may be the only way out of the quagmire we find ourselves in.

It's just an odd feeling rooting in my heart every game for a "W" while thinking in my head it might be better to not get any extra.  It's possible that's because something's screwy in me as a fan.  It's also possible that's necessary because the system is broken and this is what small-market team fans are reduced to.  You wonder if the stats are so unbalanced because people in big places are so much smarter.  Perhaps it's because the Almighty listens to four million metropolitan prayers more than he listens to two million small city offerings. Or maybe, just maybe, something's wrong with the draft system, free-agency, the star-protection program, or whatever else bends this league into its current shape.  Either way I sure wish it were different, but it's not.  Sometime in early June one or two teams are going to walk away crowing and about fourteen others are going to be patted on the head and sent back to lick their wounds and wait for another chance at a once-in-a-lifetime pick, knowing that no matter what maneuvers they make their chances of getting a ring are about the same as Boise State's chances of getting voted into a national title game.

I love watching our guys, I love backing the team, but in the back of my mind it's just less fun when you suspect that no matter how hard you root and no matter what you do it's basically Oden or Bust.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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