Playoffs

Just as day follows night this eight-game (and counting!) win streak has resurrected the talk of making the playoffs.  Questions, comments, and accusations abound.  So let's stop and take a look at this subject once again...

One of the major reasons we're going to have difficulty making it this year is the competition.  Here are the teams above us:

San Antonio
Dallas
Phoenix
Denver
Utah
L*kers
New Orleans
Golden State

In addition Houston is half a game behind.  That's nine teams in serious competition with us right now...ten total teams for eight slots.

A few of those names don't even bear mentioning.  San Antonio, Dallas, and Phoenix are so far out of our league they might as well be supermodels to our Ricky Lake.  No comparison to them is apt and they're extremely unlikely to fall out of the playoff picture.  So let's leave them alone and concentrate on teams a little closer to us.

Of the remaining teams, the following are true:

--Five of six have a better record than we do right now.  The sixth, behind by exactly one win, was predicted by many to contend for a championship this year.

--All six finished with a better record than we did last year.

--Five of six made the playoffs last year.

--Four of six are led by proven, bankable, commonly-acknowledged superstars.  Houston and Denver have two of them each.  The remaining two teams--Utah and New Orleans--have few questions about their talent level.

--I hate the way most people use stats, especially when they cite them in isolation.  But one of the most reliable stats year-in and year-out, even standing all on its own, is point differential.  Every year there's a team or two that overachieves in overall record for the first part of the season but still has a negative point differential.  Those teams almost always come back to earth before the season is through.  If they somehow sneak into the playoffs anyway they get slaughtered.  Of all ten teams listed we are by far the lowest and the only one with a negative point differential.

--We are the youngest and least proven of those teams.  We are also the most mercurial so far.  Our season has gone like this:  3-game losing streak, 4-game winning streak, lose 9 of 10, win 8 in a row (and counting).  What reflects the real Blazers?  All of it does.  This is who we are right now, capable of great streaks and abysmal ones.  That's typical of a young, talented team.  It's not typical of a team that's going to make the playoffs against tough competition.  We just won 8 straight and that's a great accomplishment.  Nothing can or should take away from that.  But the bigger picture also shows us that we needed to win 8 straight just to get one game above .500.  That's not true of most of our competition.

--I don't even like to talk about such things, but people sometimes speculate about injuries to other teams opening the door.  But what about our team?  Oden is out.  Roy's heel seems to be a periodic concern.  Aldridge has plantar fasciitis which is definitely a chronic problem.  What other team has that kind of cloud over their three top players?  And by the way, what's with hoping that other teams' injuries will allow us to back into the playoffs anyway?  What does that really mean?  Certainly not that we were legitimately the 8th best team, deserving of the spot.  That doesn't show much about our progress at all.  It would mean we were the 10th best team but teams 8 and 9 got bad breaks the last month of the season.  Would we take it? Sure.  But I'm not sure it's something to crow about or wish for.

--Following up on that point, having to wish that other teams fall back instead of you just being able to man up and take it no matter what anybody else does is a fairly sure sign you're not ready.

Now of course people are going to come up with tons of reasons why all of this doesn't matter...most of them intangible.  I guarantee you there are Cleveland Brown fans this instant coming up with dozens of plausible-sounding reasons why their team is eventually going to face and then beat the Patriots.  99.99% of the world outside of Cleveland will tell you that's not going to happen because 99.99% of the time it won't happen.  Similarly when you have a worse won-loss record, a far shakier track record, less experience, fewer bankable superstars, and statistical red flags compared to your competition it matters.  Odds are quite long against you or the team coming up with something that matters more or is enough to make the difference.

Does this mean we can't make the playoffs? Of course not! Anything can happen. But it does mean that if you had to pick one team that wouldn't make it this year that team would probably be the Blazers. And for decent reason too. We can root for them to make it, but I don't think it's anywhere close to obvious or expected at this point.

Two things about this whole discussion make me raise my eyebrows in amusement/consternation.

First, there are places and ways to have high expectations and places and ways to have lower expectations and I think many folks have them exactly reversed.  Blazer fans seem to exalt the eighth seed as if it were the Golden Goose and all we have to do is get there any way we can and everything will be great from then on.  Just returning to the playoffs like that shouldn't be on such a pedestal.  Granted our two-decade streak of never missing the post-season was amazing and wonderful, but that doesn't mean that just getting back there once means we're back and everything is OK.  That is far too high of an opinion about the low seed and far too low of an opinion about our potential.  The backbone of this club's history isn't defined by the consecutive appearance streak.  It's defined by 1977, the first part of 1978, 1990, 1991, 1992, and to a lesser extent the runs in 1999 and 2000.  The current incarnation of the Blazers has a very good chance to meet and exceed all of those franchise-defining benchmarks.  The catch is, that's not going to happen this year.  In the long run the final outcome this year probably won't matter a hill of beans except that we showed growth and laid the foundation for what came later.  We should play as hard as we can this year.  We should win every game we can this year.  We should learn how to execute, close games, play together, and all of those developmental things.  How many games we actually win is not necessarily indicative of whether we succeeded.  Whether we happen to win the last 2-3 games that would put us over the top of the other current competitors for the 8th spot probably doesn't matter a bit.

Our expectation of what it means to make the playoffs is too high and needs to come down.  Our expectation of how quickly we can make the playoffs is probably too high also and needs to come down.  Our confidence and vision of what this team will be long-term is too low and needs to come up, which in turn will allow us to relax a little more and enjoy the short term even if our hopes and dreams aren't fulfilled immediately.  This should be less about glorifying the 8th seed, less about seeing this winning streak and our first winning month as a (probably false) jump start to getting that short-term fix fulfilled, and more about enjoying it for what it is...a fantastic (and certainly true) beginning step on the journey to becoming great. That's my take anyway.

Blazer fans remind me a little of a guy who used to get involved in relationships that were decent (but not perfect) but has not dated anyone in a while.  Now by some stroke of luck or fate he finds himself going out with someone who has the potential to be near-perfect, maybe even The One.  But he keeps treating and thinking about the relationship like it was still those decent-but-imperfect ones back then and acting accordingly.  What's more he's upset that this new girl might not go to bed with him right this instant and in his impatience to get going is unwilling to wait for the relationship to flower.  Maybe we need a friend to take us aside and say, "Hey dude...what's the matter with you?  She's gorgeous.  She's got a fantastic personality.  Everybody thinks she'll turn out to be just about the most wonderful girl around.  Other guys are envying you already.  You're going to want to spend the rest of your life with her.  What are you stressing about?  Relax and let it happen."

Which leads us to the second thing that bothers me, which is people who accuse folks who take the longer-term view of not being as real or passionate or devoted of fans as they are.  That kind of horse-pucky accusation was rampant in the Jailblazer days and I think we've had enough of it for several generations of fans.  There's a reason I can stick "139 games until the Blazers return to the playoffs" in the header of this site instead of having to put 57.  First of all it's because I believe that's the most likely probability by far.  If the team jumps the gun and shaves 82 games off of that don't bother shoving it in my face either, because I promise you I'll be just as excited and happy as you are, if not more.  (By the way that also wouldn't mean that the general assessment was incorrect.  If a guy tells you there's a 95% chance of a certain hand winning after the river card is shown and it turns out the other hand wins that doesn't mean the analysis was faulty.  It just means that nothing is iron-clad and you got the 5%.)  Second--and most people underestimate this--I believe that we are absolutely going to crack that top eight next year.  This is more of a guarantee than most detached observers will give you with Oden's injuries and the youth of our team.  Third, and most importantly for our purposes, I can make that statement with confidence because I believe in the future of this team wholeheartedly.  I am not in the least threatened or worried by the fact we might not make the playoffs this year because I know that in a little while making the playoffs is going to be an absolute given and we're going to be worried about whether we make the Finals or win a championship.  Because I know this I am not going to go off the deep end if we only win 38 this year or if we lose 8 in a row after winning 8 in a row.  I am not going to rend my clothes and pull out my hair.  I am not going to call for the coach's head, propose 87 weird trades, accuse the team of underachieving, and post angry comments at my fellow fans.  The reason I don't have to ride the roller-coaster with every win and loss this year is not that I care less, it's that I believe more.  This team doesn't have to make the post-season this year to make me love it, see the good in it, and enjoy watching it.  

If we're going to judge betweens fans as to who is the more passionate and faithful (which I find a deplorable, ridiculous, and stupid exercise, but it seems to be popular when subjects like this come up) who do you think evidences those qualities most?  Is it the guy who has to make the playoffs right now in order to feel vindicated and bullies/accuses anyone who says different or is it the guy who says, "I doubt we're going to make it this year, but I believe we ARE going to make it soon enough and I have faith in the direction and talent of this team regardless"?  As often happens, the folks who are shouting (or at least implying) that they are the most faithful probably aren't.

That's my two cents anyway.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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