So here we are, the end of the preseason is upon us. One week to go. We've barely managed to make it through the desert of the offseason without losing our collective minds. We've had a whole summer to speculate what's going to happen next. A whole summer to recover from an all too quick exit from the first taste of playoffs this town had seen in quite some time, and recover from the realization that hopes and expectations do not make reality. The team is almost through the preseason, fans can almost taste opening night. We've found ourselves in an all too familiar place though, a place we thought we had left behind. The realization that we are no closer to winning a title now than we were last year. For as many things we thought we could assume about this team, the last few weeks have given us an equal amount of questions. How many games will we win this year? How will new additions fit into a system established before their arrival? Will we make the leap towards contender, or will there be a backslide? Who's gonna start for the team? Who's gonna be on the team?
With six days to go until opening night we've got some answers. But are we seeing the big picture? I think there are deeper things going on over at one center court than we are being led to believe. I have some theories about why we didn't pick up Ime Udoka, and instead went with a late second round draft pick, who just so happens to be injured (and no it doesn't have to do with money). Why this was the same day that Lamarcus Aldridge's contract extension was finalized. And why Coach Nate, Kevin Pritchard and Jason Quick have been so quick to show their outrage and indignance towards the fifteenth decision. Come with me, through the looking glass, and I will let you in on a theory that has been spinning around in my brain since the news came down the pipe! (Warning: Conspiracy Theories inside!)
So I was pretty surprised by the news today that the Blazers decided to not sign Ime Udoka. The popular thinking around here was that he would probably get the nod. It seemed to make sense. He's a local guy, well-liked in the community. He was a bright spot on the team during an uncomfortable transitional period that saw the balance of power in our Rose Garden locker room transfer from those who underachieved on the floor, and over-achieved at mischief, to those who actually seemed to care about the game of basketball. And not just for the play they could get at the nightclub, or how 'Playa' it made them look, or the street cred that they could get back home. No Ime was here when Zach Randolph had his '@$$' handed to him by a young up and coming Brandon Roy. A moment in time I affectionately refer to as "The Moment of Clarity." We all know what happened, Brandon stood up and declared that he was tired of hearing all the blame being passed around by our teams so-called leader, and franchise player, for our teams losing ways. This marked an end of a downward slide that created the greatest backlash towards the team, by the fans, that this city has ever witnessed. And along the way we got to know and love, our native son, Ime.
Ime was a good story from the start. Raised in Northeast Portland to an American mother and Nigerian father, Ime attended Jefferson High School and later went on to play for the Portland State Vikings. In 2002 he was drafted into the NBDL (National Basketball Development League). There he languished for several years, being called up to the NBA several times, then sent back down. In the spring of 2006 he thought he had caught a break, being picked up late season by the New York Knicks. His tenure with that team would be short lived however as they would wave him by september of the following preseason. It seemed as if his dreams of playing in the NBA may never come to pass. But after Aaron Miles failed a physical to enter Trail Blazers training camp, Ime was invited to come try-out. For him it was a dream come true. He would finally get a chance to try out for the team he grew up rooting for, and he would get to come home. Sadly before the season began Ime's father would pass away, never getting the chance to see his son reach his goal to play in the NBA. Ime was picked up by the team after showing good defensive prowess, toughness and an admirable work ethic, things that had been missing at the position of small-forward on our team ever since the signing of he who will not be named (Darius Miles). His story and play on the court quickly made Ime a fan favorite around here. He was a light in a dim room of mediocrity, and it was with much sadness that he left the team as a free agent, after a botched attempt to get more money than he may have been worth in the off-season. With regret we saw Ime join the San Antonio Spurs.
Flash forward two years:
from Blazers Edge Sept 25, 2009
Trail Blazers Sign Ime Udoka
Portland native played 2006-07 season with Trail Blazers
PORTLAND, Ore. - The Trail Blazers have signed forward Ime Udoka, General Manager Kevin Pritchard announced today. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
"We're really excited about having Ime back," said Pritchard. "He played a key role in our resurgence and we look forward to adding a player of his talent, character and experience to what is shaping up to be a very competitive camp roster."
Udoka (6-5, 220), a five-year NBA veteran, has posted career averages of 6.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.0 assist and 20.4 minutes in 227 games (78 starts) with the L.A. Lakers, New York, Portland and San Antonio.
The 32-year-old saw action in 67 games, including three starts, with San Antonio in 2008-09. He averaged 4.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 0.8 assists and 15.4 minutes.
As a Trail Blazer in 2006-07, Udoka experienced his best season as a professional, notching career highs of 8.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 28.6 minutes in 75 games (all starts). His .461 field goal percentage and .406 three-point percentage also marked career bests.
A Portland native and Jefferson High School graduate, Udoka played his senior season and graduated from Portland State University in 2000.
Trail Blazers training camp tips off on Tuesday, September 29.
It seemed that there might be another homecoming for Ime. All he had to do was beat out waived former center for the Utah Jazz, Jarron Collins, and late second round draft pick, the injured point guard, Patty Mills. Most people assumed that Ime was a lock. But as we all found out today, October 21st, 2009, this was not the case.
So now we find ourselves asking a lot of questions. Why Patty Mills? Why wouldn't we want someone who can play now, instead of someone who most likely won't play in the NBA this year and maybe not ever? Why didn't the team make the obvious, popular choice and bring back the hometown kid. The answer we got from the coach, the general manager, and the beat reporter is that this decision came down from the top. As in it wasn't the coaches choice. In fact not only was this not Nate McMillan's choice he went on record with Jason Quick that he wasn't happy about this at all. Jason Quick openly questioned the motives of the Vulcan Group on 95.5 the game earlier today. He was audibly angry when talking about the signing of Patty Mills. "This didn't make any sense", he said"From a basketball perspective." He went on," This only makes sense from a financial perspective." A lot of reasons followed as to the motivation for signing an injured, unproven point guard, who many say might not ever have a career in the NBA. John Canzano talked about how "Paul Allen likes point guards." He talked about how Paul Allen would regularly ask Coach Nate before games last year if Sergio Rodriguez was going to play. He seemed to imply that Paul Allen has almost a fetish with point guards. Maybe he likes their speedy play, or their flashy passes, or the fact that the smallest guy on the court can create such havok among these giants. John Canzano talked about how he liked this move from a business perspective. "Why pay a veteran salary for a player who is the last guy on the bench, and not likely to play anyways?" He talked about how Patty Mills could be stashed in the D-league while the team evaluates his potential.
So understandably, people are a little confused. We all wanted this to be a happy ending for Ime. We are concerned that there is a schism occuring in our Blazers orginization. We are nearing the season opener with plenty of questions about chemistry, questions about whether new additions to the team can work with our established talent. Whether players feelings are being hurt, and whether that will prove to be a distraction once the games count towards the win column. And now we have this happening? The ownership is not following the desires of coaching and management. Why would anyone want to destroy the already tenuous hold this team had with cohesiveness? And that's when I got thinking. Maybe Ime was never going to make the team. Maybe there are things happening that have nothing to do with money. Maybe in the long run, this will all be for our benefit. Follow along with me while I build a case.
One thing that I was openly critical about last year in regards to this team was our lack of identity. When I look around the league there are teams, many perrenial contenders, who have there own identity. And what I mean is they are the same team night in night out. They don't adjust their gameplan to other teams, other teams adjust to them. They are defined more by their system's than by their players. Think the San Antonio Spurs, The Los Angeles Lakers, The Utah Jazz, The Dallas Mavericks. Often these teams have a few top players, all-stars, and are filled out by role players. Players who can change from year to year, without disrupting the overall function of the team. This is not how I would describe the Blazers from last year. Last year our team had one established star in Brandon Roy. We had another up and coming star in LaMarcus Aldridge. These are our cornerstone players, the ones we will build a system around, a system that will also probably include a future all-star center, and a playmaking point guard. Unfortunately, you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. There are players on the team right now who I don't foresee being here next year. The talent level is unsustainable after the rookie contracts expire, from a financial standpoint, as well as a playing time standpoint. Now a lot of people have talked a lot about this recently so I know it's no surprise.
But how do you trade these people, lose them to free agency or not resign these players without creating a public backlash. Obviously this is important to think about from a public relations standpoint for an orginization that just recently regained the trust of its fanship, and love from the city that has seen them through forty years-with one championship. How do you transition from a team with a lot of lovable individuals, to a team that can consistently win? How do you change from a team that is fostering personal growth, to one with winning expectations, one where finding your stroke is something to be done on somebody elses time? A team where role players can be plugged into the system, where you can plug a known commodity into a known formula, and get a known result?
The answer is not everyone can be friends anymore. Comfort zones are going to be breached. In order to grow, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge are going to have to learn there roles, and become the stars that they are. There is only room for a few egos on this team. Everyone else will have to sacrifice. While last year we marvelled at the chemistry of this up and coming team, what we failed to notice is for the players last season was more analogous to the final year of high school than the first year of college. So the time to set the tone is right now. I'm not suggesting they blow up the team and alienate everyone. But people are going to leave and everyone is going to have to get used to it.
So you invite a former player at the tail end of his career to come in to training camp to send a message. You bring him in to get people nostalgic, and then you rip it away from them just like ripping off a bandaid. Why? Because after the first time it gets easier. Also I'm not sure I totally believe the byline that accompanied this story today. Nate McMillan openly expressing anger and frustration towards ownership? Kevin Pritchard not toeing the party line? Jason Quick sounding shaken and upset on the radio? It seems staged to me. Staged to create the illusion of seperation between Nate and the Vulcan group. Good cop, Bad cop. What better way to manipulate the lineup of the team without hurting the feelings of your most valuable players and disrupting the chemistry of a team that you have yet to create.
This team is not finished. None of us has seen the vision that Nate has for his own team. When he took over as head coach for Seattle he inherited an established team full of veterans. When he came to us he inherited a pr disaster, a team that would need to be burned and built from the ashes. While the team was being rebuilt, and trust was being re-established among the fanbase it was important for the players to be likable, good-character guys. Guys who the public could trust, and relate to and we would forgive some of their shortcomings on the court because we could always look at them and embrace there likabilty. But this is not a sustainable model. We need talent and we need it now. It's no use having two or three all stars on a team filled with substandard role players or players that are too good for positions that we don't need them to fill. And now that we have seen a good guy get the axe, and we have seen the owner become a pariah for making the unpopular decision, we now have a system for recreating the team.
It was also a very good day today in the eyes of many Blazer fans. Today LaMarcus Aldridge was signed to a contract that we've all been waiting for. Some questions were raised, one very big one was answered. This team is Brandon Roy. This team is LaMarcus Aldridge. It's official. Hopefully this distraction has been put to bed. The hierachy is being established. Soon to join their ranks I believe are Greg Oden and a point guard more in the style of Andre Miller than Steve Blake. It's gonna hurt, people might not like it right away, but in the long run it may be a better formula for winning. There will be growing pains for the players and for the fans, but today a tone was set. A tone that says there are only a couple guaranteed guys on this team. Everybody else is going to have to prove their worth or get out of the way. You can no longer survive on personality alone. Winning>Likability. Sometimes you have to make the unpopular choice to get to the next level.
Why not make it look like Paul Allen is the one pulling the strings? This way Nate and KP can make whatever moves they want and not lose face. It's called "Plausible Deniability". Ultimately this roster spot didn't mean anything. So what better explanation for why so much frustration has been expressed over Ime not being picked. This team is now through it's image rebuilding phase. The players value has changed from players that the fans like, to players who can help us win. Not all of the current roster fits within that second group. There needs to be this separation, so that Nate can explain to the team when Travis or Rudy goes that, "It was out of my hands. I really pushed to keep Rudy, or Travis."(or Blake, or Bayless, etc.). So it will look like he still has the players backs, and along the way it will set a tone for those who remain. Play to the highest level you can and help us win, or ownership won't hesitate to ship you out the next chance they get. It changes the team dynamic from a bunch of young guys palling around together, feeling their way through their youth, to a proffessional atmosphere where getting the job done is paramount.
I'm not real big on conspiracy theories normally, but when it comes to Paul Allen, I just don't think he's always right up front about his motives. Remember when he was talking about selling the Rose Garden? What happened? As soon as a market value had been established, he changed his mind. Why? It turned out that he was more interested in re-negotiating his management contract with those operating the Rose Garden events, and in order to do this he needed an established market value for the arena. And it's not like you can just call an appraiser. This is a guy who is partners with Sir Richard Branson in an endeavour to fly citizens into near outer space. He has built large scale telescopic arrays and has almost singlehandedly taken over the seti program(Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), after congress stopped funding for it. This is not your normal guy. He is a genius, who in all likelihood has surrounded himself with geniuses for the sake of reaching some very ambitious goals. I don't put it past him at all, that Patty Mills or Ime Udoka never had a chance to be on the team. Patty is still easily waived. Ime and Jarron already have jobs it sounds like. This was all announced the same day that LA's deal was announced. To soften the blow perhaps? Could be. Maybe this all sounds like a bunch of craziness, and maybe my point didn't get across to everyone, but I sense change is in the air.
This team doesn't have to worry about all the fans liking the players for being great guys. Rip City is back. The games are selling out, and the only thing left to do is win. Win the whole thing. And win with guys who are just likable enough, to keep fans coming back for more. Maybe after it's all said and done, Paul Allen will have stopped being a regular guy who sits next to regular fans down on the floor. Maybe he'll alienate himself. But when it's all said and done, who do you want more? An owner who we can trust implicitly, or a team that wins? So I say go ahead Mr. Allen, make the hard decisions. Be the bad guy. Just give us a team that wins, and wins it all. If you can do that, then you will be a hero to all of us, and we will forgive what we know you must do....