What If? What Now?

I think I've had more e-mail over this weekend than I've had in any weekend in history, ever.  Basically people's responses and questions boil down to two matters:  "What if?" and "What now?"  Let's take a look.

How Far Behind the Curve Will This Put Us?

A couple of wistful folks asked whether I thought the team would have adjusted to Oden this season and how far this injury sets back the timetable for integrating him.  I do think they would have hit their groove eventually but I'm not sure it would have been soon enough to do more than run off a couple of hot months.  I don't think Portland would have found itself amongst the league elite even with those hot months, so it's not like the injury cost us that.  Even last night I wasn't fond of how they started off using Greg up high, so I don't think they were moving in a direction that alleviated the either-or nature of the offense.  They were making do...which is pretty much what you have to do when you're adjusting in the middle of the season.  As coaches league-wide are fond of reminding us, practice time is scarce during the year.  You have to get your start in training camp to have the best shot at consistent excellence.  Beyond that it's hit or miss when you make changes.  And the Blazers have been making changes all season.

If you're worried whether this season was completely wasted, whether they'll have to start from scratch next year, I would say "no".  Obviously the only way to get used to Greg is to play with Greg.  Losing 61 games' worth of opportunities to do that is irreplaceable.  However this 20-game run viewing the nascent stages of the "real" Greg--meaning the Greg they're counting on in the future versus the lumbering, unsure version they saw last season--was educational.  Now they know they can't just throw him in there and expect things to click.  They'll know what they have to prepare for coming into next fall.  I'd expect the coaching staff's notebooks will be full of ideas to get Greg off of the launching pad while keeping the main scorers happy.  I imagine it will be Priority One.  That's what this year taught us...an incomplete lesson, but still valuable.

What Do the Blazers Do Now?

As I said last night the costs to the team are pretty obvious:  rebounding, defense, post play, intimidation factor, the other team having to factor Greg into their game plan.  How can the team overcome these costs?  They can't right now.  There's no magic wand to wave.  I'm not saying it's a disaster that will kill the season.  I'm just saying there's nobody on the roster who brings all of the same things that Greg did.  Joel will make up some of the defense and rebounding.  LaMarcus will be called back into post duty.  They'll have to get by without some things and try to substitute in what they're still good at.

One of the trickier aspects of the situation is avoiding a mental or emotional letdown.  I tend to think that we in the public probably valued Greg more highly than his tangible positive effect on his teammates' games warranted, so I don't believe that anybody in that locker room is waving a white flag at this point.  If anything once past the initial shock they're likely to view it as an opportunity for more time and responsibility.  But on the whole they'll still have to avoid the temptation to just accept the season as it comes now instead of fighting for their position.  They'll also have to avoid the temptation to make it all about their individual effort/opportunity.  I don't think you'll see these things early but 3-4 losses strung in a row could make them vulnerable.

Both the team and its fans could maybe take the examples this season has already given us--the examples of friends and teammates in the Blazer family who have suffered this year--when dealing with the loss and whatever letdown accompanies it.

Well, how do you cope when you're diagnosed with cancer?  Initially it's devastating and there are going to be plenty of hard days.  It's not fair and it's out of your control, at least from the diagnostic standpoint.  "The sun will come up tomorrow" sometimes seems more of a curse than an affirmation.  It isn't right that it does.  It seems like it should stop where it is because this happened.  But sooner or later you figure out that it doesn't stop and it's not going to.  Tomorrow comes anyway.  You don't have any more choice about that than about the initial event.  The only choice you have is how you're going to deal with tomorrow.  Even your expectations here are changed.  Maybe you used to have 16 great hours in a day and that's now reduced to 10 or 15 good minutes (especially at first).  But those are your 10 or 15 minutes and you have to make them mean as much as the whole day used to.  Some days will be better, some worse, but they're still yours to live.  Maybe the Blazers used to take 48 minutes of winning basketball for granted but now with all the injuries they have to struggle to make 24.  Some nights that'll be enough.  Some nights you'll get 36 or that original 48.  You celebrate those like crazy.  Some nights it won't be enough.  But you hold on to what good effort you had and you try to expand that for the next game.  You don't worry about what's out of your control.  You take care of what you can control.  The games are coming anyway.  You do everything you can to play each one well.

How do you cope when you're the coach who's under fire, whose every move is scrutinized, and who knows that no matter what he does somebody is going to say it was the wrong move because it's impossible to please everyone at once?  What do you do when it's open season among media and fans?  What do you do when in an effort to inspire your charges you blow out your Achilles so now probably even at home they're shaking their heads and saying, "Hey pops, don't do that"?   What can you do?  You can't fix any of it, really.  All you can do is make what you feel are the right decisions, stick to your guns as much as you need to, slough off what everyone else says, and do your job.  A bunch of people--fans and media, local and national--are going to be burying the Blazers for picking Oden, for not finishing as high as they were predicted to (if that occurs), for losing a season in which they were supposed to find themselves (providing they don't).  All you can do is play right, stick to your guns, have confidence in yourselves, slough off what everyone else says, and do your job.

How do you cope when you break your knee, tear your shoulder, or fracture your foot and you're out for the year?  You're not going to recover anytime soon.  Your life is reduced to daily rehab toil for which the reward lies far in the future.  At times that future is clouded by doubt and uncertainty.  But you still do the exercises.  You still follow the dietary regimen.  You bust your butt every day even when it's a pain to do so.  You never, ever give up.  You believe in that future and that it's going to be great.  The Blazers will still find their greatest success this year in repeating the fundamentals with each outing, continuing to grow individually and together, and busting their butts every day.  The rewards may be smaller than they hoped in the present but it's going to pay future dividends for all of them, whether they remain Blazers past this year or not.

Allen, Lucas, McMillan, Outlaw, Batum, Oden...the examples are all there of people doing what the team needs to do every day in situations even more dire than that the team faces.  (They do still have Roy and Aldridge, after all.)  Pick up on that vibe and make it your identity for the year.  The results might be better than people expect.

What About a Trade? 

The guy I think might have the most difficult task ahead of him is Kevin Pritchard.  Not only has the roster he built half disintegrated before his eyes, that roster wasn't in its final form yet.  As much as he talks about cakes baking, there were moves--potential and probable, perhaps even necessary--available this year.  Now, with an entire layer of that cake on the bottom of the oven and smoldering, what options does he have?  The most obvious names on the exit list were Blake and Outlaw because of their contract status.  Outlaw can't be traded when he's broken and Blake's trade value rests in his contract alone at this point.  The only thing that makes sense is a team looking for a complete salary dump.  Getting a player who makes a difference on those terms seems like long odds.  Joel Przybilla also has a potential contract situation and could garner some value around the league but he can't be moved now, if he ever could to begin with.  Andre Miller seems like a tough sell at this point.  You better get a small forward or some shooting or scoring back for Martell Webster if you move him.  The cupboard is thin right now and the shelf beneath is showing cracks.

This is probably OK, though, because I don't believe you make any deal in response to this situation that you wouldn't have made otherwise.  For one thing, what are you salvaging?  If you get a guy who's going to help fill holes now you still buy maybe a few extra playoff games.  But the guys left to trade with any value are your potential-laden future players.  You don't trade away a Fernandez or Bayless to get a stopgap measure.  On the other hand the roster is too depleted to be confident about swinging a deal for the guy who's going to eventually put you over the top.  Cherry-picking the best of the remaining (reasonably-tradable) roster might not be enough to get that guy.  You're in no-man's land here, dealing from a place of vulnerability rather than strength.  Pressing the panic button is not the right decision in that situation.

The best move here is to batten down the hatches and ride it out.  You still do any deal you would have done anyway...moving those contracts if you're not going to use them, for instance.  But if you do see a move made to address the present or near future odds are it will be subtle, or at least look subtle right now. Unless the Blazers already had a significant deal in mind with the exact players who are healthy now you're not likely to see one.

How Much Has This Affected Me Personally?  My Fandom?  How Big of a Moment Is This?

My overall fandom is unaffected.  I'm still a Blazer fan, win or lose.  As far as the immediate, personal impact of the injury, I'd rate it pretty high...probably an 8.5 out of 10.  Part of that takes into account the combined effect of the injuries though.  It'd be somewhat lower if Batum and Outlaw weren't already out.  I don't believe this ruined a season in which we had a reasonable shot at a title.  I do think we will see such seasons in the future.  That's where perspective comes in.  Oden going down in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals?  That's a 13.5 out of 10.

I guess the main disappointment here, besides that I feel for Greg personally, is that even though this season can still be special it'll be special in the way we're used to.  Even if we find success it'll be a scrappy team with an incomplete roster fighting for respect and being pretty happy with any level of success in the playoffs.  The goal of the second round of the playoffs might still be attainable but it becomes a real long shot if our seed drops.  Either way, you know we're limited this year.  We were kind of limited anyway, but the upper reaches of that limit seemed higher.  Also success would have clearly indicated what was in store for this team if it was intact.  Now you wonder how much applicability it has.  We were hoping for a different flavor of special this year.  No matter how productive working on Uncle Owen's farm for another season turns out to be, it's just not the same as joining the Rebels and going up against the Death Star.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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