During a radio interview last Thursday 95.5 The Game's Gavin Dawson asked me whether I thought the Blazers could win 60 games this year...whether that was a realistic goal. There's a practical answer to the question, which is that it depends largely on the progress of Greg Oden. If Oden can become a great, consistent defensive player then yes, the Blazers have a chance. Anything less and they'll struggle to reach that lofty plateau.
But as is often the case the practical answer isn't as informative as the philosophical one. In this case the best answer is probably framed by another question: "Should ‘x-wins' be on the list of Blazer goals this year at all?"
My response? Not really.
When wins are rare they become an important benchmark for success. A 20-win team shows real progress by getting to 30. 41 wins, a .500 record, is a serious milepost when you've been bad for a while. 50 wins is probably the last signpost on the trip. It's been the barometer for good teams in the league in the modern era. But here's the catch. The 50-win thing only really works the first time you achieve it. After that it's not about the wins, it's about what you do with them. The 1990-91 Blazers won 63 games, a franchise record that stands to this day. That season also remains to this day one of the bigger disappointments in Blazer history for the way it ended. Even 70-win teams don't give a rip about the huge win total unless it leads to a championship. Without that they're just a cheap tavern trivia question.
Bad teams hang their hats on a win number. Good teams win as many games as is necessary to get the job done. If they need 55 they'll get 55. If they need 60, they'll find a way to do that too. If they needed 55 and got 60 that's great, but it's not like they get a bigger trophy for it. Nobody throws back wins. You try to get as many as you can. But the mission isn't winning for decoration's sake. It's beating your competitors and finishing ahead of them.
Can the Blazers win 60 this year? To be honest, I don't really care if they do or not. I'm not going to feel any better or worse about this team on that basis alone. The Blazers' goals this year are simple:
1. Win their division.
2. Get homecourt advantage in the playoffs for as many series as possible.
3. Both of these are for the express purpose of getting past the first round.
If the West is so tight that 52 wins will take the division and secure a high seed then I'd be plenty happy with that. If it's so loose that three or four teams near 60 wins then I hope the Blazers cut into that line.
Either way we're past the point of having to throw gaudy numbers out there in order to feel good about ourselves as a team and a fan base. Only advancement counts now. Crowing about 58 wins and then bowing out in the first round of the playoffs would all but invalidate the accomplishment and make the crowers look like fools. Winning 50 and getting to the conference semis or finals would be something to hang your hat on.
Topping the division is going to be a manageable stepping-stone goal involving beating out two other serious contenders for that honor. That's going to be circled on the Blazers' chalkboard at the beginning of the year.
Once that goal is in sight the next one is going to be finishing ahead of as many teams as possible to get the highest seed and most homecourt available. By the time that picture becomes clear the end goal should be no more than a couple months away and the teams in question narrowed to a handful.
After the season ends both of those will be erased and the focus will tighten to single series in which none of the preceding achievement matter.
I seriously doubt at any time the Blazers are going to attach a number to all of that, save the number "4" representing the wins you need in that playoff series. If the words "60 wins" come out of anybody's mouth in front of the media they're probably going to be taken aside and straightened out once the microphones are off. It's too nebulous of a prospect, too long-term to focus on, and the gain is too uncertain. Beat out Utah and Denver first, try to overrun anybody in front of you in the last six weeks of the season, then defeat whoever you draw in the post-season. That's it.
Once we've seen the playoffs what we really want can't be accomplished in the regular season anymore. The Blazers have taken all of the regular season steps needed, from 20 to 30 to 41 to 50+. They've graduated elementary school. Now it's time to work towards the big diploma. And in this new world mere repetition of the old goals isn't enough. You're expected to retain that knowledge, sure, but it's what else you do with it that matters.