I'm interrupting this week's series on the rosy future of the Trail Blazers to make time for an argument that came up several times in the comment section of yesterday's post on point guards.
An integral part of reading the future for a growing team is distinguishing between the near future (steps along the journey) and the far (eventual destination). If you've read the three pieces on Portland's predicted success so far you know that my general take is that short-term issues remain but these are all resolvable to the point that they won't affect the Blazers' long-term prospects, which are still rosy. Nearly everything that worries Blazer fans also has a shelf life. The expiration date on those items comes far sooner than the end of any of the careers of Portland's young players.
As a part of that explanation I've set the bar pretty clearly at "getting out of the first round" for Portland's success this year. They could do more but they certainly can't do less and still say they've achieved their goals. For some fans the expectations are already higher. Part of that is natural. Frankly we've had this discussion every single season. Since Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge arrived people have speculated that this (meaning each current year) is the year the team will take off. In multiple cases "take off" means winning a bunch of playoff games, a Conference Finals series, maybe a championship. None of that has happened yet, though it's a fan's right to wish it so.
I feel more empathy for the "sky's-the-limit" clamor this year than in any past season because under normal circumstances I would be right there chanting. This was supposed to be the year boundless possibilities opened. You know the story. The team got knocked for such a loop last season that they had to tread water instead of progress. 50+ wins was a miracle given the circumstances. All of the cohesion and confidence we hoped would build in them gave way to simple survival. The team lost a year of development. Last year's schedule becomes this year's and this year's becomes next.
Unfortunately the sky is not the limit this year. If things come together early I could see a huge amount of regular season wins but that's hardly guaranteed. There are still teams in the conference, the L*kers chief among them, who would own a significant advantage in any seven-game series just because they're tested and tried. Unless the season falls apart again Portland won't be facing those opponents in the first round but they could find them in the second. In my eyes it's not reasonable to say Portland has to beat the L*kers in a playoff series this year or the season is a failure. Thus it's not reasonable to place the minimum definition of success higher than getting past the first round. Some disagree, equating a second-round exit with another lost year.
If the Blazers do make the second round they will face a quality team in a crucial series. Win or lose--and they could do either--they will have another stepping stone upon which to build on their way to the next season when upward mobility should legitimately be unlimited. If they don't make the second round they won't get that chance and, demoralized and dispirited, they'll have to reset for yet another try. Absent a crack at a championship, the most critical gains and losses lie on that first-round/second-round borderline. That's the boundary between success and failure.
That said, I'm throwing this open. Where do you think that border lies? What would determine success for you? I haven't talked about it in terms other than playoff advancement because I believe that's the critical barometer and because I'm going to expand on the more nuanced definitions of success as the season approaches. If you want to start early on the ancillary aspects, feel free. But do give us a games-won-oriented border to compare if you can.