Back to the Future? The Trail Blazers and Joel Przybilla

Dave,

I'm thrilled about the Blazers potentially getting Joel Przybilla back. He's been one of the easiest Blazers to root for in the last twenty years. His rebounding, defense, and toughness fill the team's needs too! Getting Jeff Pendergraph would be be a bonus! It's like the Blazer team that should have been plus [Gerald] Wallace! Are you as excited as I am?

Well, I'm not unexcited. Given what the Blazers can expect in free agency Przybilla would be a decent get. I agree that he was popular here for good reason. It'd be good to have him home.

That said, the whole "back to the future" thing is riddled with problems. This isn't a contending team, not even a team clearly on its way to contending as it was in Joel's heyday. This team needs talent, a minor revolution, in some ways a kick in the butt. As I said on the radio last week, the Blazers need to find their next Joel Przybilla, not the old one...Joel Przybilla circa 2004 and not 2011. Management needs to be active, innovative, hungry, clever. This move isn't really any of these things. If anything it shows more clearly the team's current mindset: making one last big stab at saving this project before everybody admits it has to be rebuilt from the ground up. In a way these moves towards the past avoid the precipice that lies immediately before the franchise...a future we don't want to admit is there.

At the same time moves like this do nothing to change or avoid that future. In fact they have the potential to lock it in, perhaps blowing up in your face in the process. Not that Joel himself would be the catalyst for an implosion. Perish the thought! But he'd not prove any kind of safety valve should one happen. Not only is he in a far different place than he was in 2008, so is the roster. Back then you had three clear, if not exactly bankable, stars in Roy, Aldridge, and potentially Oden. Everything on the team was focused towards those three guys. You had plenty of talent in your Bayless/Fernandez/Batum-type players but they took a secondary role. Joel's assignment was also clear and well within his capabilities: steadily playing a role for a few minutes a game, provide competent play should Oden go down. Aldridge is still excelling in 2011 but Roy is a shadow of himself and Oden is a mystery. Former secondary players like Batum and [insert veteran point guard here] are now considered keys. Nearly every position is muddled with no player able to make a clear claim to supremacy. Should Roy start or Wesley Matthews? Batum or Gerald Wallace? How many minutes should Wallace get at power forward and where does that leave Aldridge? Can Camby, Oden, or Przybilla himself really claim a right to major minutes at the center position? Joel's the ultimate role player but the roles are so ill-defined now, where does he fit?

One assumes that bringing back the old gang alleviates all chemistry problems. The reverse often proves true, less because people are fighting and more because nobody can find a fresh perspective or think outside of the box if things start to go south. Without the breath of fresh air the room becomes stale. Instead of solving problems people look at each other and say, "Wait...it wasn't supposed to be this way! We're the old gang!" Precisely because they're the old gang they're not able to cope with the change in environment which renders the old gang ways less than optimal. Again, I'm not trying to lay all of this on Joel's shoulders. I'm just pointing out that the whole, "This is great because we got Gerald Wallace PLUS the guy we traded away for him!" is not guaranteed to work any better this year than it did with Rod Strickland in 2000. Strickland wasn't the cause of those problems, the environment was. But his presence didn't help in reality as much as it seemed to on paper, nor did the reassembling project.

Most likely the Blazers will be fine either way, with or without Joel. But that assessment should tell you something about the effect of signing him as a free agent...minimal. At the same time, if things really start going south the Blazers, with their sight now laser-focused on 2009 while the results remind them nightly that it's 2012, will be ill-equipped to handle the disparity and may end up in one of those weird, "can't get out of it" spirals...in part because they didn't shake up the lineup more.

In the end I'd be more comfortable if they tried to take a revolutionary stab, even if that stab failed. At least it would show that their heads and gazes were in the right place and send a message that this team is going to have to go beyond standard operating procedure to change their fate. I'm not saying they can actually find the next Joel Przybilla, but at least sell me that you're trying and not just microwaving yesterday's main course and ringing the dinner bell.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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