Veterans Benefits

How nice to finally have a conversation where people know what they're talking about.

Flash back three years ago.  The Blazers were widely considered an up-and-coming team.  Expectations went through the roof around the league, let alone among Portland fans.  Roy, Aldridge, Oden...the names were either whispered in awe or shouted from the rooftops of the Rose City, attached to words like "domination" and "unstoppable" and of course "future titles aplenty".  The team played well back then but they also had their share of setbacks.  I'm not talking health, I'm talking coming up short in certain big games or losing playoff series or randomly coughing up losses to less talented squads. 

We analyzed all of those events here, of course, giving technical details about what went right or wrong.  But at the end of the day the story was the same:  sometimes random stuff happens to teams that young.  When everybody in the fat part of the rotation is working on three or fewer years of experience you're going to get beat by teams who actually know what they're doing.

Whenever I would explain that big picture view people would argue that it wasn't valid.  Years don't fill the stat sheet.  Old doesn't defend.  Experience doesn't make you jump higher or run faster.  There must be some other reason.  Usually it was the coaching (though coaches don't do any of the things just mentioned either, technically).  Youth was just an excuse, or so the line ran.

I wonder...can you see it now?  Specifically have you noticed the difference in execution, resilience, and overall consistent play since Gerald Wallace (10 years in the league) came on board to nestle in with Andre Miller (12 years) and Marcus Camby (15 years) in the lineup?  Then you have Roy and Aldridge in their 5th year, not babes in the woods anymore.  Yes, Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez are only in their third year and Wesley Matthews in his second but their contributions are in place now, bracketed by experienced players.  Nowadays when somebody makes a mistake it doesn't crumple the whole scheme the way it used to.  In fact some of the younger, quicker guys can take risks more than they used to knowing that their teammates have their backs, as their teammates finally know which way "back" is.  Going the other way, a player's good plays now tend to make everybody look better.  We're used to seeing sparkling individual performances and four other guys watching.  People tag Brandon Roy for this but honestly as recently as last year we'd regularly see a Miller or Aldridge or Bayless have a huge night and everybody else...meh.  Now one guy's groove opens up opportunities for most of his teammates.  People know where to find space without the ball.  People see where to pass.  In fact the spacing alone in the last month has looked so much better than recent years that it almost isn't the same team.

You're also starting to see the Blazers take games the way they should be taken.  Cleveland and Washington should have gotten creamed and they were.  The Blazers stood up to the Lakers muscle in their loss in L.A. and dished back some pain as well.  The Blazers always fought hard but it was a spastic kind of fighting.  They would get in a wild, emotional punch and capitalize on it (the joys of youth) but once they were deflated they weren't coming back to life.  Now they don't get deflated, they just dig in harder.

Speaking of Washington, that Wizards game illustrated the point.  Washington has talent, particularly in the form of John Wall and Nick Young.  But they don't know how to help each other, they don't know how to play efficiently, and they don't know how to win against a determined team.  I believe I described their handling of Portland's zone defense like "a monkey solving a Rubik's Cube".  That's exactly how the Blazers used to operate when they got shellacked:  deer in the headlights.  Now Portland is more likely to avert their gaze from the beam, dodge the car, jump through the driver's window as it passes, and kick the guy down.  Experience does make a difference and we're seeing it as we speak.

I am not saying this team is perfect.  I'm not even saying they're destined for the second round this year.  That depends on factors as yet to be determined such as health and matchups.  I am saying that finally this team is starting to look grown up, like a true NBA squad.  It's been a long time coming and it's going to make the ride easier from here on out.  There might be fewer spectacular ups and downs but the average should look a lot better.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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