An interesting question came to my inbox in response to yesterday's post describing the current state of the Portland Trail Blazers franchise:
How do you retain any level of faith in the Trailblazers? How do you still feel excited and hopeful when you look forward to next season? As your analogy said, we're stuck in neutral and just trying not to roll back down the hill. But how the heck do you get fired up for the season when everything tells you that you'll be in exactly the same place a year from now? Sure there's a chance that Oden recovers and plays, or that Roy regains his form, but it's probably just as likely that another player gets hurt by falling down in the shower or accidentally pokes himself in the eye while practicing his 3-goggles. It's really hard to put on your #7 jersey and shell out $60 for tickets in hopes of seeing the up-and-coming team of 3 years ago.
A couple of thoughts:
I'd be the first one to tell you that a championship is the only worthy goal in professional sports. If you told me that the Trail Blazers would have zero chance at a title for the entire rest of their existence I'd seriously think about finding another passion in which to invest my time. The acquisitions, coaching strategies, hard work...those have to lead to something. That something is a title, or at least legitimate hope for one. Take away the promise of a trophy and revolutionary moves become incremental, promising improvements limited. Take away the championship goal from players and money, stats, and personal legacy will quickly replace it to the detriment of all involved. Few players would want to suit up for a team that had zero chance at winning it all.
Even so, there are plenty of reasons to enjoy the journey as the quest is being fulfilled. Those reasons hold true even if you suspect the ultimate goal won't be achieved for a long time or will only be achieved when the current crop of players has rotated out and new guys have taken their place. If the only definition of "keeping the faith" is believing the team will win it all this year then the odds of you being able to keep the faith are small. But if you understand that achieving goals is more about process than destination--that the destination is a byproduct of process--there are plenty of ways to be faithful and enjoy the flow of the game and the franchise.
Side Note: This is what the people who just...can't...stand a post like yesterday's miss. Somehow the only possible true words about the Blazers have to be cheery no matter what the circumstance. The Blazers' momentum forward has to be unabated and unaffected by the current circumstances. Portland has to be considered a contender now just like the Blazers had to be considered favorites over the Dallas Mavericks before this year's playoff series started. Gerald Wallace has to be the franchise savior and LaMarcus Aldridge has to be a superstar without reserve and the next draft pick will have to be an amazing player who will push the team over the top. These have to be true because if they aren't...if they aren't...if they aren't... Well, if they aren't, then what? Isn't it possible to be truthful about a team's less-than-rosy situation and still enjoy the game and be a fan of said team? Aren't faith and passion supposed to be bigger than just, "My team is the best and never tell me different"? What if your team isn't the best or the second best? What if your team is around the 8th or 10th or 12th best and might not get better immediately? Isn't it possible to admit that and still love them? I would argue it is possible to engage meaningfully under those circumstances and that you don't need a fantasy world to do it. All you need to do is appreciate the process as it develops, which includes being honest about that process so you can see the genuine questions it raises and the franchise's genuine growth via answering those questions.
What are the reasons to enjoy this team still? What things are intriguing, hopeful, or awe-inspiring? Just a few off the top of my head:
- It'll be fascinating to see how the Blazers try to work their way out of their current conundrum. We'll all be happier if Brandon Roy and Greg Oden all of a sudden get healthy and lead this franchise on a charge to unexpected heights. If that doesn't happen, though, it'll still be interesting to see how much they can give, how much the Blazers value those contributions, and exactly at what point they decide to pull the trigger on making changes. Think of it this way: You could be a Heat fan and watch your team on auto-pilot. Their supporting cast will change but they've made their moves and there's not much more thinking to do. That's for folks who like riding in the big jumbo jet sipping their wine spritzers and waiting to arrive in Honolulu. The Blazers are trying to fly a limping fighter plane through a canyon maze like Wil Smith in Independence Day. The Heat's ride will be more comfortable, but isn't it just as engrossing--in some ways more so--watching this? That's true even if this incarnation of the team ends up plastered against the canyon wall. What a ride.
- If you're missing a Heat-like experience consider that the potential talent on this team is still huge. We'll probably never see it fully operating. That'll go down as the lament of this era. But gosh, even 90% would be an amazing experience. There's still hope for that, at least for a year or two.
- This team still has a couple young guys whose progress you can follow in Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge. Those stories are as good as most around the league. Portland's faulty promise has either petered out or been traded away. What's left is fairly purely refined. The ceiling and effect on the team may not live up to everybody's standards but the growth curve is still great to watch. Don't sleep on Armon Johnson or Elliot Williams behind them either. There's still potential there.
- If you don't like the way Gerald Wallace plays I don't know if I can help you. In a league where you still see guys explode during contract years and return to mediocrity afterwards he's a breath of fresh air. He's getting eight figures and plays every game like it's his last. Who knows how long he will last, but you have to enjoy him while he's around and active.
- There are still some intriguing questions in the off-season. The most interesting: What happens to Andre Miller and Nicolas Batum? Oh...and there's that Greg Oden one too.
- Shooting aside, when this team plays well it's as pretty as anything you'll see around the league. Even in this new era of "team ball" most teams rely on a dominant superstar. Robbed of that you're seeing the Blazers engage in nice passing and better off-ball movement than we've seen in a generation.
I'm sure others will have plenty to add. The point is, even if the record remains generally the same next year there are still plenty of reasons to buy the tickets and be proud of the jersey. And you need not worry about them being stuck in that same rut forever. Four years is an eternity in this league. If they don't produce more wins you'll be looking at an entirely different attempt by 2015. That's not so long...less time than we suffered with the Blazers missing the playoffs in the early 2000's. They shouldn't rush it, though. Let the evolution (or deconstruction) play out and see where it goes. If you can enjoy the journey the wait for vindication doesn't seem nearly as tedious.