The curtain has dropped on the 2011-12 season for the Portland Trail Blazers. We'll spend some time during the coming days going over the details of the year: evaluating players, talking about prospects, looking at what worked and what didn't, speculating where the Blazers go from here. We'll also transition into talk about the playoffs and the next big event for the Trail Blazers, the NBA draft. Before we put the year and the team under a microscope, though, I want to share a pressing impression from the season.
Something changed this year for the Blazers and it wasn't for the better. Perhaps "this year" is a little too strident of a timeline...it's actually been changing for a couple years now. But this year saw full fruits blossom from slow-growing vines. They taste rather bitter.
Over the last four decades the Trail Blazers have managed to pull off an amazing feat. They're a small-market team in an odd corner of the country, a corner now forsaken in NBA circles. Yet up or down, through thick and thin, the Blazers have maintained a certain mystique...a type of honor if you will. It started with the '77 championship and Blazermania, phenomena which have become part of league lore. It continued through the Memorial Coliseum sellout streak and the 21-year playoff run. At no time did playing for the Blazers ever have the same kind of cachet as playing for the Lakers, Celtics, or Knicks, or even the allure of playing for dominant teams like the 90's Bulls or the 00's Spurs. But when you stepped down from the marquee level, Portland still carried respect beyond that which their visibility or winning percentages would normally provide.
One of the indicators of that respect was the way the team was referenced in public. I watch a ton of NBA games. I hear plenty of announcers and media folks. When they speak of the Blazers they have stories to tell: amazing fans, the Walton-led title, Drexler, Paul Allen's desire to win. Golden State and Washington won titles around the same time the Blazers did. You don't hear such stories about them. They're just the Warriors and the Wizards.
Even the JailBlazers era couldn't snuff out the respect entirely. Commentators were unstinting with their condemnation of how poorly the team was playing and what an embarrassment their conduct was. But right after those imprecations would inevitably come the phrase, "These are amazing fans and this organization has a long and storied history. They don't deserve this." That mantra lasted all the way through to the Roy Resurrection and the excitement surrounding Greg Oden, when all of a sudden Portland's name was on everybody's lips again. And it wasn't a huge surprise! People didn't speak as if they had never heard of this team...as if the Bobcats had suddenly risen to prominence, for instance. This was Portland. The marriage between team and fans, talent and success, high standards and loyalty, sounded natural coming from the lips of seasoned observers.
Much like that Dos Equis guy, people didn't always speak about the Blazers, but when they did they spoke in glowing terms.
Restating: I guarantee somebody is going to claim I'm overplaying this, looking through home-fan-colored glasses. I am NOT saying Portland was comparable to the league's glitterati in prestige. I am suggesting that the Blazers have always been considered a notch or two above teams they should have been comparable to: your Milwaukees and Sacramentos and such. That notch has been defined by character, pride, reputation which led to a certain head-held-high carriage. Not every player wanted to play here, but those who did took pride in it and often stuck around. People remembered their time as Portland Trail Blazers. It defined them in a peculiar way, mostly for the better.
But after this year, I think we can safely say that's gone. It's the one thing (along with Paul Allen's willingness to spend big in the 90's) that's kept the Blazers distinct even when their performance hasn't been up to par. It took a title to build and decades to cultivate. Now they've lost it and I don't see how they're going to get it back.
Exhibit A: Both the Trail Blazers organization and Blazer fans build loyal and enduring relationships with their players. Even if they're not considered the heroes they were in the 70's, these guys are still "our" players. Even with players who don't work out we're used to seeing the franchise spend time trying to develop them. Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster are recent examples. This team doesn't do one-year flings. This team ESPECIALLY doesn't get jilted by players...guys who come into town, under-perform, laugh it up for a year, and collect their paycheck. Up until now the Blazers have been a high-class date, not the subject of lurid locker-room stories.
Sure, the Blazers have had bad seeds. But the Blazers have not been made fools of. They were always smart enough to avoid that kind of player, or at least not let that kind of player take over key positions and define the franchise. But the Blazers got used this year...badly. They might as well have put a sign up over the door saying, "Take our money and play however you want. It doesn't matter anyway." It started with the mid-season bombshell losses and continued right on through the laughable conclusion to the campaign.
Point guards who "forget" how to dribble, shooting guards who chuck any old shot they want, rebounders who want to be scorers instead, nobody playing defense, open looks of disgust on the court, opponents laughing out loud during games...this does NOT happen in Portland. We're used to seeing this kind of thing from the true bottom-dwelling franchises, the teams that make you say, "At least we're not them." Guess what? We're them.
Portland fans speculate about making a miracle free agent signing over the summer. Why in the world would a superstar, or even a star, come here at this point? This franchise has a ton of repair work to do, not only on the roster but on its image. The Blazers are pretty close to a joke right now.
Fans have felt it too. In yesterday's game preview I asked people to name their sentimental favorite player from this team, the guy they'd like to see come back regardless of stats or performance. This is Portland, folks. In almost any other era people would have split between the entire roster. In the past everybody hitched their wagon to at least one guy and in most years every player would have ended up as somebody's favorite. The general response to yesterday's post was, "I'm not overly attached to any of them." This isn't 2004 when every player seemed to have legal and/or community relations problems leading to justifiable distance between roster and fans. There's nothing radically wrong with these guys but the feeling just isn't there. A couple of years ago there would have been verbal fist-fights between those supporting Sergio or Rudy or Bayless. Now? Blah.
And it runs both ways. I'm not sure, outside of cash and titles, that there's a better recruiting pitch than that provided by fellow players. How many current Blazers are bonded to this team in any way save contractual? Some weren't even considerate enough to put in a whole season's work, nor to keep their mouths shut when people rightly criticized them for it. You know those guys are gone. But consider even Portland's best players. Is Nicolas Batum dying to come back here? How many people think the clock is running on LaMarcus Aldridge's patience? Would anybody be surprised to hear him talking about wanting out if the team doesn't get much better this year? I'm guessing two years is the maximum before we hear that whispered.
The Blazers don't get left. The Blazers are the surprise team that you left your other team for. But whatever loyalty and tight relationships that once distinguished this franchise are nowhere to be found today. Whatever made Portland counter-cultural in that sense has departed. The on-court product alone has been enough to show it, let alone all of the off-court machinations.
Exhibit B: People have always wanted to work for this organization, once considered a front-office paragon in the league. Both Bob Whitsitt and Nate McMillan had Seattle connections. I understand that, and that the relationship between Paul Allen and Seattle contributed to their coming here. But that doesn't change the fact that when the Blazers got them, they were heavily in demand, considered prime examples of their professions. There's no way the Blazers should have gotten their hands on the hottest next-generation GM and one of the most desirable coaches on the market. But the Blazers not only got them, the Blazers retained them for years.
I am curious to see who Portland can attract as a head coach now. We already know they've been looking for a new GM for two years after having fired two in succession. Does anybody think the 2012 Blazers have a chance of getting anyone with the veneration Whitsitt or McMillan commanded when they came to Portland?
Exhibit C: The stories I mentioned above as indicative of Portland's mystique are starting to disappear. Once upon a time I'd hear them 25-30 times a season from various opposing announcers and media folks. This year it was maybe a half-dozen, tops.
The Blazers got a huge pass through that JailBlazer era. The Roy-Oden-Aldridge hype appeared to justify the grace. The storyline morphed from, "This is so sad," to, "They're back and the fans' loyalty was justified." Then that fell apart too. Now observers are watching players bail out left and right, both on the court and in their off-court proclamations. The Blazers aren't getting by on the old stories anymore. Now it's shrugs and, "Whatever."
Perception quickly becomes reality in these cases. Has anybody ever dated a person and then suddenly found they weren't that attracted to them anymore? They're still the same person they always were but for whatever reason your viewpoint has changed. What happens after that? Three weeks, tops, and you're broken up.
That's exactly what's happened with people favorable and/or sympathetic towards the Blazers this year. If we hear a story repeated now it's how good Nicolas Batum might become and where he might end up in the off-season. They're not looking to praise Portland's talent, they're looking to rob it. Knicks and Lakers folks always roll like this, feeling they have a God-given right to any player they choose because of the size of their cities and how everybody talks about their teams. When guys from Utah and Cleveland are starting to pick up the refrain, you have fallen hard. When Brad Pitt thinks he can steal your girlfriend, you have to live with that. When Joe "Booger" McKenzie who has no job and lives in his mom's basement thinks he has a shot with your girlfriend, you're in trouble.
We've feared this was coming for years. We feared the dark times in the early 2000's would do it but those 2006-7 drafts erased memories and gave the franchise a new lease on life. Even so, you could see cracks forming.. As long as the team was healthy and that talented image issues and mistakes wouldn't matter. Now that the promise of 2007 is no more and the team's talent is severely diminished, the cracks are on full display. The Blazers are going to have to work hard not to fall right through them. At a time when prestige and adoration are sorely needed they find their credit overextended on both. They're going to have to earn it the hard way, just like other not-so-good, small-market teams have had to do for years. The Blazers have been "a little different" for so long I fear they might be surprised by a harsh lesson: those teams have largely failed. The sweet smell of success is much more quickly lost than the clinging miasma of ignominy and irrelevance.
The Blazers had better be able to work miracles with those picks, their cap space, their coaching and GM vacancies, and their plan for the next three seasons. They have nothing else to bank on anymore. This season may not have caused them to lose that extra mystique, but it certainly showed that it's gone.
Let's see how they do in this new world.