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Turning Points

Dr. Dave e-mailed a couple days ago with an interesting question.  To wit:

It's obvious we're now on the upswing. Although still early in the arc, is there a defining moment or event you could call a turning point?

I thought about it for a while and decided that the upswing (new though it is) has been dramatic enough that attributing it to a single moment or event would be inaccurate.  It would be easy to point to something like the promotion of Kevin Pritchard but that really puts too much emphasis on him, even though he is obviously a (and maybe the) key figure.  Still, things happened before and beyond his rise to General Manager that affected this team profoundly.  This new era of good feelings can only be attributed to an enormous rush of synergy that nearly boggles the mind.

I decided to make a short list of key events that contributed to the turnaround we're experiencing.  These include:

--The Hiring of Nate McMillan

This was really step one in the rebuilding process.  At the time of his hiring McMillan had just come off his most successful season in Seattle and was considered one of the brightest young head coaches in the league.  There was zero chance Seattle was letting him go...or so people thought.  Apparently there was enough of a crack that Paul Allen, his $5 million a year, and a really nifty sales pitch or two could fit through.  No doubt his treatment at the hands of the perpetually-confused Sonics management staff had something to do with it.  At the time he signed with us the national media was openly scoffing, accusing him of taking the money and going into a miserable situation.  Who could blame them?  It was a hopeless situation and would remain so for over a year.  Nevertheless this marked the first major acquisition--the first time somebody responded to the new vision and the first time Paul Allen showed a willingness to open up the pocketbook again.

--Drafting Lamarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, and Sergio Rodriguez

The astonishing multiplicity of trades in the 2006 draft gave everybody a clue that something was up in Blazerland.  It was either mad genius or just madness.  So far it looks like the former.  Roy and Aldridge were significant in that both were talented, both were ready to play right out of the box, and both had the personality to connect with fans and teammates.  Those latter two items were a severe departure from the last decade of Blazer drafts which featured mostly projects with social inadequacies ranging from terminal shyness to terminal stupidity.  These two players would infuse the new "culture" into the team both in the locker room and on the court.  What's more they would do it more quickly than anyone could have envisioned.

The acquisition of Sergio was also significant in that it showed Paul Allen's continuing commitment to spending money to improve the team.

--Re-Signing Joel Przybilla

The second most significant move of 2006 was re-signing Joel Przybilla.  The Vanilla Gorilla was reportedly in demand among such luminous teams as Detroit and San Antonio, both championship contenders.  He was pursued diligently by the Blazers and ended up re-signing in Portland even though the Blazers didn't offer much more money than the big teams could have.  The effect of this signing was more emotional than practical.  Joel had a lousy year on the court following his signing.  However him putting his name on the dotted line showed at least one player believed in and was committed to the team's vision even when there was no demonstrable evidence that we even had a vision yet.  For years players had clamored to get out of Portland.  Finally one wanted to stay.

--The Promotion of Kevin Pritchard

The primary genius behind the 2006 draft assumed the helm in the spring of 2007, bringing with him an occasionally painful hairstyle, a "normal-folks" sensibility, and more culture than the Louvre in a Petri dish.  Not only did his vision shape the on-court personality of the team, it also drastically improved the communication and joie-de-vivre both internally and externally.  The cloud of the Patterson-Sasse administration departed.  The media war ceased.  Pritchard was all over the airwaves preaching a new message and a new era to anyone who would listen.  It was like a rain shower after a drought.  Everybody from the analytical purist to the passionate fan to the media personalities to Blazer employees loved and respected him.  Love and respect had been missing from Blazer conversations for a long time.  Even though there were a lot of other factors feeding into the Blazer renaissance, this has become the symbolic keystone event of the new era.

--Winning the Draft Lottery

You knew things were going well before the lottery drawing in May of 2007, but the revival movement grew beyond the mere struggles of mortals and passed into the realm of the blessing of the universe/fates/basketball gods when Portland's combination came up #1 and Greg Oden fell into our hands.  It was less a turning point than a near-divine confirmation of everything that had been happening.  This was the moment when the whole city exploded and admitted that yes, the Blazers were back.  (And yes, there was a good possibility we were still in love with them.)  This was like your parents telling you that you were getting a new bike for your birthday, then finding out it was a Harley.

Speaking of, does anybody else think the Blazers should contact those Orange County Chopper guys and have them build a vicious black and red Blazer bike, then give it away at a game?

--Paul Allen Buying Back the Rose Garden

This move accomplished two things.  First it all but put to rest the specter of any possible move away from Portland...a threat which had hung over the team during the bankruptcy years.  While still technically possible, it seemed unlikely that Allen would invest that much money purchasing and renovating the arena simply to abandon it.  Second, it showed once and for all that the team would have the money and resources it needed to get the job done.  While this may be a more fiscally responsible organization than it was in the S.P.A.M. years ("Spending Paul Allen's Money" for the uninitiated) it will remain a first-class organization.  What's more it will be the only arena in the league where the fans chant, "Scoooooore...board" before the game even tips off.

--Trading Z-Bo

Fairly or not (and it probably mostly was), Zach Randolph became a symbol of everything that was wrong with the old era: players who were overpaid, stat-oriented, lacking defensive ability, lackadaisical in their play, practice, and preparation, and who were socially and legally challenged.  It was an ill-kept secret that at least one of the major young players requested that Zach not return after the 2006-07 season.  On draft night 2007 Kevin Pritchard obliged, sending the troubled forward to New York for Channing Frye, James Jones, and a very expensive contract buyout of Steve Francis.  Another way to look at this is they dumped Zach for a lot of potential cap space in a couple years.  While not exactly a talent raid, the team did accomplish its goal of clearing the court and locker room of a dominating and not-necessarily-productive presence, paving the way for the new players to shine unadulterated.  

Amid all these specific moments one general trend also needs to be highlighted, that being the proliferation of internet sites like OregonLive, the OregonLive forum, the Behind the Blazers Beat blog, John Canzano's blog, Truehoop, and yes, even this site.  All of these places, in one way or another, became outlets for the vox populi.   One of the main sins of the old regime (maybe the one that mattered most in the end) was that it became criminally, radically, devastatingly out of touch with the people.  It's not just that the team and its fans were in the same room and not speaking to each other...they weren't even on the same planet.  Sites like these highlighted a lot of things that were going wrong, but that was the lesser part of their function.  Any reasonable basketball mind could have figured that out.  The greatest function of these sites has been providing the cradle into which this infant new culture has been laid and fed.  "Culture" in itself is not an absolute term, the same in all times and all places.  By definition it is relative to the people it encompasses.  Portland/Blazer culture is not the same as New York/Knick culture.  Though sites like this did not create the culture or the need for it they did help teach the organization what it looked like through our eyes and how to communicate it to us.  Kevin Pritchard had the idea of culture long before he came to Portland but he couldn't know exactly what it would look or sound like until he heard it from people like us.  There is no "Portland Trailblazers culture" without Portland.  And there is no bigger, more public voice for Portland in the basketball realm than sites like these.

I am firmly convinced that without the access to the public forum provided by online resources the new era would not be taking off as successfully as it is.  If coverage were still limited to one article with a boxscore in the margin and communication still went one direction (out from the organization and never back in) we'd all be a lot farther behind.  The internet didn't cause the revolution but it did shape it and drastically increase its speed and ease.

--Dave (