The best way to describe this season is to say that it was really good for the Blazers but not so great compared to most NBA teams or where we'll eventually want to be. Any way you look at this season it has an asterisk. Those who offer primarily praise must admit that even with all the positive signs the overall results remained fairly dismal. Those who would offer criticism must also admit that we saw quite a few things to hang our hats on. How you evaluate the season depends on what you expect from the Blazers right now. For me I didn't expect a ton of success this year so it's easy to look at the bright side. In the back of my mind I realize that means we're still not that good. I look forward to the day when we graduate into expecting more and being more critical of shortcomings, not because I like being critical, but because that probably means we're going somewhere. We're still in the every-cute-finger-painting-gets-hung-on-the-fridge stage with this team but I hope we'll be cranking out critically-acclaimed impressionist masterpieces in a few years.
The biggest change that happened this year was our shift in leadership and focus. It happened on multiple levels: in the front office with Kevin Pritchard taking over, in the locker room with Nate getting more respect, and on the court and in the huddle with Brandon (and possibly Jarrett) assuming vocal and ball-handling leadership responsibility. Combined these served to give us a unified focus and direction that we haven't seen in years, perhaps since the height of the Dunleavy era, maybe stretching clear back to Adelman's heyday. Before this it felt like we were trying to run a greyhound race in an open field. You can get all the dogs you want but no matter how fast they are you're not going much of anywhere. This year we built the track, painted the lines, and marked the finish. We still may not have gotten out of the starting gates and truth be told we probably need a few new puppies before we're ready to run for real, but at least you can see where someday soon, maybe as soon as this November, they can release that mechanical rabbit and away we'll go. As a fan that feels really, really good. At least you get the feeling that everybody's on the same page and here for the same purpose. Having that confidence makes the games much more fun to watch and the team much easier to root for.
I think that shift in leadership and focus led to our improved play more than any specific change we made on the court. When you think about it, most teams still handled us pretty easily at the beginning of games. It's not like we had some clever master strategy or untapped reservoir of talent that overtook the NBA. However we made our bones coming back, sticking with the plan, and executing intelligently when the chips were on the table in the closing minutes. Other teams lost it, we didn't. That's a discipline and talent every bit as much as shooting or running the pick and roll are. In some ways it's a harder one to learn too. Most teams run a reasonable facsimile of NBA basketball. Relatively few develop that intangible grit and commitment. The ones that do usually turn out to be very, very good. There's reason to hope that if we can acquire more talent while still having everyone buy into the program we will be one of those very good teams someday. Right now we're like one of those people on the fashion makeover shows that you can tell instantly, even in the "before" shots, is stunning. They just need a little work to bring it out.
On the more tangible end of things I am encouraged that we finally seem to be getting some steady guard play. NBA game plans are very guard-dependent these days. As the Timberwolves keep finding out you can have a dominant big man but if the guys with the ball in their hands aren't reliable you're still not likely to win. This is the first year in forever that I trusted our starting frontcourt completely. I'm not saying we won't or shouldn't move Jarrett (that's a separate conversation) but if we do I hope the person who replaces him is just as steady. I am worried about the relative instability of our frontcourt at this point, however. Our small forward situation is a mess with 4-5 guys drawing money to play that position, none of them completely adequate. Lamarcus is going to be a very reliable big man but his true position is up in the air right now. I believe he can play center but I also believe he's on a timer playing center and in two years max he's going to want to move to power forward to save some pounding on his body. The injury, production, and contract situation with the centers is a glaring issue. So too the recurrent whirlpool of controversy surrounding Zach...not just his public relations and leadership ability but the question of whether his offensive production balances out his defensive liabilities and how to cope with the latter when he plays. Obviously in some ways a 50-loss team needs to be in flux. You don't really want to hear, "We're standing pat." But that's a big portion of the deck to re-shuffle. I keep hoping that there's going to be one, glorious move to weed out some of the instability and bring in some order, balance, and direction but that seems like a tall order right now. The problem is we need talent plus stability and we're trying to trade people for it who have either one or the other. Resolving this issue will be the biggest challenge of the off-season. And it does need to be resolved. I don't think we can move forward meaningfully next year otherwise. Sure we'd be able to develop individual players but if we plan to make a run at the playoffs the year after we do need to see some team success in the coming season.
The strongest message to carry from this season is that we've switched directions and are now trending upwards after years of downward spiraling. I think that's what everybody was waiting to see. A secondary message is that right now we still have a long way to go. We've slid down the mountain as far as we're going to slide and we've picked ourselves up and turned around. Now we're faced with the realization, "Oh crap...it's a long way back up there!" We're beginning to see we have the ability to retake the hill. We have the desire and a climbing map. But we're still a little bruised and our tools aren't in order yet. The team as a whole is unbalanced, unmeshed in skills to the point of being fractured, and as yet too young and untested to be considered legitimate threats to summit. We're going to have to weather some snow squalls and dangle from a precipice or two before we'll know how high our guts and skill will take us. And if we don't get our house in order before then we may slide again. For right now it's a trip to the lodge to restock and pack as best we can, then next year it's one foot in front of the other once again for another long campaign.
I tried to view the specifics of our game in the earlier sections of the season review with an eye towards how we stack up against other NBA teams. There were a lot of low C's and D's. But when it comes to talking about the results of the season overall I can't look at it with any other eye's than a fan's, nor compare us to anybody else but ourselves. And on those terms I would rate this season at least a B+. Granted it's the kind of B+ you give the kid who's been in constant detention the first time he does something sane and good. You're giving the grade in expectation of what he can grow into with some encouragement rather than on the strict merits of the work itself. But hey, I can live with that. I assume the Blazers can too, since in recent years they've been more likely to see tomatoes flying towards them than compliments. But this year the produce is reserved for the salad and the team gets a well-deserved round of applause.
Next up: Player-by-Player Analysis--Jarrett Jack.