Ah yes...you can tell spring is in the air. All the signs are there. Birds are singing, fields are greening, and predictably the day after the Lakers get their annual (and much deserved) bounce from the playoffs the sports world spends an inordinate about of hand-wringing time debating what is wrong with the team and how it will change. It would be hard to overestimate how much I hate this, and not just because as a Blazer fan I'm predisposed to dislike anything Laker-oriented. I think this focus short-changes both the sport and the league.
An example of the guffaw-inducing assertions I heard today was that the Lakers should have traded Andrew Bynum to the Nets for Jason Kidd because then this summer they could have gotten Jermaine O'Neal and maybe made a run for a championship. Excuse me...get Jermaine O'Neal how exactly? Yes he has an opt-out, but he's going to give up $60 million for the privilege of going to a foundering, directionless team? Or wait, let me guess...the Lakers are going to make an offer to the Pacers that will wow them because they have so many bit players that other teams covet. You know, it's not that I mind when fans think their players are worth more than they really are. Lord knows I've heard some shockingly bad Kevin Garnett trade theories from Blazer fans. But it's one thing when fans do it. That's expected. This is institutionalized among all the media outlets who are supposed to be talking...I don't know...SPORTS? Instead we get some psychedelic L/A. Superpower fantasy that would make a pimply-faced teenage role player blush. (The Knicks also beget this kind of talk when they're anything less than pathetic, by the way.)
Someday, my friends, the Trailblazers are going to get back into contention. Someday they might even make the Finals again. I'm telling you right here, right now, when they do the ratings are going to drop. And it's not going to be their fault. It won't be because they're playing bad basketball. In fact by definition they'll be playing some of the best basketball in the league. But we haven't conditioned people to like, accept, or talk about good basketball. Instead we've sold our soul to this stupid, pathetic, horrific image that it's only important if it happens in one of the league's top three or four markets. And so when somebody unexpected gets far (and I'm not talking about an exciting first-round upset like we're seeing now, but a team really overstepping its predetermined bounds) you're going to hear plenty of talk about, "I just can't get into a Finals with Portland in it." The NFL doesn't seem to have this problem. They could have Cincinnati and Carolina (two horribly obscure markets) in the Superbowl and it would still be the most-watched program of the year. The event itself bestows esteem and respect upon the teams that participate in it. By definition they must be worthy and exciting and good. And this, mind you, is in a single-elimination playoff format where upsets and progression by lesser teams are far more likely. It ain't like that in the NBA. And whose fault is that?
Why not tell the truth about the Lakers? They have one overwhelming superstar whom half the people think is the greatest thing since sliced bread and the other half think is a selfish prima donna dragging his team into oblivion. They have a fairly nice second guy who could contribute on a lot of teams but hasn't really stuck or been overwhelmingly successful anywhere he's gone. Beyond that you'll find a nice role player or two, one young big man project, and a bunch of mismatched, under-talented pieces that nobody else wants. That's why they were seeded low and eliminated in the first round. They need to be blown up in a big way. If this were Milwaukee or Charlotte nobody would give the team a second glance. In fact they'd be speculating where they needed to trade that superstar to get some value so they could start over. So why are we still talking about the Lakers as if their elimination were a national tragedy...as if they were anywhere near the pinnacle of the sport...as if this is what we should emulate or root for?
Part of the reason the National Basketball Association is in such a precarious state in the public eye is because the focus is still not on BASKETBALL and people know it. Until that focus returns expect the response to be tepid from most of the country no matter how you dress up or straighten out the product. Things are not going to change until "marquee team" is defined by how well you play rather than what color uniform you wear.
The league's reputation and interest should be bigger than the Lakers, and in so many ways it's not. Right now that's a problem, because guess what? They suck. Live with it. Deal with it. Move on. End of story. Please don't mention them again until they deserve it.