As we said yesterday The Pick has transformed the mindset of the entire Portland fan base. Folks who were talking about fighting for a #8 seed three weeks ago are now letting the "dynasty" word slip past their lips with startling regularity. If you ask the typical Portland fan it's not a matter of if we'll win a championship but when. The "when" is what I'd like to consider today. Let's assume for now that Oden is the pick and let's further assume that he is everything advertised. When can we expect to think about ticker-tape parades down Broadway?
I'm going to refer to Dave's Golden Theory #1, which I've shared before but not for a long while. (The last time was before the beginning of last season when I predicted the Spurs as champions, which is looking halfway decent right now.)
The team with the best chance of winning the championship is the team with the fewest questions surrounding it.
Some people look at who has the most talented individuals, others at regular season record, others at the ease of the potential road through the playoffs. For me the matter is simple: who has the fewest weaknesses and uncertainties to exploit? Through an 82-game regular season and a two-month playoff process your weaknesses are going to get exploited. You can hide them for a game, a month, a series, but somewhere along the line you're going to meet your nemesis. When that day comes the ship better be watertight or she's going down.
If your team enters the season (or worse the playoffs) and you're saying, "If things bounce right we could go a long ways..." you lose. It's as simple as that. Somebody will find your "if" and stuff it right back down your throat. The teams that win are the teams that are absolutely sure they are destined to win that title--that it's THEIRS--and that nobody has the ability to take it away from them. There are no "ifs" and no bounces. But that only gives you a legitimate shot at the rings. It's guaranteed that somebody else is thinking the same thing on the other side of the ball and only one of you can win.
Back to our original premise...assuming the talent is right, how long will it be until Portland is one of those teams with very few questions? How long until our fan base switches from people who would love to have a shot at the championship to people who will be jumping off bridges if we don't win a championship?
Let's start with The Big Pick.
To me the greatest true center of the modern generation was Hakeem Olajuwon. I'm amazed his name gets skipped over in the discussion of best centers of all time. He was a monster athlete and had the complete game. But if you think back to the beginning of his career, it took him 4-5 years to really develop into a championship-level player. There were frequent complaints about him not being able to pass out of double teams or be a part of the team offense. Mind you, he was good, in fact very good from the get-go, but he didn't develop into consistent championship-level good for quite a while. If you prefer Shaquille O'Neal he was a dominant force from the start also. Like Hakeem he led his team to the NBA finals in his first three years. Like Hakeem's team they lost and he didn't get back for a long time. Only when he went to the Lakers, five years into his career, did he begin to develop into the passing, multiple-threat offensive champion that we know and hate. Tim Duncan would be an exception as his team won it all in his second year. But he had the fortune of playing with another fantastic center of his era, David Robinson. The Admiral also took quite a while to get into championship-level gear, as anyone who remembers Larry Brown yelling himself hoarse at him will attest. The point is, even the greatest talents of our lifetime took a few years to blossom. Their amazing ability was evident from the start but it took a while for their game to smooth out and their questions to be answered.
The fate of Zach Randolph is obviously a huge issue for this team. If he stays there are questions of how he adapts to the new talent and whether there's space for the kids to develop, especially offensively, around him. Many people feel strongly enough about those questions being answered in the negative that they're ready to move him. But that brings up more questions. Who do we get in return? How does the team, heretofore so reliant on Z-Bo to bail them out of scoring droughts, find its sea legs in these new waters? How does the chemistry change? In losing Zach we lose our most reliable, talented veteran. Even if that's a good change it leads us into a big unknown.
Lamarcus is a wonderful talent and would appear to be ready to replace Zach at the big forward position but he has a lot of un-leapt hurdles before him also. He's never faced consistent double teams and had to score in spite of them or pass out of them. In the absence of another major scorer he'd probably be a (or maybe even the) main cog in the offense if Zach goes. How will he handle that pressure? He hasn't played major minutes through an entire season and playoffs and we don't know how his body will hold up.
The small forward position is about as unsettled as it can be. Ime is great and very steady but he's also pushing 30. How much longer will he be able to take the opponent's best scorer every night? Can you even have him playing major minutes on a high-level team? And after that...sheesh! Who the heck is Travis? What the fudge is going on with Martell? Can either of them play with ANY level of consistency? If we get a high-powered rookie to end the debate pencil in a two-plus year learning curve for him too.
Brandon Roy is as close to a sure thing as we've got and I think his value comes precisely in having fewer questions than anybody else with his level of experience. He also needs to continue to grow though. If he does eventually take over point guard duties his learning curve will get exponentially steeper. He's a great guy but he is a second year player.
We just spent the better part of a week talking about our point guard position. We got 129 comments on the main page alone about the ins and outs of Jack and Sergio and how capable (or not) either is of assuming the helm. Amidst those comments were possible trade scenarios and a bunch of talk by Jason Quick of bringing in a veteran to help out. Imagine we posed the question on Bright Side of the Sun, "Do you think Steve Nash is the best starting point guard for this team or should the backup take over? Or do you think maybe we should acquire some veteran help?" How many comments would we get? And how many of those would contain more than the word, "Idiot!"? We don't even know if either of our celebrated point guards work. And even if they do, it's a sure bet at that position that a couple years' worth of seasoning will be a necessity before they're clockwork reliable.
I am NOT trying to be pessimistic here. In fact if you asked me whether these questions were going to get resolved and if they'd be resolved positively my answer to both would be a resounding, "YES!" I truly believe we're going to be very, very good. I don't want to jinx it by making bold claims too early, but I am legitimately thinking of that "C" word...and I am also thinking about the plural "s" behind it. But seriously, I think it's also going to take t...i...m...e. There's too much to be solved and settled into yet. We're still a long ways away question-wise. To answer the recent poll question, I don't think it's necessarily a given that we're that much better than the Sonics would be next year with a young Durant, a re-signed Lewis, and their veterans. In a couple years, though...
As I said a few weeks ago, though most people think of the playoffs as an orderly progression from sorta-good first rounders to the second round next year to the conference finals to winning it all it usually doesn't work that way. Eventual championship teams usually don't spend a lot of time mucking around in the first round before they get there. More often they explode onto the playoffs, taking no prisoners, and get at least to the second round or further in their first try or two. After that it's on. It can happen pretty quickly when it does happen, but it takes a while to ramp up to that speed.
I think the Blazers are well on their way to addressing all of the above-mentioned questions. But even with ideal solutions, in my view it'll be a while before they'll be a major threat. Two years from now is the earliest the window cracks. That will be our coming out party. (Contrast this to a couple months ago when I made the same claim for the two year window except to legitimately battle for a low seed.) It's hard to win it all in your coming-out party and I wouldn't expect it. But after that the dogs are loosed and the hunt is on. And given the ages of our players--provided everybody remains both healthy and faithful--that window should be open for a long, long time.
Assume that our greatest dreams will come true and this team will be talented and committed enough to contend for the highest prize. What's your guess on the timing? And what are the biggest questions to be answered first?