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What's the Difference?

The always-intriguing Idog1976 brought up a semi-facetious, yet very interesting, question in his diary this week.  For those who haven't read (and it's still in the sidebar as we speak) he said, "If people are predicting we're not going to win a ton of games this year why not just toss the season?"  The comparison was to last year where there was an open question whether it was better to hope the Blazers won a bunch or still root for the wins while acknowledging that it was probably better for us to finish poorly and get a higher lottery seed.

WARNING:  That question is NOT the topic of this post.  Have it out in Idog's diary if you wish to take that old argument up again.

So that got me thinking...sarcasm aside, what is the difference between last year and this year, especially for those who believe that we're probably not going to have a winning record yet?  Is there something else tangible to hold onto as a measuring stick besides wins and losses?  I would argue that the case is much stronger for saying "Yes" this year than it was last.  

First of all, though, I'll confess I bias which I've mentioned before but not lately.  I don't believe there's a huge difference between 25 wins and 35 wins.  I don't believe there's a huge difference between 35 and 40 either.  In fact I don't believe there's usually much difference between missing the playoffs and being an 8th seed.  (GASP!) Basically history shows us that teams that fiddle around in the 25-45 win brackets for long tend to stay there.  Only the teams that break out, top 50, and go deeper into the playoffs matter.  And when those break outs happen they tend to happen suddenly and dramatically.  Generally speaking everything other than that is losing.  It's just a matter of when and to whom.  

Nobody in San Antonio, Phoenix, Detroit, Miami, or Cleveland is going to be excited about a 7th or 8th seed for the next two decades or so because they've been good and they know the difference between winning and losing.  Fans and teams that tend to get really excited about the benefits of 37 wins or 8th seeds are betraying that they are following bad teams.

I know there are going to be screams of horror here because, well, we are going to be pretty excited to re-enter the playoffs when it happens.  But that's not because those low seeds are inherently exciting or good.  It's because we've been bad for so long that looks like paradise.  Heck, 40 wins would look like paradise.  (That's two seasons' worth!)  Fair enough, as long as we remember that it's all relative.

I say this to establish that at least in my mind, flat-out winning is not a viable criterion upon which to judge the success or failure of this season for the Blazers.  You can say all you want about 37 or 41 games and signs of progress and confidence and hope.  It still doesn't mean we've succeeded.  More teams make that "progress", gain that confidence, inspire their fans to dreams of glory, and then stall or fall back than actually march on to greatness.  Otherwise Kevin Garnett would still be in Minnesota with rings on his fingers and the Clippers and Warriors would be clear heirs apparent for the NBA crown.

So back to Idog's original question:  if this is true (and I believe it is) why not hope for more losses and thus the possible tangible gain of another high lottery pick?  Why isn't this 2006-07 Part Deux?

It's simple:  this year is all about building the future.  This is not a season of hope, this is a season of definition.  It's about establishing players, plays, relationships, and reputations that will carry us into the eventual success.  

Last season wasn't about that.  If you recall at the beginning of last year we were searching for glimmers of hope.  Maybe Martell will blossom.  Maybe our rookies will be decent.  Maybe Sergio is the bomb.  It was like lighting matches in a dark room.  Stuff would flare up and you could see a little but you didn't have anything substantial to carry the flame.  You knew 30 seconds later you were going to be in the dark and searching around again.  In that environment all you need is help...some kind of candle to sustain the light.  Thus it made sense to say, "Even if we perform at our best we're going to fall way short for the foreseeable future.  What we need is more talent.  Winning and losing are pretty much immaterial at this point so even though I always hope for the Blazers to win I'm going to be OK with them losing and getting a better chance at that talent too."  Without knowing much about Roy and Aldridge, without having a core of players, without even being to rely on a simple game plan most nights because we were horribly overmatched that approach was reasonable.  In that environment we could have lit a hundred matches and it wouldn't have mattered.

This year is different.  We have more talent.  We have more direction.  We have more of a definable future.  Roy and Aldridge are getting more established and are thus more quantifiable.  They have met or exceeded any reasonable expectations of them.  Greg Oden needs no introduction or bona fides.  We have some depth at point guard.  We have some young possibilities in the frontcourt.  It's far from a completed masterpiece but you at least feel you have the tools and raw materials in front of you now.  There are no glimmers of hope here.  The room is lit six or seven times over and it's time to put down the matches and get to work.

The last few years have been kind of like trial runs of a project.  You go out and do your best but you know you're just going to chuck the results when you're done.  Expectations and practices are modified accordingly.  A few rough edges will probably be OK because it's not hanging around for long anyway.  This year the project is for keeps.  It's not going to be done this year...not by a long shot.  But what we start building this year will be the foundation which supports us in the future.  There's a high probability that if (when!) we become great it will be with many of these same names and with more polished versions of the skills and schemes you will see this very season.

The difference will probably be modest in the win-loss column.  It's enormous philosophically however.  Every time these guys discover a play that works or another reason to trust in each other and work together it matters.  That's the future being built now.  Every time they grit out a tough win or ache from a last-second loss it matters.  That's the future being built now.  Every ounce of respect they garner from the referees, every subtle nuance that they pick up from the coaching staff, every defensive stand and clutch free throw and drawn charge and unselfish pass matters.  This team is defining itself a way that frankly it could not a year or two ago.  And these are the things on which the season will be judged.

Things have changed.  I think everybody inside and outside the organization knows it.  What the outcome of that change will be won't be known for a while but its evidence should show up right away.

That right there is the argument why losing, or losing ball, is not beneficial this year in the same way it might have been (wink, wink) in the past.  I don't think we ever intentionally lost. I don't think anyone ever suggested or supported intentionally losing.  But we did benefit from the unintentional losing we did.  We will not benefit the same way this year.  We don't need another lottery pick as much as we need to take this core group of players and establish an identity that will lead us to where we want to go--an identity wrapped up in great basketball and a great commitment to winning that goes even farther and deeper than our talent would otherwise take us.  That's why even if you don't believe this season will herald a dramatic upswing in wins you can say with a straight face, "This season means something."

Though we will probably lose our fair share this year there will be no mixed feelings about it for me this resigned acceptance of "Well, that's just who we are."  We don't need the wins yet but we do need everybody focused on winning and on getting better every moment they're out on the court.  That drive is possible because FINALLY we are in a position to believe that winning is possible...some now and a lot more in the future.

That makes all the difference in the world.

--Dave (