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Who Matters?

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As we progress into an off-season that’s likely to serve historically as the demarcation between eras for the franchise (though being in the midst of it we know the evolution has been more gradual) it’s time to look at one of the changes in thought process that we’ll be making as a fan base, namely our assessment of who really matters on the team.

While we certainly value some players over others, in the era we are exiting we have been prone to credit most everybody on the team as important in some way.  Three factors contribute to that assessment, one cultural, one local, and one situational.

The Culture:  The quintessential American sports story is Rudy, meaning the movie, not the Euro-guard.  We tend to root for the underdog, the surprising guy who carries the day.  Obviously you can’t tell that story about the #1 overall pick, so we get more excited about the bench warmer who puts up a surprising 15 point performance over the starter who averages 18 per game.

The Local Scene:  Portlanders are generally nice and have a real soft spot in their heart for Blazers.  It doesn’t feel right to discount any of them.  It does feel right to look on the bright side of each one whether they're a starter or the 13th man.

The Situation:  When you’re a bad team every player matters because none of them are really excelling and you’re weighing future potential more than present reality.  The most important guys on your team aren’t the second and third offensive options who are losing you 50 games a season.  They’re the rookies and guys stashed overseas who might come in and dazzle someday.  This is how you get through the hard times as a fan.

While this way of thinking creates good stories and threads of hope for bad teams, it doesn’t reflect the reality of good ones.  Since we’re hopefully becoming a good one soon, at the risk of offending our delicate, passionate sensibilities, we should probably examine how it really works.

There are four tiers of players on a good NBA team.  They rank like this:

Tier One:  These are the 1-3 players (max!) who form the core of your team.  This is your Dwyane Wade in Miami, your Kobe and Pau in L.A., your Big Three in Boston.  There is a huge, unbreakable line right under this tier to differentiate it from all of the others, as they don’t even compare.  They shouldn’t even be on the same page.  It’s not equal.  If you have these guys you’re in it.  Without them you’re toast.  The 1977 Portland Trailblazers are widely held up as one of the great examples of team play and egalitarianism.  Their Tier One players were Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas.  In ’77 they both played and the result was a World Championship.  Late in ’78 Walton goes down with his foot injury and we’re first-round fodder for the Sonics.  Same team, great record coming in…without Walton, no chance.  That explains your Tier One player and his relationship to the team perfectly.

Tier Two (Optional):  If you only have 1 or 2 Tier One guys your team will often have supporting stars to fill out those top 2-3 spots.  These are the Shawn Marions of the world.  They aren’t carrying the team on their own but those Tier One guys aren’t going to score all the team’s points themselves.  They need an 18-20 ppg guy here or there.  On a few teams, like the current incarnation of the Celtics, this second tier doesn’t even exist though.  You can’t just be the next best player after the superstar.  You actually have to have game.

Tier Three:  These are usually the rest of your starters after Tiers One and Two and often your 6th man.  (Though some teams have their star guys be the 6th man…c.f. San Antonio.)  They’re good players.  They’re important to the club and you suffer when they’re out for long stretches.  They’re going to win a few games for you either by busting out every now and then or supporting the stars so well.  Your good team tends to turn average really quickly if you don’t have the right guys in these positions.  But they’re not the guys opposing teams circle on the scouting report.

Tier Four:  These are your 7th and 8th…sometimes if you’re deep your 9th or (rarely!) even 10th man.  They’re usually able veterans or up-and-coming firebrands.  Most nights they just fill in minutes to get the starters rest.  But you’ll have 2-3 games a season where you go, “Without that guy tonight we wouldn’t have won.”  2-3 games out of 82 seems infrequent, but those may be the 2-3 games that give you prime playoff seeding or homecourt.

Beyond that, my friends, nobody else matters…not on a good team.  What?!?  Gasp!  Horrors!  But it’s true.  Unless or until one of the other guys advances far enough to knock somebody else out of one of these tiers--probably in the third one at least if he’s supposed to be developing--they barely count.  Take Joel Freeland and transplant him to the Spurs right now.  Do you think anyone would blink an eye?  Would the fan base get all excited and be penciling him in for a significant role?  They probably wouldn’t notice or care.  Why?  Because they’ve got real players, not potential players, and until you become a real player you don’t have a lot of impact on a good team.

This puts some perspective on the player evaluations and the possibility of trades or moves.  We don’t have a 15-man team or even an 8-man rotation at this point.  We have Roy, Aldridge, and Oden.  Nothing else is set in stone.  It’s more like freshly-mixed Jell-o.  Putting a ton of importance on anyone else at this point is premature, especially when we haven’t seen exactly how Oden will affect the game.  Everything else is going to revolve around supporting the Big Three.  Whichever guys end up doing that with the most consistency and with the best production will be the guys wearing our uniforms 2-3 years from now.  Those will be the guys who matter.

--Dave (