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What in the World is Happening?

Egad.  You go away for one week of vacation and the whole world starts turning loopy.

I don't know how many people caught it, but Ben referenced this article from the Columbian's new writer Brian T. Smith in the prelude to one of the Gameday Threads.  (Way to show up for pre-season Gameday Threads, by the way.  A couple thousand comments for exhibition games is an eye-opener.)  I should preface this by saying I'm an admirer of Smith's early work.  But this piece disturbed me for multiple reasons.

The basic thrust of the article is that unnamed detractors, who are apparently giving grief to Kevin Pritchard and Nate McMillan for the roster they've built, need to stop talking and instead watch and wait.

The first question I have is the same one Ben posed in his intro:  "Where the heck are these detractors?"  I don't think anyone can claim to have consumed every word spoken or written about the Blazers over the summer as the field is vast, particularly online.  But I'd wager that I've read as much as is humanly possible.  The pieces I've seen have given Portland management a landslide victory.  Unless your home is on the range you'd have a hard time hearing fewer discouraging words than have been printed about the Blazers lately.

The national media have made underdog darlings of the team, linking them with the Spurs as most likely to give the L*kers a hard time.  It's rare to find a national piece without the tagline "In a couple of years this team is going to be a monster."  Even in the 1999-2000 runs the Blazers weren't getting this much ink and respect.  It took Clyde and company actually making the Finals in 1990-1992 and Walton and Lucas actually winning it in 1977 to get positive notice on the national stage.  It's a largely unprecedented era as far as the Blazers and the media elite.  If the general consensus of "Good team but still have to prove they're great" isn't as rosy as we'd like, it can be defended as accurate to this point.  It's certainly not an assessment to get riled up about.

The local print media, for the most part, has been incredibly sympathetic to this team.  A few brushes with Greg Oden aside, most of the players have been media darlings, Coach McMillan is written about with respect and Kevin Pritchard has never been called to task that I can recall.  Any deviations from that norm have been brief and quickly forgotten.

I am not able to hear local radio on a regular basis but it should be noted that sports radio tends to thrive on controversy and asking them to be quiet would pretty much invalidate their medium, as it consists of sound alone.  If this is the target of the piece it's largely wasted.

Obviously online coverage accounts for the largest share of material printed about the Blazers.  But again I have a hard time finding an online source that has been consistently critical of the team.  If anything online venues tend to go overboard the other way, as they are generated by fans who are usually predisposed to see sunlight peeking through any clouds.  One could argue, I suppose, that comments on certain sites tend to run towards the extreme.  But again you're talking about small, unalterable fringe here...certainly an odd and fruitless target for a mainstream media piece.  If anything those under scrutiny would be pleased by such attention.

Perhaps the target of the article was other NBA glitterati.  But these folks tend to make few public statements and those are highly guarded.  I can't recall a rush of GM jealousy flowing across the landscape.  If the intent was to chide inside folks then its effect was largely lost broadcasting the article to the general public without reference to its aim.

Whatever the meaning, we're left to grope in the dark without more clarity.  As such, the piece appears to expend energy and emotion without direction or even substantiation.  This makes it quite unsatisfying, especially when the energy and emotion are amplified through phrases such as "some ambulance chasers" and "vulture-like doubters". (And this when Smith himself identifies the time phrase in question as "after two pre-season games" that the Blazers won.  Anyone want to find the thorns of criticism amidst the blooming rose of Oden-mania?)

A couple of sections of the article were particularly disturbing.  One came right after the "vulture" reference when the source of irritation was revealed to be discussion of "starting rotations, playing minutes, professional egos, and contract years".  One is left to conclude that silence on these matters is the most correct approach.  This misses the point that the mention of these issues is not in itself a value judgment, but rather a statement of fact.  Some starting positions on this team are open...a situation which Coach McMillan himself mentioned in nearly every summer interview about Andre Miller.  The team has a surfeit of talented players at a minimum of three positions, if not four. Playing time is an issue at those positions.  Where playing time is involved in the NBA egos will follow.  And two players have expiring contracts this season with another in a significant option year.  I don't hear anybody criticizing Kevin Pritchard for building the roster this way.  In fact its construction has been a brilliant meld of security and flexibility.  This is what security and flexibility look like.  To suggest that discussion of these issues is in itself negative is a puzzling move.

Later in the piece Smith suggests that NBA rosters are a "Swiss cheese-like mess".  He's right in at least 80% of the cases.  But 80% of the teams in the league also have no chance of winning a title anytime soon.  If you look at the elite teams like Boston, L.A., and San Antonio their rosters are founded on a clear core around which interchangeable players arrive and depart from year to year.  The best rosters are neither arguments for haphazard construction nor for status quo in all 15 positions.

When I first read the article--and perhaps I was moving too fast here, skimming things while on vacation--I was left with the impression through what appeared to be direct quotes that Blazer officials had offered some parallel views on the public's assessment of them.  As I re-read in preparation for this post those quotes were not there the same way I remember so I will not push this point too hard.  Maybe the piece was edited or maybe my impression was simply through osmosis.  In any case, one would assume that Smith conversed with Blazer officials in the general, if not specific, sense before penning the article.  Either way, you'd have a hard time finding a wider-ranging, more vocal, more insightful, and more passionate fan base than the one surrounding this team.  If anybody in the Blazers organization thinks they're going to find a better deal elsewhere--online, in the media, in any category you care to name--they are mistaken.  Certainly there are peculiarities to dealing with the Portland market and its media.  But I am hard-pressed to name another city or group of fans which would provide a more supportive environment for the team.  I can easily name a half-dozen or more teams that would give their right arms to have Portland-like interest and coverage.

If Smith's article does reflect the organization's view the only thing I can think of that makes sense is that this is an "us against the world" rally in a situation where most of the world actually likes you.  I suppose you need some target to make the cause real.  But when David Stern, the league, referees, replacement referees, and the L*kers are all available, picking your own fan base as the rallying point seems a poor choice.

As if this weren't enough, we find Ben's post right below referencing Marc Spears of YahooSports on the turbulent onset of the Andre Miller era.  You can scroll down a couple inches and read it for yourself, so I won't detail it here.  Suffice it to say Miller is raising issues of (you guessed it) starting rotations, playing time, and ego.  He missed contract status, having just penned one, but he did throw in player-coach relations.  It's hardly a damning piece, nor are these fatal issues, but they do provide more grist for the mill.

At this point it's time to re-state the question that opened this discussion:  What in the world is happening here?  Beat-writers swinging at phantoms, fans are (apparently) complaining about nothing, point guards and coaches are bickering, people are copying dry-erase boards...Earthquakes!  Volcanoes!  The dead rising from the grave!  Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together...mass hysteria!

I'm not sure I have the definitive description for all of this but I do have the definitive solution.  Can we just start the regular season now?  Please?  Writers need something to write about.  Players and coaches need common enemies to face.  We need some wins and losses on the board into which all of this enery can be channeled.  This season, with its heightened expectations, seems to be bringing more underlying tension (and tension of a different type) than this organization is accustomed to dealing with.  Nothing is going to relieve that tension short of getting the actual work underway and seeing where we stand.  It's possible that tension will lead to a rougher start to the season than most envision.  It's also possible that it will disappear like mist beneath the burning rays of a fat winning streak.  Either way we're not going to know until the campaign actually proceeds.  Maybe there are real issues here, especially in the Miller case, but we'll not know how real nor what effect they will have until we see them in action...which means actually seeing the team in action...which hasn't happened yet.

This whole thing feels like a groom before his wedding, like an expectant mother before her due date.  You know something good is going to happen but the stress is there anyway.  The only way through it is to do it.  My best advice is simply to take anything you hear before the Big Event at least partially in that light, and thus with a grain of salt.  At least Don Quixote had windmills to tilt at.  Right now I suspect we may be tilting at the wind.

--Dave (