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Who's To Blame?

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So here we are, in the midst of a three-game losing streak...a total case of shock and "awwww" for Blazer fans across the globe.  This team hasn't seen a three-game losing streak since December 9th-12th of last season when we lost to the Magic at home, the Jazz on the road, and the Clippers again at home in overtime.  And before that we hadn't seen a three-game losing streak since the first three games of the previous season, one in which we ended up 41-41.  Well, I suppose we should probably mention that in between those latter two three-game streaks the Blazers lost five straight to a lineup of opponents including the Sixers, Wizards, Bobcats, and Nets.  After that they won a game versus the Kings before dropping four more straight.  Then later that year they dropped five in a row again.  And then they did it again towards the end of the year.  And oops!  In all of those other losing streaks I managed to miss another three-gamer that technically did occur after the one I just cited.  In that .500 season we saw so many losing streaks I can't keep them straight.

Nevertheless, in the quest to get to the bottom of this one a single question has repeated in various forms in numerous forums, including this one.  It's a question that's repeated after nearly every loss, streaky or not:  Who is to blame for this?!?

The question has its roots in our culture, I believe.  I remember when the news about the Columbine shootings broke the story wasn't twenty minutes old before people were calling in to radio stations pinning the blame on the parents.  I've learned since to avoid reading the comment section of any online news source when they report a story where something goes wrong.  You'll read a laundry list of posts blaming the situation on Bush or the Demmycrats or the mayor or the police or liberals or the ACLU or judges or Outer Mongolians whether or not any of those individuals, groups, or philosophical outlooks address the matter in any way.  It's human nature.  If we can pin the blame for something on Subset A of society while identifying ourselves firmly as being outside of that subset (us being good parents or having the right political leanings or what have you) then the laws of simple cause and effect guarantee that said wrong will never happen to us.  Now what was I doing before that story inconvenienced me?  Ah yes... 

"Gilligan!"   "Sorry, Skipper."

I must admit that I see a fair amount of this phenomenon in my day job in the church.  It's present in the occasional bout of parochialism, of course, but it imbues even the positive aspects of the church-pastor relationship.  What do you suppose people want in a sermon?  Along with the God-stuff comes this mantra:  Keep it simple, keep it short, and bring it to a level I can understand.  And indeed I try.  But even as I do so I am aware of the cosmic folly of trying to reduce what is for those who follow this calling (and I'm not saying you have to or should in order to understand this example) the most complex subject in the universe.  Dealing with something both overarching and foundational at once and well beyond the capacity of our minds to comprehend we are compelled to distill it into what amounts to an easily accessible, memorable, palatable sound bite.  Too often it's inadequate despite our best efforts.  This is one of the reasons that I have disliked every single religious billboard I've ever seen.  As someone who trades in the written word myself I feel for God as he experiences that kind of editing.

"I'm curious to see what you did with that manuscript I left you. I thought maybe it was coming across a little preachy so I hoped you would...WHOA!  FOUR  WORDS???  You left in FOUR WORDS???  Do you know how long it took me to write that?!?"

When approaching something esoteric our instinct is to reduce a matter to the simplest explanation possible.  If something in that esoteric field is going wrong we then find somebody to be the fall guy in our explanation...someone outside of the circle which includes us and the people we know and care about.

This works really well in the abstract.  Most real-life situations are more complex, though.  And most real-life people have far more depth than just being "The Guy Who Did It" (duh-duh-duuuuuummmmm).  But that reality demands of us more than we're willing to give to most causes so we settle for the obvious, efficient solution.

Circling around to the topic again, who is to blame for the terrible predicament we find ourselves in as Blazer fans, having lost three straight games?

Perhaps it's Brandon Roy?  His offensive game hasn't looked as sharp as usual this year and he's pretty much forced the team to play good defenders around him...a commodity we're currently fresh out of.  On the other hand he's also playing with a bunch of guys in new roles who don't yet have the understanding to play alongside him or the tools to match him.

Maybe it's LaMarcus Aldridge then.  His offense has looked even spottier than Roy's, certainly shy of the clear #1A option we're used to. His rebounding has been intermittent and he's stayed out of the lane like he's allergic to paint.  On the other hand the Blazers have set him up to take mid-range jumpers because they have a true post-player now and keep clogging the lane with him and with cutters.  They've also relied on their forwards to rotate to perimeter players which tends to cut down on rebounding opportunities.

Maybe it's Greg Oden.  He's been doing well compared to his progress last year but he's still not at first-overall-pick level and his transformation of the team has been a disruption offensively in addition to being an aid defensively.  Then again if he's not a transformational presence then he's not doing what we brought him here for.

Maybe Steve Blake is the one.  His shooting has been sub-par and he's not been able to stop people individually.  His forays into attack dribbling have been disastrous more often than not.  But he's also been asked to play out of position with the same kind of altered lineup that his backcourt partner Roy is facing.  Plus he's been yanked around by the organization and his position and/or future here isn't clear.

Could it be Martell Webster?  He's been up and down like a roller coaster.  But he's also all but mandated to play because he can shoot outside and has the body to absorb punishment from small forwards and both of those are attributes this lineup needs.  We'd certainly be worse off without him playing.

Perhaps we should blame Rudy Fernandez.  He started the season poorly, perhaps fatigued from international play.  He's made some exciting plays and had some nice games but he's not found a rhythm yet and he's another guy who has hurt as well as helped.  But then again if you don't let Rudy make some mistakes you lose the aggression and daredevil nature from his game...the very things which make him special.

Maybe it's Andre Miller.  He was supposed to man the helm for this team, provide veteran experience, be another coach on the floor.  Instead he's struggling with the coach, taking odd shots, and looking as confused as anybody.  Of course he's coming into a strange situation where he's not been given the keys to the car by the coach or his teammates, so how is he supposed to drive?

Could Joel Przybilla be the culprit?  He plays hard every night but his contributions are limited to rebounding and defense.  Plus when he's pressed too hard defensively he has a hard time covering the floor without fouling which takes away much of the advantage he gives us.  And his offense allows opposing defenders to devote extra men to the true scorers.  But he's Joel Przybilla!  His rebounding and lane-watching have been our silent security blanket and the already-decimated frontcourt would be all but obliterated without him.

Maybe Jerryd Bayless is to blame.  He's showing more energy and compact play this year but he's still not in the flow of the offense and his shot is still kind of ugly.  Maybe he should have worked harder on the jumper in the off-season.  But he, too, has been asked to do things he's not naturally suited for.  Plus the things he does do well he does very well.

Perhaps it's Dante Cunningham.  He's a rookie and it's good to blame rookies.  They have a hard time arguing back when they're hauling veteran luggage up the stairs.  He suffers from plenty of rookie mistakes.  But then again he brings an energy and confidence--brashness, even--that the team needs.  And he's just a rookie!

If you don't like blaming rookies, how about Juwan Howard then?  He's 36.  He should know this league inside-out.  But he's never been able to bring extra wins to teams he's played for.  Plus he's having a hard time defending.  But he's also one guy on the team who seems aware of his role and is willing to fill it, be that 25 minutes or zero.  Besides he hasn't really played enough to blame things on.

Well maybe it's the Fates, then.  They injured Nic Batum, Travis Outlaw, Jeff Pendergraph, Patty Mills.  They even got in a shot at LaMarcus the other night.  Those Fates are a cursed plague!  Except that every NBA team deals with injuries at one time or another and if you have to blame them consistently you're sunk before you start.

OK, who put this mess together then?  Kevin Pritchard, front and center please!  You have to answer for the draft choices, the trades, for building this roster that can't withstand its forward corps being blown to smithereens and still win 70% of its games!  How could you possibly leave us with only Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden, Rudy Fernandez, and Andre Miller?  I mean, what NBA GM would be satisfied with that?

Ahhh...I can hear you out there.  We're getting warmer, aren't we?  Hmmm...maybe it's...THE COACH!  YES!  The coach did it!  We love the players.  We can't really blame them because we want them to be part of the "us" circle.  We love KP too, if nothing else for the team he's put together on paper.  No championship dreams without him.  But coaches?  They're disposable.  Every decision they make is arguable.  Everything they do to advantage one player disadvantages another...a player who is sure to be somebody's favorite.  And the criteria for evaluating them is as nebulous as the answer to the question:  "What makes good basketball?"  Good luck coming up with an answer that will satisfy everyone.  Not even wins will do it!  You can still win and be playing far below your "potential", whatever that is.  If we win at a .666 pace it should be .700.  If we win at .700 it should be .750.  Best of all, nobody really knows what's being said or done behind closed doors so we can make up whichever explanation suits us best.  Reduce!  Simplify!  Explain!  Pin!  It's perfect!

So yes, maybe it is the coach.  I assume he's going to make mistakes, have good and bad games just like his players do.  10-year NBA veterans still commit errors out on the floor.  10-year veteran coaches do too.  Greg Oden probably hasn't been featured (or left out there) enough.  The Andre Miller situation has slipped too far.  Brandon Roy was forced into a high-pressure situation against Miami the minute he was put out there with four other guys who can't create their own shots.   Like many, I'd like to see what a Miller, Roy, Fernandez, Aldridge, Oden lineup could do, especially since we're not defending the perimeter that well anyway.  I could go on, just as I could have with any of the above people.

On the other hand, what's the guy going to do?  He's sailing a ship with the midsection blown out right now.  Everybody's bailing water.  He's calling for people off the bench who aren't there.  He's starting people who aren't ideally suited for the tasks in front of them.  And realistically no matter what he does people are going to complain.  How many times have you read, "Why isn't he playing [Player X] more?!?" and "I can't believe he's playing [Player X}!!!" in the same comment thread?  Oden stays in and gets fouls?  Nate's not managing his minutes right.  Oden comes out before he can get fouls?  Nate's stifling his progress.  Losses...every one his fault.  Wins?  Not to his credit.  Getting blamed sometimes can be fair.  But it's different when there's no way you're not going to get blamed.

Here's something to think about.  Maybe it's us.  Lord knows we tend to anticipate more than evaluate when we assess the Blazers' chances.  I had people two years ago telling me for sure that this was a playoff team, probably destined for some success.  I had people last year telling me we were a Western Conference Finals team.  I've had people telling me this year that we have a shot a title when that's clearly among the longest of long shots for exactly the reasons we're seeing.  Every team undergoes difficulties.  Teams such as we--young-ish, not a ton of experience with each other, without a track record of legitimate success--take longer to recover from their difficulties and restore their confidence and groove than do teams who have been pressure-cooked longer.  The difference might ultimately be only a few games, but those few games usually spell the difference between good and great.

Or maybe it's us because we're impatient.  2 games out of the division lead with 62 to go isn't enough.  Like the lovely and enchanting Veruca Salt we want our golden goose egg NOW! 

Or maybe it's us because secretly in our heart of hearts hides a part that would rather be an "expert" than just a fan of a winning team along with everyone else...a part that loves the sound of its own voice...a part which would rather be right than happy.

Ahhh...but then we can also blame those Blazer teams of yore for stirring this longing for success in us:  Walton for kindling the championship flame, Drexler for leaving us just short and longing, Wallace and company for dashing our souls after coming so close.  And we can blame the marketing department for those catchy slogans that enticed us into dreaming.  And we can blame David Stern for keeping us down.  And we can blame refs for screwing us.  And we can blame opposing teams for their luck against us.  And we can blame the media for distorting our vision.  And we can blame Dr. James Naismith for hanging up that peach basket in the first place.  Anything as long as it's quick, easy, and preferably cathartic for us.

This is not to say that all criticism is illegitimate, nor that we lack good analysis among Blazer fans.  You can read a bunch of it around here and I appreciate those posts greatly.  But it's generally true that the level of illumination in a post is inversely proportional to the level of blame cast within it.

Who's to blame?  In truth, all of the above.  The Fates have hit this roster at spots where it doesn't have the right kind of depth which has forced everyone to scramble in unfamiliar territory which has lengthened the adjustment process for everyone, coaching staff included, and left certain situations in which there just have not been right answers sufficient enough to ensure the level of play which heightened expectations for the season demanded. 

Brandon Roy was pressing hard on offense in the last game because of a combination of the skills of the players around him and the perceptions of his role put upon him by himself, the coaching staff, and the fans.  The players around him were not able to respond in such a fashion as to alleviate said pressure nor was the coaching staff in a position to find new ones.  The more Roy plays the role of savior the less involved in the offense his teammates feel and the more they're inclined to stand and watch and/or force attempts, making Brandon's role seem even more necessary.

Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla have been getting in foul trouble because of the lack of lateral quickness and appropriate size among the perimeter defenders which in itself is caused by the team accumulating players for whom that is not a forte.  In response said defenders have sagged off to help protect the lane and their centers which in turn has allowed the opponent easier jumpers.  When made, these make the defense look even weaker, causing the centers to drift out of position in anticipation or rescue, exacerbating the problem.

We could go on.  Lamarcus' offense, pick and roll defense, playing time and development of younger guys, starting lineups, trades...there are answers for all of these things but none of them are foolproof and none are simple.  Decisions will be made, imperfection will ensue, blame will be assigned, eyes (and perhaps heads) will roll.  That's the way of things, for better or worse.

The truth as far as I can see it is this:  The Blazers are in a less-than-ideal situation right now...certainly not the one they envisioned themselves in.  There's no quick fix to make that situation ideal.  We don't even know for sure if it would be more ideal if they had the full roster available.  They haven't had enough time together to show that yet. 

In this kind of situation only one question matters:  How well do you deal with the less-than-ideal?  Will you fall apart, point fingers, check out mentally, give up?  Or do you pull together, grab every win you can, take the losses you have to, but always work to put the best game together that's humanly possible given your circumstances?  Your answer to that question doesn't just determine your success during the rough times.  It's also the same resolve that's going to be tested as you approach the pinnacle and very good opposing teams make life very tough on you for seven games straight.

And you see, that question can't be answered by one person.  It can't be answered by one person for another either.  It can't be done by a coach or a GM.  You can't do it with half your roster.  It's something that everyone has to answer together and live up to or it's meaningless.  The blame falls on everybody or on nobody because you either do it or you don't as a team

Many defensive schemes can succeed.  Many kinds of offensive players can have great nights.  Most teams can find multiple lineups that work together well enough to give a chance at victory.  Without that team commitment, though, none of it is any good.  Without everybody together--in praise and in blame--you quickly get carved apart as every opponent you meet drives a wedge right through the crack that you showed them.

Maybe everybody is to blame.  Maybe nobody is.  Some nights it might really be one person or another.  But when it comes down to it, the question of blame means less than we make of it.  The game is bigger than that.  The team needs to be bigger than that.  So should we be.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)