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On Criticism

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A question was briefly brought up in the sidebar which didn't get much discussion but it gets mentioned every now and again so I wanted to talk about it.  The basic gist is:

"Hey Dave, why don't you criticize the team more?"

I figure the best way to answer is by sharing my view of criticism, letting you guys in on how I make decisions whether to criticize or not, and if so how I determine what and how to criticize.  It's a crucial issue because at the end of the day I think the quality of a blog and bloggers in general centers around this matter.  Also I perceive relatively few people doing it consistently well.  I'm not claiming I'm perfect by any means.  In fact part of the rationale for doing this is so you'll have a standard to which you can hold me and by which you can measure my work.  It may not be your standard exactly, but I'm more or less claiming it as mine.  I can't really violate it without putting something out there I'd consider substandard, or worse...untrue to myself.

If you're not that interested, the Joel Przybilla season review is right below.  I'm sure there will be more posts today as well.  If you'd care to peruse this one, it's after the jump.

Let me start by going off on a semi-tangent.  I've read a few theories about my blogging, my stances, and my persona over the last couple of years.  Almost without exception they've been pretty far off base.  One of the most distressing things I find in this endeavor is how quickly and irrevocably people want to pigeonhole you.  I love communication.  I enjoy its complexity, texture, and vibrancy.  I believe it requires time and patience, listening and empathy...all of the things that comprise the noblest parts of being human.  I take it quite seriously and give my heart to it.

I don't perceive everyone taking that same approach.  I think today's world with its vast wellspring of words--most cheap and rushed--encourages people to shortcut the process.  If you can apply a label to somebody's work you can assume what they say without actually considering it.  We cruise through 60 stories in a 30-minute newscast, each reduced to a supposedly crucial sound-bite.  We attempt to get through as many customers in a day as possible, employing so many assumptions about what they're going to tell us that our interaction can be reduced to, "If you're this person, press 1.  If you're that person, press 2."  We identify more and more strongly with parties and organizations and stances that seemingly mean (and do) less and less, choosing our sides by label more than action.

Personally I think the world would be a better place if we each reduced the number of word-sources we gave credence to but engaged more deeply and passionately with those we did choose to hearken to.  How much richer would our lives be, for instance, if we cut out 80,000 words a day we heard from a Rush Limbaugh-type program and spent that time considering words to share with our spouses or teachers?  (That's not to impugn Rush.  I imagine many people would choose his program as one of their desired sources.  It's just an example.)  I believe most interactions should be unique, treasured, and meaningful...even if in a lighthearted or escapist way.  That's pretty much how I approach this blog.  That's what I strive for.  I don't have time to do a ton of other things besides this, my family, my day job, and some good friendships.  But hopefully I do those well. 

So perhaps you'll understand why it's frustrating to have the work summed up as, "Well he's a this" or "He takes this stance because he's a pastor" or what have you.  Many things play into our choices, including the choice of how to criticize, but they're seldom linear or simple.  Almost never can they be accurately contained in a one-size-fits-all label.  In fact the umbrellas of such labels are so impossibly large that even when they're nominally accurate, the people who fit under them usually have little in common.  Many fellow pastors think I'm an odd duck, for instance.  It brings me great shame to be associated in any way with certain others.  Meanwhile others have become good friends, including some who are quite different from me.  And yet all of us get painted with the same brush as if we--our reactions, views, and voices--are completely interchangeable.

Were I to cater to the common instinct, however, I'd say my target guide-word for deciding what I post is "truth".  I write what I see.  I share what comes out of my best powers of insight and study and experience and extrapolation.  Right or wrong, accurate or misled, that's what you see every day.  I don't print anything I don't see as true or correct.  That includes whatever criticism I offer.  That criticism cannot be removed from the context of this basic philosophy, nor of the complexity of the interaction.  For me it's not as simple as just "adding more".  Doing so involves shifting the deeply-held philosophical underpinnings that have shaped this blog as well as my conception of truth.

And really, the truth about the criticism (or lack thereof) here is simple.  Even the comparative B.E. greybeards among you can only claim to have read my public writing for 2-3 years or so.  That's the extent of your experience with me.  What has happened to this team in the last 2-3 years?  Only one of the most astonishing transformations we've seen in a sports team in our lifetime.  This has been true off the court and on.  We've gone from the depths of the Jailblazers to the heights of a team that inspires even enemy fans to wax with admiration, confessing envy, appreciation, and maybe even some clandestine rooting.  We've gone from 21 wins to 32 to 41 to an amazing 54 wins and there's still growth left to explore.  Every bit of it looks at least sustainable, if not exceed-able.  If you look at overall trends I'm hard-pressed to see the downside.  In this overwhelmingly positive environment most of the commentary is positive because that's the truth.  Wins, losses, and forward progress are the name of the game and this team is playing that game very well.

Now, if you were able to talk to the select handful of people who knew my writing before it went public they would tell you that the stuff they heard from me wasn't nearly as positive.  And frankly, if four years from now we still haven't gotten out of the first round of the playoffs you're going to hear a different tone than you hear right now.  But that's not where we are.  Honestly I'll be quite happy if I'm able to write mostly positive things about this team all the way to an NBA Championship or four.  I've been through the dark years.  Before that I went through a host of early playoff exits and frustrated dreams even in the later exits.  I much prefer these trends to those.

Of course there are things to criticize even on an upward-trending team.  I think we do a pretty good job of that too.  If you hear something from me you can be pretty sure that it's grounded in reality, or at least as close as I can get.  Believe me, I feel bad after losses.  Sometimes I feel angry.  Once we got in the playoffs my angst was off the charts.  I live and die with this stuff.  And sometimes I just want to let loose with a rant too.  But this blog has never been just about my feelings.  I don't feel like people want to read "Dave's Edge" and I don't think the work would be nearly as strong that way.  This site covers the Blazers.  That's a topic that's above all of us and above any of our feelings.  If this site is going to be about the Blazers that implies some kind of grounding in the team which I need to follow even when what I'm yelling at the TV sounds different than what I end up writing here.

Everything I give you comes through my own eyes, but I strive to add the broader perspective...when I can the team's perspective.  The team may be angry about an outcome, but they're not in the locker room ranting for very long.  They're analyzing what went wrong and figuring out how to fix it.  Sometimes they're saying, "Forget this game.  Tomorrow's another day."  When I perceive those moments I write those moments.  That shapes the way I criticize.

If you're looking for somebody to jump off the deep end after every loss and yell about how the coach should be fired, you're in the wrong place.  Part of me may feel that way, but that's not the best part of me nor is it relevant to the proceedings.  Besides, there are a thousand places you can read that.  For the most part this place should be different.  There's a place for those expressions to be sure, but it's not front and center on the main page.  The main page posts are where you go after you've blown off the steam and you want to know what went into creating it and how the team's going to deal with it.

Someday you may see a post from me calling for the coach to be fired.  I'm not saying that's an illegitimate or unapproachable topic.  But hopefully because of the quality and character of the analysis you've seen from me in the meantime that moment will be more "Holy crap!" than "That's crap!"  No matter the subject if you know it's legit when I've said it then I've done my work well.  And I'll trade off ten thousand chances to rant for that trust and credibility.  The bargain isn't even close.

When you deal with enough people over an extended period of time you learn some things.  I am taken care of well here.  I probably receive less crap and criticism than most any blogger you know, especially the folks writing on this level for this broad of an audience.  So please, I am not complaining here, rather explaining...letting you into my shoes for a moment.

When I don't offer a bunch of criticism, there will always be people who say that I'm a homer or pandering to the team or what have you.  But then when I do offer criticism, more often than not people will criticize the criticism. 

I remember my basic assessment of Rudy Fernandez last summer was that he was going to be fine--probably quite good--offensively and energy-wise but that he was going to have trouble playing defense in the NBA with his body and the style he was used to employing.  Say hello to the flood of outrage.  Obviously I was underselling Rudy or being grumpy or I didn't know enough about Europeans or basketball or what have you.  Fast forward a year and Rudy has been a good offensive player and provided a lot of energy.  He's having trouble defensively, more so when playing outside of his natural position.  He, himself said during the playoffs that other players pay more attention to that aspect of the game and so are playing more.

All last summer--whether here, on the podcast, on the radio--whenever anybody asked me about Greg Oden my mantra was the same:  "Greg is going to be an impact player who changes the Blazers' game but you're not going to see the full effect this year."  I said it so much that I got sick of saying it.  Before the season started I heard from people who were certain that Greg was going to take the league by storm right away.  After the season commenced I heard from people who were convinced that Greg was a bust.  82 games and one playoff series later, what's the book on Oden?  He had a tangible effect on the game but he didn't reach full flower this year.  Most folks think he will improve over the next couple of years and become a great piece for this team.

Obviously I'm picking prominent and favorable examples to illustrate my point.  But it does generally hold true that when I analyze and criticize I've learned not to let other folks affect whether and how and how much.  I adjust for my audience, certainly.  I might put things a certain way here and a slightly different way on the radio and a different way altogether when interviewing with an opponent's blog.  You have to frame words not just by what you want to say, but by how people are going to hear them.  But other than those minor adjustments, I pretty much say what I say and live with it.  I'm hardly perfect, but almost all the time I make sense (hopefully) and I'm usually happy to own what I've said.

I also have a few other tenets that guide my criticism:

I understand that not everything will go optimally.  Basketball is a game of mistakes and compensating for them.  Every team and every player screws up.  The best teams and players know not to let that affect their play too much. 

I will tend to criticize less if I feel the subject at hand wouldn't have altered the outcome of the game.  This is a prime reason you hear less criticism in a 54-win season.  Do you really have scenarios in which this team could have and should have won 60?  I don't.  That means a good part of my criticism is moot.  Keep in mind also that this year, for the first time in ages, this team was actually playing players who were suited for their roles.  They weren't stuck having to play a bunch of guys with glaring weaknesses and no experience just to fill a spot.  You can live with a guy's shortcomings better when he's playing 5 non-critical minutes a game than when he's playing 20 minutes in a crucial role.

A corollary:  Just as I won't glam things up to ingratiate myself to the home crowd, I won't go out of my way to criticize to make myself look smart.  If 92 things went right in a game and 4 went wrong, I'm going to spend more energy on the 92.  There will be plenty of times when things legitimately go wrong.  Nitpicking in the good times doesn't make sense.

I also don't find it productive to criticize an elephant for not dancing ballet.  We discover players' strengths and weaknesses as we see them.  Those need to be spelled out as we begin to encounter them, every time they affect the game, and for purposes of ascertaining how much we need the player and how they fit into the future of the team.  Other than those contexts, I don't think they need to be repeated ad nauseum.  We know Travis Outlaw hasn't been the best defender. That was established years ago.  It's not news.  The only time it really needs mentioned is when it obviously blows a game for us or when it looks like it's changing, such as when he does a better job.  What this ends up looking like is Travis' defense not getting mentioned much except when he has a positive night.  What that translates into for some is, "Dave is glossing over Travis' deficiencies!  He only mentions the positive!"  That's not entirely accurate.  It's just boring to write and read the same obvious assessment 72 out of 82 games.

I don't tend to criticize much when there's no ready solution available.  Player X might be inept defensively but if Player Y who plays behind him is just as inept, what exactly is the point of calling for Player X's head?  What are we going to do in the middle of the third quarter in Game 46?  Call for his head in the off-season when we can actually consider making a trade.

I tend to give rookies more leeway than other players.  Harping on a rookie for making mistakes is like harping on the sky for being blue.  It's a rare rookie that doesn't.  And just because we've seen one of those exceptional rooks in Brandon Roy doesn't make that the measuring stick for every guy we draft.

The exception to all of the above points is when I see people questioning why these players aren't playing more or playing in different situations.  Once that noise reaches a certain volume I will usually do my best to explain why you're seeing what you're seeing.  That explanation may include bringing up obvious weaknesses or rookie mistakes and the message sometimes has to be repeated.

I also think the game and its relationships are more nuanced than many people give credit for.  One of the things I've been asked is why I don't talk about Brandon Roy's defense more.  And it's true, Roy's defense is not up to the rest of his game.  We don't mention that often.  He's not inept, but sometimes you'll see him giving up on plays defensively, an action that would almost certainly bring a response were it to happen with other prominent Blazers.  However Brandon's role on this team is different than that of other players.  He has to carry this team on offense so often.  He also has to expend a huge amount of energy getting those halfcourt layups and fouls that we all love and that nobody else on this team can get with the same frequency or results.  In a perfect world Brandon would also be busting his butt equally on defense every play.  But it's not perfect and his performance isn't entirely out of line with other players who carry their team's offensive load but only play defense their hardest when it's needed. 

Brandon picks up his teammates offensively when they can't do it themselves.  It's their responsibility to rally around him defensively sometimes when he can't do it himself.  Usually when you notice Brandon blowing a defensive play you're noticing precisely because that hasn't happened.  Brandon's teammates don't have the same chops that he does nor do they fulfill the same role on the team that he does.  So they get called out for not fulfilling that responsibility more than he does. 

You may agree or disagree with the philosophy involved, but I'm pretty sure this is also how the team approaches it.  I would be willing to wager there's far more talk of surrounding Brandon with better defensive help than there is of getting Brandon himself to be a better defender.  Thus there's value in hearing that perspective.

Finally, I don't believe all suffering is redemptive.  Some losses are just losses.  There's not always something to be learned from them.  This is especially true of blowouts.  Losing by 30 seems to get everybody riled up the most.  That's actually the time when I feel there's the least amount of productive criticism to be had.  What went wrong?  Freakin' everything.  And most of it was linked.  Crap happens.  You shake it off and start again tomorrow.  If you start listing off the shortcomings you're going to be here forever.  To what point?  Most of it will be better the next game.  We seldom lose by 30 twice in a row.  If you only isolate a few shortcomings and blame it on them then you've done the recipients a disservice and described the situation incompletely and thus inaccurately.

This was also true in a different way of the playoff series this year.  What happened there?  Houston was stronger, more intense, made more of the right plays, and knew what the heck they were doing.  The Blazers got smashed right out of the gate and it became pretty apparent that they'd have to get lucky to make it up.  Luck seldom influences a seven-game series.  And that's the end of it.  You can talk about this or that player or event but in truth those factors probably weren't going to turn the series.  As it turned out, Houston was simply more likely to win.  No matter how you rearrange the cards a straight still beats two pair.  No matter how hard the kings and jacks try, when the hands hit the table they're the ones getting mucked.  Yelling at or about them won't change that.

I would never stop anyone from (reasonably) criticizing the team, even if I disagree with their points.  One of the reasons I started blogging was that in the old days the fan base had ebbed so far that only the most vehement of supporters remained to talk about the team.  In that environment it was all but impossible to offer a criticism, even a legitimate one, without getting shouted down and impugned as a fan.  It was not healthy in the least.  "Positive talk only" is a concept I revile, as I believe it's an attempt to conceal the weakness of a team and its surrounding community rather than a sign of strength.

Honestly, I don't believe you'll get through a week of the season without reading several critical comments from me.  Perhaps it'll be clearer now where that criticism comes from and why you're not reading certain things in my posts.  Criticism is part of the game, part of the fan experience, and part of blogging.  I'd never want to change that.  I simply want to do it well and with the same integrity that guides the rest of my writing.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)