One of the questions I didn't get to in last week's mailbag, as it was so general and all-encompassing, came from PF from Oswego. He writes (basically):
What do you think of the season so far? Impressions? Surprises? Disappointments? Are you satisfied with where we are?
It seems a fair question given we're nearing the halfway point of the year. I'm going to save individual player critiques for another post, likely next week, but I'll share my overall impressions.
Obviously the defining characteristic of the season so far has been the injuries. One is almost obliged to say that given the scope of those injuries a 23-16 record is quite good. Had the current roster been evident from the start of the year few would have predicted success for the Blazers. 7 games over .500 and the 6th seed in the West (currently) certainly qualifies as success given the circumstances.
That said, this wasn't supposed to be a season where we were counting circumstances. In that sense it's semi-depressing. Even with the wins, it's hard not to think of what could have been and maybe should be. I was talking to a friend the other day and used the analogy of dating a gorgeous girl that you knew you couldn't have a full relationship with yet. Dinners are great. You laugh, you talk. But in the back of your mind you're thinking, "She's leaving for Europe in a few months and won't be back for a year or two, so where is this going?" It's fulfilling, encouraging, yet something is missing as well.
Clearly this is not the team's fault at all. I admire the courage with which they are playing. Lord knows they've had both reason and opportunity to fall apart multiple times during the year. Each time it appears they might do so they pull it back together. They've had exactly three losing "streaks" this year, two of 2 games and one of 3. That's an accomplishment that plenty of healthy teams in this league would envy. It's relatively easy to get wrapped up and motivated when watching individual games. The big picture is harder to deal with. Every time I get too cynical about that big picture I remember the courage and how they're keeping the ship afloat...remember that they deserve serious applause, not pity or frustration.
One of the big issues of the year has been chemistry. We've heard multiple stories seeming to indicate trouble in what heretofore has been paradise. Those actually don't bother me much. For one thing I think we hear too much nowadays without knowing enough. Players, coaches, and managers have been disagreeing, arguing, and struggling to fit together for ages. Cliff Robinson caused waves on the Drexler teams and Drazen Petrovic wasn't happy. Jerome Kersey and Clyde went through growing pains. Looking farther back, Coach Ramsay looked askance at some of his one-on-one players...players who ended up helping the team enormously in certain circumstances, starting with Herm Gilliam and ending with Drexler himself. Players have come to open fisticuffs in practice on multiple occasions. The unrest is one of the signs that the team is evolving and is finally stocked with more talent and individual desire than it has minutes available. That's a good thing. I don't believe that the current roster will remain unchanged over the long haul but I do believe the current roster is appropriate for this place and time in the team's development even with the rough edges and growing pains. Long story short, if the Blazers never went through this stage it would probably mean they were stalled. Even making a roster mistake is better than standing in place and missing your shot. Basic physics tells us it's easier to correct direction when you're on the move than from a complete standstill.
Like many, I was hoping to see some tinkering with the on-court formula this year. That possibility pretty much departed with the injuries. We were starting to see the evolution on both ends of the court with Oden playing bigger minutes. We saw the team wrestle with including the low post in the offense. We also saw them able to breathe a little easier on defense...an eventuality which I had hoped would allow Oden's teammates to gamble a little more, making a guy like Rudy Fernandez more valuable defensively than what we've seen. Despite the transition not being seamless I was encouraged. I have a hard time putting much stock in anything we're seeing right now other than to say Brandon Roy is showing himself to be as valuable as Blazer fans had suspected and overall having the 7th best offensive efficiency and 15th best defensive efficiency is pretty good (again, considering). If the Blazers' tent was pitched anywhere near that real estate when the season ended I'd consider it a job well done.
Other than the injuries I think my biggest surprise is the difficulty the team is having involving LaMarcus Aldridge and/or the difficulty Aldridge is having acclimating to the team. This situation would seem tailor-made for him to step up consistently. The Blazers need him. He could cement himself as a legit star. He's not doing poorly but it's not clicking. That surprises me a little.
As far as whether I'm satisfied: yes, I am...for now. I can't help but feel like we're all in the middle of a huge freeway pile-up. The Blazers are trying to keep the bus on the road, hit as few things as possible, and come out the other side in one piece. We're along for the ride. The trip we were planning isn't a priority right now. As long as we don't end up tumbling end-over-end on the freeway you have to be happy. When it's all over maybe I'll be able to look back and criticize a little more. Or maybe I'll look back and be amazed how well we all came through it. This doesn't feel like the time for making sweeping pronouncements on either.
Which brings up my final impression: it's weird how much of a week-to-week, if not game-to-game, season this has become. I honestly cannot tell you how the Blazers are going to be playing next week. I can't even tell you which Blazers will be playing next week. That's a far cry from where we were when the season started.
Summing up: I'm struck by the team's courage and ability to keep it together so far, I'm disappointed by the injuries, I'm surprised we aren't seeing LaMarcus integrated better, and I'm satisfied the Blazers are doing well enough given the state they're in.
What about you guys? What are your broad-stroke impressions so far, keeping in mind that we're going to look at individual players later? Are you impressed? Depressed? Something in between? Have at it below.