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Cake Redux: The Shifting (and Annoyingly Non-Shifting) Fortunes of the Portland Trail Blazers

I received a couple of nice e-mails over the weekend basically asking whether I was disappointed or disillusioned, depressed or disgusted by the Blazers' slow-ish start and Brandon Roy's knee difficulties.

My honest answer?  None of the above.

If anything I'm sad for the team.  These guys work hard and they do want to win.  The promise has been there for a couple years now.  Having the rug pulled out by injuries and inconsistency bites the big chalupa.  I'd love for them to have one season without worry, where they could just play and gel and make the most of their talent.  Then again no team gets that kind of season on a platter.  You're measured by how you fare against adversity.  That's the nature of sports.  If you're worried about the road to success being less level for you than it seems for another team you've already abandoned the journey whether your legs are technically still moving or not.  This isn't the start envisioned.  Now they're back to slogging their way out of a hole.

On the other hand, nothing has happened yet that wipes out the season or its expectations.  Let's say this one more time:  the reasonable, achievable goals this season have always been for Portland to win the division and get into the second round.  Both of those are still possible.  The latter can be achieved with all but the very worst of playoff seeds, so it's not likely the door will be closed on either of those possibilities until quite late in the season.  I had hoped this would be the year that the Blazers pursued their benchmarks from the top, making everyone else chase to knock them off.  But if they have to do it from the bottom, so be it.  They've achieved their goals as underdogs before.  They should still be focused and confident of the possibilities now.  That's why I'm neither disappointed, disillusioned, disgusted, or depressed. 

I don't know why but I continue to be amazed when folks vastly overestimate the length of the Blazers' reach and then come flaming miserably to earth, lashing out at the team or fellow fans or the world in general when their never-were-going-to-be-met expectations aren't met.  There might have been a sliver of a chance that the Blazers could rush their coming-out party by a year or so, riding their dark-horse into April/May, gelling enough to dominate their peers and give the Lakers a run for their money.  Nevertheless, that chance was always of the sliver variety, not even quantifiable as a legitimate expectation.

(Side Note:  Listening to the ESPN guys the other night, apparently all you have to do in order to get a ton of attention around the league is lose 4-2 to those Lakers in the first round.  Oh, but the team that did that isn't looking like a world-beating squad either.  Returning to main point in 3...2...1...)  

It also became apparent as early as the pre-season--and was certified in the first loss to the Thunder--that such a leap wasn't going to happen this year.  But that leap wasn't necessary for the Blazers to log a good run.  There are still plenty of positive developments aside from the still-living chance to make that second round and get the ever-elusive winning playoff experience.  LaMarcus Aldridge has shown more of a complete game than we've yet seen.  Nicolas Batum is producing more often on the offensive end.  Andre Miller and Rudy Fernandez look more comfortable than we've seen them in Portland's uniform.  Dante Cunningham has become a bench asset.  Armon Johnson is likely to make everybody happier than Jerryd Bayless ever did.  

(Side Note #2:  I'm not one to criticize the Broadcasting Mikes.  I like both on of them and off the mic.  One of their few annoying habits, though, is changing tune following Portland's trades.  Did anyone else catch Mike Barrett throwing in the, "Jerryd Bayless is not a natural point guard" observation in the last game?  He's correct about that, but that was true during Bayless' entire tenure in Portland.  I understand why the song wasn't sung when Jerryd was still with the team but if you're not going to sing it then, it seems kind of wrong to sing it in the very first game after.  I'm not a big fan of the "They're gone so let's tell the truth about them now" trait.  Returning to main point in 3...2...1...)

Despite all of that, recent developments do mark a sea change for the team of a kind not yet seen.  Their direction had already shifted with the hiring of Rich Cho.  Stating the obvious:  his eyes are new and these guys aren't his guys the way they were Kevin Pritchard's.  Everything had to go right in order for the course to remain the same.  Everything is not going right.  

Brandon Roy's knees are also a revelation.  In isolation they're not a tragedy.  If everything else on the team was clicking they'd be a middling worry.  But this team is already waiting on one near-superstar in the making.  It can't wait on two of its three best players.  This is especially true since the team has been on the launching pad for a season and looks primed to spend a second without achieving escape velocity even if the fuse eventually gets lit.  Throw in a possible year lost to lockout and all of a sudden you're looking at a 28-year-old Brandon Roy leading a squad facing the exact same questions it attempted to answer when Roy was a sophomore.  The Blazers would be frittering away what are supposed to be the prime years of a definitive era.  Not to mention the staleness factor.  Leave a team not succeeding long enough and it's not going to succeed no matter what it looks like on paper.  There's too much history of falling short, too many habits of failure that come out under pressure.  Eventually that team falls to infighting and frustration with itself.  Throw in the seemingly systemic injuries and you have even more pressure for change.  At what point do the Blazers start to guess that the roster as constructed will not be healthy for long enough to sustain a run at greatness?  If injuries inhibit this season, that time becomes now.

This doesn't mean the team will be overhauled completely but it does mean that things aren't likely to be OK the way they are.  At the very least pressure for another 20-point scorer increases.  Whether that's developing Aldridge or Batum into a guaranteed threat--making the required sacrifices in other guys' offensive games--or importing someone and paying the price that would entail, it's a move they're going to look at seriously if Roy can't go full-out.  The ancillary criteria for that scorer may lower as well.  For a brief, shining moment Portland appeared to have permission to be choosy, with fit and value at the top of their requirement list for any move.  Naked production and skill may rule the day soon.  The price the Blazers are willing to pay, both financially and in terms of players traded out, may well increase also.

None of this marks the end of the world, nor the end of Portland's dream in this generation.  But it is a significant change.  The oven timer is about to ding.  Barring a sudden return to health and a new ascent towards greatness the cake is going to get re-made and nobody is guaranteed to be part of the new recipe.

I guess the best way to term my feelings towards all of this is "interested".  The team isn't completely off course.  It still has potential for a good year and eventual greatness.  But it's looking more and more like agility and cleverness will be required to squeeze the Blazers through that narrowing hole.  I'm curious to see whether Cho can go Han Solo and hit the gap to freedom or whether Portland's New-Millennium Falcon ends up a stain on the inside of the Death Star hangar bay  never having opened up the throttle.  (Cue Ron Artest with, "Brandon, I am your father.")  I'm interested to see how the team will respond this year.  I'm interested in Roy's performance in particular.  I'm interested to see what moves the front office thinks prudent.  I had hoped to be more celebratory than "interested" at this point in the team's journey, but what the heck.  Like I tell my two-year-old all the time, you can't always get what you want exactly when you want it.   But nobody else seems poised to shut down the eventual competition for the post-Lakers-era prize and as long as there's a chance, you still go for it.  And there's definitely still a chance for this team.

--Dave (