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Winning Time

Dicussion of the season and our future will begin in earnest Monday, but I'm reserving this point to be first in line, as it's probably the most important thing to remember about where the Blazers have been and where they are:

This is the last season in which we'll be able to make excuses for the team.

I understand this is going to sound negative at first.  I don't mean it that way at all.  This was a positive year.  As we've said repeatedly, making 50 wins and the playoffs was an enormous, if not miraculous, achievement given the circumstances.  But see, there's the key:  "Given the circumstances".  Up until now the hallmark of the Blazers has been having legitimate reasons not to achieve but then achieving anyway.  At first they were too young.  Then there was Oden's microfracture.  Now this year the whole team fell apart.  The rounds of applause should thunder for them as they've come farther than they should have through all of it.  Even in this nightmare of a year we found out that the team has more grit and innate desire/ability to win than we imagined.  But now, finally, they have to put it all together.  That begins next season.  If it doesn't happen, something is wrong.

This team is no longer too young to think about going deep in the playoffs.  Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge will enter their fifth seasons, on the cusp of their prime years.  The performances of Andre Miller and Marcus Camby this season will have shown the importance of veteran influence.  The Blazers will either have those two or other vets like them.  Miller would still be projected as the starter at point guard.  Camby would become the first big-man option off of the bench.  They instantly make this team experienced enough.

This team might or might not be healthy.  But if Portland loses another promising season to injuries you have to start thinking it's built into these players.  At that point you change course because "wait until next year" starts to ring hollow.

The Blazers have had two years of playoff experience.  In each year they learned lessons.  Against Houston they figured out how much of an all-out fight the post-season is.  They matched up poorly in that series and never got into advantageous position.  Against Phoenix they started out by taking away homecourt advantage and pushed back decently after Phoenix came back at them.  They got a tiny glimpse of the promise of emerging victorious in a series.  Next year they ought to be able to put that all together and actually come out ahead.  With a taste of winning and a full head of steam the team should be able to get on a roll.  We're not talking championship yet but we're talking a take-no-guff second round and a decent shot at the conference finals.

Again, if that doesn't happen some kind of change is in order.  If that grit we saw this year can't combine with the obvious talent in a healthy, cohesive whole maybe this team doesn't have the right skills, the right chemistry, the right something.  At that point there will be no denying it.

This is not to say that the Blazers will wait for another season to pass before making changes.  They'll be able to anticipate some of what they need from this year's ups and downs and I expect they'll act accordingly this summer.  They'll remain opportunistic for any way to make the team better.  In fact they might be more aggressive than they have been in past season as they, too, know what time it is.

All of the trial runs are done.  The starter's gun fires in November and Portland better be in the blocks ready to sprint because nobody is going to accept anything less than a prodigious win total in the regular season and tangible playoff success.  And that "nobody" probably includes the players themselves.

Wipe away everything that's come before...all the lessons, heartaches, roller coaster trips, gutsy displays, miracle finishes, everything.  It's all pointed to one time, one purpose.  Now come the winning years.  Either that or they're not coming at all for this specific mix of guys.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)