After last week's column urging Blazer fans not to worry too much--that the team was going to be fine despite no longer being the young, exciting dance partners on the national media block--I got a bunch of e-mail. Most folks agree that any serious worries are overblown, at least in the long-term perspective. But a few people justifiably wanted to know more of the whys and wherefores of my assessment, many brought up particular issues that they feel could get in the way of Portland's future success, and a couple others just plain think the Blazers are overblown and destined for mediocrity at best, probably worse. I thought I'd devote this week to a more in-depth look at why I think the Blazers are going to be just fine in the long-term.
When I sat down to formulate my list I couldn't start any other place than with Portland's superstar, Brandon Roy. And I'm not using that "superstar" designation lightly. I remember clearly an argument I had a couple of years ago with a Sacramento guy who was writing me on a semi-regular basis. He couldn't understand why in the world I considered Roy a present and future star when Kevin Martin was playing in the same conference. Martin was scoring 24 per game at the time (on a 17-win team, mind you). He had the moves, the skills, the flash, the volume. He was, my pen pal argued, the next Western Conference super-guard, the center of the Kings' core for years to come, completely and totally untouchable. With a nod to Martin's unquestionable scoring ability I opined that he was not that useful beyond that and didn't have the kind of steel backbone needed to champion a contending team. He was a very good player in a very bad lineup and was profiting thereby. Lo and behold, a couple years later the Kings get another potential super-guard and Martin is out the door.
That's not likely to happen to Brandon Roy.
Roy had what I consider his worst season in the pros last year relative to expectations. Injuries were a part of the story but adjustments also played a role. He had to negotiate touches with Andre Miller and compensate for a makeshift frontcourt. A lack of three-point shooting around him allowed opponents to guard him deeper out on the floor and pay less attention to his passing game, inhibiting his triple-threat shoot-dish-score mojo. The absence of explosion from heretofore-scary LaMarcus Aldridge also played its part, as teams keyed on Roy viciously. Under that pressure his game looked more sporadic, erratic. The team needed a Kobe Bryant attack to survive the onslaught. That isn't Roy's M.O. His game got partially lost in the gap between those needs and Brandon's comfort level. It was a hectic, fractured year right up until the end when a dejected #7 limped off the court after succumbing to the Suns.
Even with all that Roy scored 21.5, shot 47%, notched 4.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists, and remained the player most relied upon to pick the team up by its bootstraps and lift his teammates by his play. When Roy was out the Blazers missed far more than his scoring. He's not just the major player on this team, he IS this team. That's neither accidental nor because of a lack of talent surrounding him. In fact both talent and win totals have risen in the past couple seasons as Roy's teammates have matured. He's the heart of this team because of his ability and because his teammates and the coaching staff both recognize that he's up to the task and that their best hopes for success lie with him. Roy's production slipped this year and he was still great. Roy's court time and play were more sporadic than anyone is used to seeing and the team still won 50. Roy faced doubts from plenty of corners as the season fell apart and he still emerged as The Man. That's the kind of player you want as your leading scorer. That's the kind of endurance that, once fired in the kiln of adversity, hardens a great talent into a superstar.
That's not to imply Roy is fully there yet. His leadership needs to me more vocal, consistent, pronounced. One of the weak spots in bringing up a posse of young, talented players of the same vintage is that nobody learns to be the hard-case needed to whip the team into shape. Even players with natural talent and leadership ability, players who under normal circumstances would be clear captains of the ship, find their leadership drive inhibited by the level playing field. A veteran superstar can tell your last three classes of rookies to shut up and play right and not give a damn what they think. Prophets are not so respected in their home countries, or in this case among their home draft classes. That dynamic makes vocal leadership risks more daunting.
Fortunately nature takes care of this issue by making everybody get older. Already Roy finds himself the most senior of the young guys. Pretty soon the "of the young guys" designation will be removed as well. At that point his natural leadership position will be easier to assume. In a couple of seasons we should see him come to full flower in the locker room even as he has on the court. At that point the transformation will be complete and Portland will be ready to go.
Further definition of Roy's game and personality will also help the team refine the roster around him. We're drinking the last dregs of the custodial era, keeping the lineup firm and positions warm so the younger players can incubate. We're entering the bust-out era where this team's stars, Roy included, require wingmen more than babysitters. Players who don't fit that description are going to be jettisoned. Remaining players are going to be unleashed. With dress rehearsal behind and the curtain finally up you're going to see the game-winning-shot Brandon translated throughout the entire play instead of just the final seconds. This team is going to depend on Roy. Every time this team has depended on Roy in the past he has come through and exceeded expectations. This again is the superstar personality.
As with all such discussions, we have to keep in mind that this year is the first real test. (Last year would have been, but you know the story there.) Things seldom progress flawlessly in Year 1, especially since some of the players are still scrambling to get into costume as the curtain is rising. Don't judge just by what you see in December, 2010. Look at what's happening in April, 2013. The seeds of that success will germinate this year. The worst of the storm has probably passed. Now's the chance to see what the Blazers can do in the sunshine. You're going to like the look of Brandon in full bloom. That's Reason #1 not to worry.