Do you really get all of those questions or do you just pick topics of the day and run with it?
Nope, they're all questions from my inbox. Sometimes I edit them down or compress 2-3 different inquiries on the same subject into one question for the sake of clarity and completeness but they're all asked. And now your question is among them to put your mind at ease!
The questions do tend to reflect current topics (at least when I get to them in a timely manner) as that's what people are curious about. Here's a sampling of questions asked within the last 24 hours.
How confident are you with a potential Batum-Aldridge-Matthews core moving forward? Doesn't that lineup feature the balance of looming potential and solid productivity teams search for? And is it fair to say that lineup is a few pieces of way from legit playoff contention?
I like certain things about that lineup. Youth is one. Defense is a clear strength, perhaps the most exciting. Aldridge has shown consistent scoring ability and Matthews has shown signs of becoming a big scorer. I'm interested to see what Batum and Matthews do now that they're not looking over their shoulder waiting for Roy, now knowing that the team depends upon them to score. They could light it up. I certainly like this core more than that of, say, Milwaukee or Minnesota or even in some ways the Clippers or Kings. It's a good group to start with.
On the other hand it's not as easy as saying, "Those three are young and going to get better and then the Blazers will be great." Batum hasn't shown star-level ability in the NBA yet. You can talk all you want about a couple months in Europe and an upward growth curve but if that's all it took Rudy Fernandez would be a star. Jerryd Bayless and Jarrett Jack might too. The Blazers are reportedly still high on Batum. It's time for him to justify their confidence. If he does we won't have an argument. If he doesn't, how long can you keep waiting? Matthews generates points but not consistently and not off the dribble. In fact he's just bad off the dribble. That's going to create problems. So even though this lineup has potential it's not trouble-free and certainly not guaranteed to produce.
Were I on the outside looking in I'd say I like all three players but they're likely to get a rude awakening as they try to break through to individual stardom and team success. Say what you want about Brandon Roy and Greg Oden (when the latter played, anyway) but both of them drew more attention than Miranda Kerr at a pool party. Even a hobbled Roy scared opponents. He was the one guy you didn't want going off. You had to send two men against Oden on the boards too. That's all gone now. Opponents are free to concentrate on the remaining players. If I'm an opponent I guard Batum for the drive and Matthews for the jumper, leaving them in single coverage until they've proven they can produce enough to hurt me. I reserve all my attention for Aldridge because he's the only one I feel can cost me the game. I'll let the other two do their thing and try to kill the Blazers by cutting off their head. Somebody's got to prove they can step up and take the defensive focus away from LMA. It's not going to be Camby. That leaves Batum, Matthews, Wallace, and Felton. Right now as a Blazer observer I don't know which it will be and I'm not sure any of them save Wallace can do it on a consistent basis...and I suspect Wallace will be traded. If I'm an opponent I'm looking at a roster that I respect but don't fear outside of LaMarcus.
How confident am I that this lineup is going to be good? Pretty confident. How confident am I that this lineup will ever be great? That I'm not so sure. I need to see them prove it...not hint or tantalize, but prove it.
As to whether it's fair to say this lineup is "a few pieces away from legit playoff contention", yes it is. But the way the NBA works it's fair to say that about every team. The statement is in the same vein as "The Blazers played the Mavericks pretty well in last year's playoffs!" Both are just different ways of saying, "You aren't there yet."
Most of us believe this Blazers team cannot contend in the west. That is, most of us see another one and done season... at best. The thing is I would have argued the same for both the Mavs and the Grizz last year. On a shortened season I believe returning the same core of players that gave the champs a run last year has value.
In fact I would say the only way to land a top tier free agent next summer would be to make a playoff run this year. I believe a season with the current crew is essential in identifying who will be our guys moving forward. It's not impossible that lighting is caught in the proverbial bottle is it?
1. As to the comparisons to the Mavs and Grizz...just because something happens to someone else and you have a similarity to them it doesn't follow that it will happen to you. Barack Obama was elected president. He is a middle-aged male. I am a middle-aged male. It does not follow that I will be elected president. Both had particular circumstances--massive untapped upside in the case of the Grizzlies and a veteran, superstar-led team which had been to the Finals before in the case of the Mavs--which do not apply to this year's Blazers.
2. For the proper perspective on that first paragraph take out [gave the champs a run] and replace it with [lost in the first round]. One cannot base accurate predictions on taking the most rosy, forgiving interpretation and then assuming that it will get even better. Instead assume a baseline that's at least neutral or even a little harsh and ask, "Has the team evolved in such a way that under the same conditions they could overcome what stopped them before and change these results?" The league won't let you play your best over the long haul. Instead they'll force you to play your worst and see if you can get out of it and generate wins anyway. The teams that ultimately win aren't those for whom everything goes right...though that can give you a temporary burst. The teams for whom things go wrong but they persevere anyway are the ones who emerge victorious. Everybody else gets to blame refs, the schedule, bad playoff draws, weather, universal conspiracies and the like.
3. Doing well is important to getting top tier free agents. I imagine the Blazers will do as well as they can. They're certainly not going to blow up this team immediately and retreat to 20 wins.
4. This season is exactly as you described: a testing period for the current crew. That should create certain expectations/goals and eliminate others or at least relegate them to a chance not worth talking about unless it happens. The Blazers would rather not be in an evaluation year. Trust me, they figured they'd be deep into the conference title hunt by now. But an evaluation year is better than a year shooting for good lottery position because you already know you stink.
5. Lightning can be caught in a bottle. But who's to say it strikes the Blazers and not someone else? After all, couldn't fans of every team hope for the same? And what would it mean even if it did hit Portland? Winning teams don't wait for lightning. They let the lightning hit other people and then crush them anyway.
In response to your suggestion that trading LMA for Dwight Howard would be a fine idea if it could happen, at what point does a team put absolutely everything at stake in order to try and win a championship? I understand it is the ultimate goal in the NBA. But when does trading players who you think could win your city a championship for stars, who haven't even been able to win their current team a championship, any different than playing fantasy basketball? Isn't some amount of loyalty towards players on your city's team worth anything anymore?
Loyalty matters. In fact it's one of the keys to winning, as folks in Dallas or San Antonio could tell you. But you are loyal to the players who help you win championships (or at least win as much as you possibly can) just as players tend to be loyal to teams on which they can succeed most as individuals. You can't be loyal to every guy who puts on your uniform...at least if loyalty extends to never saying goodbye to them. Otherwise we'd still have Rick Adelman and Jim Barnett in the lineup. You can be loyal in the sense of treating them well, compensating them fairly, and giving them the best chance to excel while they are with their organization. That's expected. But when their time is done, which includes you having a chance to improve the team by letting go of them, both they and you understand that the move must be made.
Even though players tend to take trades hard--after all it's never easy hearing an organization prefers someone else over you--they also support them, at least in the abstract. Consider 15 guys on the Blazers roster. If you really believe that trading Aldridge for Howard would give the team a better chance at success and a title, how fair would it be to the other 14 (who are loyal to you and the team) for you to not make that deal out of attachment to LaMarcus? You've just shown that the priority of this team isn't winning, but something else. No matter how noble that something else is, it will not hold the team together the way driving forward towards victory will. These guys aren't in the business to make friends. They have plenty of those on and off the court. Their job, their drive, is to win basketball games. Once you tell them that's no longer the goal, or even that it comes second, they're going to fracture. If keeping LaMarcus is more important than winning then why isn't giving me more shots so I can reach my full potential and earn a better contract more important than winning? Hey, if his shots and contract are important, why aren't mine??? And on it goes.
You make the moves you need to make in order to succeed, period. People's feelings get hurt in the process. Fans and team officials alike have to say goodbye to players they like. Everybody gets over that and re-focuses on the new team, the new players, and hopefully a new path to victory. Trying to hold on to the old past its time only destroys it and sours the memory.
If the Blazers traded LaMarcus we'd all be sad. But we'd also get to like Dwight Howard plenty well just like we liked Scottie Pippen back in the late 90's and Gerald Wallace today. That's the neat thing about red and black: they look good on a lot of people.
Well, jeepers. It was my intent to answer six questions today but just three of them fills up the page. More tomorrow!