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Dave and Henry Abbott on the Trail Blazers, Basketball, and More!

Today I got the chance to hobnob with Henry Abbott of TrueHoop.  We talked about the Blazers, basketball philosophy, and blogging.  Take a gander.

Dave:  2010-11 Portland Trail Blazers.  What are your lasting impressions of the season?  What did we learn about the team this year?

Henry:  We learned a lot. Off the top of my head:

  • The really big sobering piece of news was that Greg Oden was both more fragile than we ever knew and entirely essential to the whole "just let them age together and they'll win a title" view of the team. (We also learned that phrase probably is pretty true in places like Oklahoma City and Memphis.)
  • We learned the same, to a smaller degree, about Brandon Roy, and that he's not going to go quietly into a supporting role, which is not surprising or hard to understand, but could indeed be problematic.
  • LaMarcus Aldridge and Andre Miller can do some great things together on the run and at the rim -- things that don't happen as much with Roy on the floor.
  • Nate McMillan can depart from his preferred approach of covering the floor with shooters, driving, kicking and offensive rebounding.
  • The Blazers tend to underperform in the playoffs.
  • It might be good to have some more shooters.
  • Paul Allen seems to confirm, in the angst of his book, that he's the common thread in a lot of bitterness at the top of the organization through the years.
  • We learned that Rudy Fernandez can be happy living in Portland.
  • We didn't learn how to value Nicolas Batum. "Potential" and "great moments" are not definitions. If he's going to really reach his ceiling, great. If not, better to trade when he's still young enough to dream on.
  • We didn't learn how to value Brandon Roy, post-surgery. At times he's the best player on the floor, at times he's the worst.

Dave:  The Roy issue is fascinating.  I haven't addressed it directly on the site yet, but Brandon is making me waver a little.  In this modern Blazers era when potential has been king and depth has been sufficient to cause Portland fans to clamor for different starters on a weekly basis I've lived by a simple mantra:  the guy who earns the starting spot gets the starting spot.  Don't talk to me about Sergio Rodriguez or Jerryd Bayless or Travis Outlaw starting until they've earned it and we'll know they've earned it when we see them in there excelling with consistency.  Start promoting people on potential or hunches and you're sending a message that playing well and winning are secondary priorities.

Then again, we're not talking about Sergio Rodriguez here.  This is Brandon...Roy.  Obviously there's a physical component to his declined play.  Who knows what those knees will do?  But there seems to be a mental component as well.  When a guy explodes for 20 points in a quarter and then follows it up with 20 points in a week, something is going on there.  He's in a binary state, either gifted by the gods or unable to hit a single free throw.  Some of that has got to be in the old noggin. 

Brandon's role has always been go-to guy, scorer, savior, and starter.  The Blazers may not need a full-force return to his glory days but they can't afford next-to-zero from him 6 games out of 7 in all those departments.  If the title of starter is what it takes to get him back on track mentally, give it to him.  You can still limit his minutes if desired.  He can become one of those nominal starters, beginning the game, the third, and playing as necessary in the fourth.  I have no problem with Wesley Matthews getting big minutes off the bench.  I have no problem with Wesley Matthews playing in crunch time instead of Roy if the occasion warrants.  Matthews can still give everything he gives now from the pines whereas Roy apparently can't.  All of Matthews and something of Roy beats all of Matthews and none of least for now.  Two years down the road maybe this story is different.  But for now you have to give Brandon a chance to be Brandon.

Am I catering to star whims?  Yeah, I probably am.  But I need a little Roy and if this is what it takes, I do it.

Am I crazy?  What's your take on the Roy enigma?

Click through for Henry's thoughts on Brandon Roy plus even more discussion!

Henry:  In a way I'm glad it's the offseason and he's signed up to a huge contract for ages. Unless his one great playoff quarter dazzled some owner out there, we can assume he'll be in Portland for the long haul and we know he's desperate to be good, smart and works hard. We know he has time to retool.

So, presumably, he comes back not like the Brandon of the past, but as some kind of Brandon of the future.

He better! 

Because if you wash those highlights out of your eyes, by just about every measure he has been an average NBA player. He's often the team's worst defender, and the offense that made him famous works best (or only?) when he can finish at the rim, or draw a double and kick it to an open shooter. The team doesn't have those shooters anymore -- they were shipped out to help assemble a team that can win without him -- and evidently he can only finish in the paint with power a few times a month. 

What used to be a third option -- to shoot the step-back with a defender in his face -- is now the first option. 

Thus performance plummets.

Injured Brandon trying to play like healthy Brandon ... I'd assume that long-term team success would hinge on playing that guy as little as possible. But a guy who has always coped with limited athleticism, and who can create space without speed and explosiveness ... maybe he can come up with something.

Dave:  Yup.  Now stuck with him, the Blazers need him to be SOMETHING.  Whatever you have to do to make that happen, you at least try it.  If he wants to be SOMETHING, that is...which seems to be the burning question.  What is going on in Brandon Roy's head?  It's cruel to have to ponder that question along with all the others that afflict this team.

Either way, Brandon's over-reliance on the jumper at least will keep him out of the way of Aldridge, provided LaMarcus embraces the role of lead scorer and getting in the paint every once in a while.  That Miller-Aldridge space should be wide open even with Brandon on the floor.  Then again, is even the new LaMarcus good enough?  Will Gerald Wallace get uncorked?  Can Nicolas Batum become a star?  Does Marcus Camby have anything major left?  Will Miller even be with the team?  And don't even ASK about Greg Oden.  The Blazers have talent, but there's not a guy among them that isn't facing questions...questions about location and role if not inherent ability.  This team is supposed to be getting more settled, not less.  

What's going on?  Why can't they seem to get out of their own way?  Or are we in Portland too close to the situation to judge fairly?

Henry:  Well, look around the league, at the teams still alive ... they're all facing profound questions too. Is Miami's "little nine" anything like good enough? Is Boston too old? Can Gasol and Bynum co-exist? Is it OK to rely on Zach Randolph? Is Westbrook a ballhog? The Hawks recently handed out one of the worst contracts in sports. All those big salaries for so-so players in Dallas ...

And on and on and on.

Stresses and tensions are part of success. The key is not to add to that with a big helping of "why me?" 'Cause it's not you, or us ... it's everybody. That's just life -- or at least, that's life without Tim Duncan in his prime.

The best teams, someone once said to me, see the good in their players. The other teams see the flaws.

So, to me, yes Portland has had big bad luck. But also great luck, in that there are players all up and down the roster who can contribute. 

We're talking about how best to deploy a former rookie of the year, what to do with the returning-from-injury top overall pick, the obsessiveness of an incredible and affluent fanbase and the moodiness of one of the richest owners in sports history. In a lot of cities, they'd LOVE to have problems like that.

Dave: Every team indeed faces questions, even the once-unquestionable Spurs now.  But in Portland those issues seem to be embedded in the DNA.  The questions aren't just in the spaces between teams and players, such as LeBron fitting into Miami or being able to come out of the East, but internal to the players:  Who am I?  How good am I?  How much am I supposed to take on here?

Your "helping of 'why me?'" statement is apt.  It's not just a Portland fan mantra.  It still feels like this team sinks too much into questioning when the pressure is on and things don't go right.  "Why did the refs make that call?  Why did Dirk's crazy shot just go in?  Why is Jason Kidd all of a sudden shooting 60% from the arc against us?  Why can't I hit a shot?  When's our turn to win?"  It never gets to be your turn unless you make it so.  It's less about figuring out why and more about bowling over whatever it is that's getting in your way.  The Blazers will push and overcome sometimes, usually just when you think they're finished, but that pushing always seems to lead to a rousing bout of navel gazing instead of triumph.  It's like when success is in front of them, begging to be taken, they get Woody Allen neurotic and shrink back.

Part of that may be the main guys having grown up without real veteran leadership, trying to figure out the league on their own.  Look how long it took Zach Randolph to make his game success-friendly.  Even the veterans they brought in--Miller, Camby, Wallace--haven't overdosed on playoff success in their careers.  But you'd hope some experienced players and a good session of getting punched in the face by Dallas...and Phoenix...and Houston would snap you out of it.

On the other hand, maybe this really is as good as the Oden-less, Roy-mostly-less Blazers get right now.  I don't know if it's the habit everywhere, but Blazer fans are notorious for 50 wins being less of an accomplishment than a sign you should have won 55.

Henry:  This, to me, is pretty much the definition of mental toughness. You see what Gerald Wallace does out there? Just fights his ass off play after play, regardless of outcome. You do that every time, and you'll have more than enough success in this life.

Anything that keeps you from that ... and for a lot of people, a victim complex is one such thing ... hurts.

Any notion this franchise is snakebit I find laughable, childish and harmful. Get over it!

Also, from my point of view, in the NBA there is no magic elixir, no formula, no ninja training, no real rites of passage even. We like the idea that after getting beat up in the playoffs you then are informed about the playoffs for next time.

But in reality, it was only ever basketball, which does have roles for experience and wisdom and all that, but is also heavily haphazard, random and based on things like the bounce of a ball or the spring in a step. You could look at this year's playoff elimination and question the souls of all involved, or you could just say "that's a pretty darned good team that Kevin Pelton calls the most injured in the NBA, and they missed a bunch of free throws in big games, and didn't have homecourt advantage anyway. And by the way, the Mavericks are beating the Lakers right now."

In other words, there is not one shred of insight into anybody's soul. It's just that the Blazers are a good basketball team, at a time of year when good basketball teams are often left by the wayside.

Dave:  In a sense I agree.  For years there's been a mystique surrounding the Blazers, espoused by pundits and commentators...I have preached it as well.  "This team is 'X' now but just you wait a year or two and they will be 'Y'.  And have no doubt, 'Y' is much greater than 'X'."  That may have been true at one point, but I think it's safe to say that the cavalry isn't coming in the way anticipated.  The mystique is gone.  "X" this year will be "X" next year unless something changes.  But the team itself has been in mystique mode since its main players were rookies.  One wonders if they know another way.  I wonder if the Gerald Wallace everything-at-all-costs mentality--the only thing that matters--is within the reach of some of these guys, including some of the major figures.  They should be fighting their asses off.  Instead they're waiting for next year.

This, to me, was the essence of the Dallas playoff series.  Dallas fought, the Blazers waited.  On paper, even without a healthy Roy and Oden, the Blazers had advantages alongside Dallas'.  Dallas exploited their advantages better, played harder, and turned a two-way paper matchup into a one-way road to success.  The Blazers got beat between the ears as much as on the court.  This is where we diverge maybe because I didn't see it as a matchup of two good teams, one naturally better.  I saw it as a matchup of two good teams, one of which knew what it was doing and refusing to lose because it had been battered before and hated that feeling and the other of which was still waiting for something...waiting for the series to turn their way while the opponent was busy making off with it.  That's often the dividing line between good teams and great.  Put another way, to me there are no great teams.  There are good teams and then there are good teams that refuse to lose and have both the knowledge and drive to back that up.

So...there is no 60-win team waiting in the wings here anymore.  There's a 48-win team that wants to be a 60-win team and is going to have to change somehow--through internal development or roster changes or both--in order to become that great team they want to be.  How do the Blazers get there?  What are the keys?  Is it even possible?

Henry:  I think we see it exactly the same way, but I'd add one wrinkle: Being convinced, in your bones, that you got screwed, and are really better than this, is doom.

In other words, focusing on what's wrong is not just ill-advised, but causative of the mentality you abhor.

Oh yeah, I'm about to quote Shakespeare. Believe it. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

In other words, a big part of developing the mentality you crave is to scoff at the notion this team is cursed.

"We are here right now and 100 percent ready to rip this game right out of your hands," ... that works.
"Some of us are here right now and you wouldn't believe what we could do at full strength," ... that doesn't work.

Being a 48-win team that can overachieve (on the court, in the huddle, in the front office) and make it deep into the playoffs ... that's to be ahead of the NBA curve. That's every team except the very luckiest and most skillfully managed. The only difference with this team is that there was reason, for a minute there, to think all that success was going to be easy -- thinking like that, though, is almost always harmful. It was going to be hard then, and it's going to be hard now. So it goes in an enterprise where 29 of 30 teams "fail."

Dave:  Gotcha.  It's not so much what questions get asked, but how you answer them.  That, my friend, is why you are the best in this business.

Speaking of, I would be remiss in the extreme if I let you go without asking about your specialty.  When we met I was just starting out but you were already a giant in this business...the ONLY giant in this business at the time, the guy who broke the mold.  The world has changed in the last few years.  The world of online journalism has exploded.  I remember when we used to say "online journalism" 90% of the gravity came from the word "online".  Now it might as well not be there in most cases as quality and quantity have eclipsed anything that could have been imagined a decade ago from traditional or nouveau sources.

What has struck you as you've watched this industry develop?  How does it compare today to when you began?  Do you still love doing TrueHoop as much as you did on Day 1?

Henry:  Holy mega hard-to-answer succinctly question.

[Unprompted Editorial Note:  Hey, you get a chance to sit down with Jesus you're not going to ask him something he can answer with yes or no.  You get a chance to eat dinner with Pamela Anderson and you're going to take at least one decent look at her rack.  So I'm taking my shot.  Now back to the show...] 

Henry (cont.):  A lot has changed, but a lot is exactly the same.

Journalism, the job of developing sources and calling people and sticking microphones in people's faces ... That's the same job it ever was, which I say as a guy who did it the old way on murder scenes and at public meetings and the like as a reporter. It's easier now, because people call you back when you're from ESPN. But when I talk to the ESPN news editors, they are literally people who used to do the same job at newspapers, and they have the same questions and standards. So this whole "fall of journalism" thing ... it's a fall of a business model, but not of a process.

At the same time, there has been a publicizing, through the internet, of conversations that were once private. I talked to my UPS guy today. Great guy, just love him. He told me a bunch of stuff about the NBA. A lot of it was really just completely detached from reality, but who cares? He's making small talk! Nowadays, that happens online, too. And some of it gets traffic and makes money. This really riles some people, but I can't see what the big deal is.

The real issue is in getting to know who's talking. So long as I, as a reader, can tell if I'm reading somebody who is really responsible with information or not, then I'm safe. 

We all know how to do this, really. We do it every day. If your toddler tells you he saw a goat jump over a tree, you know -- based on the source and the tale -- to discount that a little. (Although, in fairness, goats do have mad springs.)

I long for a day when every reporter's name comes with an accuracy score, but until then, I think readers with what my journalism professor calls "crap detectors" can do the job well enough. In the end, people who are rash with information will demonstrate themselves foolish again and again.

That's why I tell everyone in the TrueHoop Network all the time that the most important thing is to build credibility. I think that drives value in online journalism.

As for fun ... I mean, I have long treated this like a job, and no job is always fun. (Reference earlier point about when you think it's going to be easy, you're wrong.) However, let's step back for a second and realize: I get paid to watch basketball. I go to work every day and write more or less whatever I want. I get to talk to people like you. Most days nobody even cares if I shave or not, and only once in a while do I have to eat balut.

Not too shabby.

Dave:  Ding! Ding! Ding!  And Henry has spoken the Word of the Day, "Balut"!  For that he'll win a spa pedicure at Lavender Springs Resort and everyone in the audience will receive a copy of the new Blazersedge cookbook, "Oops!  Was I Supposed to Do That?" Seventy-Two Theoretically Easy Meals with Ben Golliver.  I don't think balut is in there though.  Ben's more of a Kraft Mac and Cheese tartar guy.

Thanks so much Henry.  Best of luck during the lockout.  Keep your head high and the content coming!

Henry:  Ha! That is awesome. This was fun. Thanks for having me!

Be sure to check out Henry's work at TrueHoop!  

--Dave (