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Crystal Ball: The Legacy of the Current Portland Trail Blazers

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In response to the recent run of history articles reader Arturo (note:  serious props to you if that's your real name because that's just cool) writes:

Dave,

Love the historical pieces!  Now that you're finished look into your crystal ball and write one about the present team, maybe as if you were writing it ten years from now.

 It's a great idea.  Unfortunately I think it would be vain--in both senses of the word--to do a 2500-word piece based on speculation.  But I'll riff on the theme and give you the basics.

One of the recurring themes from Portland Trail Blazers history is the gulf between hope and reality when things start trending downward.  I can't think of a single example where people worried that the team might be sinking where it later turned out to be great.  We covered multiple examples where the team ended up worse off while the devoted prayed every step of the way that it wasn't so.

Two examples seem to buck this trend on the surface.  Some would cite the championship in 1977 as being wholly unexpected.  That's mostly true but it wasn't an example of things going wrong and then turning around.  Yes, Bill Walton had been injured but he was healthy going into '76-'77 and people knew it.  Plus the ABA expansion draft provided an unprecedented wealth of extra players by his side.  This was not a bad trend turning to good but good turning to awesome.  People predicted the Blazers could make noise.  Nobody knew how big that noise would eventually turn out.

Other folks will point to the 2006 Draft as an unexpected turn-around.  This is also true in its way but the draft picks weren't entirely unforeseen.  As with '77, you can see a definite, understandable cause and effect between the talent acquisition and the improvement.  2004-2006 also saw a complete dismantling of the previous team leading to the picks and the opportunity to rebuild.  Once again everybody expected a turn-around of some sort.  The surprises were how big and how quickly it came.

Neither one of those situations is true of this year's team.  No expansion draft, no lottery picks, no destroy-and-rebuild job...the Blazers are going with the hand they have plus or minus a couple of players.  That makes this situation far more analogous to the post-1992 or post-2000 years, just without the thrill of Conference- and NBA-Finals visits beforehand.

It's likely that the enduring legacy of this era will be tantalizing promise sadly unfulfilled through a combination of injuries, bad timing, and perhaps a couple of bad decisions.  The Great Renewal of the franchise will probably also turn out to be the Era That Wasn't.  Too many red flags are up.  Brandon Roy and Greg Oden have chronic health problems.  LaMarcus Aldridge doesn't feel like the kind of player who can lead a team to the Finals on his own.  Gerald Wallace will either be a short-timer or an aging player.  Point guard moves seem incremental.  None of the players coming in are enough to turn the tide.  This seems harsh when viewed up close, from within the maelstrom, but stepping back and comparing these signs to similar ones from other eras the guess is probably accurate.  The Blazers have fallen a little ways down the cliff and are hanging onto a branch.  Only a miraculous rescue is going to get them back up and on the road again.  Failing that, they're going to hang until their arms get tired and then drop, having to start over again.

The notable events surrounding this fall are common knowledge.  The critical question people will ask is, "Whose fault was this?"  Most accurately the answer is, "Nobody's".  Unless the Blazers were utter fools and drafted players they flat-out knew would get injured this is just part of professional sports.  Triumph and tragedy mix, sometimes for no good reason.  Every team in Portland history except that '76-'77 squad bears an epitaph full of "what-if's".   What if Walton had stayed healthy?  What if Porter's shot had fallen in '91 or Cliff hadn't dropped the ball?  What if Sabonis had come over earlier?  What if that fourth quarter in 2000 had gone a hair differently?  Stuff happens even under the best of circumstances...end of story.

Looking back, if management is called to task it will be over these pivotal questions:

  1. Why couldn't they translate Raef LaFrentz' $12.5 million expiring contract into another player or two in 2008-09?  He was a serviceable reserve but that cap action was one of his main draws.  Looking back this still seems like a critical opportunity missed.  
  2. How much did they know about Oden's health situation when they drafted him?  Obviously they couldn't know the whole extend of his future travails, but did they ignore warning signs with Kevin Durant sitting on the table, waiting to be snatched?
  3. Could they have done anything to preserve Roy's knees more?  If not, could they have avoided his max contract?
  4. Could they have made the Gerald Wallace move (or a similar trade) earlier, coinciding with the Roy peak?

I expect all four of those questions would be included in a historical recap a decade from now.  Other than that, the tale of this era will be "Right Move, Wrong Time" or "Right Players, Wrong Knees".  The more interesting question is how Portland fans will end up viewing this era.  Will they be grateful for the recovery it brought from the abysmally dark days of the mid-2000's or will they be more frustrated that these talent-laden teams never came to full flower?  Or perhaps for once will we see our miracle?

Discuss these issues and questions below if you wish.  That's my best shot at a pre-retrospective for now.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)