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Hope for the Trail Blazers in the Near Future: Part 1--Five Arguments that Don't Work

I got a nice letter from a reader which I can't reprint here, both because it's too long and because I'm going to talk about some things today I don't want to personalize. They shouldn't be narrowed down to one person because they're common to us all. In a nutshell the readers wanted to know what hope the Blazers have in the near future. I'm splitting the answer into two parts. Today we're going to talk about some of the arguments that don't work (many of which appeared in the e-mail). The following five leaky arguments appear every season in the comment section multiple times. Sometimes they even emerge from the lips of players and pundits. Unfortunately that doesn't make them hold an ounce more water.

1. "It's a Team Game"

In a way this is true. A talented, unselfish squad on which everybody willingly plays their role will beat an equally-talented, or sometimes even more talented, squad full of self-centered players with diverse agendas. But the "teamwork" truism in no way makes up for a lack of talent. An unselfish team of lesser players will still get beat by a more talented team more often than not.

The quintessential example of the "team" is the '76-'77 Portland championship of the reasons the argument shows up on Blazersedge so much. They played a beautiful brand of team basketball, to be sure. They also beat a talent-heavy but fractured team in the Philadelphia 76'ers to win the Finals. But citing team alone as the reason for the victory ignores the massive, massive talents of Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, and to a slightly lesser degree Lionel Hollins. Walton was THE best center in the league in that short, championship span, outplaying even the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Lucas was arguably the best power forward in the league during the title year. Hollins played at an All-Star level at guard. That they also made their teammates look great is a testament to their talent. But what happened when you took Walton out of the equation? You got a series of first-round playoff exits from this quintessential "team".

Teamwork is great. Teamwork is necessary to win at the highest level. Teamwork does not substitute for talent.

1a. "These guys have great attitude"

The same logic applies here. We could assemble a team of Blazersedge readers with amazing attitude, unselfishness, and team spirit. They'd still get beaten 100-3 by the 10th-15th men on the worst team in the league.

Arguments 1 and 1a also suffer from another logical fallacy: they could apply to any team. If all that matters is playing a team game or having high character, who's to say New Orleans won't do it in addition to, or instead of, Portland? Basically any argument you can apply equally to the Bobcats has to be thrown out, hereafter known as the "Charlotte Rule".

2. "If one or two unexpected players come through the team will be great!"

First of all, this also falls under the auspices of the Charlotte Rule. What team would not be significantly better with three unknown bench players rising to prominence?

More telling, you don't really mean what this argument is saying. Instead you mean, "If every single thing that went right before also goes right this year, no unexpected bumps come up, no players decline in production, AND two or three more players come through this team will be great." You're not asking for 2-3 things to go right, you're asking for 50.

The truth is, 2-3 players will be better on your team this year. One of them might even fulfill the dream and improve significantly, proving himself a surprise starter or a key bench guy. Another 2-3 players might fall as those other players advance. Plenty of other things will change as well. Therefore those 2-3 guys won't make as much difference as you think.

3. "We're flying under the radar..."

We need to invoke a semi-Charlotte Rule here, as technically only the Lakers and Heat don't apply. But even if it's really, really, really true and nobody knows about you, there's usually a reason for that. 98% of the time that reason is because you suck. Even in the other 2%--even if the surprise factor hits full force--shock only gets you so far. By the time you've played a team the third time they're over it and ready for you. That's why teams flying under the radar almost always get shot down as soon as they gain enough altitude to become a blip.

4. "All our returning players are going to get better..."

This one usually isn't stated as much as implied. At minimum people expect their incumbents to play at the same level. Most expect them to continue improving if they've shown any improvement in the past. But age does not automatically make a player better, else Kurt Thomas would have been the best player on the team last year by far. Several factors come into play: health, confidence, stamina, the system, opposing defensive attention, emotion, and sometime random luck. Losses in one area can offset gains in another. Brandon Roy provides a tragic example from recent years, but Portland fans also saw the careers of Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster yo-yo before they were traded. Success cannot be taken for granted, let alone improvement.

5. "Player X this year is better than Player Y last year. Player P this year is better than Player Q last year. [Repeat 6-7 times.] Therefore the team this year will be better than the team last year."

The first place this falls short is basis of comparison. Once upon a time a car company (I forget which one) ran ads saying, "Our car has more leg room than a Hyundai, more trunk room than a Yugo, better acceleration than a Honda, better gas mileage than a Chevy" and so on. All of these improvements over the competition made it seem like the Best Car Ever. Upon closer look, though, they were comparing their car to the weakest examples among the competition. Their car may have had more leg room than a Hyundai of that era but so does our baby stroller. Did it have more leg room than the Chevy? Better gas mileage than the Honda?

The critical pieces of these comparative lists always depend on a perceived weakness of the past year being corrected, e.g. "He's better than an injured Brandon Roy" or "He'll give more than an overweight, bad-attitude Raymond Felton." This says nothing about whether the new player is actually better than Roy or Felton were, just Roy or Felton at their worst moments. Injuries didn't stop Roy from having his share of good games. Attitude didn't come into play every single night for Felton, nor destroy his productivity.

This kind of comparison also ignores the distinct characteristics of each season. Every campaign starts with any of a billion possible circumstances in play...not possible outcomes, but possible challenges, pitfalls, and peculiar successes which help determine those outcomes. For instance, would last year's buzzer-beater actually fall again given the same circumstances? (We tend to remember and correct for narrow losses while forgetting the narrow wins which benefited us.)

When we say, "This player is an improvement over that player so the result should be better" we are banking on all performances and circumstances outside of said player remaining relatively equal...similar challenges overcome the same way, similar pitfalls now avoided, peculiar successes repeating exactly as they did.

Only 10,000 of those billion possible circumstances come into play in any given season. Some of those 10,000 will remain the same. Many will not. The probable measure of success for any team is not how they'd deal with the exact 10,000 circumstances that came up last year. Rather it's how many of this year's potential billion they can be expected to cover for. The more talented, versatile, and proven the roster the more they can compensate for. Less talented, versatile, and proven lineups have to hope for the right 10,000 circumstances to come into play. That usually doesn't happen.

Zeroing in on this season, the question isn't whether Damian Lillard, Jared Jeffries, J.J Hickson, and Elliot Williams are better or worse players than Raymond Felton, Marcus Camby, Jamal Crawford, and Gerald Wallace (particularly considering the worst characteristics and performances of the latter group). The question is whether the quartet of Lillard, Jeffries, Hickson, and Williams (plus the rest of the guys) are better prepared to handle the variety of potential circumstances a season can throw at them than were Felton, Camby, Crawford, and Wallace (plus the rest of their roster).

Tomorrow: Five decent reasons to find hope in the coming season!

--Dave (