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On Dashed Hopes, Tempered Expectations and the 2015-16 Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers aren't competing for a championship the way they were last year. That doesn't mean fandom is pointless. It's just... different.

Expectations might be different with this group.
Expectations might be different with this group.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Just for a second, let's forget about all the projections and prognostications. Forget about the stats and the play breakdowns. Forget about the Trail Blazers' salary cap sheet or their stockpile of future assets. Let me just toss out this basic question - on a human level, what are your goals as a Blazers fan this year?

Don't be afraid. It's an open-ended question. There are no wrong answers.

But I think we all understand that the last six months have necessitated a change in the way we view this Blazers team. Simply put, you don't follow a rebuilder the same way you follow a guaranteed playoff squad. When your team is solidly established among the top eight in its conference, things are different. The question isn't whether they make the playoffs - it's how they get there, whether they stay healthy, how they're playing and what matchups fall into place for the first couple of rounds. The dynamic is different when you're following a team like that. You watch the games in January while keeping one eye on April.

That was last year. In all likelihood, 2015-16 won't be more of the same. We won't be able to track the Blazers' playoff seed or their likely first-round opponent; it won't matter how far removed the Blazers are from No. 1 in the West. The final margin might be 30 games. Whatever. That won't be the point.

And that's OK. It doesn't mean that fandom becomes altogether pointless overnight; it just means that to derive the same enjoyment from following the team game after game, you need to develop a new sense of purpose. Write a new mission statement, so to speak. I say this now, but I also understand it's easier said than done. I know this from experience - I covered just about every game of the 2013-14 Celtics season, in which the team plunged into a rebuild in its first year under Brad Stevens and lost 57 games. To be frank, I basically ran out of things to say toward the end of the season. I remember the C's were 20-41 after they lost to Golden State the first week in March, meaning they were 21 games under .500 with 21 to play. They had six weeks to go and already no hope of a winning season. Stevens at that point started talking a lot about "playing for pride," which was somehow both optimistic and really depressing. Pride's important and all, but no one wants to be playing for pride alone.

So, after giving this a good bit of thought, I've come up with some advice. Don't watch for the won/lost records or the stats or the tangible "achievements." If you hold your breath waiting for those, you'll be blue in the face. Instead, watch for the surprises.

In short, sports are fun because sometimes the surprising happens. We go into each game expecting it to unfold in a certain way and for a certain team to emerge the victor. Usually, we're right, but when we're wrong, it's fun to reflect - how did that happen? Who made it happen? What does it mean? You can use all the stats and expert opinions in the world to make your predictions, but sometimes crazy things happen anyway and the supposedly impossible becomes possible. That whole cliché about "why they play the games" is lame, but it's true. Sports would not be worthwhile without freak occurrences that defy logic. Conventional wisdom gets debunked. Upsets happen. Underdogs prevail. Having expectations is all well and good, and logically, it's validating when your assumptions are correct, but emotionally, it's exhilarating when they're shattered.

Enough about the abstract - here's the tangible. Expectations for the 2015-16 Trail Blazers are not very high. Bovada has the Blazers winning 26.5 games this season. The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook similarly has them at 26.5. Nylon Calculus' "Highly Plausible Win Projections," which are interesting because they tweak the players' expected stats to account for their changing roles and levels of playing time, are a bit more bullish on Portland, with an optimistic win total of 33.

But no matter. None of these numbers are really important in the grand scheme of things. You can win 26 games, 33, any number in between - ultimately, losing seasons are forgettable results-wise. Even the most optimistic projections for the Blazers don't show them to be a playoff team - the Nylon guys have Portland pegged for 12th place in the Western Conference, seven games behind No. 8 seed Dallas. So it goes. A lottery team is a lottery team.

The interesting question to me - much moreso than the overplayed "Here's a win total, over or under?" shtick - is one that's more open-ended and subjective. The question is, quite simply, can the Blazers surprise everyone? The public has its win totals and standings all figured out before the season even tips off. The challenge for Portland, now, is to come out and shock the public.

It's been done before. A look back at recent NBA history reveals quite a few young, unheralded teams who came out of nowhere and won a lot of ballgames. Most recently, the Milwaukee Bucks began last season with the expectation that they'd be one of the worst teams in the league - they were coming off a 67-loss campaign, after all. They came back instead with a new coach, a new identity and a really competitive squad that ended up a No. 6 seed in the East playoffs. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton became borderline household names.

A year before that, the Phoenix Suns were coming off a bad season and looked poised to become even worse when they traded away Marcin Gortat for almost nothing. Instead, they played a delightfully aggressive, uptempo brand of basketball led by Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and the Morris twins, and they ended up winning 48 games and just barely missing the No. 8 seed in an insanely tough West playoff race. The Suns are still competitive today.

Perhaps my favorite exciting young team in recent memory is one that didn't make the playoffs or even compete to do so - it's the 2010-11 Clippers, who ended the year 32-50 and finished 13th in the Western Conference. Sounds pretty mundane, but it was a fascinating team, and 32 wins was actually a major breakthrough for a team that had racked up 23, 19 and 29 the previous three seasons. The Clips that year were fun because they rolled out an incredibly young lineup. Arguably their best five-man unit consisted of two third-year players, DeAndre Jordan and Eric Gordon, and three rookies - Blake Griffin, Eric Bledsoe and a kid you may have heard of, named Al-Farouq Aminu.

You might also know the GM who drafted those rookies. It was Neil Olshey, who now runs the Trail Blazers. Olshey reflected on that team in an interview this summer, and he noted that if a team with those five guys still existed today, five years later, it would probably be a favorite to make the Finals. He's right. Those are five incredibly talented basketball players. Put them together now, as they're all entering their primes, and they'd be scary good. That 2010-11 team in L.A. wasn't a contender to win a thing, but it had all the growth potential in the world.

It goes to show that there are different ways to build a young, intriguing NBA team. You can be like last year's Bucks, who came roaring out of the gate and declared their intentions to be a playoff squad right away, or you can be the '11 Clips, slowly building a group of talented guys with long-term aspirations. Neither way is more correct than the other. Some teams are hell-bent on winning now; others are accumulating assets and making moves, slow and steady.

For the Blazers, the road ahead is undecided. Maybe they try to pull a Milwaukee and become the breakout team of the year; maybe their coming-out party is still to come later on. Maybe there's another shoe that needs to drop. Remember, Olshey didn't just sit back and watch that young Clippers group develop; he used it to make moves. Aminu and Gordon were the two big trade pieces that he flipped to New Orleans a year later for Chris Paul.

All of this is to say the Blazers could surprise you this season in any number of ways. Maybe they win more games than expected - that would be a macro surprise. But on a micro level, there are lots of little, individual surprises that might make those 82 games between now and April worth watching. Keep an eye out for them.

At some point, Damian Lillard will streak down the floor in transition and find Mason Plumlee for a high-flying alley-oop and you'll go, "Whoa, where'd that athleticism come from?" C.J. McCollum will come off the bench and spell Dame at point guard for five minutes, he'll pile up assists on four straight possessions and you'll go, "Hey, we've got ourselves a seriously legit combo guard now."

Maybe you'll look at the stat sheet in mid-December, see that Meyers Leonard is still maintaining 40 percent from 3 and realize that his hot shooting wasn't just a fluke. Maybe Noah Vonleh will have a big night off the bench in January, and you'll start to get optimistic about his long-term prospects. Maybe the defense will shine in a couple of gutty 80-78 wins, and you'll realize this team is actually capable of competing on both ends.

The potential for these little surprises is there every game. You never know when one might spring up. But you have to watch all year long if you want to catch them - and to truly appreciate them. The surprising stuff only has an effect if it stands out from all the little picayune moments before and after. The good moments only bring you joy if you've witnessed all the bad ones too.

The more pain you endure, the better the triumph ultimately feels. If you don't believe me, ask any Warriors fan what it's like to win a championship after waiting 40 years. The sweetness of victory doesn't come just from that one victorious moment, in a vacuum - it's comes from the full journey, all ups and downs included.

So that's my outlook on this upcoming season in Portland - no matter what happens in these next 82 games, it's that journey that matters. Every bit of it. So celebrate the wins, learn from the losses and maybe, just maybe, a new sense of purpose will begin to emerge at some point further down the road.