Portland Trail Blazers fans are well acquainted with their team's performance in the 2014-15 season. We've talked about the heady 30-8 start, the semi-disappointing 51 win total, the much more disappointing first-round exit to the playoffs. We've chronicled the dominance of LaMarcus Aldridge, the ups and downs of Damian Lillard, and Nicolas Batum's slump. Amid all of this, a strange and wondrous sea change has gone all but unnoticed. Let's take a moment to reflect on it today.
If you set the DeLorean back to spring of 2014 and asked Blazers fans to name the guys they relied on most, the embodiment of Portland's hope, most would reference the three players I just mentioned: Aldridge, Lillard, Batum. They were, by consensus, the top three starters. Their talent and spirit set the table for their teammates and their franchise's success.
If you then asked folks to describe Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez, they'd likely have said that Lopez fit well with the team and was a strong asset to the starting lineup but he was the 5th starter for sure. Matthews was admired as well but his name got advanced in trade suggestions more than all the other starters' combined. If the Blazers were going to improve the starting lineup, they'd need to make changes at shooting guard or center...or so the story went.
Now park that DeLorean and come back to the present day, one year later. It's a slightly different question, but if I asked you to name the heart and soul of this franchise--the players who best evidenced its spirit and style, especially among the starters--who would you name in May, 2015?
Chances are Aldridge would still make the list. But alongside him, likely ahead of him in many minds, stand the two players considered most disposable a year ago: Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez. Once folks speculaied the starting lineup might be better without them. Now it's hard to imagine the franchise getting along without them.
Search your soul. Everybody around here loves the Blazers, but are not those two The Blazers right now? What occasioned this change?
Lopez and Matthews haven't morphed into their team's best players. Robin's season was slightly worse than last year's. Matthews played about even, though Batum's slump might have pushed Wes past him into the "3rd Starter" designation. Their numbers are the same as they ever were.
Last year's success brought the Blazers close to the sun in Icarian fashion. While plunging to earth in the latter part of 2015, Blazers fans realized that the team's wings were fastened with the wax of talent and hope rather than strong glue of determination, endurance, and audacity. This was particularly evident during a post-season run in which Matthews sat due to injury and Lopez due to matchups. The Blazers didn't just get rolled without their 4th and 5th starters, they got rolled easily.
Somewhere along the line Matthews' (metaphorical) jutted jaw and Lopez's constant, "give it all, win or lose" sacrifice caught the imagination of this fan base. While Aldridge hit turn-arounds, Lillard attempted to duplicate "The Shot", and Batum did Mon Dieu knows what, the Rose City fell in love with rebounds, efficient weak-side play, and the image of Matthews getting up again and again until he couldn't get up any more. (And then practicing three-pointers on crutches.)
I doubt this impression will influence either player's future in Portland. If the Blazers retain Aldridge, keeping both makes sense. If Aldridge leaves, the value of Lopez comes into question and Matthews' asking price gets more important. Either way, Wes' health will be a bigger factor than his heart. No matter how we long to cheer, Iron Man with Clay Feet won't cut it.
Still, this inversion is worth noting for its rarity. Guys like Kiki Vandeweghe come into town as fan favorites because of their reputation then fade over time. Plenty of young players start out in obscurity only to end up stars. But you don't often see an established order inverted like this. It's like waking up in your own bed after a week in Vegas. The big bets were nice and the payoffs exciting, but you're not really sure you ended up ahead and it just feels good to come home again. Portland has been a blue-collar basketball town since the 70's. Our "lower-tier" starters reminded us of that this year.
Even if the Blazers didn't get as far as they hoped and even if Matthews and Lopez don't suit up for Portland again, we should take a moment to appreciate what they've accomplished and how our perceptions of them have changed.