Time to open the Blazer's Edge Mailbag once again!
We all know that "sports is a business." And on some level we all understand that we're "rooting for laundry" - we're not fans of the players, we're fans of the uniform they're wearing this particular season. Our allegiance is also largely arbitrary. If, decades ago, my parents found jobs in a city other than Portland, then I wouldn't be a Blazers fan.
And yet, I've never questioned why I root for the Blazers... until this year.
Yes, all these new guys are young and talented. They were good bargains, and this is seemingly a smart rebuild. But... I have ZERO attachment to any of them. The team is now comprised of a random collection of players whose names I couldn't match to their faces. And I'm supposed to root for them? I'm supposed to care about their success and development just because they wear the pinwheel? And, chances are, 3/5 of them won't be wearing the pinwheel 3 years from now. So why bother?
I don't know what happened, but this particular rebuild has made me jaded. After a lifetime of being a die-hard, I'm having an existential crisis. Maybe it's because I really liked the players on last year's team. Now, it's as if they slapped Coke labels on Pepsi cans and I'm just expected to go along with it.
You are, perhaps, the most even-keeled super-fan in the world. I'm curious as to how you navigate your passionate support with that nibbling rational knowledge that "This is all a product that I'm being sold."
What an incredible question. Wow. Let's take it in parts.
"Rooting for laundry" is an interesting concept. I agree that we all do it. The old adage is that fans root for teams, media people root for players. Fans want their team to win; media folks know who's a nice guy and who's not. The perceptions differ.
The adage is overstated, however. Since the beginnings of Blazermania Portland fans have taken pride in their players as individuals. They want to know who's wearing their uniform. They want to care, to talk about teamwork and charity and good guys. The "anti-success" of the Jailblazer era had less to do with on-court performance and everything to do with players acting in ways to which fans could or would not relate.
The deep-rooted desire for warmth and fuzziness among Portland Trail Blazers fans makes your middle-paragraph lament particularly poignant. You're right. You're going to spend half of the 2015-16 season trying to match up faces with uniform numbers. The Blazers know this too. That's why their post-free-agency press conference was centered around Damian Lillard rather than other free agents or trade acquisitions. They sold him as the face of the franchise, the head of the posse, the relatable guy with equal fondness for Portland and his family.
The good news is that in this age of social media inundation, you're going to find out about Lillard's new teammates pretty quickly. You'll learn the names and the stories. Those uniforms will fill out. The franchise will make sure of it.
The bad news is, this rebuild won't end up with all these players as Trail Blazers. You're going to have to learn more new names over the next couple years. Maybe a lot more. It's possible that the Blazers won't really be settled into a lineup like last year's until 2019 or beyond...if this incarnation ever does settle.
Given that, I can understand where a long-term, diehard fan would be experiencing angst. Dial it back to '77 and Portland had a championship dynasty in the making, only to devolve into a world of Petur Gudmundssons and T.R. Dunns after Bill Walton's foot gave out. As that mess got sorted Kiki Vandeweghe and Jim Paxson gave way to the famous Clyde Drexler teams. The Otis Thorpe/Chris Dudley era followed before Bob Whittsitt signed and traded for entire rosters full of players who needed no introduction. When that didn't work out the Jailblazers took hold, followed by the 2006 Renaissance. When injuries scuttled that too, claiming Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, another rebuild progressed. Things went better than expected for a couple years, bringing hope of stability, only to have the floor collapse under the franchise this summer. Now they're in recycle mode, sporting a roster more fragmented and speculative than any since 2005 (with no Oden/Roy/LaMarcus Aldridge triumvirate in the offing to redeem them this time).
I spell this out because some folks will respond to your struggle with derision, accusing you of not being a fan because you have these feelings. I find it hard to imagine a Blazers fan who hasn't wrestled with these feelings in one form or another. I can understand why the prospect of another rebuild seems as attractive as eating antifreeze-soaked cucumbers. I can understand why no amount of talk about promises and plans will cure that.
You end your question with this:
I'm curious as to how you navigate your passionate support with that nibbling rational knowledge that "This is all a product that I'm being sold."
Both NBA Basketball and the Portland Trail Blazers are brands, designed to be sold to you. The world puts several layers of clothing on that truth to add mystique and legitimacy, but it remains the core of the process. I guess I first realized this around the time that people started suggesting that Clyde Drexler might not have been the most diligent practice player or make the most of his ability. I railed against it because that didn't fit the superstar, bigger-than-life image he projected. At the same time I was old and smart enough to realize it could be true. The favoritism shown towards the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 2000's when the league was desperate for another Bulls-like dynasty hammered down my last vestiges of childlike innocence. I can't pinpoint how much was done, but it's patently obvious that what was good for the league's national visibility was more important than pure basketball.
The situation has multiplied a hundredfold now, as each player is becoming their own brand. Calling Damian Lillard a basketball player doesn't begin to cover it. He's being marketed everywhere...he knows that he's product and he's savvy enough to take full advantage of it. LaMarcus Aldridge was never as adept at it, but we saw that reputation determines truth as the stories about him in Portland changed from glowing (while he was here) to bitter and disparaging (after his departure). The only real truth is that there isn't one. Truth isn't the foundation...selling product is.
Even so, we happily choose to be marketed to every day. It not only drives our public lives, it improves them. People rail against internet ads and rightly so, but frankly one of the neatest revolutions in the past decade has been targeted ads catering to personal taste. I want to know when a product I've watched for a long time goes on sale. I want to know everything Newegg.com is doing. It's marketing but I enjoy it.
I also enjoy the NBA product, even as I understand that it's being marketed to me and may be affected by that marketing. As long as the game is exciting and all 30 teams have a fair chance to compete, what else is necessary? I don't expect to see heroes. The stories about tragic failures can be as interesting as those about triumphant victories. Marketing lies can be as intriguing as the truth as long as you're not foolish enough to base your whole world view on them.
If I order a vacuum cleaner off of Amazon and they send me a toothbrush, I've got a legit complaint. If I get the vacuum I ordered and it's not quite as powerful and life-changing of an experience as I anticipated, that's a learning experience. The vacuum still sucks up dirt, right?
The Blazers may also suck this year, but frankly writing about the upcoming season is going to be far more interesting than writing about the old core would have been had they returned. The ways in which the organization is attempting to sell the rebuild are fascinating, as has been the media response. This all centers around product, but it's a good story, if not a good product. What more can you ask?
If Trail Blazers history has taught us anything, it's that a new dawn inevitably breaks after the dark night. Not only is that still worth holding on for, if you play your cards right negotiating the night can be plenty of fun.
We have just a bit more space, so let's throw in this one-sentence wonder.
You've no doubt heard that "Deez Nuts" is getting a legit amount of the vote in presidential opinion polls against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. If he gets the nomination, who's his running mate?
I'll throw this open for the comment section, but my vote goes to Datass Do.
Send your mailbag questions to email@example.com. We're always happy to get them.