Today's Blazer's Edge Mailbag contains a trio of questions regarding the Portland Trail Blazers and respect. If you have your own Blazers-related question, send it to email@example.com and we'll try to answer!
I don't think you or anyone is talking enough about how the Blazers are close to making the playoffs. 9th place and percentage points away from 8th is awesome. Respect?
It's a matter of perspective, which leaves me blessedly free to agree with you for a moment. Few people would have associated the Portland Trail Blazers with the word "playoffs" in any way, shape, or form when the season began. That the word can be spoken in their midst without laughter erupting everywhere is a credit to their determination. So yes...respect. With the exception of maybe a half-dozen less-than-memorable outings, I've enjoyed watching the Blazers play this year. Seeing them has not been a waste of time. That's worthy of praise.
One of the people boldly predicting the Blazers for the playoffs last summer was my podcast co-host Phil Naessens. Our latest offering drops this afternoon and we discuss the playoff question for a little bit. In the course of conversation I share a different perspective, claiming that the post-season would be a nice achievement and fun to watch, but that it's not really something to crow about under these conditions.
There's a huge difference between competing for the playoffs and competing in the playoffs. Competing in is meaningful, the measure of a team's capability. Competing for depends on external factors: seeding, level of competition in the conference, and relative health. It indicates much less about the team in question, therefore it's not something upon which to hang your hat...at least not in isolation.
The Blazers are definitely competing for, not in. If the playoff system included 7 teams and a bye for the #1 seed, Portland would have almost no chance to make it. If the NBA had an 8th-9th place play-in game the Blazers would be in great shape. In the current setup somebody's got to be 8th, and Portland just might be that somebody. But none of those contingencies say anything meaningful about the Blazers themselves. Not making the post-season under a 7-team system wouldn't indicate that Portland is one whit worse than they appear right now. Making the bracket under an 8-team system wouldn't indicate that they're one whit better.
Portland's current .432 winning pace would leave them at 35-36 wins at the end of the season. The 8th-place Utah Jazz would be at 36 as well. If a win total like that nets somebody the last seed in the West, great. Enjoy it. That doesn't mean that 36 wins are admirable, nor would a 9th-10th place finish with 36 wins mean the season was awful.
The "almost in the playoffs" Blazers are capable of blowing out the Washington Wizards and getting hammered by the Philadelphia 76'ers in consecutive games. They're learning, they're fighting, but they're also struggling. No matter what shiny adjectives you want to hang on them (like "9th-place" or "playoff-bound") that's who they are. Everything else is just marketing.
I give the Blazers plenty of respect for how they're playing, but none of that respect hangs on their playoff position. Nor do I feel that mentioning them in conjunction with the post-season more would describe what's great about the team. When they're battling for homecourt advantage and threatening to go to the Conference Finals, playoff discussion will mean more. Until then Portland's position in the standings has as much to do with injuries to Utah, New Orleans, and Minnesota plus Sacramento's utter lunacy as it has to do with their own accomplishments.
Damian Lillard doesn't make the Olympic team tryouts? What utter garbage is this? No way he's not one of the best 30 players in the league, it's a total slap in the face. Should he have made it?
If Top 30 status were the only criterion under consideration, Lillard would have been invited to Team USA tryouts for sure. He's clearly one of the top players in the league this year. That's not the only thing at stake, though.
Justified or not (and it's some of each), Lillard's has a reputation as a player who flourishes with the ball in his hands, who's strongest when taking over a game, and who plays sub-par defense. That's pretty much the nightmare profile for the national squad. Their big fear is ending up with a bevy of stars who need the rock, who take a ton of shots, and who don't mesh on either end of the floor. They won't avoid those tendencies entirely, but they're going to reserve a couple slots for dedicated #1 options and build the rest of the team around them. That means no obvious rivals to the Big Cheeses and plenty of well-rounded players who can help in other ways.
You can understand why, at his age and level of experience, Lillard wouldn't be considered one of those supreme #1 options. Odds are the national team figures if they're not going to put him in that role they won't get the best out of him. Since he dropped out last year semi-voluntarily, why would they go the extra mile to invite him back when their priorities don't match their perception of him anyway?
I don't think this is entirely fair. Damian can play off-ball as well as on. He'd look brilliant in the international game, as his skill set is well-suited. But we're not going to get a chance to see that until he's got more mileage on the tires and the Blazers have a better record under his leadership. My guess is that someday you're going to see a Team USA-Damian Lillard reunion, but it won't happen until late in his career...kind of like Ric Flair finally joining up with the WWE and both sides getting a chance to cheer about it.
Until he can walk in triumphant, assured of playing on his own terms (i.e. until the Powers That Be are comfortable with him) there's no reason for Lillard to put himself out for a marginal spot on a large practice squad. He can make more money and gain more fame doing promotional tours and working on non-basketball interests.
Should CJ McCollum be considered for the all star team this year? His numbers are good.
Too soon. There's no way he'll get anywhere near the starting vote, of course. Lillard isn't going to make it into the upper reaches of the fan vote so you know McCollum won't. Coaches tend not to be impressed by raw scoring. McCollum has caused enough of them problems that they'll give him a nod of respect but reserve guard is the most competitive position on the ballot. Coaches aren't going to pass over James Harden, Klay Thompson, or Chris Paul for him. Plus Lillard has to make it too...which also dims CJ's chances since selecting two players from a losing team is pretty rare. McCollum is going to make it someday, but unless we see a repeat of last year's injury follies, he won't be donning an ASG uniform this year.
That said...McCollum. Skills competition. Make it happen.
Help us send 2000 underprivileged kids to see Damian Lillard and the Blazers play when the Sacramento Kings come to Portland on March 28th! Your help makes a huge difference and it's easy. You can donate tickets to the cause through this link:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
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PLEASE consider sending a child or two! Donations have been strong but we've had a LOT of requests and we're not to 2000 yet. Help if you can.