Last week, I came across something in the basketball blogosphere that really made me stop for a second, think and reconsider some things. Allow me to share.
It was a post that went up last Monday, Dec. 28, on the Sacramento Kings blog Cowbell Kingdom. It was the morning after the Blazers had beaten the Kings, on the road and without Damian Lillard, to improve to 13-20. I was idly browsing Kings stuff for a minute, just to get another perspective. I'd been traveling for Christmas the previous night and missed the game, so I wanted to read up.
The lead story on the Kings blog, penned by a guy named Vince Miracle, wasn't so much a game recap as a general big-picture musing on Sacramento and its position in the Western Conference. The main thrust was a provocative one - that the Kings had lost to Portland, but they were still very much alive in the race for a West playoff berth. Here's Mr. Miracle:
"The road to get here has not been easy, nor has it been entertaining to go through for the 'Sacramento Proud' Kings fans, but the team is now on the cusp of potentially holding a playoff spot in the Western Conference. The season began full of criticism, internal issues, and injuries. The Kings are only a game and a half behind the Utah Jazz ... There is still plenty of season left to surpass the Jazz and it looks as if the Kings are going to have the opportunity to capitalize on the misfortune of other teams."
After taking a moment to let this sink in, I eventually came to two conclusions:
- Good for the Kings! Really. They're a small-market team with a tortured fanbase that's been through an awful decade. They've seen coaching turnover, locker-room turmoil and hell, they almost lost their team entirely a couple of years ago. Sacramento hasn't seen a playoff berth since 2006, and some have doubted that they ever will again. That they're even in the mix for a top-eight spot in the West this season is a heart-warming story, even if they ultimately come up short.
- Whoa, hold on a minute. This is the Kings. The freakin' Kings. If the West playoff race is really open to them, then it's probably open to just about anybody.
That's a good thing, by the way. Parity in sports is a net positive for the collective. When you have more teams alive in the playoff race, you have more fanbases energized throughout the season. Ideally, you'd have all 28 NBA cities engaged from October through April. That might not be realistic, but in my opinion the fan's civic duty is to root for as close to that as possible. So this year's West standings, in which at least 10 teams and possibly as many as 14 are alive in the playoff race, are pretty great.
Which is why it's been so discouraging these last few weeks to follow the Blazers, who are only a couple of games back from the No. 8 seed in the West, and hear so many fans declare that they don't want to see their team in the hunt. That they'd rather lose this season than make an honest, good-faith run for a playoff spot.
I wrote in this space last week that gunning for a playoff spot should be one of the New Year's resolutions for coach Terry Stotts and the Blazers. My point was that fighting all season for a playoff spot, even if the best-case scenario is a first-round wipeout against Golden State, would be a character-building experience for a young team that's still learning how to compete together. You guys responded, and you didn't hold back.
"I completely disagree about any attempts at making a playoff push. How many teams in year one of a rebuild want to give up their first-round pick?"
"We need that draft pick. It's not even a question. We're not talented enough to contend and not a free agent draw even if we make the playoffs, so this is the time to incubate, develop talent and tank for a pick."
"The talent on this squad full of castoffs and second-chancers is enough to develop into, what, exactly? A title contender? I unequivocally disagree with that. This is a team full of great role player prospects that can develop into a team consisting of Dame plus solid role players."
"I don't get deriding the usefulness of draft picks in general. They're extremely useful, come on the best contract deals, are great in trades, are exciting for fans, etc, etc, etc."
You all make good points. The writing was on the wall for the Blazers this season - they knew the moment LaMarcus Aldridge left that their playoffs chances in 2016 were slim to none, so they shifted into rebuild mode. That meant snatching up young talent, enduring a down season and looking forward to the 2016 draft - a draft in which they'd keep their pick if it fell within the lottery rather than ship it to Denver to complete last year's Arron Afflalo trade. I get it. This year screamed "rebuild," and you all nodded along.
Respectfully, I still think y'all are wrong. Reasonable, yes. Justifiable, sure. Missing another angle from which you could potentially look at this? Yeah, perhaps that too.
Let me see if I can convince anyone.
The Blazers knew what they were getting into a year ago when they swung a deal for Afflalo. They were committing to a championship run. With Afflalo, Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and the rest of the gang in tow, they were positioning themselves for the 2015 Finals or bust.
Obviously, the Finals thing didn't happen. The Blazers knew this was a possibility too - either they would make a run at the title with Afflalo and everyone else, or the roster would fall apart and they'd start rebuilding. Either they'd have a veteran team and wouldn't need a 2016 draft pick, or they'd scrap everything and use the pick if they landed in the lottery.
Here's the thing, though. The Blazers ended up landing in a weird in-between zone. They're not a "scrap everything" team. They're not dead last in the Western Conference or even close to it. They're nipping at the heels of the No. 8 seed. They're rebuilding a little bit, but this doesn't necessarily have to be a long-term thing.
When the Blazers dealt that first-rounder to Denver, they had it lottery-protected for both 2016 and '17. Translation: Even if they successfully tank and keep their pick this summer, they'll still have to miss the postseason again next year to avoid giving Denver a lottery pick altogether. They're going to be right back in the same situation next year.
We all agree that losing a first-round pick is a major blow. But if you want to avoid that blow completely, you're talking about giving up on this season and next. You're saying that you're OK with zero playoff games in Portland between now and 2018. Twenty eighteen! By the summer of 2018, Lillard will be turning 28 years old - only two years younger than Aldridge was when he skipped town this summer. You're talking about squandering a sizeable chunk of your franchise player's prime. Lillard's not old by any stretch of the imagination, but time isn't exactly standing still for him. These years matter.
If you give up on the Blazers' playoff hopes between now and 2018, you're talking about year six of Lillard's career. It's also year six for Meyers Leonard and year five for C.J. McCollum, Mason Plumlee and Allen Crabbe. That's a bit old for a group to finally sniff its first playoffs together.
Fortunately, there's an alternative - compete.
The Blazers are already a respectable team now. They're better than you think. As of this writing, they're eighth in the NBA in offensive efficiency, averaging almost 106 points per 100 possessions. The defense is No. 25, but that's only about 2 points per game removed from league average. Correct one little mistake per game on that end of the floor - contest an extra shot, force an extra turnover, defend an extra possession without fouling - and you're in business. They're just a little incremental improvement away, and a young team with a good coach is exactly the type to make incremental improvements in the second half of a season.
Sure, the Blazers can miss the playoffs as expected this year, and they'll get a high pick. They currently have the ninth-worst record in the NBA, a half-game behind the Kings for No. 10, so they'd probably pick somewhere in that range. A pick like that is absolutely an asset. It can turn into a very promising NBA player. It's not lost on me that McCollum was a No. 10 overall pick just two years ago, and another McCollum-level guy would be huge. It's also worth noting, though, that Noah Vonleh went No. 9 the following year, and we all know how that's panned out so far. The moral of the story is that nothing's guaranteed in the late lottery.
There's another way to gain assets aside from the draft. You can make the playoffs, put your franchise on the map as a competitive one, and use that cachet to reel in free agents. Mention that strategy around a Blazers fan, and you're liable to hear a woe-is-me tale about how Portland's not enough of a destination - that no matter how intriguing the Blazers are, the big names will always go elsewhere. But is that really true in the modern NBA? Remember, we just watched the Milwaukee Bucks go from being a dreadful young team to earning a surprise playoff berth last year, and upon seeing that happen, Greg Monroe stiffed the Knicks and Lakers in free agency to play in Milwaukee. Is Milwaukee, subzero winters and all, any more of a destination than Portland? I think not. What about Boston, which just turned a ragtag group of youngsters into a No. 7 playoff seed and snagged Amir Johnson in free agency? Neither the Bucks nor the Celtics had a real title contender, but it didn't matter. Their status as a playoff team was enough to entice real players. Arguably, they landed assets that were better than a 50/50 shot at the next C.J. McCollum.
Can the Blazers be the next team to build not through the draft, but by building a playoff pedigree? We'll never know unless they try.
If you skim through the list of teams that have won NBA titles in recent memory, you can easily discern that there are two different types of winners. There's the dominant team that ripped the league to shreds all season long and was clearly a worthy champion - the most obvious example being the most recent winners, the 67-win Warriors of last season. The other type of champion is the team that's not dominant, but rather opportunistic. They were in the mix for a while, they waited for an opening when other teams were weak and they capitalized at the right time. Think Dallas in 2011, a team that won only 57 games and a No. 3 playoff seed.
The thing is, both teams are champions. There's no separating between real winners and impostor ones - in the end, they all get one championship ring, just the same. Years from now when they look back, those teams won't care whether they won by pure merit or by a combination of luck and timing.
I'd argue that No. 8 playoff seeds are the same way. There's two different types of No. 8s - there's the team that wins 50 games and just barely makes it in a loaded conference, and there's the rebuilding squad that only wins 37 but sneaks in because the conference is having a bad year. In the end, they both count the same. No one quibbles about the means when the end is a playoff spot. It still counts, and it still helps your players build experience and your franchise bolster its reputation.
I've heard the argument that even if the Blazers make the playoffs this year, it's no use because they'll only be swept in four games against Golden State anyway. While the sweep prediction is obviously a reasonable one, I'd still posit that that's too narrow a view of what a playoff berth means. It's a lot more than just surviving as a postseason team for nine days or whatever. It's about the full experience of fighting for that spot, from the All-Star break to the end of the season. Bad teams give up around February; competitive ones learn how to play the full 82 without breaking down. That's a valuable skill to learn.
Throughout these first 38 games, we've seen little hints from the Blazers here and there that they aren't quite ready to be a playoff team. They make little mistakes in their execution that reveal how they aren't quite there yet. You might see an instance of questionable shot selection from a young Blazer that an older, wiser player wouldn't make; you might see a lapse in team defense. You might see a late-game situation where the Blazers come up just a hair short of a game-winning play. I could do my film analysis thing and break down a bunch of clips of these plays, but there's no need. You watch the games. You know what I'm talking about.
The good news is that these are small mistakes that are fixable at the margins. And the Blazers don't need to do that much fixing to reach the next level. The Jazz are injured as all get out, and they're on pace for 36 wins. A record of 37-45 may well be enough to surpass them - which means all the Blazers need the rest of the way is .500 ball to get in. Go 22-22 in your final 44 games, and you're right there. We're talking about an extra win per month, basically.
If you're a fan, why not root for that? I know I'm getting preachy here, and I apologize for that. I promise, next week I'll shut up about this and go back to analyzing a bunch of advanced stats on Mason Plumlee or something. But for now, I'll just say my piece and leave it here: Pulling for an underdog playoff run like this one is what fandom is all about. You follow your team because you want to be fully engaged the whole year and feel like all the games matter, from 1 to 82. I'm of the crazy opinion that this year, for the Blazers, they do.
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