It was my dad's 60th birthday this weekend, and while I was out visiting him we started talking sports, as is often the case. Pops is a slightly-more-than-casual basketball fan who gave up in the Jail Blazer era. I asked him what it would take to get him back into the Blazers (and to brave Portland traffic to join me for a game or two) and he couldn't really give an answer.
We started talking about how it can't solely be about championships, because 29 out of 30 teams go home disappointed every year. The Blazers have never won an NBA Championship in my lifetime (born in 1978; JUST missed it), and while that would be the ultimate moment for me as a fan, the absence of trophies hasn't kept me away or even dampened my enthusiasm.
So, besides wins and trophies, what do we look for in our team? What gives us pleasure regardless of the season's outcome?
I spent some time thinking about this, and I came up with four key things that I want to see in the Blazers every year.
This is an easy one, right? We watch basketball because it's fun. Obviously it's more fun to win, but the Blazers have had some fun teams that didn't win a lot of games. The 2012-13 Blazers that featured a rookie Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard won only 33 games, but played an entertaining brand of basketball all season long. Or at least until they dropped their last 13 games to close the season. New coach Terry Stotts had the team playing a freewheeling style of basketball and Lillard in particular offered fans hope for the future. Though the team barely finished above .400, that year was one of the more enjoyable seasons turned in by a "bad" team in recent memory.
Coming from the Nate McMillan era, Stotts' offense is a joy to behold. Sarge had some clear success in Portland, but outside of watching Brandon Roy cook, that offensive system was downright painful to enjoy sometimes, even if the team was winning.
It can take years to build a contender, and even when you do, there are no guarantees that a title will come your way. With no clear contender to root for in the last 17 years, I've taken to just enjoying the growth of a team from year to year, and even from October to April. Watching a team coalesce and gel over the course of a season is one of the great joys of being a fan. Watching the same broken plays suddenly become well-executed and effective as the season rolls on builds hope and belief in the players that we're rooting for.
The most obvious example is last year's team. Though they weren't competing for a championship, the Blazers weren't the same team in March/April that they were in October/November. Though they had no real shot at a title, the city of Portland was buzzing in the spring thanks to individual development (CJ McCollum, Moe Harkless), and overall team synergy. It's definitely exciting when an individual player shows growth and breaks out, but when the team as a whole shows growth in composure and execution, fans can see the whole become greater than the sum of its parts right before their eyes, and that's a beautiful moment in the life-cycle of a team, whether they eventually win it all or top out as a lower seed.
Interestingly, this only started mattering to me as I got older. During the early stages of the Jail Blazer era, or possibly the "pre-Jail Blazer" era, depending on how you define it, I didn't really care about off-court exploits, attitudes, or really anything but on-court performance. Maybe it's because I'm a parent now, or that I've softened my stance toward what I define as entertaining basketball, but I need likable guys. I don't need total choir boys for basketball players (for example I'm willing to accept Al-Farouq Aminu's apology for his unfortunate tweets from some years back), but I want to root for guys who want to be here, keep their noses clean, and are at least semi-active in the community.
Fortunately the Blazers are excelling in that area currently, led by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and after the team's struggles in that regard previously, I'm sure that's not an accident. Both guys are active in the community, spend much of their offseason in Portland with their families, and really clearly like each other. Meyers Leonard might be a lightning rod for disagreement regarding his potential, but there's no denying that he comes across as a really likable guy. Ed Davis, Mason Plumlee...the list goes on. Regardless how well the team performs on the court, I can root for these guys.
This is a little tough to define. It's sort of like that famous Potter Stewart quote - "I know it when I see it." But teams can stumble upon an identity and have fans latch on to it instantly. There are some famous examples, Detroit's championship-era Bad Boys come to mind, but identity can come to a team that doesn't win it all, even if it usually coincides with winning.
Portland's identity last season was the classic underdog who was counted out by everybody. How many times did you see "#they" online last season? Now that they have a first-round victory under their belt and a couple moderate free agent additions, it will be interesting to see what identity the Blazers form now that they aren't completely off the radar. Other teams won't take them for granted anymore.
The Blazers have a non-zero chance of winning a title next season, but the odds are very slim. As long as they show growth and continue to be guys I can root for (I'm assuming Stotts won't decide to implement a walk it up, 1-4 isolation offense in the coming year), I'm going to enjoy the ride.