The Portland Trail Blazers open their 2018-19 NBA Regular Season Schedule tonight against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Season openers are a Blazers specialty. They haven’t lost one since Dwight Eisenhower was president...or close enough. This one carries special meaning being at home, against a traditional rival fielding the best player in the league, also honoring the passing of owner Paul Allen. For all those reasons, a victory would be nice.
Unfortunately, the Blazers don’t have room for much “nice” in the current campaign. The NBA Western Conference runs 9 deep, perhaps expanding to 11. Read the room. Nice is going to be anathema.
Nice means, “That’s a nice little backcourt you’ve got there, with Damian Lillard being All-NBA, but here are some of the greatest teams and players of All Time.”
Nice will amount to, “CJ McCollum is a nice trade chip. Maybe the Blazers can get something for him before his contract expires.”
Nice is going to equal Lillard getting asked every week between 2019 and 2021 how he feels about his next contract, and whether it’ll be for another team.
Nice comes down to, “Well, we’ve had a nice run, guys. We did what we could. Wish it would have been more, but let’s just play out the string and see what happens in the off-season.”
The Blazers cannot afford nice. Not if they’re going to mean something.
Let’s face it. Nobody expects this team to do anything but put up a few numbers, then roll over in the face of better opposition. That’s their track record, that’s their public perception, that’s the appropriate analyst call. All the gravity, external and internal, pulls downward into applause-worthy mediocrity. If they don’t fight it every step of the way, that’s where Portland’s season—and increasingly their future—will fall.
The Blazers can’t change that perception with an opening night win. Game 1 will be followed by 81 more. Only the final average matters. But the Blazers can send a message to the Lakers, the Western Conference, and most importantly themselves that gravity will not determine their destiny if they can help it. They won’t have a bigger stage or a more obvious megaphone opponent shout it through than they do tonight.
A win won’t determine anything. It’ll simply open up a possibility. A loss would indicate that the Blazers weren’t ready—or maybe weren’t talented enough—to turn that possibility into reality. Given the environment, that admission would weigh heavily.
The imbalance between outcomes (a win weighing lighter than a loss) isn’t fair...isn’t “nice”, if you will. That’s OK. The NBA isn’t nice. In professional sports, and particularly in basketball, people who accept their fate have already lost. Those who succeed make their own fate, often against steep odds. The Blazers will need to do that repeatedly if they have any aspirations of competing against the conference elite. They might as well start in Game 1. If they intend to take this season seriously, it needs to start now.
It’s time to play for real. Get that “W” and don’t let anything stand in the way. Or just settle for nice and spend the season explaining why that makes sense.
Either way, we’ll find out tonight.