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Is “Championship or Bust” Fair to the Trail Blazers?

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Dave Deckard and Dia Miller debate the merits, effects, and costs of an NBA title.

Los Angeles Lakers v Portland Trailblazers Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers have had many reasons to celebrate during their 50-year history. Clyde Drexler dunks, Damian Lillard buzzer-beaters, lottery picks and blue-collar forwards have all stoked the passion of Blazers fans. But only once, in 1977, did the franchise capture the coveted golden trophy that all 30 NBA teams vie for.

Midway through his career, Lillard is in the running for the “Greatest Trail Blazer of All Time”, but he is no closer to bringing the title to Portland than Drexler was, or any player outside of that magic championship season. If his Twitter feed is any indication, even he seems to be contemplating a ringless reality.

This leads to an obvious question: is winning a title the only, or even the best, goal for a team or player? Dave Deckard and Dia Miller discuss.

Dave: Ok, Dia, it’s “Championship or Bust” time. Where do you sit on the spectrum? Is the lack of a title a big deal for you or are you content with a dozen other things that also make the game meaningful? And if so, which of those things are most important to you?

Dia: This is such an interesting topic. It’s been such an eye opening experience for me, interacting on Blazers twitter, and NBA twitter in general I suppose. It appears to me that most fans are so focused on doing whatever It takes to win a championship. No matter what. I suppose I knew that was the end all, but I had not realized to what extent. It’s hard for me to openly state that I’m content not winning a championship. The fact is, even though it may not always show up in my writing, I’m insanely competitive. Anyone who has ever watched a game with me, or played against me (or, frankly, on the same team as me) has seen this. I’ve all but shoved my children out of the way to keep from losing hot shot against my dad at Chuck E. Cheese. Every single year, I am 100% convinced that it’s going to be our year to win a championship. Every single year I cry when we don’t. So to answer your question, yes, it’s a big deal to me. Is It the end all, be all? No, it’s probably not. But I want it. I want it bad.

Dave: Ok, wait, wait, wait. Time out. You hip-checked your child to make sure pops didn’t beat you at hot shot? What was next? Did time slow as you screamed, “Nooooooooooooooooooooooo...” in a deep voice? Maybe you sailed through the air in slo-mo, laid out horizontally, trying to block his winning shot attempt, but you missed and knocked him to the floor in a crumpled heap? I suppose as he lay there, holding his hip and grimacing in pain, you stood over him screaming, “Who’s the daddy now, HUH???”

I can just see your little one looking up at you with tears in her eyes saying, “But this was for my berf-day mama! And you made grampa cry!!!” Then you look down at her with steely eyes and say, “Win or go home, pumpkin. Don’t ever forget it.”

Awwwww hells no. I’m not getting in a “Championship or Bust” conversation with someone like that! I like my limbs the way they are.

Dia: Well, first of all, let the record show that I won. Also, It needs to be noted that my 6’4” father still to this day plays basketball with guys half his age and holds his own. He’s an incredible shooter. The man doesn’t miss. So hot shot is serious business with us. My kids know this.

Dave: Fair enough. I’ll just stay behind this plexiglass for this conversation.

So, the Trail Blazers should have your tenacity. This is the one thing that’s been missing from this team since, well maybe 2000. I thought they had it in 2014 for a bit, but it was a brief blurp. The Brandon Roy teams were smooth and talented. Damian Lillard’s teams are exciting. But it seems like they win the games they’re going to win and lose the game they’re going to lose, give or take a thrilling last-minute comeback which they always try for and sometimes get. I don’t get the sense of, “We’ll do anything for this win.” I don’t get the idea that they’ll rip apart the opponent, their own selves, anything to get the job done. It’s a nice team. It’s a beautiful team. There’s just not that overwhelming, championship aura that Drexler’s Blazers or the recent-vintage Warriors had. The 80’s Celtics, the 90’s Pistons...even when they lost, they were nobody you wanted to mess with. I don’t think anybody’s really afraid the Blazers will beat them. The Blazers will win, sure, but not in that overwhelming, title-bound way.

I miss that, personally. With the best Blazers teams, you didn’t have to guess. Every night was a battle, and probably a win. All of it was preparation for the big show, when everything was on the line, and teams just like them wanted it just as badly. There’s something magical to that kind of victory or defeat that it’s just hard to feel lately. Do you get that same sense, or am I just nostalgia-misting?

Dia: I think this is where the debate comes in. We have talent. We have good players. So much so that I truly think we are one or two moves away from being legit title contenders. But I agree with you for the most part. While I think they want a championship, I think every professional athlete does, it seems to me we have built a team that really loves the game. Not only basketball, but also, each other. These guys clearly like playing together. I feel like we often touch on how good Dame is as a leader and how he brings the best out in his teammates and as a result makes them better. But he isn’t Michael Jordan in the sense that he will scream and yell and belittle his teammates in hopes of making them perform. The culture on this current team, the dynamic of these players, it’s just different.

Dave: I wonder sometimes if it’s possible to like each other too much? I mean, the Blazers seem comfortable! That’s part of their charm. But comfortable isn’t a title. Comfortable is one of those things you sell instead of a title. This team loves each other. These players get paid. The culture is so cool that everybody can fit in. I’m not sure any of these things apply to the Lakers, or any team with Jimmy Butler on it, for that matter. But here we are.

We love the story in Portland. That was embedded in our DNA from the World Championship in 1977. They weren’t just championship players, they were good guys. That made the seeming betrayal of the Jail Blazers era cut even more deeply. It wasn’t just low-quality basketball, it was a reversal of franchise identity. But realistically, the Blazers didn’t win in ‘77 because they were good guys. They won because they were excellent basketball players led by a once-in-a-generation superstar. Yes, they played as a team, but they did that in 1980 too. Some of the players probably liked each other that year. Most of them were good guys. They won 38 that season.

At some point, even the best, most endearing players need something beyond themselves to gather around, to push them harder than they otherwise would have gone, individually or as a unit. A championship is one heck of a motivator that way.

Dia: This is where you get me. Like I always say, I like good basketball, but I like good people even more. I’m always, 100% of the time, going to choose the good guys over a championship. Always. I don’t want to watch a bunch of egotistical, self centered, bullies win. I would rather watch kind, hard working, community loving guys lose. So maybe I was wrong when I said a championship is the most important thing. Clearly there are more important things to me, and this is part of why it’s so easy for me to love the Trail Blazers. They’re good. Good basketball players, and good people.

Dave: I supposed I’d add a couple caveats. We never do quite know everything about people, but the public image of the Blazers is fantastic. I’m not implying anything by that. I get the sense they’re just as deep-down awesome as they seem. But I’ve been through a couple of generations of players there and I hesitate to place anybody on a pedestal. It’s not part of the expectation for me. I’d also say that when players win titles, they tend to look a lot better to the public eye. Funny how that works!

I would guess that, like all of us, NBA players prefer to work in a happy, welcoming environment. I would also guess that there’s a limit. When players start feeling professionally frustrated because they’re capable of winning at a higher level than their current team is achieving, “nice” doesn’t entirely make up for it. That will vary based on individual players and their priorities, of course.

Maybe that’s part of the lesson here. There is no archetypal NBA player. No characteristic applies to everyone. Players are human, with their own goals, priorities, and temperments.

That’s part of the seduction of a title, I guess. It’s the one, inarguable achievement/goal/priority in the system. Nobody can argue when you win it. Nobody doesn’t want one either. As diverse as the league is, as tainted and biased as the system can be, there’s still something shining and redeeming about that trophy that no amount of money, fame, culture, or statistical prowess can substitute for.

It’s weird, because most people casually assume the championship is the most crooked part of the sport, like the culmination of all the gaming and perceived unfairness. I view it almost the opposite way, at least once it’s earned. It erases all the individual agendas and complaints, uniting everybody in the franchise in a single, glowing dream moment. Does that make any sense?

Dia: I can see where you’re going with that. I can see the draw and allure of a title. Of course, everyone wants their team to win. But if my team is a bunch of jerks, is a trophy going to make me like them more? Probably not. Although you better believe I’ll still buy the t-shirt. I guess the conclusion I’m coming to here is that a championship isn’t actually the most important thing to me. I can be a solid fan of a team that doesn’t win a championship.

Dave: I’d argue that a team without any chance at a title has a higher percentage of turning into “jerks”, as individual agendas take center stage over group success. At the same time, look how a championship became a scrubby car wash for several careers in Detroit in 2004. Teams that win are more apt to feel good about themselves, put aside differences, and become beloved by the public as well. I suspect Portland would come to love almost anybody who earned that trophy for the red and black.

If there’s no shot at a ring, I’m right there with you. Fan-friendly and easy to root for is the next characteristic on my list. But honestly, without any hope for ultimate success, I’d advocate for that charismatic team to be appreciated, then transformed, for the sake of the fan base and the players.

What say you, Blazer’s Edge Readers? What is a NBA Championship trophy worth? Do you value anything higher? What do you value alongside it, and how would you rank those priorities for yourself as a fan? Let us know in the comment section!