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Charles Barkley Got the Trail Blazers Right

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The TNT analyst suggests Portland’s cool demeanor may be getting in the way of winning. We explore.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

During halftime of the Portland Trail Blazers’ game against the Houston Rockets on Thursday night, TNT commentator Charles Barkley lamented Portland’s lack of urgency in the eventual 104-101 loss. The money quote from his analysis: “They’re playing like whatever happens, happens.”

This has caused a little bit of a stir in Blazers Land, the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

Did you hear what Chuck said about us last night? Whatever happens is ok with them? He’s not watching the Blazers I watch. What do you think?

Oliver

Well, he’s not wrong.

This is nothing new. Might be one of the first times a national personality has paid close enough attention to say it. We’ve said similar things as far back as the Brandon Roy era, when Portland showed up to the 2009 NBA Playoffs with briefcases and suits, ready for a day at the office, while the veteran Houston Rockets showed up with hard hats and jackhammers, ready to demolish. Obviously there’s no direct correlation between that era and this one, but it brings up the possibility that some of the mindset is cultural.

I don’t think it’s a Portland thing as much as an underdog mentality. Underdogs don’t get awarded for achieving. They’re praised for overachieving. Those are two different things.

Achieving assumes a set standard for measuring success, applied to all participants equally. The most common standard applied in the NBA is the championship. The Lakers, Celtics, Heat, and teams who have won it a lot (or at least recently) operate by this metric. They achieve the goal or don’t. Anything short of success is not success.

The problem, of course, is that only one team wins the title each year. The other 29 teams need a reason to play too. The gulf between haves and have-nots has been exacerbated by the NBA’s “star system”—and perhaps inherent factors in the sport—leading to relatively few teams winning the majority of the league’s championships. The Heat might be able to claim they’re on their way back to the pinnacle, but what about the Kings? Or, for that matter, the Blazers?

In this “glory for the few” environment, fans, media, and the league itself have joined forces in praise of the underdog. Underdogs don’t need to achieve based on commonly-held standards; they just need to do better than you’d think they would. That’s become the new “success”. Everybody conspires in it. The league gets to keep the spotlight on a small number of glitzy players and teams. The media gets to hype up more than the Chosen Six each season, spinning narratives of hope to feed the content mill. Fans get to pretend that their team is as good as anybody else’s because those evil media types predicted 10 wins too few or because their team beat the World Champs on a random Wednesday night. Everybody wins.

Except, of course, the underdog. The best of them rise to a certain level of success—usually the first round of the playoffs, occasionally the second round if it’s a good year—before being summarily ousted by teams that are playing for real stakes. This, too, is good for everybody involved. The winning franchise gets to win, the underdog franchise gets to crow about what a good season they had because they overachieved, and nobody asks the league why only six teams can win a title ever.

“Overachieve” is a seductive word. It has “achieve” in it, just like the winning teams get. It contains the prefix, “over”, which means above. Worshiping it hasn’t taken teams into above-achieving land, though. Instead it’s created a long-term underclass of NBA franchises satisfied with the word itself instead of actually winning.

The Blazers show hallmarks of being in that class. They’ve boasted an era-defining superstar in their starting lineup for nine years, but they’ve gotten past the second round only once, an un-repeated event which ended in a squash at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. Yet every season the official word has been how well they did, how everybody doubted them, and how much hope they have for the next season when they’ll finally break through.

In 2018 CJ McCollum hosted Kevin Durant on his podcast. McCollum made the claim about the team doing well and winning, saying they were “right there” below the top tier of teams, which Durant and the Warriors were in at the time. Durant summarily dismissed McCollum, saying the Blazers played “like an 8th seed” and that they had no chance of winning a title. McCollum protested that “anything can happen”. To this date, it hasn’t.

How many times can you hear things like this before suspecting that hope isn’t about the product, it is the product?

Charles Barkley never won a title in the NBA, but he played on Finals teams and was an all-time talent. He’s also retired now, and understands there’s no way to go back. I heard lament in Barkley’s comments as much as criticism. The Blazers theoretically have the potential to be great, if nothing else because Lillard and McCollum form one of the best backcourts of this era. But they play like the goal is “good enough” instead of good. They play like they’ve been told that overachieving and achieving are the same thing. They play like they can hope their way to a title because it would be a nice story. It doesn’t work that way.

Injuries color the immediate picture, obviously. With five player sidelined and Derrick Jones, Jr. in and out, the Blazers could have played their hearts out against the Houston Rockets and still lost. But this wasn’t just a one-night comment, nor is it just a single-game issue.

Personalities also matter. Both Lillard and McCollum are suave, cool. Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge were the same way. They’re understated, classy, more James Bond than Incredible Hulk. Take away Bond’s gadgets, though, and he’s likely to lose. Barkley was crying for the Blazers to find that Hulk reserve when Bond Stuff wasn’t working, to get big and green and angry and take over the game. They don’t have that. They never have.

Personally, I think Portland would be well-served trading for their Hulk. They need to let go of the chemistry-first, “everybody is nice to each other” vibe. The culture will survive the addition of one counter-cultural personality. They need someone with passion, experience, and the willingness to not be nice when things are going south, either in a game or in a week. They need the semi-unhinged player who’s going to be the first out of the trenches in every situation, charging madly into the opponent’s line, forcing everyone to follow. They had that in the Clyde Drexler era with Buck Williams and Jerome Kersey. They had it in the Bill Walton era with Maurice Lucas. It’s missing now. Because of that, the Blazers lack the ability to unbalance the field and turn around the narrative. They mostly win the games they were going to win, trumpeting the occasional surprise or Dame Time barrage, and going home happy either way.

If that’s going to be the epitaph on this era, so be it. Lillard has been brilliant and it was a fun team to watch most nights. Barkley is just making one last pass as the Ghost of Christmas Present to Portland’s Scrooge, suggesting that if they don’t amend their ways, the view from beyond the end isn’t as satisfying as they think it’ll be.

I don’t have a lot of hope that the organization will listen, but Barkley’s message is an apt one. Too bad he can’t suit up again and give them what they need.