Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Jorga's Question

Jorga wrote the following regarding the Triangle/Square post below. It was in the comment section but I lifted it up here:

>>As a former teacher (mini-prof?) I like the triangle. I see this triangle spinning - with none of those three as the absolute apex. You've analyzed three current/recent Blazers and I'd like to read your opinion of more. I'm also curious as to what former Blazers you think were strong in all three (when they were with us, not after they bloomed elsewhere) And a question: can effort be taught once a player reaches the NBA? If so, who among current players had their effort questioned in college play but proved those reports false? Who gets the credit - the coach - the player - or the synergy?<<

Ok...

--I like the idea of no apex to the triangle. Though you almost have to go with talent on top because it's easily observable/measurable, so often things in the other two categories play critical roles in pivotal moments. In certain situations you might want a Khryapa out there over a Miles. Dallas has as many obviously talented guys as anybody, but how often do you see them (or any team) just throw five stars on the court, especially in game-deciding moments?

--My opinion of most of the current players is that they need more time in the oven before we'll know. Of the guys we do know about, I'd say Zach was solid in the talent department but he never was a hustle, "give it all" guy even during his 20-10, Most Improved Player season. People differ on the character side, so I think it's fair to say there are questions. Even so, he clearly doesn't prosper in all points of the triangle, so he's not a guy I think can ever lead us to a deep run, even though he's a good (probably not great) NBA player. Joel and Theo are both solid on the character/hustle marks, but their talent, though great, is so specific that they don't qualify as well-rounded. Again, good players, not great. If we're going to develop any truly great players from the current crop, it'll have to be either Martell, Jack, or Bassy (roughly in that order). All have shown promise, but it will depend on how much they want to be great and how hard they work at it.

--As far as past Blazers who have been all-around great, I think Bill Walton and Buck Williams (remembering that his main talents were defense and rebounding) stand as the most shining examples, with Clyde right in there too. Those three would obviously rate very high in all three categories. After them you have a few players that were extremely high in one or two and still good in the remainder, like Maurice Lucas, Jim Paxson, and Terry Porter. Danny Ainge and Scottie Pippen would also count, though they were more rented players.

--Can effort be taught? I'd say yes, certainly, just like any other skill. I think every player needs to up his effort just to go from the lower levels to the pros, so you could say everybody learns at least a little. But many fail (or underachieve) because they can't sustain the professional level of effort. The problem is not that guys can't learn, rather that relatively few see the need or know how to gain the discipline if they do see it. It's easy to see how to improve your jumper. It's harder to train yourself where to be on the court, how and when to exert energy, and to have that indomitable will that the ball and the court are yours, period. I think character is equally teachable, but also lacks willing disciples sometimes. If we're lucky we reach the point where we realize that our job and lives are about more than us and the money we make...they're about being part of something that affects the world in a positive way. That's part of growing up. I think between the shoe contracts, the hangers-on, and the folks whispering in their ear from the time they're in 5th grade, a lot of these guys don't get the chance to do that growing up.

As to who gets the credit when these things do happen, I have a hard time imagining there's a coach in the world who's not trying to teach his or her young players to play hard and sacrifice themselves for the good of the team. We've heard several examples of that from Nate himself. So coaches do get some credit. But they're saying those things to twelve guys and sometimes only two get it, so when I see players who do those things, I tend to really admire them. Say what you want about Tim Duncan, but that guy is good and a winner. I hated Jordan because we lost to him, but he's also the exemplar extraordinaire for excelling at all points of this triangle. I am ready to throw buckets of praise at Martell and Jarrett too, if given the chance. Between the huge, guaranteed contracts and the star system that's been in force for the last two decades, the league just isn't set up to train winners. Anybody who can overcome that environment and make these gains deserves some admiration in my book.

There's something to the synergy argument as well. The amount of player movement around the league is making it increasingly obvious that good teams have a chance to shape contributing players out of disappointing ones, or at least to compensate for their inadequacies. Bad teams, however, tend to diminish whoever joins them. Again, I see this as a leadership issue...on the court especially but also on the bench and in the front office.

Thanks for the great questions and comments Jorga!

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

Pecking Order

Sue writes:

>>About the lead player being the most important and guarding his spot [from the "Follow Up Thoughts" post below]...WHY? Isn't this supposed to be a team? Why should [a couple of players] matter so much?<<

Well, first let me say that this issue of pecking order isn't exclusive to the Blazers. As far as I can tell it's a league-wide phenomenon. I can't say exactly how it plays out on our team or even if it does. Not being there, we can only talk in generalities. Furthermore, I'm not sure anyone not intimately involved could explain the "WHY?" of it. My assertions about key players exerting influence over their teammates were more descriptive than prescriptive. I don't know if there's a better way to function...I just know how it appears to be in the NBA.

Age and experience are two factors which naturally create a hierarchy within a team, and appropriately so. I have a friend who worked in the periphery of the professional wrestling business for a long time. (Nobody famous, don't worry.) I know, I know...it's not a competitive sport the same way basketball is, but there are similarities. The athletes involved are competing against each other for ring time and position in the company while at the same time having to work together intimately to put forth a saleable product. The same thing is basically true of pro basketball if you replace the word "ring" with the word "playing".

My friend sat down with me one day and tried to answer my questions about "respect", the unwritten code that governs interactions between wrestlers. He said you could never understand it fully from the outside, but in a nutshell wrestlers police each other to make sure everybody is doing the right thing for the business and giving honor to (and learning from) the people who have been in it longest. Younger guys need to learn the ropes from the more experienced wrestlers, otherwise the company would devolve into chaos with everybody doing their own thing in the ring and backstage both. So basically the first time you enter a locker room you sit down, shut up, and wait to speak until you're spoken to. If you show willingness to learn about the team and endure whatever tests they put before you, you'll be brought into the fold and allowed to contribute. If you don't listen, if you don't bear up with good grace, or if you don't show the ability to contribute, you're ostracized.

The NBA experience is somewhat analogous. Young guys, no matter how accomplished, need someone to show them the ropes. This is even more true in recent years when players are being drafted younger and younger. Rookies go through an initiation process. They carry bags and run errands for the vets. They're put through the wringer to make sure they can hack being part of a team under pressure. In some locker rooms rookies aren't even allowed to speak (and that's the coach's call). The goal is to teach respect for the game and the team. Young guys may have basketball skills, but that doesn't mean they've learned how to win in the NBA yet.

My wrestling friend said when it works well, this system preserves order, makes for a better overall product, and smoothes over a lot of the natural tension that arises when guys are competing against each other and depending on each other at the same time. One of the ways it can break down, however, is when the overt leaders aren't really in it to teach or preserve the public good and instead use their power to benefit themselves, making the team their personal playground. This kind of system puts a lot of power in the hands of a few people and intentionally mutes the contributions of those not in power (who presumably don't know enough yet to contribute intelligently). One or two bad leaders can really mess up the whole group and the group has little recourse.

Talent also factors into NBA team hierarchies. Simply put, Zach has more ability to put the ball in the basket right now than Jarrett Jack. That means Zach is going to get a lot more touches and shots. Let's say the two are at loggerheads over some issue. If Jarrett goes to Zach and says, "I'm going to freeze you out...you'll never get the ball from me," Zach is just going to laugh in his face. For one thing, 11 other people on the team will still pass Zach the rock. For another, as soon as the coach notices his guard refusing to pass the ball to his best player, that guard is going to get yanked. But look what happens if Zach says, "Get in line or I don't get YOU the ball!" Zach is a key piece in 60-70% of the team's offensive possessions. There's no reason he has to pass to Jack ever. And nobody will be complaining that the kid isn't getting his shots either. Furthermore, all it takes is one whisper from Zach that he really feels more comfortable with Telfair making the entry passes and all of a sudden Bassy gets more consideration from the coaching staff. So now...who has to follow whom in this situation?

Are such overt threats ever made? Maybe...but they don't really have to be. Everybody knows the score already, so there's great incentive to fall in line.

Contracts also figure in here. It's not so much that whoever's paid the most has all the say, rather that the stars usually have long-term, lucrative, guaranteed contracts in hand while the youngsters are still struggling to get that level. Zach could walk out to midcourt, stick a kazoo in his rear, and blow the Star-Spangled Banner and he'd still get paid $100 million over the next six years. Jack had better hit his shots, hustle in practice, and hang on coach's every word because his contract is three years, six million and he wants the next one to be higher. If Jarrett doesn't want to run a drill coach gets in his grill and he runs it double-time. Zach has considerably more freedom to do what he wants (or not do, as the case may be). If Jarrett doesn't run the drill the rest of the team will call him a fool and do it anyway. If Zach's not buying into the system, what's the point, really? What are you going to do...make him ride the pines? Bigger, longer contracts usually translate into more influence on the team.

As with age and experience, contract and talent considerations put a lot of power in the hands of a few players. If those players are on board, working within the system, and working hard, it's a powerful motivator. If they're only in business for themselves, it can tear a team apart. And it's not so easy to dislodge them either. What if Jack were actually capable of scoring Zach-like numbers? How's he going to do that without the ball? And is it in Zach's best interest to make sure he gets that opportunity or to make sure he doesn't? Again, maybe it's not as overt as that, but such things do happen.

Having some kind of pecking order is unavoidable. It may even be necessary. One of the great keys to success is making sure whoever is at the top of it has the goal of winning and doing what's best for the team, not just the self. As I've mentioned before, the David Robinson to Tim Duncan handoff was one of the classic examples of things going right, and it's no accident that team is the way it is. When it goes wrong, however, the marks of leadership become not having to listen, not having to work hard, and the power to enforce one's self-interest at the expense of others. These are the things to which younger, better players learn to aspire...the signs that they've "made it". And that's how you change from a franchise that happens to lose some games to a flat-out losing franchise.

--Dave

The Triangle (or Square)

A gentleman who goes by "Professor Pete" writes:

>>I've been reading through your archives and I like how you've developed the argument that talent isn't enough to make a great player... You've pointed out effort and character as necessary ingredients. Anything else? How about a synthesis of the system? (We profs love that kind of thing.)<<

Well...thanks! If an actual professor likes the stuff, it must be good, right? I hadn't thought of anything I haven't mentioned already. Maybe readers can help with an area I've missed. But for the professorial types out there who like things neat and organized, I guess one could develop a triangle of player attributes surrounding what we've talked about.

One point of the triangle would be talent. This would include basketball skill (shooting, rebounding, defending, etc.) as well as physical attributes (strength, size, quickness, leap, and the like). If you wanted to get more technical you could separate those two categories, creating a square. For our purposes we'll mush them together and leave it as a triangle.

Another point would be effort. This would be loosely defined as "maximizing your talent". It would include hustling on both ends of the court, setting (or using) picks well, getting balls that come in your direction (what Henry Abbott calls being "sticky"), keeping hands and feet moving...basically giving energy during the game and doing little things right.

The final point would be character. This includes unselfish play, willingness to find and accept a role (being "coachable"), ability to remain dedicated and contribute to the teams and its goals even when they don't center around you shooting the ball, locker-room presence, and the like.

Strength in all three points is the hallmark of the truly great player. Our own small forward corps gives us examples of players imbalanced towards one or two of the points. Viktor Khryapa is strong in effort and character, less so in talent. Ruben Patterson had great athletic ability, defensive skills, and low post scoring, plus he gave plenty of effort, but he was lacking in the character department. Darius Miles has boundless talent, but his effort and character are inconsistent. All three have good points and all three are NBA players, but none are great, nor do they approach greatness. In fact the jury's still out on whether any of the three can actually help a team win.

Fans and executives alike tend to overvalue the top point of the triangle. Talent is necessary, but you're far more likely to overpay for it. The value of a construct like this is that it helps us look past the obvious and quantify, or at least talk about, some of the things that differentiate a Magic Johnson from a Stephon Marbury.

Basketball is a team game. Because of the small court and number of people in play, it's the major sport most susceptible to dominance by a single, talented player. But in turn, its players (however talented) are more susceptible to the vagaries of synergy. Talent alone can't explain what happens out there. Our own championship history, both won and lost, shows us that.

Thanks, Professor! You can start the wall diagram now.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Ultimate Goal

You can't walk two steps in Blazer Nation this summer without noticing a fair amount of division among fans and experts alike surrounding issues of who to draft, who to trade, and who to re-sign. I'd venture to say that this is one of the more controversial off-seasons ever. I guess 21-61 will do that to you. While the overt dialogue usually involves players and prospects, I'd argue the underlying differences are of philosophy and goal. So I thought I'd share mine.

I want a championship, pure and simple. Nothing else will do. I've stated before (and I'll do so again now) that winning a championship should be the primary focus of every team. If you're not playing for a title, you're playing to lose. The only difference is when.

I was a little kid in 1977 when we won it all. That was the first pro basketball I ever watched, and that first playoff run brings my oldest (and in some ways, dearest) Blazer memories. I have watched every single Blazer playoff game since, and well over a thousand regular season games besides. I've seen 17 first-round playoff exits. I've seen four seasons without the playoffs at all. And I've seen all three trips to the finals. Honestly the first aren't much more memorable than the second. Can you name the opponents in those first-round series we lost? (No fair just going with the percentages by saying, "Lakers!") But how many stories do you have from the road to the finals? How many memories do you have of individual games, individual moments frozen in time, even from just the Western Conference Finals runs? See what I mean? Deep trips with great teams are all that matters. Everything else is but filler in the sausage of sports life.

That's why it amazes me when people want to keep players, acquire new ones, and fill cap space solely in order to get immediate relief from this horrible record when the eventual reward will at best be an early playoff exit and probably will only amount to ten more wins. In the long run there's not a ton of difference between an 8th-seed playoff sweep and a 35 win season. (Quick...who'd we lose to in '94-'95? '95-'96? Remember those any better than 2002-03?) There's absolutely no difference between a 31-win season and a 21-win season. Did you think much more of Milwaukee and Cleveland all those years they were the fifth or sixth worst team in the league than you did of Atlanta? How about perennial 35-38 game winners Golden State? Did anyone outside of the Bay Area say, "At least they're not Toronto!" or did nobody care about either team? Winning is winning, losing is losing. Mortgaging your future, or even making plans at all, based on what degree of losing you can rationalize best is a waste of time. Even if you're the worst team in the league, even if you're the worst team in history...it doesn't matter. The goal should be the same: to get to that pinnacle. And you need to make moves that have the best chance of getting you there and not lower your standards just to grab a couple cheap victories. If you can't get any players that you're confident would help a deep-playoff run team, at least preserve the flexibility to pursue them in the future.

An analogy: Say your ultimate goal is to drive a Rolls Royce, but you know you can't get there yet. You have a choice of two cars right now: a used Hyundai that looks like crap but will at least get you to work, or a Jaguar that looks better (and thus is closer to your eventual goal) but costs a lot more and will break down every third day. Personally I'd go with the Hyundai. People might laugh now, but at least I'm getting to work and making progress on my goal, and I can put away the money I saved towards the Rolls. I think a lot of people would go with the Jag so they don't take the short-term grief. To me, that just puts you farther behind. It looks better immediately but in the big picture you're paying more. And that means pretty soon you're going to be back to the Hyundai anyway. At that point, short-term ridicule or no, I'm going to be way ahead of you.

Some of the players we have now and some we might be acquiring are Hyundai guys. They don't look pretty, but at least they don't cost a lot and they'll keep us going while we develop the players who might get us to the next level. We have some unreliable, expensive Jaguar players too. I hope we don't get any more. As I speculated in the "A-list/B-list" posts below, it's entirely possible for a team to overpay and overplay the wrong guys and get stuck for a long, long time.

I am NOT advocating losing long enough to get a great lottery pick. I don't agree with tanking, nor do I think that 99.9% of professional athletes, coaches, and executives would do it. (Again, people who think that's the current, intentional plan are just plain foolish.) What I am saying is that since we stink anyway, let's make sure we rebuild the right way, not just the way that makes us feel better about not stinking quite so much. There are no sacred cows on a 20-win team. The lower-paid supporting cast is always changeable, but if a main player doesn't have the ability to eventually help us to the Promised Land, we should have no compunctions about moving him. And that should hold true for any star player we bring in also, through free agency, trades, or the draft.

The goal always was, and always should be, championship gold. Anything else is ultimately unsatisfying. If that takes patience, so be it. I can wait a while, as long as we're building correctly in the meantime. I believe we will get back in the hunt eventually...maybe sooner than now seems possible.

I remember so well that feeling I had as a kid. I want it at least once more before I die. I know exactly what will happen too, if and when that title comes. On that day I will run around my living room six times screaming my head off and then probably do a few crazy laps around the house for good measure. Then I will break down and cry.

Here's hoping we all get that chance.

--Dave

Monday, May 29, 2006

Effort is a Skill

There's been this crazy perception floating around NBA circles for years now that somehow effort is the easiest and cheapest part of the game. I don't know how much this flourishes among players, but I've sure heard plenty of fans admiring guys who make amazing shots every fourth play while taking the other three off. They assume that as long as the talent is there, occasional greatness will naturally develop into winning consistency. It rarely happens though. That's because effort itself is a skill, no different than shooting or dribbling. It takes practice and concentration to develop. Saying a guy will just decide to turn it up someday is the equivalent of saying a defensive specialist will just decide to start putting his jumpers through the net. It's not that easy.

Sports like distance running and amateur wrestling show us that effort isn't accidental, but an intentionally rehearsed trait. You simply don't see anyone at the highest levels of those sports who hasn't learned to gut it out, keep their mind focused, and give it all in every moment. How many hours of grueling practice lie behind that ability? The sidelines of those sports are littered with athletes who had great physical tools but, for whatever reason, couldn't develop the mental discipline necessary to give the consistent, world-class effort that success demands. Because basketball rewards specific skills like shooting, it's easier for people without that discipline to advance to higher levels, but that doesn't mean that they're going to be successful when they get there. And it certainly doesn't mean that they're going to be able to develop that discipline without intentionally working on it. Merely being a basketball player doesn't grant automatic acquisition of a trait that wrestlers and runners spend lifetimes learning and practicing.

You can prove this point for yourself at your local pickup game, especially if (like me) you're a weekend warrior who just loves to shoot around with buddies. Next time you're out there, try to play the game perfectly...hustle after every loose ball, block out on every board, follow your own shot instead of watching it, run back hard in transition. You might anticipate some physical stress from doing this, but you know what you'll probably find? The mental strain of doing it will get to you long before your body starts complaining. You're going to have a hard time remembering not to watch your own shot. You're going to find yourself unconsciously lapsing into old, bad habits rebounding. You may be able to change your playing style for a sequence or two, but you're not going to make it for a whole game without your brain getting really, really tired from having to think (and chide you) every second you're out there.

Now think...how much effort would it take for you to change your game permanently, or even on a consistent basis, game to game? How much practice would you have to do? In how many outings would you have to repeat your behavior before it became second nature? There's no magical light switch. Making a decision to give a little more here or there doesn't matter. Either the discipline is there, and repeated, and evidenced, and worked on, or it's not...much like physical strength or good shooting form.

Effort guys ARE talented, just like shooters are talented. Their talent development has just been in a less obvious area. An effort guy who can't shoot worth beans is no less talented than a shooter who plays the game a like a roadside construction flagger when the ball isn't in his hands.

I cringe every time I hear people downplaying effort as if anyone could give it if they really wanted to...as if it wasn't a skill in its own right. How often have you heard the question, "Would you rather have talented guys who don't work that hard or guys who aren't that talented who give a lot of effort"? At the NBA level, the answer to that question is NEITHER. Both will cause you to lose, just in different ways.

There cannot be a gap between offensive/athletic talent and effort at the professional level if you're going to win. It's as simple as that. It's time to stop glorifying one while taking the other for granted. If you look at the great players and the great teams--Magic's Lakers, Bird's Celtics, Jordan's Bulls, Duncan's Spurs--they all had this in common: they had a lot of talented guys who also worked very hard at working very hard. And this was true of everyone from the best player on the team on down to the 12th man, or else they didn't stay on the team very long. That's not an accident, nor a nice ideal...that's what winning takes.

--Dave

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Another Trade

Todd wrote a couple of days ago:

>>I wonder what your retrospective take is on the [Denver/Portland] Kiki Vandeweghe trade...

Todd (not registered for blogger so I cannot use the comments at this point).<<

Briefly addressing the second part first: I chose this site because it was really easy for a novice blogger like me to get things up and running. I don't control the comment registration and I understand why some might not want to sign up for it. I believe it's possible to comment anonymously without registering, and if folks just want to do that and attach their name to the post, that's fine by me. Or the personal e-mail option that Todd took (blazersub@yahoo.com) works just great. I respond to nearly every e-mail or comment I get because I really do appreciate you guys taking the time to read. Your responses really make my day. Thank you SO much.

On to Todd's trade... I suppose my biggest impression of the Vandeweghe trade is that it's as close to a true blockbuster as we've ever come. The Pippen and Stoudamire trades involved as many people, but we haven't seen another trade that was so spectacular on both sides of the ledger.

In the waning years of the Jack Ramsay era Jim Paxson was the clear-cut all-star carrying the squad. The frontcourt, featuring Mychal Thompson and Calvin Natt, contributed decent scoring and good rebounding, but by 1984 Ramsay was hungry for another perimeter scorer to complement Paxson and take advantage of the 3-point line. (While instituted in the NBA in '79-'80, it took several years for the 3-point shot to become a viable offensive option for most teams. The Blazers attempted only 129 threes as a team in 1983-84, making only 25 of them.) So in the summer of '84 the Blazers sent Calvin Natt, Fat Lever, Wayne Cooper, and a two draft picks (later to become Blair Rasmussen and some guy named Willie White) to Denver for Kiki Vandeweghe.

People who look at this trade in retrospect often ask, "Why so much?" And employing hindsight, we did trade a lot of multi-faceted players for a guy whose game was mostly scoring. But this doesn't take into account Kiki's underrated-superstar status at the time. In his final season with Denver he averaged 29.4 points per game on 55.8% shooting. Granted part of that came from Denver's free-wheeling offensive style (they were Phoenix before being Phoenix was cool) but those numbers are still eye-popping. Imagine combining Kobe/Iverson level scoring with Shaq's field goal percentage. (Yikes!) Also, if you look at Portland's roster at the time, they had Thompson and Kenny Carr to cover Natt's position, Darnell Valentine (whom Ramsay loved, likely because of his legendary conditioning) already outplaying Lever, and newly-minted draft pick Sam Bowie to take Cooper's center spot. So even with the mass exodus, the cupboard was hardly bare. Technically speaking Natt was the only Blazer involved who was the #1 option at his position. In an era where single superstars were beginning to have a disproportionate influence on the game, that kind of deal seemed to make sense.

The most enduring memory of the deal was watching Fat Lever blossom into a perpetual all-star for the Nuggets. By 1986-87 he was averaging 19 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists. Valentine, on the other hand, had taken up permanent residence in Ramsay's doghouse and was unceremoniously dumped to the Clippers in '85-'86. Obviously the Blazers should have offered Darnell instead of Fat. (On the other hand, Terry Porter arrived on the scene that exact year. Would he have blossomed with Lever still in Portland?) Calvin Natt made the all-star team in '85 but really had only two productive seasons for the Nuggets before his career fizzled due to injuries and personal problems. Cooper played five years in Denver before Portland reacquired him just in time for the finals run of '89-'90.

Vandeweghe averaged 20+ points per game for each of his four full seasons in Portland, peaking in '86-'87 with 26.9. He suffered a back injury in 1988 and was traded to the Knicks in '89 for a draft pick which became Byron Irvin. By that season Portland was up to 645 3-point attempts per year and "Kiki for three!" had become a familiar and beloved cry in the Memorial Coliseum.

In the end it's safe to say that both teams got what they wanted from the deal, at least in the short term. Denver got a new starting lineup and Portland its popular perimeter-shooting star. Though Kiki never took us all the way, he opened the door to the offensive transformation which Clyde and Terry would ably continue to great success. If you were to ask Clyde who influenced his offensive game in those developmental years, it's a sure bet that Kiki's name would be in there somewhere. For that alone it was probably worth it.

Random Notes on the Periphery of this Story:

--The best yarn about Kiki I ever heard came from a ref. I can't remember whether I read it or heard it on TV/radio, nor do I remember the ref, though I suspect it might have been Earl Strom because he talked a lot. (Perhaps someone can help me with these things.) The gist of it was this: It was well-known around the league that Kiki possessed but a thimbleful of athletic ability compared to most players, and though he utilized it well, he was reluctant to mix it up with larger, quicker players. This meant he took his fair share of shoving, getting elbowed off picks, etc. Apparently one night he had enough, so he started throwing his body around everywhere, smashing into people, tossing elbows himself, you name it...all in his scrawny, slightly spastic way The opposing team waited for the whistles, but they never came. When the coach and players complained (rightly) about what he was getting away with, the ref turned to them and shrugged, saying, "What do you want me to do? It's Kiki Vandeweghe."

--I remember the day Kiki was traded away to the Knicks. I was in my college's "community choir" at the time, and that evening I was rehearsing with about 70 people from the surrounding area...everyone from college kids like me on up to 60-70 year olds. The news broke late in the afternoon, and I remember walking into the room and it was on everybody's lips. People were speculating why it happened, what would come of it, whether it was a good move...across ages, across genders, at a totally unrelated event. And remember, this was during a relatively mediocre stretch for the team. That's the kind of thing I wish we could get back to. Maybe someday.

--On a wholly personal note, I actually won two tickets to a game vs. Sacramento in '91-'92 because of this trade. I don't know if they still do this, but back in the day they used to give away tickets with a trivia question on each Courtside Monday Night. Pat Lafferty, though he looked mousy, was a sadistic S.O.B. when it came to trivia. Unless you had a Blazers media guide, Jack Ramsay's diary, and access to the secret Vatican vaults, your chances of getting tickets with any of your first seven guesses were virtually nil when he and Steve Jones hosted. But every once in a while local media guy Scott Lynn would fill in, and his questions were easier than the Pulaski twins on a tequila bender. So one night when I heard Scott was hosting I put the contest number on speed dial. I pressed the button as soon as he started the trivia introduction, before I even knew the question. Guess who was Caller #1 that night? And sure enough, the question was "Who was the only current [1991-92] Blazer on the team in 1982?" That was what passed for a trick question from Scott, because of the intervening Denver trade. One "Wayne Cooper" later and I had third row seats underneath the basket. Good times. Goooood times.

Thanks for the question Todd!

Friday, May 26, 2006

Best Trade Ever (For Us Anyway)

With all the talk about trades and free agency, and with Jason Quick running his three-part retrospective of the last seven years of the franchise, it seemed a good time to look back even farther in franchise history to a time when WE were the solid team filling in our last pieces...remembering the best trade this franchise has ever made.

Both Portland and New Jersey were dead-ended coming off the 1989 season. The Nets, following years of abject futility, had managed only a 26-56 record. They were led by such luminaries as Joe Barry Carroll, Roy Hinson, and Chris Morris. (I told you what happens to teams that stockpile B-level stars, didn't I?) The Blazers had a promising young core of players, but lacked the glue to bring the hodgepodge together. Having fired recent coach of the year Mike Schuler midway through the season and shipped popular volume scorer Kiki Vandeweghe off to New York for spare parts, they struggled to find an identity and finished the year with a 39-43 record, barely making the playoffs before being summarily dismissed by the Lakers. Among Portland's main problems was its cadre of big men, which included hobbling veterans Steve Johnson and Caldwell Jones, slightly disappointing rookie Mark Bryant, and "Great White Hope" Richard Anderson (remember him?) all manning the power forward position. The recent emergence of project-center Kevin Duckworth, fruits of an earlier Mychal Thompson trade to San Antonio, made Portland's other seven-footer, Sam Bowie, expendable. And so on June 24th, 1989, the Blazers sent Bowie and their first-round draft pick (later to be used on Mookie Blaylock) to New Jersey for power forward Charles Linwood "Buck" Williams.

Buck had several qualities the Blazers were looking for. He played defense. He was one of the best rebounders in the league. He could also man the low post, while Duckworth preferred to face the basket. Finally, he brought a grit and toughness that was lacking from recent Blazer teams. He was a gentleman off the court, but nobody messed with him between the lines.

One of the dirty little secrets of those late-80's Blazer teams, largely forgotten now because of their subsequent success, was that Clyde and Terry were actually considered sub-par defenders. The book on the Blazers in '87 and '88 was that the backcourt would drop a ton on you, but they'd give most of it right back, and nobody in the frontcourt was going to help (Jerome Kersey being more of a turnover guy than a stopper and Duckworth eating space but not much more.) Buck Williams changed that overnight. Having a capable defender at their backs allowed the all-star guards to gamble more, playing up tighter knowing somebody had their back if they got beat. The Blazers gave up over five fewer points per game the minute Buck put on the red and black. And they improved that each year throughout the deep playoff seasons. Buck's rebounding presence also unleashed the most feared aspect of the early-'90's Blazer attack: the fast break. Knowing Buck had the ball off the rim allowed Drexler and Kersey to run out, and nobody was going to stop either one once they had a head of steam.

The backcourt gets more credit and press for the team's early-'90's success to this day, but Buck was the right guy in the right spot for the right team and he made a huge difference. Without that trade we don't see those playoff runs. His rebounding, toughness, and contagious defense turned those squads from a nice collection of talent into contenders. To this point, it's the best trade we've ever made.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The A-List

Regular reader (and part-time gadfly) John e-mailed about my last post, asking, "Who do you think is on the A-list?" Fair enough. This isn't complete or even that well-researched, but more or less off the top of my head...

There's the prime A-list consisting of players that almost everybody would agree are worthy of building a contender around. Most of them you just know by their first names: LeBron, Dirk, Kobe, Shaq, KG, AI, Elton Brand, Dwayne Wade, Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, and probably Ben Wallace. Most of these guys have been deep in the playoffs and all are centerpieces for their respective teams.

Then there's a secondary group of guys who are really talented but either haven't taken their teams far enough or are currently hampered by age or injury, so they don't quite make the no-brainer list above. These would be guys like Jermaine O'Neal, Paul Pierce, Tracy McGrady, Michael Redd, Jason Kidd, Ray Allen, Amare Stoudemire, probably Mike Bibby, and maybe Vince Carter (although to me, he's maybe the king of the B-level players...fairly one dimensional scorer, but he's so damn good at it that you can't help but list him among the league's elite).

There's also a group of guys who look promising but it's too early to tell if they're true franchise players, including: Dwight Howard, Emeka Okafor, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul, maybe Carmelo Anthony. Pau Gasol, Joe Johnson, and Andre Kirilenko might also go here if you consider slightly older players, and Zach would fit here too if you were so inclined. I would not list any of the latter group at this point.

Hope that clarifies things a little. Comment on additions/subtractions/mis-categorizations below or e-mail to blazersub@yahoo.com

--Dave

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Follow-Up Thoughts

I'm still dwelling on the post from yesterday. (Just below this one if you haven't seen it.) The thing that is sticking with me is how many "B to B+" type players play significant roles on those teams. These are players better than the average, but still not your Tim Duncan/Dirk Nowitzki types that you center a team around because their games are either too inconsistent or too one-dimensional. Examples would include Jerry Stackhouse, Jason Terry, Erick Dampier, and Keith Van Horn from Dallas, Jason Williams and Antoine Walker from Miami, or maybe even the Thomas boys in Phoenix.

One of my (probably many) flaws in analyzing the league is that I tend to expect too much from players sometimes. I don't think it's wrong to fault a guy for playing an incomplete game, but no team is made up entirely of Tim Duncans either. Looking at these four teams, clearly there's a place for B-level stars on a winning team.

Notice, though, that all of these less complete stars were brought in after the main stars and the general direction of the team were established. And almost all of them had come from situations where they had failed and/or disappointed because that wasn't the case. There's a lesson in that. I don't know about "never", but I'm pretty comfortable saying that it seldom works to start your team with B-level stars, hoping to add to them later.

For one thing, because they're the best players on the squad and usually carry most of the scoring load (whether that leads to victories or not) those B-level guys often get paid like A-level talent. Even one or two of them can gum up your salary cap but good. For another, either because the pressure of getting the salary and attention forces them to or because they truly believe that they're the man, those "almost-but-not-quite" guys tend to guard the top spot in the team's pecking order...which is probably a bigger deal in the NBA than it should be, but it's there nonetheless. They say that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, but NBA teams tend to be as strong as their best player. How many times do you see one of these guys actually move over for another player--especially if that player is younger--even if the player is obviously better? Everyone saw an aging David Robinson make way for Duncan, but the Admiral was a pretty unique guy. Far more often you see conflict, frustration, and eventually trades. (Which is part of why none of these guys are with their original teams.) Often you end up dumping the talent you were trying to add onto.

By contrast...if you already have a core set, adding one or two B-level guys as complementary pieces usually costs less than inking them to brand new contracts. Even if it doesn't, going over the cap when most of your roster is in place doesn't hurt as much as when you're trying to rebuild. And when you already have a LeBron or Nowitzki in place, the players know what they're getting into when they come to the team. It's amazing how problems diminish when that's the case. (This often causes fans from the original teams to grind their teeth in anguish.)

The hallmarks of a team that's building around the wrong people are too much salary, too many expectations of the main player(s), and more losses than look plausible on paper. If this sounds familiar, well...that's pretty much the argument I'm making. Again, we have to ask ourselves whether Zach is an A-list or B-list star. What's more, whether we move him or not we have to be very careful who else we bring to the team. In trade for Z-Bo or in addition to him, acquiring other overpaid B-level talent would be a crippling mistake at this point, even if that led to a few more wins in the short term. Cap space, young guys, and solid vets with modest (or at least short-term) contracts are the assets du jour. B-level stars can be a real help, but only in the right place, at the right time, and for the right salary.

Now I just KNOW somebody will read this and say, "So are we supposed to get C-level guys then?" Obviously not. You do everything you can to get well-rounded players with the potential to develop into A-list guys, because those superstars are your key to success. When some guys inevitably fall short of that goal, that's OK. Just...

A. DON'T overpay them.
B. Don't be afraid to cut bait if it's not the time or place for them to make an impact and you can get reasonable assets in return. I know the analogy is not airtight because of the different developmental cycle, but this happens in baseball all the time as good players are traded for prospects. It often helps both teams in the long run. And...
C. Don't compound your problem by getting more stopgap players with salary issues.

Name recognition is all well and good, but history shows that unless you're adding final pieces to the puzzle, overspending on B-list guys only makes you a perpetual farm team for playoff contenders with better talent and direction.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

More Draft

With all of the shock and horror running around Blazerland this morning (I can't believe some of the crud that's being spread around...anyone who thinks we lost games intentionally this year is a fool) I thought I'd take a look at how important the draft was to the success of this year's NBA final four. I looked at the top nine players (by minutes per game) from each team, where they were drafted, and by whom. Here's the list:

Dallas
Dirk Nowitzki 9th pick (Bucks)
Jason Terry 10th pick (Hawks)
Josh Howard 29th pick (Mavs)
Marquis Daniels undrafted
Jerry Stackhouse 3rd pick (76'ers)
Adrian Griffin undrafted
Erick Dampier 10th pick (Pacers)
Devin Harris 5th pick (Wizards)
Keith Van Horn 2nd pick (76'ers)

Phoenix
Shawn Marion 9th pick (Suns)
Raja Bell undrafted
Boris Diaw 21st pick (Hawks)
Steve Nash 15th pick (Suns)
Leandro Barbosa 29th pick (Spurs)
Kurt Thomas 10th pick (Heat)
Tim Thomas 7th pick (Nets)
James Jones 49th pick (Pacers)
Amare Stoudamire 9th pick (Suns)

Miami
Dwayne Wade 5th pick (Heat)
Jason Williams 7th pick (Kings)
Udonis Haslem undrafted
Shaquille O'Neal 1st pick (Magic)
James Posey 18th pick (Nuggets)
Gary Payton 2nd pick (Sonics)
Antoine Walker 6th pick (Celtics)
Alonzo Mourning 2nd pick (Hornets)
Shandon Anderson 54th pick (Jazz)

Detroit
Chauncey Billups 3rd pick (Celtics)
Tayshaun Prince 23rd pick (Pistons)
Rip Hamilton 7th pick (Wizards)
Ben Wallace undrafted
Rasheed Wallace 4th pick (Wizards/Bullets)
Antonio McDyess 2nd pick (Clippers)
Maurice Evans undrafted
Amir Johnson 56th pick (Detroit)
Lindsey Hunter 10th pick (Detroit)

Results
--7 of these 36 players were top three picks. (Stackhouse, Van Horn, Shaq, Payton, Mourning, Billups, and McDyess) Only Shaq was #1 overall.

--Of those 7 players drafted in the top three, only Chauncey Billups could be considered the prime, "go-to" guy on his team. And even that is stretching it since Detroit plays such a balanced game. You could argue that none of them are the main men on their squads.

--How many of the 7 top three picks left in the playoffs are still playing for the teams that drafted them? Zeee...ro.

Clearly it's not only possible, but necessary, to acquire and develop talent outside of the top three draft selections when you're building a contender, at least if this year's crop is any indication. The story would change a little if you counted the top 8 (Duncan, LeBron, and Brand were all #1 picks) but that doesn't invalidate the lesson.

Three of these four teams followed a similar path to success. They drafted 1-3 core championship-level players (from various levels of the draft) and then added a key piece through trade or free agency. Detroit, the lone exception, basically traded for everybody, but they did it when the players were young so the story isn't too dissimilar.

Drafting in fourth position is not the end of the world. A bigger issue is whether we have that championship-level player on our team yet, or whether we're still looking. (I'd argue the latter.) Free agency and trades should be the last of our worries. With the puzzle not even out of the box yet, how do we know what kind of pieces we're missing? The most important thing is to use this pick wisely. Somebody past that top three is going to be a very good NBA player. The key to a better future is finding him.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

P.S. Everybody harps on Nash for passing up Chris Paul. How would you like to be former Milwaukee GM Bob Weinhauer who pulled the draft day trade that sent Dirk Nowitzki to Dallas (along with Pat Garrity) for Robert "Tractor" Traylor?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Ah Well

Funny how everybody was talking about weak draft and trading this pick no matter what it was, but it was still disappointing when we didn't get #1. The most telling moment was when 11 of 14 NBA executives groaned in sympathy when Portland's name was announced at the 4-spot. We can still get a good player from this position though.

And come on now, really...had we gotten the #1 selection would we have been happy or just talking about how our cursed luck continues because this is the first year that high schoolers (and thus Greg Oden) aren't allowed in the draft? Save it for next year guys...save it for next year.

--Dave

Fixing the Lottery

Today the NBA plays its annual version of Deal or No Deal (alas, with some pasty old guy in a suit in place of the models). But before the envelopes open, I'd like to officially register a long-standing complaint about the process: it's unfair. And lest you think I am whining for the home team, the fact that Portland owns the worst record this season is coincidental to the argument. I've said this for years. Simply put: there are too many teams involved and the worst teams don't have enough of a shot at the #1 selection.

I understand why the league would never do away with the lottery system altogether. The overt reason is to prevent tanking games (thanks Houston...right there buddy). The behind-the-scenes motive is the excitement and attendant publicity it generates. But there's a basic issue of fairness to be considered as well. When the worst team in the league only has a 1 in 4 chance at the top pick and actually has a greater statistical chance of getting the fourth pick than the first, something is wrong.

This has been an issue in the past. Remember the Minnesota Timberwolves' run at futility from '89 to '95? There's no arguing they were the worst team in the league during that stretch. And part of the reason is because they had horrible lottery luck, consistently picking below their record position. Had more people known about KG in 1995 (Joe Smith went #1, Garnett fell to the 'Wolves at #5) they might still be there.

The fix is relatively easy. The NBA should institute a two-tier lottery system, separating the drawings for the first and second half of the participants. The split could come after the 5-spot or be a true halving by cutting it off at the 7-spot. Only the top group would be drawing for the #1 pick. The percentages for each team to win the top pick could look something like this:

5-team split: (worst record) 40%, 30%, 15%, 10%, 5% (best record)
7-team split: (worst record) 40%, 25%, 15%, 10%, 5%, 3%, 2% (best record)

Under this system the worst three teams have a better shot at getting the #1 pick than they do now while the other teams' chances are slightly reduced. The current method of drawing only for the first three picks and then seeding the remainder of the group by record should be retained.

The second tier of teams lose all chance at the #1 pick, but that's as it should be. There's no way that a team that missed the playoffs by one game should have ANY chance at that spot. Not only is it unfair, it's irrelevant to the internal logic of the process. The closer a team is to making the playoffs, the less likely they are to lose games intentionally to move up in the draft order. Also, while having a 41-41 team get the top spot would certainly generate publicity, I'm not sure it's the kind the league wants. Honest fans will point out the issue of justice. Skeptical fans will talk about the process being rigged, especially if the winning team happens to be in a big market.

The second tier could just be seeded by record, but if the league wants to preserve the system, let them have their own lottery for the remaining spots (top pick being #6 or #8 depending on how you split the group). It may not be quite as big of a jump, but a team with the 14th-best record in the league would still be plenty excited about getting the #6 or #8 pick. And since the number of teams in the drawing is smaller, you could adjust the odds to raise the chances of advancement happening in this group. You'd still have the excitement but without the potential P.R. nightmare.

The NBA has a track record of not fixing things until disaster strikes. (See also: New York winning the first lottery, Orlando's back-to-back first picks, the current playoff seeding system.) I hope it doesn't take a bizarre 10-spot jump for the Lakers to open their eyes. The fact that most of the worst teams aren't getting the #1 picks right now should be enough to do it. But given league history, I'm not holding my breath. We've got a better chance of seeing Howie and the models opening envelopes.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

Monday, May 22, 2006

Pet Peeves

The start of another week, and thank GOODNESS the draft lottery is tomorrow, because the online Blazer community desperately needs something new to talk about. Believe me, I realize it's the off-season and substantial topics are hard to come by. But I still find myself getting vaguely annoyed at some of the silly stuff being said...through the sheer repetition of it if nothing else. And this year a lot of that stuff ties in with the lottery, which is why I'm glad it will be over soon.

Since it's Monday and everyone is probably feeling blah anyway, it seemed a good time to share some of my Blazer conversation pet peeves. (And yes, I'm fully aware that I'm probably a pet peeve for some people, but they're probably not reading this anyway.) So here you go:

1. Lottery simulators. They're fun toys, useful for avoiding that big project at work, but running one 50 times and posting the results seems to be a new hobby. Why??? Anyone who got through Algebra I back in high school (or who's a degenerate gambler) can tell you that the lottery is an independent trial, which means that the odds stay the same no matter how many times you run it. The Blazers have a 25% chance of getting the first pick. Simulating the ping pong balls a thousand times won't make it 25.1% or affect the real lottery in any way. If your simulated results didn't come back 25% 1st pick, 21% 2nd, 18% 3rd, and 36% 4th it's because you didn't run the simulator enough to accurately model the statistical results. (You need to approach infinity. Have fun with that.) And I've got to believe that most of the folks doing this already know that full well. So why do so many insist on aggravating the repressed mathematician in all of us by posting their results? This should be like googling erotic dysfunctions...doable, but better kept to oneself. Better yet, read a book...donate blood...write Martell some fan mail or John Nash some hate mail...whatever! Just say, "No" to lottery simulation!

But however much this may annoy me, I am interested in making this a full-service site, meeting the needs of as many as possible. So for those who just can't get off the crack, here's "Uncle Dave's 50-cent Lottery Simulator". It works anytime, anywhere and you don't need a fancy computer to run it:

Take two quarters. Flip them. If they both come up heads, you've got the first pick. If not, you've got something else. Simulate to your heart's content. Just don't write me about it!

2. I also get annoyed by trade propositions involving the pick when we don't even know what pick it is yet. I know Nate kind of started this one, but he was sharing a philosophical outlook, not proposing specific trades.

3. In the same vein, it annoys me when everyone knows who we should pick when we haven't seen workout one yet. And...well...WE won't actually see the workouts when they do happen. And...well...even the people who do see them are going to disagree who to take, especially this year. I can see debating the needs of the team. I can see coming up with a range of candidates. But anyone who says they're riding a single horse right now is just duplicating the old sportscasters' trick: figuring out the most likely outcome and then calling it certainty, the better to have bragging rights if and when it happens.

Fortunately tomorrow's lottery drawing will at least partially alleviate all of these things, if nothing else by bringing the picture into sharper focus. There are some things, however, that nothing but the start of the new season or some major team surgery will cure. These include:

--People who think Darius Miles' talents could still help this team.
--The assertion that just because a player is our best player means we have to keep him or disaster will ensue.
--Arguments based on the underlying premise that 29 wins is a lot better than 21, or that 15 is a lot worse.
--100,000 posts about 100,000 trade rumors credited to "reliable sources" including everyone from NBA GM's to team janitors' cousins. And this is from the mainstream press, let alone fans. (Easy rule of thumb: If you read about it, it's not happening unless the words "press conference tomorrow" are attached.)

Ah well...such is the life of a fan, I suppose. I generally disagree with those who think it's good enough just to get back to the playoffs, but I will say this for it: at least the off-season would be three weeks shorter.

--Dave

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Responses

Quite a bit of rumbling about the Mychal Thompson post below. (E-mail link on the right or comment below if you want to join in.) Most of you seem to love Mychal and think it would be great to have him back. A couple took the opportunity to agree that the Blazers are jobbing guys like Wheels. But then a bunch of you (ok...three) wrote to ask the inevitable question: What about Mike Rice?

Let me preface this by saying that I've lived outside of the local broadcast area for several years, so my exposure to the team has been on dish and the occasional live game. That means that until this season when he took over the TV commentator spot, I hadn't heard Rice since his early years. So this should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

I find Mike Rice amusing at times, maybe even endearing. It's like somebody gave a microphone to your crazy uncle Harry (you know, the one who always makes those dull holiday gatherings so interesting) and told him to go call the game. You never know what you're going to get. That said, back when he was new Mike used to go into a fair amount of detail in his analysis. Nowadays it seems he's become more character than color guy. He reminds me of one of those big-headed drawings you can get at the carnival...you can see the original stuff still there, but it's comically out of proportion. He seems to have followed the Bill Walton school of exaggeration and ridiculousness. And I don't think it's for the better. I still find him somewhat likeable, but it gets old after awhile. (Uncle Harry is fun on Thanksgiving, but 82 times a year?) I find myself wanting the old Mike Rice back.

On the positive side, I really did respect the couple of times this year when he actually called guys out during the broadcast for their ineptitude on the court. It didn't happen often, but at least he had the guts to do it. I'm not sure it was intentional either...if he had thought about it first he probably would have bit his tongue and told another joke. (Because clearly the Blazers want cheerleaders in the booth nowadays.) But every once in a while someone would make a play so horrendous that it brought out the old coach in him, and out it came. I also admired his continuing passion for the development of Travis Outlaw's game. That's the kind of thing that makes you think there might still be hope for the guy. (Rice, that is.)

If I had my choice, I'd have Mike back on the radio side, especially if he's going to keep his current style. I think it plays better on the radio where you can't actually see what's going on (and all the things he's missing and/or exaggerating). If he is back on TV, I'd like a little more detail and a little less yuk-yuk. Maybe that's just my taste though.

--Dave

Friday, May 19, 2006

Quote of the Week

From "TestyOne" over at the O-Live Blazer forum, regarding the speculation that movie rental mogul Mark Wattles is making a bid to own the team:

"The best thing about that? No more late fees for Zach."

--Dave

The Man Who Could Save the Blazers

Taking into account recent history, where we stand, and where we're likely to be for the next couple of years, there's one guy I believe can help this team out as much as any other you could name. He runs 6'10", he's a good scorer, and a decent rebounder. You may have heard of him. His name is Mychal Thompson.

That's right, I said Mychal Thompson.

At 52 years old he's slowed down a little on the court, but he still does one heck of a job on commentary. And we need him.

The Blazers seem to have little grasp on what effect the people broadcasting the game have on the product itself. Everybody knows Clyde Drexler, right? He's maybe the most instantly recognizable person in Portland. But unless you were on the coaching staff or following the team around the country during his time with us, most of your impressions of Clyde were formed not just by watching him on the court, but by hearing people interpret what you were seeing. Without those broadcasters, you don't know Clyde (outside of maybe a ferocious dunk and some sweet jumpers). How much did Bill Schoneley do for your relationship with Walton and Lucas? How much did Steve Jones do for your overall appreciation of the game? (There's a post on that somewhere below.) Broadcasters are our translators, the bridge between us and a complex, often brutal world of larger-than-life figures which to most of us is undeniably alien. They're as important in many ways as the players themselves. Maybe more so in this time of on-court misery. They may not change reality, but they are the single greatest influence on how we perceive it.

When we ran a poll at the O-Live site last summer asking for the most influential Blazer of all time, the winner in a landslide was Mr. Schoneley. That ought to tell you something.

Blazer management has taken a horribly cavalier attitude towards on-air talent in the last few years. Having all of our broadcasters on one-year contracts is the height of foolishness. You think Kevin Calabro works year-to-year? Marv Albert? Ralph Lawler? Even if they love the team and love working here, anybody with real talent is going to be insulted by that treatment, and rightfully so. Thus we're beginning to see Brian Wheeler--whom most would consider the strongest link in the current radio/TV broadcast quartet--interview other places each summer. And anyone who thinks that wasn't part of the disenchantment that developed in the Steve Jones situation has a screw loose. Clearly the Blazers are under-valuing the contributions and role of their broadcasters. If they're trying to pinch pennies, they're doing it in the wrong department.

Approaching Thompson about taking the TV analyst spot would be a master stroke. He's working radio in Los Angeles now. I don't know if TV in Portland beats radio in LA, but if not, make it worth his while. Mychal connects with fans. He's honest, but he has a fantastic sense of humor. I remember when he did local radio on the old KFXX sports talk station he talked one afternoon about the most disappointing draft picks in Blazer history. When somebody called in and suggested one of them was HIM, he handled it with grace and humor. (Now that's class.) He was also the first person I remember publicly predicting the upswing we saw in the late-90's. I'm not saying he's the most accomplished X and O commentator, but he knows his stuff. In a world full of false-cheerleader announcers trying to convince you that down is up and bad is good, Mychal has the rare gift of being able to tell it like it is and make you like it anyway. What more could you ask?

This is not so much a critique of our current crew, rather a plea for management to realize that this would be a quick and easy way to connect more people to the team...or at least a plea for them to realize that this not an area to skimp on. I don't know if management has the courage to abandon the company shill stance that so many teams are taking. (What good has that done them, by the way? How's the image of the league been overall in this era?) I don't know if they have the foresight to jettison this ridiculous year-to-year model and entice Mychal with a longer-term deal. All I know is that fans would really enjoy listening to the guy. He'd make you wish Courtside Monday Night was Courtside Every Night.

Everybody's hoping we can get a new superstar on the court this off-season. I don't know how realistic that is, but why not a new superstar behind the mic?

--Dave

Thursday, May 18, 2006

More on Fans

A couple of items following up on the "What will bring fans back?" conversation from yesterday.

1. The evidence is purely anecdotal, but if I had to bet, I'd wager we're already starting to see the beginning stages of the resurrection of the fan base. Since this blog started about a month ago, I've received e-mail from around 50 distinct people. (Thank you all, by the way. You've been both kind and interesting. A link to my e-mail is on the right of this page.) Of those people, I'd say 1/3 have introduced themselves as long-time fans who have stopped following the team for various reasons. The sample is small and proves nothing empirically, but this would seem to indicate that:

A. There's still a desire for Blazer talk out there. (People are reading and e-mailing.) And...

B. Some who have dropped by the wayside are slowly but surely starting to pick it up again.

If true, that's good news. I expect if we get the #1 or #2 pick in the draft, attention will increase further, no matter who we select with it. I hope the team is prepared to follow up on this, putting the most palatable product possible on the court. I also hope that to the extent people join in the online conversation, various venues are welcoming. Part of the reason it's difficult to be a Blazer fan nowadays is that there's nobody to talk to about it, and sometimes the online community is not very helpful with that...

2. I wanted to highlight a particular effort that I think is both marvelous in its own right and indicative of what Blazer fandom used to be and should still be about. I am getting most of this information second-hand, so please write and correct me if anything in it is wrong.

A reader who also frequents the O-Live Blazer forum called to my attention a fantastic site that a fan has created in honor of Martell Webster. The young man goes by the handle "Definition8" in honor of Martell (the "Definition"). The site is http://www.freewebs.com/definition8/. BE SURE not to skip the intro video! It's one of the most amazing fan-created tributes I've ever seen. The site is still evolving, but there's some nice content there, especially in the "fan art" section.

I guess it's not so much the site itself that floors me, but the fact that a young guy would care so much and put that kind of talent and effort into such a project. It shows you that there ARE still Blazer fans out there. And that's good to know, especially if you're one of the 1/3 who are honestly wondering if there's anything to believe in with this team anymore. Somebody thinks there is. And I agree.

--Dave

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Baby Come Back

It's amazing how certain topics develop a gravity of their own suddenly. The hot topic right now seems to be "What, if anything, will bring the fans back to the Garden?" Predictably, folks have divided into two camps, loosely defined as "more winning" and "better character/less embarassment". As usual, both sides are right...and wrong.

Those who would support winning as the only sinecure point out the rabid following the team had during its 20+ year playoff run and the dismal attendance since. It's a compelling argument circumstantially, and I don't think anyone would argue that winning is a near fail-safe recipe for attendance success. But evidence points to Portland being a particular case which, if not exactly an exception to that rule, at least modifies it somewhat.

Attendance figures are always a tricky thing. Teams control their own data. They release figures that reflect tickets sold rather than turnstiles cranked. Furthermore "sold" is a loose concept, since teams often count tickets given away (to charities and the like) in this figure. Therefore the final attendance number may or may not reflect the actual number of people who went to the game.

Nevertheless, the figures available (from ESPN.com) look like this, by Year, Record, and Average Attendance per Game:

2002-03 Rec: 50-32 Att: 19,420
2003-04 Rec: 41-41 Att: 16,585
2004-05 Rec: 27-55 Att: 16,594
2005-06 Rec: 21-61 Att: 15,053

Technically speaking attendance dropped with record, but the most significant drop came in 2003-04. This followed an '02-'03 campaign that was successful in the regular season and provided arguably the most exciting playoff series since the 2000 Western Conference Finals (7 games with Dallas). The '03-'04 season should have been one of optimism. The record that season wasn't bad either. You can say we missed the playoffs, but only by two games. And that fate wasn't evident until the last few games of the season...hardly enough to influence overall attedance averages. Blazer fans had remained loyal through many such seasons in the previous two decades. There's nothing in the numbers that would explain the sudden drop.

So what happened to kill the attendance? As every Blazer fan knows, 2002-04 were the prime years of the "Jailblazer" era. Some of the key figures predate those years, of course, but that period brought the media explosion and attendant public scrutiny. And despite the acceptable level of winning and the possibility of another playoff trip, the fans left.

Granted, you'll never sell out a season with a team that wins 20 games. But only a serious championship run would provide enough raw winning to get people to overlook glaring warts on a team that's provided a non-stop buffet of them since the turn of the century. 41-41 just won't do it. Because of the level of success required, saying, "We just need to win to bring people back" is about the same as saying, "This team would be a whole lot better if we could just get Michael Jordan on it." Yeah, that would work...but good luck there, Sparky.

On the other side of the coin you have those who would highlight the small-town nature of the fans' relationship with the Blazers. They paint a picture of naïveté...the fans as Little Red Riding Hood who have been set upon by the Big Bad Whitsitt/Allen/Vulcan/Sheed/Whoever. History doesn't bear this out either. Fans knew who Ruben was when we got him. They came and they cheered. Fans began to doubt Sheed's mental state in the 41 technical year. They came and they cheered. Isaiah Rider, Bonzi Wells, Darius Miles...whatever issues fans had with them, when they got on the court and scored or dunked, the fans still cheered. In fact if memory serves, for the most part fans only really turned on players when the character issues showed evidence in declining performance between the lines. We may have character qualms, but they don't necessarily trump our lust for victories, or at least a good play.

This year was relatively clean character-wise. The fans weren't back. Nor do I expect them back next season, which should be even cleaner, but still bring an enormous amount of losses. Winning alone may not provide a solution, but the statement "If they just clean up their act we'll come back" doesn't tell the whole story either.

Because I know many devoted fans that stretch back clear to our expansion year, I tend to err more on the side of "we just want a team that won't embarrass us" than "we have to win to get support". After the sell-out streak, Blazermania, and all that, I think we owe the fans that much credit until proven otherwise. But clearly winning and a solid team are both necessary at some point.

I think part of the problem in this argument is that people assume that all fans share their outlook, which in turn is largely a product of demographics and/or cultural priorities. I HATE to over-generalize and I know there are plenty of exceptions (including maybe me), but I would guess that there are a group of 18-35 year old males out there who just want to see the team win, whatever it takes. There are also senior citizen former season-ticket holders who say, "I don't care how much they win if they don't behave acceptably." (Then there are corporate sponsors who need to see both, but that's another story...) But there aren't enough 18-35 year old guys with sufficient money and interest to fill the Rose Garden every night. Neither are there enough seniors. Most fans lie in the middle somewhere, which is why you have to have both. You need some level of character to keep broad-based fan support, but how will the average fan know how much character you've got unless you win a little first to get them interested?

In the end all of this is just an extension of the old chestnut of "character vs. talent". Acquiring character without talent will lead us nowhere. But then again we just tried the talent without character approach and it didn't work either. (Unless, of course, you consider 41 wins "working". And if you're putting up all this fuss for the ultimate goal of a .500 record and a first-round playoff bounce I feel sad for you.) Pitting character against talent/victories is a false dichotomy, on the court and in the stands. Forcing an either-or choice between the two is simply asking which way you prefer to lose. The only way to succeed, especially in this market, is to insist on both.

--Dave

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Underrated Tools

I was skimming the O-Live Blazer forum yesterday and there were a couple of interesting conversations going on.

First, "Caproom7" posed a question: Are there five tools in basketball comparable to those in baseball (hitting, hitting for power, running, fielding, throwing) by which a player can be judged? A couple people took stabs at it, including some form of defense, rebounding, passing, shooting, dribbling, and (more nebulously) IQ.

The second post that caught my eye was from a guy named, charmingly enough, "Smelmyfinger" (*cough*) who was watching the playoffs and realized how far away our current team is from that level of ball. And he's right. We're a world away from good right now, and being good is still another world away from being great.

I don't know if you watched the end of the Pistons/Cavaliers game last night, but if you didn't, you may be surprised to know who won the game for the Cavs. In a tight contest--one or two points down to the final seconds--it wasn't LeBron James that captured the win. It was a guy named Anderson Varejao. And he didn't do it by hitting a decisive shot. He did it by rotating off his man when Cavs guard Eric Snow slipped and lost the ball-handler in a final-minute possession. Varejo slid over, shut off the drive, and drew a charge. He also helped in another key last-second stop. Without that big effort to make a little play, the Cavs stand a good chance of losing. Even though the Cavs have LBJ, I can't help but notice this kid whenever I watch them. He plays playoff basketball all season long.

That got me thinking that there's a dovetail between the two forum topics. So here's my list of the Top 5 Underrated Basketball Tools. I'm not saying these take the place of shooting, passing, and the like. In some ways they're refinements of them. They're things that good teams and players do that people might not notice.

1. Drawing Charges
The point here is not so much forcing the turnover, though that is nice. If a guy draws charges it means one of two things: he's either helping out quickly and decisively in the halfcourt defensive set (you seldom draw charges on your own man) or he's hustling his butt back in transition. You need both of those to make a defensive scheme work. It also shows that a player is aware of more than just his own assignment and has a good sense of what's happening on the floor.

2. Blocking Out
Dennis Rodman was the best rebounder of the modern era. I don't think he got more than three inches off the floor on most of those boards. Everybody wants to sky for boards nowadays. This is one of the little disciplines that has fallen by the wayside. You know who it's usually hardest to rebound against on the playground? Pound-for-pound it's the women, because usually women with enough confidence to come out and mix it up with the guys have played organized ball somewhere, and that means they learned to block out. The guys may be bigger and stronger and jump higher, but it doesn't matter when she's throwing the body into you right. (I've seen more weekend warriors reduced to passive perimeter observers that way. Quite a blow to the old ego...) Someday one of these kids is going to figure out there's about 20 rebounds a game and the attending multi-million dollar contract to be had out there simply by putting your body in the right place when the ball goes up.

3. Setting/Using Screens
With the pick and roll such a staple in NBA offenses, it's horrendous how poorly many players run the play! Big guys don't stand in strong, either offering a token presence or setting hard but then rolling for their own shot before the guard gets by. And guards often don't come anywhere near the screener off the dribble. Utah prospered for more than a decade largely off of this one set. And that was with everybody and their uncle knowing what they were going to run! Part of it was talent, but I also heard that Jerry Sloan used to make his guys run the play over and over, jumping down their throats if the pick was slow and soft or the guard didn't brush the big guy on his way by. This is where guys like Joel Przybilla can really help your offense even if they're not volume scorers themselves.

4. Moving Hands and Feet on Defense
Much is made of lateral quickness, but plenty of guys who leave you tripping over your jock on offense couldn't guard the corner mailbox. Why? Because defense isn't just about speed and talent, it's about exerting the effort to keep your feet and hands moving so you can react quickly to what your opponent (or the ball) does. It's a lot easier to move when you're already moving than it is to start moving when you're slow or still. But how many guys do you see out there trotting, or worse, standing flat-footed? And when was the last time you saw a whole team with their hands away from their sides except for maybe the last possession of a game? Busy hands and feet on defense make it harder to drive against you and harder to execute clean passes. That interferes with at least two-thirds of the opponent's offense...basically all of the easy stuff.

5. Moving Without the Ball on Offense
We're just barely seeing the front edge of the first generation to grow up after the era of the 1-3 person isolation set made famous by Michael Jordan and perfected in the mind-numblingly repetetive Charles Barkley-era Houston offense. For the better part of twenty years we watched two or three people dominate the ball on the strong side while everyone on the other side of the court stood winking at groupies or talking on their cel phones or whatever else NBA players do in their off-time. Then the rules changed a couple of years ago and now everybody wants to run a more wide-open offense. The problem is, nobody from that older era remembers how to move without the ball anymore. Guys will cut, to be sure, but it looks like they're going through the motions. Rare is the Reggie Miller-type who will actually hustle around curl screens and come out with hands ready to receive and shoot the ball. As Steve Jones used to say all the time, the more you stand still, the easier you are to defend. Learning to move well without the ball is what will make the difference between 13 and 21 ppg for guys like Martell.

None of these tools will replace talent. But they do define the boundary between good players and great ones. As we're seeing this year, the margin in a series between a decent playoff team and a serious championship contender can be razor thin. Somewhere along the line, one play will make a difference. And when it comes to that one play, things like this will determine the outcome more often than not.

--Dave

GM Recap

Well, the long Oregon Live "You Be the GM Poll" parade has come to a close, and as the last pooper-scooper drives by it seems clear that Portland fans feel that the team needs changes at the top, both on the court and off. The prevailing mood is a reflects an old sixties mantra, suitably updated for the modern NBA: "Don't trust anyone over twenty-two." (Or, apparently, anyone who's been with the team for more than three seconds.) Randolph, Miles, Ratliff, and Lenard all got the heave-ho, leaving Skinner as our only battle-scarred veteran. On the management side only Nate survived.

While I might quibble with certain nuances (keep Theo, trade the other two), I agree with the overall message. What's wrong with the team can't be fixed with window dressing. It's still a foundation issue. We're not there yet, and we're not even at the point where we can talk about being there by acquiring a player or two. We're in for one more summer of clean-up. My vote: Just grit your teeth and do it. Hopefully this is the last.

--Dave

Monday, May 15, 2006

Weak Draft?

The prevailing buzz says that this year's draft class will be pretty weak. Of course it's hard to tell because we haven't seen any camps or individual workouts yet. Even after those have passed, however, experts still disagree on the relative merits of the candidates. In general the collective stock of draftees tends to rise as the big day approaches because of our human tendency to want to be optimistic about the future. It's nearly guaranteed that draft-day coverage will include multiple uses of the phrase "He has a chance to become the next ________." At the same time there are experts who predict a "weak draft" every year. Internet records don't go back as far as 1984, but I bet there was a pundit somewhere that said, "After Olajuwon it's a pretty spotty group..." It's hard to sort through the mess of opinions. In the end, only time reveals the true answers.

I've noticed that in the absence of hard evidence of how good or bad a class is actually going to be, most folks default to rating the strength of a given draft by the star potential of its best player. If there's a Duncan or LeBron available, it's a good year to be drafting. If, like this year, nobody sticks out, the draft is "weak". I wanted to see if this held up, so I went through some recent drafts.

I started arbitrarily in 1990 because you have to start somewhere. I ended with 2003 because this was the year in which determining whether a player had "panned out" starting getting really fuzzy to the point of being purely speculative. For each draft I divided the players picked in the first round into the following categories:

"Star", defined by scoring in the high teens or above, being a league leader in another major statistical category, or being a significant part of a team that had great success. These range from your KG's to guys like Antawn Jamison.

"Decent", defined by having a long career, playing as a starter or significant bench guy, but not quite reaching the level of stardom. This could range anywhere from Bobby and Jim Jackson to Joel Przybilla and Uncle Cliffy. They're guys you wouldn't mind having on your team.

"Flop", which are the guys that never truly made the league or spent their years as 9th-12th men. You don't remember most of them.

I also divided the draft years into two categories: years with a consensus superstar on top ('92 with Shaq, '97 with Duncan, '03 with LeBron, and even '94 with "Big Dog" Glenn Robinson, who was considered huge stuff that year) and years without ('95 Joe Smith, '98 Michael Olowakandi, and even '99 with Elton brand, who was said to be a fall-back position "safe pick" for Chicago).

Of necessity the criteria in both categories are somewhat subjective, but for what it's worth, here's how it came out:

Years with a Superstar
Stars 19%
Decent 37%
Flops 44%

Years without
Stars 20%
Decent 49%
Flops 31%

Immediately you can see that the presence of a superstar doesn't guarantee anything about the rest of his compatriots. In fact there have been far more outright misses in years with a consensus #1 pick, while the level of star talent has remained basically the same.

If I had further divided the stars to differentiate the basically untradeable franchise players from just really good ones, we would find that 12 franchise players came from the eight "superstar" drafts, while only seven came from the "non-superstar" years. But even with that, many of those players (e.g. KG, Amare, Nash) were drafted with picks beyond the first.

Teams with the top four picks have fared even better than the average. At least 88% of top four picks either turn out to be stars or go on to have productive careers. Maybe they're not exactly what the drafting teams envisioned, but they still contribute.

What does this show us? That even in a year with no clear superstars, there's still a decent possibility of getting someone who makes a difference, possibly even a franchise-level guy. Yes, there have been drafts without those franchise players, but there have also been drafts when they were hidden. Just because the draft is classified as "weak" doesn't mean your star-in-waiting isn't there. And even if he's not, you can still get a good, career-long contributor. Like any other year, good scouting and high picks are the name of the game.

--Dave

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Looking to the Future

I had an e-mail conversation with a very nice reader last week who spoke at length about the makeup of the team, especially as relates to character. While I'm on record as saying that character flaws have always been a part of sports and we just know more about them now because of our intrusive media, I also understand why people pine for the "good old days" when these guys seemed like they walked on water.

Maybe I'm a sap, but John Canzano's piece on Jarrett Jack and his mom this Sunday struck a chord in me on this subject. Mind you, I'm not one to fall for B.S. fluff stories. Every year I read with amusement the obligatory training camp story about how Player X has matured and is ready to turn over a new leaf. Never happens. In fact I said a couple of years ago that you'll know the Blazers have truly turned the corner when nobody has to print one of those stories come fall. (I'm still waiting.) I am also not impressed by tales of how Player Y just donated a few thousand dollars to a cause when you know that player has basically been a jerk all season. Don't get me wrong, I think it's a good thing to do and I'm happy for the recipients. But I suspect that most of the time agents and team officials have a hand in there somewhere, either coaching the kid to do it (and making sure it gets publicized) or outright writing the check in the guy's name. Isolated gestures are fine, but real character shows in every moment, not just in special ones.

Nevertheless, stories about a guy's integrity, especially when he's young and the visual evidence backs it up, tend to sway me. This is doubly so in cases where you can see a player's family teaching and backing that character. And it seems like we have a lot of those good stories on this team. Look at this list:

Jarrett Jack
Theo Ratliff
Steve Blake
Joel Przybilla
Martell Webster
Viktor Khryapa
Travis Outlaw
Ha Seung-Jin
Juan Dixon
Sebastian Telfair

Except for Bassy's one incident on the plane, none of these guys have given us any reason to complain or doubt them character-wise, on or off the court. (And we'll give Bassy a pass for now because it's obvious he's tried to make his life stand for something decent, even if only to get better shoe contracts.) What's more, we've heard things about Jarrett, Martell, and Theo recently that just make you proud to have them as part of our team. And anyone who wouldn't want Joel, and to a lesser extent Viktor, watching their backs on the court is a fool. Juan and Steve have been good citizens, and by all reports Travis and Ha are nice kids.

I don't know if the talent is there yet to make a successful team long-term, but I think it's worth remembering (for those for whom character is an issue) that most of our team is made up of really good guys...guys you want here. Even if a lot of them are just kids, they seem like kids we can be proud of. Frankly, I hope we end up able to keep most of them. It's unlikely, because there's usually a lot of turnover on a 20-win team before it gets better (see also: Chicago, and before them Minnesota). But you wouldn't be ashamed to have any of these guys wearing red and black for a long time. Whatever has happened in the past, and whatever may swirl around a couple of our current players, most of the stories nowadays are positive ones.

--Dave

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Play that Funky Music

This is going to be rather right-brained, but it's a slow news weekend...

I was out running the other day and to make the miles go faster I was pondering last month's discussion on chemistry, with the added wrinkle of considering what role the coach has to play in the process. With the up-front admission that I'm going to do full credit to neither discipline, I came up with this analogy:

Some folks think of basketball like a symphony. The conductor picks out the music and provides constant direction. Everything is tight and scripted. The pieces fit together just so. The musicians have a certain amount of interpretive freedom in the sense that they can emphasize certain notes or phrases, but no matter how long or short, soft or loud, or with what style you play it, a quarter note better be a quarter note and it better be on pitch, because it has to blend with what the rest of the orchestra is doing or the piece falls apart. Soloists arise upon occasion. You may build a piece or two, or a even whole concert, around their talents. But even their notes are printed on the page. They make take a grace note or two, but the overall course is still clear and predictable. The aim is to reach a consistent level of excellence in every piece. As that goal is met, aberrant tendencies will fall by the wayside and performances will reach a level of uniform precision. I suspect a lot of college basketball programs run in this heavily scripted, coach-intensive vein.

Other people see baskeball more like improvisational jazz. The goal is to find excellent musicians, get them out there on the stage, and let them jam. Tom Heuerman and Diane Olson quote improvisational jazz musician Doug Little, who describes his art as:

...a description of the dynamics of a living system. The song form provides an inner simplicity from which an unlimited variety of music can emerge. The spontaneous improvisations of each musician are unique and unpredictable but each iteration stays within the boundaries of the song form which provides a portrait of the stability and hidden structure in the chaos. Constant choices by each musician influences the others and produce the rich diversity and creativity in the performance...What I play will inspire the drummer to play something. The drummer might inspire me to play something. The musicians listen to one another and make spontaneous decisions. The possibilities are endless. It is always within the form and it is always interconnected with each person but it is never the same.

In this construct the coach provides the "song form", e.g. "We're going with a running game." Maybe there are a few sets drawn up. But for the most part, it's up to the players to make the on-court music come alive. Plays aren't heavily scripted, and often not even called. What the players see, they do, and they react to each other on the court as opportunities develop. The argument here is that the best team performance only happens when the talent of each player is maximized and given the chance to shine through relatively unfettered. This seems to be the model that many pro players are begging for.

I would argue that many of the best teams function like the amalgam of the two known as the old-school, seventies-style funk band. You remember those groups? They would get, like, thirty different people on the stage, each with their own instrument--horns, drums, keyboards, guitars, you name it. And you always half wondered how they were going to pull it off. But then they'd start playing and that music would just knock you off your feet. They were all playing from the same score and there was a reasonably consistent output on each piece, each night, but there was also plenty of room for solo work and there would be new little surprises each concert. The key was that every instrument was featured in its own way. The drummers, for instance, didn't get nearly as many solos as other players, but their job was to keep the beat and you could really see their contributions in every piece. In fact without them the whole band would fall apart. (I kind of think of guys like Joel and Theo in that role.) The horns might play the same riff over and over and only get sixteen measures of solo work in a couple songs, but they add the spice that complements the star instruments and really make the sound fly. The lead singer is up front, but unlike a modern pop/rock group, his contributions don't stand out as more significant than any of the other sections. The leader/conductor still has plenty to do in this model--picking out/composing the music, rehearsing the group, making sure the overall sound is what it's supposed to be--but when you get on stage it's all about the musicians depending on each other, each contributing everything they can within the limits of the framework set by the composition, their instrument, and their talent.

The funk model is more difficult than the symphony, because it puts a lot of reliance on individual talent. A lot of middle school or high school bands can do a reasonable impression of Mozart if they're rehearsed hard enough. Very few amateurs of any kind can pull off credible funk. Then again, it requires more discipline than improv jazz because you have to account for the score, the other instruments, and demonstrable, repetitive reliability.

The catch is, whatever style you employ, you need the musicians to fit. Trying to four-beat guys who want to play jazz is going to get you nowhere. Telling symphony musicians to "just play", while technically possible, is going to diminish their effectiveness and leave the final product short. And some folks just don't have the patience to deal with the rigors of funk nor the maturity and confidence to handle its freedom. And probably most of us don't have the ears to pick out our part among 36 different players on stage.

Great basketball, like great music, requires both talent and discipline together with the ability to find one's role in the greater scheme of things and prosper in it. Maybe the reason we see so few great teams is the same reason we don't see many funk bands...because that particular combination of abilities seems to be rare in a world that emphasizes instant success for the self over creating magical art (of whatever stripe). I'd certainly argue that, in the absence of the qualities that engender greatness, most teams default to the coach-oriented symphony model or the player-run jazz theme, despite their shortcomings.

What is the vision of our coach? How about the players? Are we a few bass players short of a full combo? Probably. But I also think part of our problem is a clash between stylistic differences. Or, put another way, it looks like Darius might be bringing a saxophone to Nate's symphony. How this works out, and what kind of music we end of playing, will be interesting to see.

--Dave

Friday, May 12, 2006

Through the Looking Glass

How many twists and turns will this ownership saga take before it's over? What an amazing soap opera it's turning out to be.

Something I should have added to the Paul Allen post below is that you can't fault him for keeping in play the possibility of bankruptcy or the team moving. As much as we'd like to be reassured as fans, he'd be foolish to give up those cards in the middle of negotiations, whether he actually intended to play them or not (which we don't know). It's the same thing with Joel. Even if he went to his agent and said, "I'd give my left lung to stay in Portland. I'll play for a buck. Just keep me there!" all you'd ever hear from the agent publicly would be, "All possibilities are open." Though smart and completely understandable, this stance firmly plants Mr. Allen on the dark side of our little Blazer drama.

In my heart of hearts, I have believed that the surest guard against the team actually declaring bankruptcy and moving was our long-time nemesis, David Stern. He would never make such a statement in public either, as his job is to do the best job he can for the league and its owners, but I always imagined him sitting down in private with Paul and saying, "Really...you can't do that. It's unprecedented in the NBA and too much of an embarrassment." So somehow we have been caught in this Bizarro World where our owner and Portland Area Management are the villains, David Stern the unlikely guard taking a desperate stand, and some unspecified ownership group the cavalry expected to ride over the hill at any moment and save us all.

If that was the construct, I think this Magic/Michael/Charles news (one post below) changes things, at least if they have Portland on their target list. (Which would make sense...small market, struggling team, cheap price.) In a swerve worthy of the WWE at its best, everyone now switches sides. That ownership group coming over the hill isn't our salvation, they're going to carry the team away. I still believe Stern would have some qualms about bankruptcy, but he's always been a businessman first and foremost. And what's better for business and the image of the league, a struggling team in Portland owned by a nondescript group or the first major professional sports team in Vegas, owned by three of the most popular stars of the league's glory years? How often do the Portland Trailblazers get mentioned on sports radio or ESPN, even when they win? How much pub would the Vegas Blazers get just for existing and being owned by that triumvirate? We can cry all we want about tradition and the feelings of the Portland fans, but I don't think the compassion in David Stern's heart for that issue would fill a thimble, especially with the potential gains the other way. And while I have been skeptical of the viability of bankruptcy and a team move passing muster in the courts, with Stern and the NBA machine squarely behind it, who knows what's possible? Anyone want to bet against the Godfather? (Now revealed again in his true evil form...)

And so in a single instant the hue and cry from the audience changes from, "Sell the team, Paul!" to "DON'T sell the team, Paul! Please!" P.A.M. doesn't benefit from a move. The door opens for a settlement between the parties. Allen will keep the team in Portland. He writes a check for a compromise amount and Voila! The bad guys wear the white hats again, the day is saved, and everyone cheers.

If you thought people were that smart, you'd almost guess it was planned this way. Magic and company give an interview to a Chicago sportswriter which is released on the same day that Dwight Jaynes breaks his decade-long grumpy streak and actually says in print that Paul Allen would be the best owner for this team? Somebody call Art Bell...

Of course there's not a shred of credibility in this. It's all fanciful speculation. But it's fascinating how things have the potential to change in the public's perception, if nowhere else.

But if should I disappear tomorrow and you suddenly start getting "404-file not found" errors from this site, you know who to blame. Tell my wife if she re-marries, he better not be a #!*%@ Laker fan.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)