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.



Anonymous Ted said...

In the short term the Blazers need to get rid of the larger salaries that handicaps the future. As your A-list/B-list columns point out, a team drafts that A-list guy then builds around that pick (unless you are the Lakers). That being said, the Blazers don't have any cornerstone players yet, though there are a couple with potential (Telfair or Webster). But those two are a couple of years under McMillian away from superstardom (goes with the age and experience they've yet to acquire). WHich brings me to my point, the Blazers need to dump long-term baggage. Darius has to go, Theo is expendable and Randolf can either go now or in a couple of years when we have an emnerging star to replace him.

This could be accomplished with the Hyundai model, Trade in Darius and Theo for a couple of older beaters that will come off the books sooner. One senario is for the Knicks pair of Roses (Jalen and Malik). We pay more next year, but we save in year two and beyond. We'd still have a defensive big in Malik and Jalen provides some filler. THrow in some picks for either NY or by the Blazers or even some filler like Dixon would be feasible. Either way this trade would give the Blazers future flexibility. Anything lost could be filled with this year's draft pick, ie. Brandon Roy or Adam Morrison.

6:50 PM  
Anonymous Ted said...

If the Bllzers really want to retain Pryz, they need cash available for the 2007 off-season and give him all they have this year, the full mid-level exception. The above trade should help in that regard.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

That's my thought too. Although as I've said before, Theo's contract isn't weighing us down that much because it expires after next season. Also we probably need him to hold down the fort if Pryz leaves. But I agree that we don't have a clear-cut player to build around yet and that Zach and Darius haven't shown any signs of ever being able to fill that role. With those contracts, that makes them must-trades at some point.

Thanks for the comments!


6:57 PM  
Anonymous jorga said...

Dave - here we part ways, but maybe it's because of the gender difference ... men have had to win to survive, while competition isn't in a woman's evolutionary history. To me, a championship is frosting on the cake - the cake itself is the ride to the finals. I don't find a loss in the finals to be "ultimately unsatisfying". Devastating at the time, but ulimately? No. The memories of that ride are there and that pleasure, for me anyway, is not diminished because we didn't win the championship. Sure I want to win. As a resurrected fan I found this year very hard to take, but I kept seeing glimpses of what might be and it kept me tuning in game after game. Now if next year we go on a run of 30 point losses I will start losing interest. Of course I think the goal should be the championship, but as a fan, I am pretty well satisfied if we make it past the first round of the playoffs.

9:12 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

We're not really parting ways. When I said a championship is the only thing, I meant as a goal, just like you said. Of course I enjoy the process of getting there, otherwise I wouldn't watch all those games! I, too, would love watching a deep run whether or not we won it all. Heck, most of the time I enjoy watching games right now, and we're not winning much more than one game in four!

The overall point of the piece is that we shouldn't build a team just to get back to the playoffs, nor lose sight of the ultimate purpose of playing just because we happen to be far away from that goal right now. I think Patterson meant kind of the same thing when he said the other day that we could get some guys with bad contracts right now who would make us better immediately, but he wanted "sustainable growth". I assume that means growth towards an eventual championship.

The point at which we're truly dead and buried is not necessarily 21-61. It's the moment somebody says, "Let's just get some yahoos in here that'll make us look a little better so we can sell tickets, even though we know they won't take us all the way." At that point I stop being a fan (or at least a happy one) because we've shifted our goal from "winning" to "losing a little later". I would hope most people would agree that was unacceptable.


10:27 PM  
Anonymous fatty said...

yo dave if you really wan't to
dance and victory laps in your
living room then you better hope
this franchise recieves either
the 1.st or 2nd pick in the 07
draft because anything other
the oden or noah this franchise
is (HISTORY) period !!!!!!
you can wax poetic all you wan't
but without a future star and
no f.agents really wanting to
come to portland (utah west)
you can forget about it !!!!!!!

2:14 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

It's harder, but still possible, to build through lower draft picks and free agency. There's a lot of talk about not wanting to go certain places, but in the end most free agents will go where the money is. (Portland is not among those unattractive places according to a report in today's O-Live blog, by the way.) Thanks for the support though.


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