Monday, December 7, 2009

The Sun Came Up, And It Will Continue

The sun was surprisingly bright this morning, as the clouds had all burnt away and the blueness in the horizon was nearly blinding in its intensity. We don't get many crystal clear days in December around here, so it was a wonderful treat even with the crispness in the air and the winds whipping about. The temperature has been hovering around freezing this past weekend, and the wind just added to the cold's intensity, but with the bright skies, it makes the whole thing enjoyable as long as you are bundled up enough to not freeze.
I haven't lost my mind here or started becoming obsessed with the weather, but my point in mentioning this is that the sun came up and the world kept moving despite the trouble swirling about the Portland Trail Blazers. As much as the news just keeps worse in terms of injured players around the scarlet and black, the world hasn't come to an end, we aren't seeing the apocalypse happening here, and things will be what they should be. I know that's a hard thing to wrap heads about, but right now, I'm getting tired of those bandwagon jumpers who have abandoned this team in the time where they need support the most.
I haven't changed my attitude towards the organization, I still don't trust them as much as I can throw them and I'm still not buying tickets or providing direct support to the business side. But the players themselves need our passion now more than ever, and I'm tired of hearing people whine about the state of things. I realize that it's easy to fall into those trappings, because it seems like every time you turn on the television or read the sports page, there's more injury news, and not just on the player side. Paul Allen? Our owner is dealing with cancer treatment after it has emerged again. Nate McMillian? The coach ruptured his Achilles tendon when practicing with the team because there weren't enough players to run a full 5 on 5 drill.
And the player side isn't pretty either. Paddy Mills and Jeff Pendergraph haven't played a minute after sustaining injuries in the offseason. Pendergraph might play sometime after the first of the year after injuring hip flexor muscle, while Mills' status is unknown after injuring his knee. Just before the season, Nicolas Batum injured his right shoulder and is expected to be out for the season, while Travis Outlaw broke a bone in his foot early in the season and is also out for the season. Outlaw's injury is similar to the same situation that kept Martell Webster out for all of last year but a 5 minute stretch in a random game in December. And unless you were living under a rock this weekend, you've heard that Greg Oden was injured on Saturday in a game versus the Rockets. Oden injured his patella tendon while trying to block a shot, and underwent surgery on Sunday which will keep him out for the remainder of the season.
Because of the way the NBA does rosters now, there is no injured list and teams keep a full roster of 15 players as long as they keep up with the minimum of available players (You must suit up 8 players for all games). As of today, that would put 5 players out for an extended time, leaving 10 available, but now they are dealing with Rudy Fernandez, who has a sciatic nerve that is flaring up while LaMarcus Aldridge has been dealing with knee issues intermittently throughout the campaign. So that leaves you with 8 available players that you know are healthy, one that is on the trip and should be OK to go, while one is dealing with a minor injury. If you've signed a player to a contract, you can't immediately replace the contract without waiving the original deal, so right now, the Trail Blazers having 15 signed contracts means that somebody has to go in order for someone new to be added, and there's some contracts that would be tough to just eat for the simple need to get a warm live body to fill a roster spot.
Going into the season, the Trail Blazers were the sexy pick to provide a few upsets in the playoff picture. The young team qualified for the playoffs last year for the first time in a while, and got bounced out in the first round. With winning 54 games last year without Oden and Webster (Oden was recovering from microfracture surgery) and bringing in Andre Miller, there were a lot of expectations about the team and their success. The goal at the start of the season for the team was to qualify for the playoffs again and win an opening round series, which I have to admit are rather admirable goals and realistic for this bunch. It's hard not to be drawn into putting higher expectations, though, as the team had some rather impressive moments in the pre-season and have tantilized fans with flashes of brilliance.
But as we've talked about a lot, playing without expectations is really easy and the Trail Blazers weren't expected to do that well last year and so they didn't have a target on them. This year, they can't sneak up on people, and other NBA teams are taking notice of this bunch. As a young side, one of the most important lessons to learn is how to play with those added pressure. All the talent in the world won't automatically give you an NBA title, because there are plenty of guys who played long careers in the NBA that never won or played for a title but certainly played well. It's all about playing together and understanding the skills and talents of who is playing, not obsessing about who isn't available.
Brandon Roy wanted to be more of the focus of the offense, and he'll get his wish in the new lineup. The injury situation does clear up some of the chatter about roles and scoring on the team, because during the early season, it appeared that the emergence of Oden was causing some concern for Roy and Aldridge, who had been the focal points of the team last year offensively. Add Miller in the mix, who is a good point guard but needs the ball to be effective, and it's not surprising that there's been some tension as guys try to fill out their roles and understand the setup of things, much less compound the situation with injuries when guys aren't able to play. And injuries happen to everyone, although it seems like the Blazers have been hit harder than just about anyone else right now by the bug.
The thing is, this core of players won 54 games last year and there's still a ton of talent abound, so there is no reason to panic even though that seems to be what a lot of fans are doing right now. There's talk flowing on sports radio about making trades or waiving players because we need depth, but the fact is we still have a core that played well in stretches last year, and I think they are every bit as capable of doing that now. Instead of worrying about what has happened, it's important to focus on what there is and move forward. I know that's tough because there's a ton of talented guys that could help our cause right now, but worrying about what might be or what could be doesn't accomplish anything.
I moved here in 1989 in time to watch the championship run that year, and I knew the history of this team and most of its players. While that run was amazing, it was a bit unexpected, but the team had the right combination of talent, fortitude and luck to get to the final series to just fall short of the goal. They should have represented the Western Conference in 1991, but a bad bounce and a bad game in LA cost them. In 1992, they made it again to the Finals only to run smack into the Bulls during their heyday. Beyond that, this team had a 24 year playoff run of qualifying for the postseason, and outside of a collapse in 2000 versus the Fakers were one game away from the Finals then. There's been a ton of success here, and I know that's hard to remember soon after the dark ages of the early 2000's when this team truly hit rock bottom.
But in order to appreciate the good times, you have to go through the bad times and stick with your team no matter what. It's nice to speculate what might have been if the team drafted MJ or Durant and think about what might have been, but I believe more than ever that Bowie was the man to draft way back when, and Oden was the guy back in 2007 after we got the first overall pick. Oden has been exactly what we wanted in a player: charming, likable, stays out of trouble, doesn't father kids out of wedlock, doesn't do drugs. In other words, he's the antithesis of what we had on this team back in the Jail Blazer days. Oden's not a bust by any stretch, he is simply dealing with having a wonderful fit large body that happens to have two knees that are struggling to handle the weight and quickness needed to play this game.
We were lucky to have another center who had a wonderful skill set, could pass the ball anywhere on the court, could hit the shot from 20 feet out consistently, and made others better around him with his court vision. He also had a body of work that had brilliant moments but suffered injury concerns with back, foot and leg issues and so they couldn't meet the performance standards of their previous work. They were also a beacon of class, and great folks to be around according to many. If you think I'm talking about Bill Walton, well, some of that is true and I recall he said recently that he was upset at how things went down when he left Portland. Actually, I'm talking about Arvydas Sabonis, who was a shell of his former glory when he came here, but he still had enough talent to make the team better with what he could do. Oden might be injury prone, but I feel he could have a career similar to Sabonis, and I don't think that would make him a bust by any stretch.
But people see number one pick, and think there's some crazy standard that needs to be met. That's part of the issue is that fans are always waiting for the next of something instead of enjoying the talent of what currently is. And if players don't do exactly what is expected of them by living up to these expectations, they are a bust. But honestly, what players can really live up to those type of standards? The main guy in Faker land has titles to his credit (4 of them I believe), but is his legacy tainted if he never wins another title at all? Does his body of work become less if the next best thing suddenly wins 5 titles so somehow that makes them better? It's all about the team and the whole components of things, and it's tough to remember that it takes an entire effort of a side to be crowned champion, and because of that, it's a special honor. But a career can still be special even if one of those titles doesn't come your way. True fans remember the happy times, and stay true during the sad times because it makes the winning and success that much better.

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