Right now is a busy time for sports. The MLB playoffs are here, it’s the middle of the NFL and NCAA football season, and something called the NHL is back (not that most people really noticed). Somewhere in this mess of sports nirvana a little team called the Trail Blazers has quietly started their exhibition season under the guidance of new head coach Nate McMillan.
A year ago I would have been all over covering this enigmatic, young Blazer team. I would have written hundreds of words handicapping the season, analyzing players and off-season moves. I’d have picked a rookie to root for (Northwest high school product Martell Webster, if I had to choose) and midseason goats would already be identified.
But this year I don’t care. I can’t care, not in the same way or with the same intensity I had in the years where most Portlanders could still agree that even though the team had some knuckleheads on it they were still contenders. The Blazers have broken my heart thousands of times, and in the last three years I have gone from being the most ardent of fans to the most apathetic, casual viewer.
This has less to do with the overall state of the NBA, which I think is surprisingly strong right now, than with the prospect of having to watch a team that is going to be mediocre for the next three seasons no matter how you slice it. I like Nate, I like our rookies, and I think Sebastian Telfair has a good chance to be a legit point man in the NBA. But the Blazers are going to play young basketball all year long.
If you have followed teams like the Atlanta Hawks, who have been waiting for years to get better and have seen their fan support dwindle to nearly nothing, you know the misery that’s in store for the Blazers. It’s a misery reserved for those teams that are committed to rebuilding through the lottery. But there’s a small problem with that strategy. It’s the lottery, and it doesn’t just refer to how many bouncing balls your team gets at the end of June.
The lottery is a huge crapshoot. The chance of getting solid players in the NBA draft is significantly lower than the chance of getting, say, a quality wide receiver in the NFL draft. The NBA lottery is as much about gut feelings as it is about the science of selecting young men who have to be the cornerstones of both a franchise and the community.
My brain tells me to give this Blazer team a chance. My brain says that Nate McMillan will whip these guys into shape, that he’ll make them play hard D, make them run 94 feet every single play for 82 games. That we might finally hold up our end of that Rasheed Wallace quote, “Both teams played hard.”
But my guts tell me something different. My guts tell me that the Blazers are going to slog through a 30-52 season playing in front of a half-empty Rose Garden, making me wish for the days of Scottie Pippen. I’m not going to write this team off quite yet, but I don’t know if I can take another drug bust, another mid-season coaching change, another display of immaturity by a spoiled brat athlete who is getting paid to play the game he is supposed to love. This season, we’ll see what kind of guts and brains the Blazers have.