Maybe I’m biased, but the components of the 2012 Blazers remind me a lot of the last time the team bottomed out.
It was 2004, my first year covering the team as an intern. The remnants of Trader Bob’s Jailblazers, who had harbored title aspirations in recent years, were all but gone. So long ‘Sheed, Mighty Mouse and the rest. The franchise had handed over the keys.
It was: Hello Zach Randolph, Darius Miles and Sebastian Telfair.
Today it’s: Hello LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard.
Players of similar ages at similar positions during similar times in their careers. It’s almost eerie.
Scoring power forwards who weren’t natural leaders but nonetheless tasked with leading. Lanky wings with lucrative contracts based more on promise than proof. Highly touted rookie point guards plucked from outside the mainstream channels being asked not only to do something special, but something spectacularly difficult.
Were John Canzano here he might try to sell you something about the difference between these two rebuilding squads being character, or lack-thereof. But I’m weary on that front.
The fact is: when the shit really hits the fan, when the tough losses really start stacking up, when faith in teammates and one of the NBA’s thinnest benches is tested, we have no idea how Aldridge and Batum will react. So far, they’ve led relatively charmed careers.
Unlike Randolph and Miles, who at this point in their arcs had not tasted much in the way of expectation or victory, Aldridge and Batum have been relatively fortunate, playing for a team with hope, talent, and backed by an invigorated fan-base.
Last year, what with the lockout, sudden medical retirements, mutiny, trades, a coach’s firing and a shortened, yet hideously compressed season, can be no guide. It was too jarring, too unexpected and too singular to glean anything. The dust never really had time to settle.
This year, it figures to settle in a hurry.
And when it does, when the losses start piling up and there’s no one else to blame or distraction to take refuge in, how will Aldridge and Batum react? Will they sulk, check out, or try to undermine the coach? Will they show up, pad their stats, give blank answers and occasionally take nights off? Or will they knuckle down, come early, stay late, and push themselves and teammates like never before?
Only time will tell, and only one thing is for sure: 2012-13 will indeed be a developmental year. But every bit as important as the growth of Blazers’ young players will be how Aldridge and Batum cultivate new facets of their own games.
Rather than on court moves—which too need work—Aldridge and Batum must develop their minds, their abilities to manifest and sustain passion, inspiration and trust in the face of wicked odds and even numbing reality.