For most fans, the caveats of the preseason are a temporary annoyance, a maddening but insignificant delaying of gratification that serves as a small test of forbearance. It’s like being forced to eat the cookie before you read the fortune, or open your stocking before you unwrap what’s under the tree. For Blazers fans, though, the caveats of the preseason are a little more existential. “These games don’t matter,” or “ we won’t see these lineups for long” or “nothing that happens involving Victor Claver can be said to really matter”—these things are not going to fade simply because this arbitrary period other franchises call “the season” rolls around.
The truth is, we’re staring at what may be a long period of games that don’t mean anything, competitively speaking. It’s basketball without semantics, an indeterminate preseason. While other teams are jockeying for seeding, Blazers fans will still be trying to sort out the signal from the noise, determining how much of what we see on the court can be applied going forward and how much is the detritus of an organization trying to right itself.
There are two ways, that I see, for fans to respond. The first of these is a sort of aesthetic appreciation. You know, a focus on the moment, all life is suffering type deal. Take the plays one at a time, try and appreciate the spectacle of the game. Enjoy the prowess of the visitors as they run beautifully amok. This is the tack I will endeavor to take as I watch the team, but I will say that at one point in the second half Coby Karl, Wes Matthews, Will Barton, Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard all shared the court. Replace Karl with Nolan Smith, and this is a line-up that could feasibly happen from time to time. What I’m saying is, a high-falutin’ grasp at aesthetics will not be easy this year.
The second way fans can respond, and the way I see fans responding around me as this season starts to get off the ground, is trying to read tealeaves. When you’re staring at the business end of a losing season, becoming a “contender” again is kind of like Revelation—Blazers fans don’t know when it’s coming, but some day, the first will be last and the last will be first and we need to know what will still be applicable in the new order. Fans parse games for meaning that may prove fleeting. Is Claver better as a catch-and-shoot guy, or does he like the dribble? Can Nolan Smith be trusted to make simple reads as a second-unit point guard who sticks to the offense? These questions are themselves a form of prognostication, an insistence that what’s happening on the court today can foretell what will be happening on the court when the games matter. Can we grasp what Terry Stotts really means on defense when nobody has the lateral quickness to really funnel the ball handler to the strong side? Do we know if Damian Lillard can create for teammates worth creating for? It’s frustrating trying to glean wisdom from what appears to be chaotic scattering, but it’s what many of the most dedicated Blazers fans are in for until further notice.
To that end, what did the leaves tell us last night? By any measure—preseason, losing season, whatever—last night’s game against the Nuggets was unusually disposable. As the Blazers made their home debut, Damian Lillard, the savior whose light shall cast the darkness behind us all someday, sat out with a bruised foot. The Nuggets, who promise to be one of the highest-octane and highest achieving units in the West, appeared to have spent the day on a laudanum drip, sluggishly not-executing not-sets for the majority of the contest while the Blazers second, third and sundry units made enough jump shots to put them away. Among the questions not answered on the Blazers’ end: is Stotts’ much-ballyhooed zone defense improving? Will a Hickson-Aldridge frontcourt ever involve two players within twelve feet of the basket simultaneously? What will it take to make Joel Freeland kill a man with his hands?
What powered the team last night was a second quarter that began in spirit at the end of the first, when Coby Karl completed a four-point play and floated a lob to Meyers Leonard that provided the unquestionable highlight for the game. In fact, though Wes Matthews’ second quarter scoring spree gave him the game-high tally for the night, Karl provided a memorable performance. Showcasing the intelligent ball handling and sober efficacy as a shooter that have made him a second-unit staple power of desperation matched with strong instincts, Karl gave the team a clear spark last night, leading Terry Stotts to say he thinks Karl “proved that he should be on an NBA roster” after the game. There’s no real indication that Karl is closer to a spot on the Blazers’ roster today than he was yesterday, but I have to imagine his performance and Stotts’ remarks were a legitimate boost to his chances of landing somewhere stateside this season. I haven’t confirmed the reports, but I heard that George Karl, Coby’s father and coach of the visiting Nuggets, was spotted in the garage of the Rose Garden washing Terry Stotts’ car during post-game remarks.
There were a few other things to take away from the game. Claver does have a pretty nice stroke from beyond the arc, though his glacial first step will keep him tethered to the bench until he figures out how to leverage his size to be more than a spot-up guy. He is also a lot bigger than I realized. Nolan Smith proved himself pretty shaky running the show during the first half, and the hopes that he may emerge as an effective third guard/ second unit distributor seem increasingly misplaced. The bigs were predictable in most facets: Aldridge and Hickson showed a serious aversion to rimwardness, Leonard was tentative despite truly impressive flashes of instinct and athleticism, and Joel Freeland struggled to get his shots down or to successfully create plays for others. I actually thought Freeland looked like he may soon put everything together, as his work on the boards was formidable and I like the plays he’s trying to find; I wouldn’t be surprised to see him emerge as a weirdo banger/stretch/point forward who can wear a few useful hats in the same game.
We’ll see a little more of what the beginning of the regular season will look like on Friday, when Lillard expects to play against the Golden State Warriors in his Rose Garden debut.