For the first time in a long time, the Portland Trail Blazers enter a new season without the irrational expectation of imminent greatness, or under a cloud of disappointment raining the meniscus particles of lost dreams, or glazed in the apathy that comes when making a bench out of paper-mâché and Jared Jeffries. Greg Oden is in Miami like flea market furniture. Brandon Roy is dried tears and an argument about retiring jerseys. The wounds might not be totally gone but at least they are no longer bleeding.
There is no more getting mad at the coach for allegedly holding the team back, getting mad at the players who allegedly tried to mutiny the coach for allegedly holding the team back, or living sadly in the rubble that it all left behind. If the era of the great Jail Blaze segued straight into the Roy-led “Rip City Revival,” then the late 1990s would have to be the last time that a new season of Blazers basketball felt this fresh, free from pressure, and self-contained. It’s just a basketball team now, rather than a runaway bandwagon or a vehicle for revolution or a pile of smoldering wreckage.
There is the established star in LaMarcus Aldridge and the precocious climber in Damian Lillard. There are the proven role players in Nicolas Batum, Wes Matthews, and Robin Lopez, as well as genuine NBA players to round out the bench in Mo Williams and Dorrell Wright. There’s the budding potential of Thomas Robinson, the ready-made shooting stroke of Allen Crabbe, and the ongoing excitement of the Will Barton experience. There’s even the hope of an eternal flame lighting inside of Meyers Leonard, Victor Claver finding consistency, and Joel Freeland doing whatever it is that he does at an improved level from how he used to do it. The team looks good enough to compete for a playoff spot, but still flawed—or maybe just unrealized—so as to remain free from pressure. What a perfectly benevolent space to inhabit.
The journey is the destination, if there can even be a destination when the journey could go so many different directions, or maybe it’s just a journey of pure exploration, and sorry but there has to be a “Trail Blazer” pun in there somewhere. The point is, the season should be fun. The outcome likely will depend heavily on how creatively and effectively coach Terry Stotts can employ the versatility of players like Lillard, Williams, Batum, Wright, Barton, and Aldridge to create kaleidoscopic lineups of surreal terror. It will also obviously depend on the players themselves: whether Lillard can avoid the dreaded sophomore slump and even improve where he lacks, whether Williams can consistently contribute as both a shooter and playmaker, whether or not Batum emerges finally into something resembling a star, whether Freeland can be a serviceable backup center, whether Robinson can live up to his pedigree, and whether Aldridge can remain a dispassionate machine of nightly 21 and 9 lines. But watching all of those variables manifest and collide and hopefully flourish in concert with one another will make for an exciting season, because nothing is more exciting than blazing a new trail into uncharted territory, and there’s that pesky pun I was looking for.
Too much is put into the importance of championships. Not to get on some “everybody’s-a-winner” ish, but it’s terribly unfortunate that the only team that gets to endure in the annals of history is the one that brings home the big trophy at the end of the year. Though the banner might officially legitimize the memory of that season as worth hanging onto, there are plenty of other teams whose names ring out in oral history because the experience of watching them was too damn exciting to ignore and their fans just won’t shut up about it. Think Baron’s Warriors or the ’04 Pistons or the entire existence of the ABA. They might have begun with little expectation and often with glaring flaws that never quite went away. But over the course of the season, the players gelled into a team to create an unorthodox, Frankenstein’s monster of an identity that allowed them to surpass anyone’s expectations and capture the hearts of their fans forever. This Blazer team may not be able to get on that level, but they do have some of the right ingredients, and watching those ingredients get put to use should be exciting enough.
Now first, to saddle them with the weight of expectation: 45 wins, 7-seed, first round playoff win over the Clippers.