Coach McMillan, Brandon Roy and the Blazers:The Time is Now

Tuesday night will be the first time Greg Oden, Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Fernandez show up in Blazer uniforms in an NBA setting. Sure, it is "just preseason" and preseason games have as much meaning as the midnight promise in a bar to respect her in the morning, but there is still a thrill and excitement there.

Fans for every team experience it. Maybe this is the year Sebastian Telfair learns to shoot (but it won't be), maybe the addition of Elton Brand will mean playoff success (probably), maybe the renewed health of Dwayne Wade combined with a full season of the Matrix and arrival of Beasley will mean a return to glory (don't be surprised) and there is even someone, somewhere, thinking the arrival of Baron Davis will mean a deep playoff run for the Clippers (insert explosive laughter here...face it, they are the Clippers, after all*).

Blazer fans are no different. We have heard repeatedly this is the most talented Blazer team ever. That covers a lot of ground when you remember the Bill Walton/Maurice Lucas front line with Johnny Dawkins bringing the ball in to them, when you remember the fearsome Clyde Drexle/Terry Porter/Jerome Kersey/Buck Williams/Kevin Duckworth line-up where Uncle Cliffy aka Cliff Robinson was the 6th man, and so forth.

There have been numerous predictions of great success in the near future. Yet over and over, one theme keeps coming back. "They are among the most talented teams in the league, but they won't be any better than an 8th seed this year because they are young."

Some people aren't buying it. Coach Nate McMillan, for example. "I know we're young, but we're past that. That stuff was one or two years ago." In other words, he wants to instill a winning attitude and not use age as an excuse. He is saying the Blazers have the talent to win and win now.

If they are in truth as talented on the court as they are on paper then he is exactly right to say that. When you look at the Blazer roster, one thing jumps out. Almost every night they will be facing teams with arguably less talent on the floor and seldom indeed will they see another roster that can match up to them top to bottom.

There are really only two reasons for them to not blow past the 50 win mark, gain a decent seed, and do some damage in the playoffs: first, their reliance on 3 rookies and natural progression for a couple other young players. Second, the low expectations people have for them. That includes the expectation of them starting off at or below .500.

Much has been made of their tough early season schedule, and that is a fair concern. They are playing some of the top teams in the League. However, when you look at the rosters from top to bottom it quickly becomes apparent they should still win a good percentage of those games.

The Lakers ended up with home court advantage last season for a reason. With Kobe Bryant they have one of the top 2 players in the game today. Behind him they have All-Stars or at least All-Star caliber in the persons of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and barring further injury, Andrew Bynum. They also have some talented role players who can change the game in Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, and so forth. Overall they have a scary good roster with one of the greatest coaches of all time.

And yet, from a talent standpoint, the Blazers match up very well. Steve Blake and Fisher are near clones of each other, the front line of Gasol and Bynum will face the duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden, the talented Odom will face the equally talented Travis Outlaw off the bench (if that is how Jackson chooses to use him) and that leaves out the expected bench contributions of Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Fernandez. In other words, on the nights where Brandon Roy is within shouting distance of the numbers put up by Bryant, the Blazers should have a better than average shot at winning the game. Of course, that also highlights one of the differences.

The Blazers do not at this point have anyone who does for them what Bryant does for the Lakers, what Paul Pierce does for the Celtics, what LeBron James does for the Cavaliers, and so forth. Whereas Roy is unarguably a stud and effective, he does not own the game the way those players do.

Once before Portland had a highly talented team. Twice in three years they went to the Finals. They could score inside or out, they could rebound and play defense and on any given night you might see Porter, Kersey, Robinson, or Drexler go for 30 or more points. But at the end of close games they had too many guys who COULD take the shot to actually have THE GUY, the one who took the shot.

Both The Long Hot Winter by Coach Adelman and Against the World by Dwight Jaynes and Kerry Eggers detailed how that flaw derailed the 1992-93 season and was the difference between losing the Finals in 6 games and winning. The Bulls had some guy named Jordan and the Blazers didn't. They need to develop him, and the most likely candidate is indeed named Roy.

But it is not just the Lakers. Their second game will be against perennial Title contenders San Antonio. The Spurs indisputably have better players at point guard and power forward than Portland. Tim Duncan is always an MVP candidate and Tony Parker is one of the most dangerous point guards in the League. Additionally, when he gets healthy Manu Ginobli is an above average 2 way player who can cause conniptions.

Yet Aldridge matches up fairly well with Duncan. The Blazers will have distinct advantages at center and shooting guard with the small forward position being a wash. Coming off the bench with the firepower of Fernandez and Outlaw should give Portland a nice edge that the Spurs will need all of their vaunted team defense to neutralize. Of course, we all know they are well-coached and talented enough to do just that. Somehow, year after year the Spurs look up at other teams in terms of overall talent and yet end up in or near the Finals. That is no accident. They play together, they play their system, and the sum is greater than the parts.

When you break it down team by team it is quickly apparent the players who will play significant minutes for the Blazers look to be as good as or better than the players who will play significant minutes for even the best teams in the League.

So if they are that talented, have the excellent team chemistry that is being so highly touted, and have the desire to win, why argue they will fall short 33+ times this year?

After the initial burst of enthusiasm there has been a rash of Blazer fans talking about "reining in our expectations", about "being happy with 45 wins and maybe an 8 seed", about finishing third in the division behind Utah and Denver, about gaining experience in the playoffs this year and maybe making a run at the title in three or four years.

Let me be among the first to say bollocks. Forget the young label. Forget the injury prone label. Let's show some confidence. Let's pull together behind this team, go out there every night expecting to win the home games and to have a chance to win almost every night on the road. Let's say yes, we do expect to show another huge gain, to win well over 50 games, and to do some damage in the playoffs.

We have the talent, we have the opportunity, all we need is the confidence. And that goes for the fans as well as the players. Show the team you believe they are as good as we say they are.

Is it a tough task to run down L.A., San Antonio, Utah, Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, Charlotte and Denver? Absolutely. There is some phenomenal talent in the NBA right now. But is that task more likely to happen if we say "We aren't there yet" or if we say, "Yeah, we are that good." Show some swagger, Blazer fan, and enjoy the journey, and go Neon Deion on some people.

Several years ago, Deion Sanders left a Super Bowl winning 49ers team for the Dallas Cowboys. In his press conference he said, "I foresee a lot of winning in Dallas." Considering their talent laden line-up with Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Jay Novacek, Troy Aikman, and a defense that made their offense look average, that was hardly going out on a limb. When he got there, he did not wait, he did not put off his expectations for playoff success. And he went out and delivered.

I foresee a lot of winning in Portland. I don't foresee it starting in 2010. I see it starting this year. A mere 50 wins and 7th or 8th seed with this roster, even in light of the teams they have to run down, would be a huge disappointment. The time for leaning on their youth is gone and the time to win is now.

Except the preseason, of course. That is just the time for making fun if somewhat questionable predictions and claims :-)

* I sincerely hope I am wrong. Clipper fans are among the most loyal, long-suffering fans in all of sports and deserve a winner. They got close a couple years ago before regressing. I would be ecstatic if Boom Dizzle and Marcus Camby proved to be the catalysts that turned the Clippers from second division D-League team into NBA Finals contenders. But I ain't holding my breath...

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