It will take years for the NBA to recover from another work stoppage. All of the increased interest in the league, the improved ratings, merchandise sales, ticket revenues—they will all regress. Many fans will get frustrated with multi-millionaires squabbling over who gets more millions. But the fact remains, here in Portland, we love our team and that will never change. If the league loses money, television ratings go down, and interest across the world dissipates, the NBA brand will hurt.
Yet, as diehard Blazers fans, fans in a small market, fans in a part of the country ignored by the masses, we want a championship, even if 50% less fans are watching us do it. When we get down to the core of how the lockout will affect the league, we cannot let the league’s problems blind us from our passion—the Portland Trail Blazers. While the Blazers are a part of the NBA, most Portland fans consider the Blazers like a part of our family. As a result, we need to ignore the frustrations of the lockout and focus on how the work stoppage will benefit our team.
The Blazers should look to the 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs as a model for a small market team who used the shortened season to launch their impressive championship run. San Antonio, like the Blazers, is a small market team. In 1998-99, the Spurs were coming off a recording breaking season. After winning the lottery and landing Tim Duncan in 1997, the Spurs and a healthy David Robinson went on a torrid run that resulted in the largest turnout in NBA history (in terms of games improved from one season to the next). Tim Duncan was named Rookie of the Year and first team all-NBA and the Spurs made it to the second round of the playoffs where they lost to the Utah Jazz. The following year, the shortened year, Robinson and Duncan molded into a cohesive force down low. And with the help of with proven veteran role players, the Spurs elevated their level of play to that of champions.
The parallels between the 1998-99 Spurs and the 2011-12 Blazers are strong, though not perfect. First of all, the Blazers did not turn around their franchise in one season; instead, it took four years to become legitimate playoff contenders again. Second, when we won the lottery and drafted the “franchise changing” Greg Oden, he did not go out that next year and dominate the league. However, the lockout will allow for the Blazers to be more similar to the 1998-99 Spurs than many people may realize.
If the season is shortened to 50 games and begins in January, which many experts anticipate, it will allow Greg Oden and Brandon Roy time to fully rehabilitate, get into game shape, and work on improving their skillset before the season begins. So instead of wandering through the first 30 games hoping things will change when Roy learns his new role and once Oden returns, the Blazers can start the season, from game one, with the core of their team together.
We have seen over the last few years that chemistry and cohesiveness is one of the biggest pieces missing from the Blazers. Each of the last two seasons, it has taken until March for the Blazers to get on a roll and win in bunches. Two years ago, Marcus Campy struggled early to mesh with the system and find his groove, which is exactly what happened with Gerald Wallace last year. If the NBA season begins in January, the Blazers should be able to solidify their rotation by February, with Oden, Roy, and Batum likely coming off the bench. If healthy, this would be the most dominant bench in the league, hands down.
In addition to the lockout helping the Blazers’ chemistry and enabling two critical cogs in the rotation to get healthy, it appears the Blazers’ front office is willing to trade for or sign a couple more veteran pieces through free agency to solidify the Blazers’ rotation. These players (whoever they are), will be the key to the Blazers’ success in the playoffs. In all likelihood, teams will be scrambling to attain free agents once the CBA is agreed upon. If Oden and Roy are ready to play, Portland could be a very attractive place for a free agent wanting to have a chance to win for years to come.
The reality is, even with a shortened season, Portland won’t quite be ready to contend for a championship next year. However, the shortened season will help the Blazers get very close to contender status and help them take that final leap in 2012-13.
Teams like the Lakers, the Knicks, the Heat, and the Celtics will feel the brunt of the lockout much more than Portland. We are a small market team that doesn’t rely on fair-weather fans. We will have the loudest arena regardless of whether the season is 82 or 50 games. That is why the Blazers should seize their opportunity and use the lockout to our small market advantage. This is the time for the Portland Trail Blazers to secure our place with the rest of the contenders for the next decade—just like the Spurs did 13 years ago.