Updated December 21, 2011 Published December 21, 2011
The long offseason is over. NBA TV has stopped broadcasting haphazardly edited Turn Back the Clock featurettes; The Blazers' website has stopped prodding fans to pick a favorite Portland player, with only Twardzik and Steele as options; The massive Spirit of '77 sports bar seems like good ideas again and Tualatin, most days of the week when Blazer training camp is in session, has seen its diversity statistics shoot through the roof. Yes, things are almost back to normal for Portland's NBA-watchers. Almost.
But on the first day of training camp two Fridays ago, something was amiss: The members of the media packed into the courtside waiting room at the Blazers' Tualatin practice facility were actually talking about basketball. Well, okay, not actual on-the-court basketball, but a rumor from earlier that morning regarding Brandon Roy's alleged retirement.
A couple of old-timers traded quiet condolences for Roy's career, but the overwhelming sentiment in the room was cynicism. Why now, just days after the team president had confirmed that Roy was healthy and coach McMillan said he expected Roy to start, were Roy's intentions quietly surfacing. This was all wrong. Roy's retirement was a scheme cooked-up by his agent or a back room deal. "How stupid do they look," one voice asked. "And where does this rank on the list of black eyes for the organization."
After being corralled into the gym, where any meaningful practice was already over and players were starting their wind-down shooting routines, reporters waited hungrily for players to file out. There was only one question on their mind, and one-by-one the players confirmed the news. They had learned of Roy's retirement the same way the rest of us had: On Twitter. Then, before practice, McMillan had gathered them up and made a short announcement: The face of the franchise had suddenly retired, citing long-lingering knee problems. It was just them now. And play ball. "I heard it on Twitter," said a wide-eyed Nicolas Batum. "I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it."
Though questions regarding Brandon were met with stone-faced sadness, those expecting a somber mood in the gym were sorely disappointed. "I can't imagine the mood out there," one friend texted me. But the mood was pretty normal. These are professional players who are never sure if their teammates to day will be with them tomorrow. They live with trade rumors and watch bright careers extinguished by injury every season. It's a small community numbering in the hundreds, and while the rewards are great, injuries are the number one vocational hazard. There was shock in just how fast it unfolded, sure, but Brandon was always more of a when than an if.
It was hours before coach McMillan emerged from the Practice Facility's unseen halls to talk to reporters ("they must be getting their stories straight," a veteran reporter joked) and confirmed Brandon's retirement. He also dropped word that Greg Oden had suffered a major setback (as vague as it sounds) and might miss the season. Oh, and LaMarcus Aldridge was held out of practice because of a recurring heart condition.
Any Blazer follower knows all these plot points by now, of course, but going over them still feels strange. The start to each Blazer season has included major injuriesâand indeed, McMillan has talked about major, career-altering injuries being a bit of a routine for him at this pointâbut to have the franchise's holy trinity go down in a single day felt like a pretty good reason to shut the team down and move it to Seattle or Anaheim or Vegas. Somewhere with a little luck.
Of course, what went largely unsaid among all the Roy tributes and reaction shots was that as recently as late April, a vocal contingent of Blazer fans thought Roy would be best waived or traded. When his knees forced him to shut things down for two months last season, the Blazers performed admirably without Roy. Backup guard Wesley Matthews emerged as a starting-caliber player. And just before Roy's return, the Blazers went on a six-game winning streak that saw the team's tempo pushed to a level that would be hard to keep up with Roy, a slow player before his multiple surgeries, on the court. When Roy came back, the team lost three out of its next four games and Roy struggled for the remainder of the regular season.
If it weren't for that game, Roy's miraculous second half against Dallas in game four of the first-round playoff series, Brandon's retirement might have been met with pitying golf-claps. As fans, we felt like maybe we had seen the best of this guy, and retirement already seemed like a very real option for him. Even in that game, I remember thinkingâhold that thought, I don't have to think. I blogged that game. And I remember blogging, in the third quarter when the Blazers literally couldn't hit a shot:
"That Brandon Roy comeback narrative has just gone completely down the shitter. Peja gets a good look at a three and drains. Brandon winds up on the free-throw line and he goes one of two. Camera pans the bench and it's all long faces. How often do teams go ten minutes without a field goal?"
But then Brandon put the team on his back. And it was one of the most amazing games I've ever seenâmaybe the most amazing game I've ever seen. Well, hell, I blogged that, too:
"The cheering that's going on here isn't just loud, it's loud tinged with absolute disbelief. I mean, complete and utter amazement at what is happening. I have never seen a game like this. I've seen some crazy games, but I've never looked down press row to see every mouth agape and every eye wide.
How many Blazer fans are being made right now? Here and across the country? How many Brandon Roy jerseys are going to sell this weekend? This is incredible. I'm so glad I'm here. I feel like the double rainbow guy and his rainbows. That's how amazing this is to me."
Everyone else in the arena, judging from this video, felt the same way.
So that's what messed Blazer fans up. That's what made Blazer fans think they were losing a player in his prime. And of course this should have been Brandon Roy's prime. And even counting all the millions he's made and the great games he's had, it's tough for sports fans not to feel a little bitter on his behalf. He was one of the good guys, and he'll never get a chance to be a legend. He'll always have an asterix. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant get championship rings and eternal fame. Brandon Roy, the quiet family man who I'd take in a poker game over either of those superstars, gets to be a footnote. So while I'm a little bit perplexed at the outpouring of grief and anger surrounding Roy's retirement (it's a retirement, after all, and not a funeral), I also completely understand why fans get emotional about it.
But here's the cold, hard truth that national analysts don't seem to get and local fans don't want to admit because it's all too raw: Roy is better without the Blazers and the Blazers are better without Roy. Roy started out slow and he was slowing the Blazers down. And in pure basketball terms his retirement changes everything. Especially now, with an uptempo point guard in Raymond Felton and a young, athletic core of guys, Roy would have been an odd man out and working him into the rotation would have required sacrificing the team's biggest new strength (speed) while tempting all sorts of behind-the-scenes drama over minutes distribution and ego (Roy's no Jordan, ego-wise, but he certainly has his pride). It wouldn't have worked. At least, not to anyone's satisfaction.
While we're at it, the Blazers are better without Oden, too. That might be a more popular statement, seeing as how an angry local mob seems to think that Oden is somehow pulling the wool over our eyes, but I don't mean it from a place of bitterness. I've just seen the guy try to walk. And if he had a few healthy NBA years behind him I'd imagine he'd be retiring just like Royâbut it's hard to quit when you never really got started. I wish Greg Oden all the luck in the world, but I don't think we're ever going to see him in a Blazer uniform and I don't think that fate or God or the powers that be like the idea of Greg Oden playing basketball at all.
So that leaves Aldridge. And LaMarcus Aldridge is a player special enough to build a franchise around. And even without the quite speedy big man, these Blazers have shown a proclivity to run. The only person in the starting lineup who can't run too fast is Marcus Camby, but he also happens to be one of the finest outlet passers in the NBA. This team is built like a Phoenix Suns or Golden State Warriors squad from a few years back, only their coach is obsessed with defense and the players get it. And if, like you saw on Monday night, the team can balance free-flowing, run-and-gun offense with hard-nosed, scrappy defense? Well, isn't that how the Mavs won a championship? It's also exactly the kind of team Portland fans love. Five guys who are each willing to dive out-of-bounds for loose balls and make the easy pass? Five guys who love shutting down and offense and causing 24-second clock violations? Color me fucking stoked.
I asked McMillan at training camp whether Blazer fans were in for a higher-octane offense. "You might see guys run more," he said in typically vague McMillan fashion. "People have criticized you in particular for slowing the team down in the past," I said. "Well, you tell them that we're going to play at our speed," McMillan answered. And with Ray Felton and Wes Matthews as a starting backcourt; with juggernaut Gerald Wallace starting at small forward (PAUL ALLEN: PLEASE DO NOT TRADE THIS MAN!); with Nic Batum as a fast-developing bench player and Aldridge as the all-star? With Jamal Crawford as sixth man? This team's speed is FAST. And the chemistry level, from all indications, is very high. And the expectations are low. Give me a perfect storm like that any day.
It has to be tempting, for the casual fan, to disengage from the Blazers right now. And two weeks ago, when Paul Allen was an asshole and players were falling by the wayside, I was right there with them. And sure, Paul Allen's probably still an asshole, but at least he's trying. And those lost players? I'll keep them in my heart always. But for my part, this is as excited as I've ever been for a Blazer squad. So don't freak out. Roy and Oden going down is sad for them and it's sad for the Blazers' marketing staff, which has to reinvent its whole sales pitch to fans. But for you? I hate to say it, but you should be stoked. This year is going to go very, very fastâand I'm not talking about the 66-game schedule.
SEE IT: The Blazers play the Utah Jazz tonight in Utah for some thrilling preseason action. It's on Comcast Sports Net at 6 pm.
ON MONDAY: Season predictions and sizing up the new players with assistant coach Buck Williams.