A wise man once said, "The only thing constant is change" (or there abouts, depending on the translation). This age-old truism is no more obvious than in the NBA.
With rosters being small, front offices fairly fluid and marketing initiatives shifting on an almost day-to-day basis, the NBA is in an almost constant state of flux.
The next NBA season is a scant few months away. When the Blazers’ season tips off at the end of October, the team and the organization may be almost unrecognizable to some. The makeover has a lot to do with bringing in almost an entirely new roster, but it goes deeper than a bunch of new faces and a bunch of new names: The 2013-14 Blazers have made a push to be a different team, and a different organization.
August was an uncharacteristically busy off-season month for the Blazers. The final month of the summer started with a big free agent signing (Mo Williams) and ended with a few training camp signings nobody will care about after the preseason (University of Oregon star EJ Singler among them). Between those signings, the beloved Rose Garden, one of the last major arenas on Earth without a corporate sponsor, was renamed the Moda Center.
The free agent signings, especially Williams', and the arena name-change may not seem like twined actions at first glance, but to an educated eye they can be read as an indication of the Blazers’ intended future. Williams is an NBA vet with sterling credentials both on the court and in the locker room. A non-sponsored arena might fit the neo-hippie aesthetic of the Blazer-fan horde, but it seems parochial and a kind of quaint in the high-corporate world of the NBA, where it’s often said the “B” stands for “Business,” not “Basketball.”
Under it’s current management team and in its current state, the Blazers are interested in winning basketball games this coming season (and waiting until next season) while rounding a historically relevant small market team into the moneymaking powerhouses of major media areas like New York City or Los Angeles.
It’s a losing proposition to compare Portland to L.A. in terms of national reach, but given that current team President Chris McGowan is a former executive at AEG (the monolithic sports entertainment company that owns the Staples Center and currently runs the operations of the
Rose Garden Moda Center) it makes sense that his prime directive would be to makeover the Blazers and their arena and its environs in the image of the most successful and most recognizable professional franchises in sports.
And part of that makeover consists of making unpopular decisions. The Moda Center renaming went about as one would expect. Blazer fans, especially those living in Portland that have been here awhile, have a serious attachment to their team and everything that goes with it. The only thing that was shocking about the Moda Center backlash was that there wasn’t an Occupy Rose Quarter movement to try and get the Rose Garden name back (there was an online petition though.)
But renaming the building where the Blazers play their home games wasn’t the only piece of nostalgia that has fallen prey to changes being made by Blazer brass. It was announced recently that fans attending home games will no longer be given Chalupas when the Blazers reach 100 points.
The team says they’ll find another 100-point giveaway item, but for most fans that doesn’t seem to be the point. They have come to expect Chalupas, they stay to cheer for their Chalupas, they have built a fan base almost solely on Chalupas (OK, that’s an overstatement, but still.)
Speculation is rampant as to why the Chalupa promotion has been halted. Some media trolls have pointed out that the Blazers seldom reach 100 points so why should it matter. There’s a theory that Taco Bell wasn’t too enthused with local Korean taco truck Koi Fusion honoring the free Chalupa coupons at their locations and kiboshed the whole thing. And then, of course, there’s the notion that when playing in an arena sponsored by a health insurance company, it might make sense to hand out something other than coupons for free toxic fast food to departing fans.
However the team chooses to spin it, giving up on giving away Chalupas is part of a larger whole. This iteration of the Portland Trail Blazers is undergoing significant changes, soup to nuts.
In a fitting piece of basketball irony, the same month that saw the end of the Chalupa giveaway saw the (likely) end of the NBA career of Luke Babbitt. Taken 16th overall as one of the final actions of franchise re-shaping General Manager Kevin Pritchard, Babbitt spent almost his entire career as a punch-line, save for the one night he hit the bucket that put his team over the century mark and everybody left in the Rose Garden went home with a Chalupa coupon.
Babbitt signed with BC Nizhny Novgorod of the Russian Professional Basketball League in August. It’s likely Babbitt will spend what’s left of his playing career abroad. Like ending the Chalupa giveaway, like renaming the Rose Garden, and like signing a proven winner such as Mo Williams, the end of the Luke Babbitt era is an indication of the new direction the Blazers are taking.
Luke Babbitt was a cheap contract. He never proved himself as the sharpshooter he was supposed to be, but the NBA is full of cheap shooters who did nothing for a couple seasons before getting their act together. There’s no reason Luke couldn’t have been one of those guys.
But Luke Babbitt was something else, too: a scapegoat. Like Nolan Smith, another Blazer lottery pick who will spend next season overseas, having Babbitt in the rotation gave the Blazers a ready-made excuse every time they lost. Letting Smith and Babbitt walk, even though they were the type of risk-free, bargain-basement assets a rebuilding team tends to stockpile, means the Blazers are no longer content with trotting out a Junior Varsity bench.
A re-built bench unit, a newly named home arena, a win-now and make money mentality, and no more free Chalupas—it’s certainly a new day at the Moda Center.