This has been a rough season for fans of the Portland Trailblazers basketball team. The players are learning a new system from their rookie head coach, Chauncey Billups, in his first season in that role. Their star player, Damien Lillard, plays poorly (by his standards) at the outset, then is forced to undergo season-ending surgery. Three other players in the original rotation—Cody Zeller, Larry Nance Jr., and Nassir Little—go down with injuries. The General Manager of the team, Neil Olshey, is summarily fired after years of internal conflict, leaving the operations in the hands of neophyte executives and detached ownership. Just before the trade deadline they deal away three of their best remaining players—Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Jr., and the beloved C.J. McCollum. In return the Blazers receive some promising guys (Josh Hart, Justice Winslow, Keon Johnson), plus draft picks and salary cap flexibility (an aspect of the game I don’t understand and don’t want to understand). In the midst of it all, the team wins a few surprising games, but loses many more, often by huge margins. Now, with a season-ending injury to Jusuf Nurkic, the lone remainder from the starting line-up at the beginning of the season, the Blazers have been reduced to a fragment of what they hoped to become this year.
Perhaps the green shoots of new growth that signal better things for the future can be observed in player performances today, even in recurrent circumstances of dispiriting defeat. Three guys in particular—C.J. Elleby, Trendon Watford, and Greg Brown III—have been interesting to watch this year, as their roles have shifted dramatically from regular “DNP (coach’s decision)” benchwarmers to starters and vital rotation players. Each of them has an impressive set of skills and abilities they are testing and honing against the toughest competition they’ve ever faced. Sometimes it’s painful to watch, but just as often there are flashes of potential that seem to be harbingers of future greatness. Twenty-year old Greg Brown III, for instance, has so much athletic talent and basketball intuition, I can easily imagine him continuing to grow and eventually becoming a dominant player in his own right. When he’s on the court now, there’s always a sense he might do something amazing, some huge, leaping feat of blocking a shot, stealing a pass, or slamming an alley-oop dunk on a fast break. He and C. J. Elleby are the best on the team at that latter move, one that electrifies a crowd and pumps up the whole team.
My dreams about the Blazers this year have been vague and impersonal, but this brief one (following a 124-92 blowout loss to the Denver Nuggets) expresses special hope for the future play of Greg Brown III:
Lots of Energy
I am helping Greg Brown III with his basketball court, the game that is happening there….Lots of energy, with players moving quickly back and forth on the court….
The feeling is that the court is his, Greg Brown III’s. Like he owns it and reigns over whatever happens on it. Hmm. It’s true, now that I think about it, GBIII is the only player on the team right now who is emotionally demonstrative when he makes an amazing play. After dunking hard over another player, he doesn’t pretend to be cool and nonchalant. No, he lets everyone in the arena know what he just did. He expresses authentic, heartfelt enjoyment of these heroic moments, which is really all that we fans want, a chance to share in those moments of enjoyment. It also makes it easier to sympathize when he tries to dunk or block a shot and fails spectacularly, which happens rather frequently, too.
It’s hard to avoid the feeling that the ownership and management of the Trailblazers have essentially given up on this season, and on this group of guys. That’s too bad, because we may be seeing a glimpse of the future court of Greg Brown III—that is, a glimpse of what he and the guys like him could do with their potentials if fully supported and developed. It’s worth noting that the Blazers are still in contention for the tenth and last seed in the playoffs. And there’s more than a month of regular season games to go….