Evanson: Who cares? The Blazers are about to find out
When the Portland Trail Blazers hired first-year head coach Chauncey Billups this past summer, it felt a bit like a new beginning.
But since then it's been frustrating, depressing and, to be honest, rather boring. And in the wake of two decades of mediocrity, I'm beginning to wonder: Just how many people still care about the Blazers?
Oregonians care about the Ducks — see the past week of coaching turmoil.
They care about the Beavers — see their first winning season and bowl opportunity since 2013.
And people care mightily about the Timbers — see the enthusiasm around last Saturday's MLS Cup.
But with every passing day, loss, and injury to a team that stands at press time at 11-16 and has been on the wrong end of eight of its past nine games, apathy is setting in with both the casual and diehard fans, and really, I don't blame them. After all, what's to get excited about?
The team is not winning, the foundation of the roster seems disinterested, and their star player — Damian Lillard — seems to have lost the fire that's fueled him and the team since he came here nearly a decade ago.
I don't put that or any of this on Lillard. The 31-year-old six-time All-Star has given everything to this franchise. He's been an inspiration on and off the court, loyal to the city and franchise, and has taken a very undistinguished roster to the playoffs eight different times, even making it to the Western Conference Finals in 2019.
But what has been far less inspiring has been the leadership from the top down.
For more than a handful of years, general manager Neil Olshey led from behind, doing little and saying even less. As an old friend of mine would say, he had the talking part down, but it was the walking that seemed to trip him up.
He always had an excuse for coming up small with every transaction, and even smaller in the offseason where — while he hit on a couple — he whiffed mightily with picks that could've mattered (ahem, Zach Collins).
But Olshey is now a thing of the past after being fired Dec. 3 for essentially conduct unbecoming, so what this team does and where it goes, will from here on fall squarely on the franchise owner — who feels more like another talker than she does a walker.
Deceased owner Paul Allen wanted to win. Say what you will about the former Microsoft co-founder, but he was motivated, interested, and at the very least present for the team and fans of it to see.
Allen regularly sat courtside, wore his enthusiasm — albeit somewhat awkwardly — on his sleeve, and spent money, all in the interest of winning.
But now, in the wake of his passing, Allen's sister Jody is in charge, but doing so from a distance and with seemingly just a passing curiosity. And that's not good enough.
You have to want to win in professional sports. Yes, there's a minimum financial commitment necessary to succeed, but more than anything, you need a culture that fosters the level of urgency that motivates executives, coaches and players to row in a similar direction.
Where better place for that to start than the top?
In my opinion, Olshey was able to operate in the manner he (allegedly) did because the organization lacked accountability and oversight. I'm no CEO, but that feels like a bad idea in an industry of billion-dollar businesses, and the type of laissez-faire attitude that has a way of working its way into the front office, locker room and ultimately, the fans who take their cue from the team — which, at present, is lost.
Does Rip City care? Of course they do. They have been and continue to be what I believe are the best and most loyal fans in the NBA. They've proven that time and time again. But while it has likely little chance of dying, Rip City can definitely go dormant, and it sure seems like the franchise is doing their darndest to make that of all things happen.
And we should all care about that.
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