Tomorrow Never Knows

My life as a Blazers fan has been dominated by five words: “Point Guard of the Future.” Since Damon Stoudamire, a different potential floor general has been brought in nearly every year, each one casting a fleeting spell on the city of Portland, making us believe that they were “the one.” First came Sebastian Telfair. Then Jarrett Jack. Then Sergio Rodriguez. Then Jerryd Bayless. Then Patty Mills (okay, not really). In between these homegrown talents, always affixed with tags like “he’s got a ton of potential,” came veterans ranging from semi-serviceable (Steve Blake) to rock-solid (Andre Miller).  Since the Blazers infamously traded down for Martell Webster in 2005 rather than draft Chris Paul or Deron Williams, their point guard position has been a revolving door of mediocrity.

I spent most of these years following the team purely as a fan, dabbling occasionally in blogging—first on Blazersedge fan posts, then briefly (and regrettably) at Bleacher Report, then on my own long-since-deleted blog—before covering the team on a regular basis during the 2010-11 season at the FanSided site Rip City Project. That season featured a lot of personal firsts for me in this field, and a lot of lasts for the team: the last of Brandon Roy in a Blazers uniform, the last doubts being erased about LaMarcus Aldridge’s status as a franchise player, and the last full season of Nate McMillan.

My first post on Hardwood Paroxysm was published on July 18, 2011, and my final words here come a little over 20 months later. That time, the most enjoyable of my adult life, has been bookended by the most loathsome of Blazers point guards at one end and by far the most exciting at the other. Together, Raymond Felton and Damian Lillard tell the story of the evolution of my approach to fandom and understanding of this game.

Writing about basketball regularly and becoming integrated into the Twitter community that surrounds the NBA has a funny way of turning one’s fandom upside down. All it takes are a few weeks with League Pass and a few friendships built with bloggers from other teams for your entire outlook to transform itself completely. I’m still a Blazers fan, and I likely always will be—some things never leave you, and no sports-related experience will ever rival going to playoff games with my dad during the Damon/Sheed/Sabonis years, or the actualization of Brandon Roy’s immense potential. But now I self-identify as a fan of the NBA first and my team second. I watch everybody, I have favorite players from all around the league, and I generally try to take a nonpartisan approach when I watch and analyze. You have no choice but to do that, because stats and video are so readily accessible in 2013 that there will be no shortage of people waiting to call you out if it seems like you’re just defending “your guy.”

With that said, it was nearly impossible for me not to let my fan side take over last Thursday as I watched Lillard dominate Felton’s return to the Rose Garden on TNT. I have a complicated relationship with Blazers fans at large, at least the ones I encounter online. There’s a thin line between prideful support of a small-market team in a one-sport town with a lengthy history, and a comical persecution complex, and the Rip City faithful overstep those boundaries with an alarming regularity. It has the effect of making me extra critical of someone like Lillard, purely as a gut-level defense mechanism against people I encounter all too often on Twitter making the ridiculous claim that the rookie is already a top-five point guard. Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy every second of Felton’s return and the convincing drubbing the Blazers performed on the Knicks.

The Felton thing is nearly impossible to explain to out-of-towners, but I’ll try. There is no fanbase in the NBA that is kinder to former players, regardless of skill level, than the people of Portland. Joel Przybilla could probably get elected governor of Oregon if he wanted. Travis Outlaw hasn’t had a relevant NBA moment since the 2008-09 season, but he’s guaranteed a standing ovation twice a year when the Kings visit. Dave Twardzik, who played in Portland for four seasons (from 1976-80) and amassed a 14.9 PER during that time, has his jersey hanging in the Rose Garden rafters. There are three things any player has to do to guarantee eternal, undying love from Blazer Nation: stay in shape, at least pretend to care, and don’t make excuses or throw the coach under the bus. Felton failed on all three counts, and failed so spectacularly and brazenly that the shower of boos that greeted him last Thursday eclipsed both Dwight Howard’s return to Orlando and Carmelo Anthony’s to Denver. It didn’t help his case any that he spent the summer promising to score 50 in his return, and ended the night with 11 points on 12 shots.

The most common counterpoint to the Felton vitriol centers around the idea that his awfulness last season meant that the front office was finally driven to blow up the roster, leading to the trade of Gerald Wallace to the Nets that landed the pick they would eventually use on Lillard. There is some validity to this, certainly. If Felton had played passably, they likely would have re-signed him last summer and continued down the path of perennial 8-seeds and first-round exits. The rebuild Neil Olshey is currently orchestrating around Lillard, Aldridge, and Nicolas Batum is both necessary and (so far) well-executed. But Felton robbed me of one last bit of innocence I held onto as a fan. For the first time ever, I was actively rooting for my team to lose as many games as possible to improve their draft position. I’m pretty pro-tanking in general and always have been, but this stance forced me to be “that guy” at a few gatherings of friends, explaining why I was hoping our favorite team would lose and invoking some complicated CBA and salary-cap jargon that should be the last thing on anyone’s mind in the moment while they’re watching a basketball game. This kind of cynicism is bred by players like Felton and obliterated by players like Lillard, whom I’ve loved watching take over games this season even though I know that the Blazers’ ping-pong ball count will suffer.

Lillard is Felton’s polar opposite. Most of the way through his rookie season, he’s delivering on the promise of every underwhelming would-be franchise point guard the Blazers have trotted out over the past decade. He’s a gifted, athletic playmaker with a penchant for hitting late-game shots that has given me more than a few Roy flashbacks. He isn’t a perfect player by any means—his defense is still a liability, and his shot selection can be suspect at times—but he’s improved every month of his rookie season in noticeable ways, and his work ethic has already made him a fan favorite. He’s going to be in Portland for a while, and the team and the city should feel great about that. As a Blazers fan, I’m overjoyed that we finally have someone running the point that I can believe in. As a basketball fan, I’m thrilled that we have another stellar young point guard to add to a multiplying crop of them, a group that includes Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, and Ty Lawson.

I spent my first year at Hardwood Paroxysm struggling to find reasons to continue watching Felton dribble the ball off his foot and act like it wasn’t his fault he showed up to camp out of shape. My final post comes as the Blazers are wrapping up a similarly lottery-bound season, but I don’t need anyone to convince me to watch Lillard put the finishing touches on a Rookie of the Year-caliber season. In a few days, I’m officially beginning a new gig blogging about the NBA full-time for a major national media outlet. I can’t divulge specifics quite yet, but you will definitely hear about it very soon. My excitement about this opportunity is matched only by my gratitude towards Matt Moore for bringing me on at HP two summers ago (and generally being the greatest); Henry Abbott and Kevin Arnovitz for the support and resources they’ve given me in that time as a member of the TrueHoop Network; Coup and SJ at Rip City Project for giving me my first real shot in 2010; and the dozens of writers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with since then. I’ve seriously lost count, but you know who you are, and I wouldn’t be writing this without every one of you.

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Sean Highkin

Sean Highkin is a staff writer at Hardwood Paroxysm and a writer for the ESPN TrueHoop blogs Portland Roundball Society and Magic Basketball. He has also written for The Classical, among other sites. You can follow him on Twitter at @shighkinNBA. He can be reached by email at highkin (dot) sean (at) gmail.