No Such Thing as Free Brunch

Portland's brunch scene could help the Trail Blazers move the needle and that's a problem.
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Hailing from a state that still benefits from a media pronunciation guide—it’s pronounced (ˈȯr-i-gən)—the Portland Trail Blazers and their fan base acknowledge that there are more appealing places for an NBA free agent. In day-to-day living, Portland is no Miami, New York, or Los Angeles, no matter how rapidly real estate value appreciates or how the city develops in amenities for the wealthy. During the summer months, market limitations underscore the difficulty in teambuilding and reveal the awkward lesson that there’s no virtue without temptation, and there’s no threat of completely overextending your hand in the free agency market when no one thinks enough of your team to properly pronounce the state’s name. The days go by and small changes accumulate with little notice. Only during the prime-time brunch hours of 11AM-3PM do the future prospects of a Blazers’ successful summer signing appear to have improved—alongside the city’s culinary offerings—and with the two hand-in-hand, so grows the likelihood of sinking the franchise for years to come.

We’ll know when brunch is a part of the this-could-all-be-yours presentations to free agents, the acai berry parfaits clinking from kitchen to table in their mason jars, the fenugreek-seed and pistachio oil avocado toast disappearing long before the gluten-free doughnuts with bacon jam arrive. This brunch would speak to the new foodie culture in the NBA and the after-meal shot of sauerkraut juice to the player’s dedication to his health and new city.

Wooing players with pour-over coffee and sprouted grain waffles isn’t the typical strategy associated with a player visiting non-major market during free agency, but it’s something I can imagine, and I don’t know if it’s comforting or calamitous. I can’t claim to know the personal affirmations the average Bucks fan recites after botched interviews or how Cleveland Cavalier fans deal with disappointment (though that probably involves fire, now that I think about it). All I can tell you is that when I’ve been in the summer fandom dumps, I’ve often thought about the players we’ve successfully dodged and how the Blazers have, once again, been saved from themselves. In 2009 the Blazers thought they had their man in Hedo Turkoglu, who was a few pen strokes away from signing with the team after a successful meeting. It turns out there was a simple problem: Portland itself. The city seemed second-rate when compared to cosmopolitan Toronto. Of course, there are other, less metropolitan players who have given Portland the about-face too. Full-time NBA guy and part-time model Chandler Parsons may have politely conversed with the Blazers compared to his “max or nothing, m*****-f*****” line to Mark Cuban; however, that doesn’t remove the sting of a spurned lover when the free agent’s heart is found in another city.

So when visiting players start Instagramming the elaborate brunches they’ve had, I’ll start worrying they’ll be driving the Brink’s truck to the next Sunday haunt. Lunch discussions aren’t a concern. I’ve seen the NBA version of those, and they are Vinny Del Negro, former head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, and Blake Griffin sharing a table on the west side of town for what looks like pick-and-roll coverage over baked ziti. Regardless of your position in life, when mandatory shit like game plans or acquiring leverage in contract negotiations lag on, it will get rolled into lunch in what’s an admittance that we really should have three squares a day. Lunch is utilitarian. Brunch, on the other hand, falls between those three squares. Brunch is the dominion of luxury and laze, a deliberate, decadent in-between. Brunch means real engagement. And engagement makes Portland more appealing, which is a problem.

Hedo wasn’t going to be a franchise-changing player; he nonetheless could move the needle incrementally further on the scale from playoff team to Championship contender. Hedo was also soon to be on the wrong side of his own prime, making the likelihood of seeing his versatile game gradually deteriorate a forgone conclusion. If there was a plot twist in this prediction, it was the steepness of said decline.

There was once a role player, Raymond Felton, who had the gall to show up to training camp overweight and play below expectations. Naturally, the harmless image of a cupcake was transformed into a commentary on Felton’s play when the sugary treat turned up on signs at the Rose Garden. It stands to reason that if uninspired play on a max contract was under the microscope, then the local fans would’ve had a heyday with Hedo’s infamous love of pizza in the locker room. One local writer recommended pizza during Hedo’s meeting with Blazers brass for this reason. In hindsight, brunch may’ve been more effective; it’s part of the reason why we’re finally big in Japan. Fortunately, hand-tossed, wood-fired, topped-with-burrata-and-a-fried-egg pizza didn’t happen and Hedo chose Toronto.

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Trust issues aren’t the root cause for free agency anxiety, nor is it lack of faith in the competency of Blazers management. Moving the needle in the short run at the expense of long-term goals is to be expected when the timeline for judging a GM is shorter than their current contract. Doing whatever keeps the paychecks coming is a form of competency we all practice in life, even if it doesn’t always put the company in a better position four years down the road. Neil Olshey has exhibited a knack for making subtle moves in player acquisition, like turning Mason Plumlee and a second-round pick into Jusuf Nurkić and a first-round pick, which inspires confidence to a degree. The problem rests with Olshey’s understanding of his job and the expectations that running the show means making the big(ish) move that keeps fans off his back.

The macro issue—for the league, not just the Blazers—is that, unlike other industries, the NBA is a zero-sum game where losing is not tolerated despite it being the likeliest of outcome for 29 teams. There’s little chance most teams can expect to win a championship but damned if they come out and say the obvious. The less fireable offense for GMs is to play to appearances since the fans would destroy them if they did otherwise. This leaves few other options than to appease fans and owners by making what reads as a power move when any rational GM would keep as many possibilities open as possible.

The NBA runs on moving the needle talk, which is fundamentally a conversation held in bad faith when LeBron James and Steph Curry are in the league. The needle only has a range so wide, the outermost part butting against sustained success without credible championship aspirations. Despite the urge to force the needle further during every summer, sometimes the best hope is that your GM plays hooky and calls in Grub Hub, rather than sitting down to Verde Marias and leek and morel strata with an esteemed out-of-town guest. Having your GM throw on a pair of sweat pants before he walks the halls of his empty house to answer the doorbell exhibits a shrewd tactician who knows what’s best for the franchise, which is to entertain himself for a summer and practice patience until another team gives up their franchise’s future in a short-sighted needle-nudging move.


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