Thursday, 12 August 2021 10:37

Aftershocks and Rumblings from Mt. Melanson

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Portland, OR (AP) - With the dust settling from the regular season the Portland Lumberjacks have found themselves finished with the third worst record in the league - bittersweet news to a group of players who were mere inches away from a finals appearance two short seasons ago.  "It's easy to second guess and play the what if game," said  Yevgeny Ilgauskas of the 2027 playoffs against the Anaheim Archers, "in one game it was Will [William Azevedo] just on fire off the bench and the other, they just turned the ball over to Greg [Fore] to make the pass/shoot determination every time.  Everone on the court knew he was going to shoot more than pass but he had the abilty and the threat of that choice in an initiator was something I don’t think we expected.  He did what great players do... he got the tough win."  After the tough loss though, the sky seemed to be the limit with the Melanson & Ilgauskas connection... the team was young and had just come within a rim out of the finals.  So what went wrong?


The decline of Roger Desfontaines seems to be the popular replay and, with all his physical gifts, his underperformance of recent seasons does makes a good scapegoat; however, less attention comes to the retirement of head coach Leslie Barnes.  Barnes was a coach's coach and brought considerable knowledge of the offensive game to the table.  For all his offensive acumen, he had a firm grasp on both sides of the ball with a his presence on the floor which had a calming effect.  He was the one running the show and everyone knew their place.  Even Desfontaines showed much more discipline than he does today under his command.  His sudden retirement at 61 put the franchise in scramble mode to find a replacement.  Barnes had shouldered so much that it was uncertain where the Lumberjacks could find somebody who could take up that mantle?   Further, where could they find somebody for the bare bones salary the Lumberjacks were able to muster?


The answer came in the form of 37 year old offensive wunderkind Collin Oquendo, a former assistant for the Honolulu Inferno.  Oquendo took the helm and the team instantly fell into chaos.  Oquendo showed little patience for organizing the team's defensive strategy and offloaded that to assistants Daniel Moore and Theron Rayburn who both had different ideas about how the team can best defend.  This discord resonated and the end result was better offense as billed - the Lumberjacks went up 2.3 points per game to a fourth overall 109.3 points per game; however, the defensive discord saw that gain evaporate as the former defense that allowed an admittedly terrible 107.8 points per game get even worse - 111 points allowed per game.  What were narrow wins the season before now became losses and the Lumberjacks plummeted down the standings to finish as one of the worst in the league.


Compounding that injury was the insult that their first round pick for 2028 was traded to the San Diego Storm in a three way deal that sent their pick flying and saw only Elija Lea and a handful of used up veterans come back to Portland in exchange.  That did not sit well as fans could not shake thoughts of having Jorge Sibley or Quintin Dean to pair with Melanson, Desfontaines, and Ilgauskas.  This discontentment crept into the comments of fans and sportswriters alike.  Pressure built on Lea's play to justify the trade and every shortcoming on the court was amplified and every great play was treated as expected.  After a wholly disappointing season of bench play, Lea and his approximately seven million dollars salary was allowed to expire and the team parted ways.  After his departure, it became more obvious that the move was one to clear salary cap space for a later Sage signing but lack of communication and simple dead weight of the deal saw the fans soured because the exciting prospect of a new top draft pick was so easily dealt away for so little in return.  Cooler heads understood that, if the team wanted to make space for rising star Sage, they had to make room but many still wondered, if Sage was excelling at C, would it not be better to move the underperforming Desfontaines instead?  As talk of tight budgets started to take precedence over play and the 'Sage Alert' thermometer of budget space became a popular meme, fans started to sour on any high dollar veteran who was not playing at an all-star level.  Ilgauskas' perception shifted too.  Fans began to see him not as a young star who had given them many years of service, but as a guy who got his contract and then stopped trying.  This weighed on Ilgauskas and filtered down to many aspects of his play.


"I can't say that getting Elija was not a head scratcher at the time," said assistant coach Thomas Harding, "With Roger and Kendall, we felt we had the best interior players in the game.  We even had David who was young and hungry as it comes.  We knew that was going to make for a hard decision in the future but to bring in Lea?  I suppose those in the loop knew the plan but, to everyone else... the coaches, the players, the fans... it was not clear.  There wasn't much from Callus at the top either so people were left to wonder and figure it out on their own.  In the end, I suppose, it just created confusion."  


Confusion spread its way into the next season's camp and beyond.  Coach Oquendo continued the practice of allowing sportswriters to attend early practices and it had the unfortunate effect of letting them see players getting back into shape and sync with each other.  Reports of dissonance among the team crept into reporting.  Images of players showing up out of shape accompanied them.  Major area outlets, once beaming with pride at their young, hungry, and workman-like team now reported on a privileged, lazy, out of shape team that looked terrible.  This season saw the aftershocks of moves in prior seasons start to have impact.


To top it off, all-star Kendall Melanson has demanded to be traded.  A notorious hothead, Melanson has quipped before that he's going to retire with back pain from carrying the team prompting media speculation of his retirement rather than face the prospect of another season of mediocrity.  He's always laughed them off so local media has come to accept those as minor eruptions of what they dubbed "Mt. Melanson."  To his credit, Melanson seems to have rolled with the joke and takes interviews with a shirt that has a volcano on the front.  Yet, his recent offhand comment did not come with a smile or a trademark bit of shade for his teammates.  No, his last comment was monotone and full of gravity, "Get me out of this two bit operation."  With the management team in charge watching, will they take steps to arrange for a deal for their all-star?  Rumors of phone calls being had now creep into daily reporting but no official comment has been made either confirming or denying reports.  All the press liaison has to say is that the team is, " to discussions with all teams just like any other franchise should be.  The Lumberjacks recognize Kendall's considerable contributions on the floor and in the greater Portland area.  In compensation, we have made him one of the highest paid power forwards in the league in compensation."  The hedge, however, of "one of" did not pass without notice to some and, though twenty million is nothing to shake a stick at, it is a far cry for top compensation for a player who is the best at his position in the entire league.


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