TrueHoop: TruePortland

Learning from the masters

May, 16, 2014
May 16
10:15
AM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
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Portland Trail BlazersChris Covatta/Getty ImagesRip City's revival needs more reviving. Portland can learn a thing from the team that just booted it.
There were no miracles in store for the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 5. Like most of the series before it, the game was a trouncing, with the Blazers unable to counter the San Antonio Spurs’ defensive pressure or ball movement. Not even Tony Parker’s tight hamstring, which limited the Spurs’ guard to 10 scoreless minutes, could help the Blazers. They were beaten with and without Parker, with big games from their stars and without -- outclassed in just about every respect.

The series was punctuated, fittingly, in the third quarter. Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard came up with a steal in the backcourt, split between Wes Matthews and Damian Lillard on the break, and finished with a stunning double-clutch slam. For Leonard, the play was striking for its audacity, an explosive, if brief, departure from his ultra-stoic demeanor. It was also, in its way, a representation of the difference between his team and the Blazers.

Comparing a losing team to the one that eliminates them is sort of inevitable; what is an elimination, after all, if not the differences between two organizations made literal? In this case it’s particularly inviting because the Spurs, as I wrote earlier in the week, are so magnificent at finding and exploiting their opponents’ weaknesses. The Blazers’ season-long defensive malaise became a crisis at San Antonio’s hands, and Portland’s lack of depth approached grim humor at times throughout the series. But Leonard’s development, and the explosiveness he brings to San Antonio’s trademark efficiency, is as good a summation of what Portland lacks as any.

In the past two years, the Trail Blazers have rebuilt their organization with shocking speed and almost uninterrupted success. Less than two calendar years ago, general manager Neil Olshey inherited an organization reeling from a season of chaos, palace intrigue and frustrated losing. The Blazers had bottomed out after a run as one of the league’s most promising teams, and at the time of Olshey’s appointment, in 2012, they boasted a lottery pick, a borderline franchise player and little else by way of foundation pieces.

That they have come so far so quickly is impressive, but even more so is that they seemed to have simply skipped over organizational growing pains. It is true that the team ended up in the lottery last year, finishing the 2012-13 season with a 13-game losing streak, but at the time, it hardly felt like a catastrophe. The Blazers were strapped for assets and in need of that lottery pick, and were also giving minutes to the worst collection of reserves in the league. While the finish was disappointing, it never threatened the equanimity of the locker room in a serious way.

This season, that equanimity became the team’s definitive aspect. From coach Terry Stotts to LaMarcus Aldridge to the old-for-his-years Damian Lillard, the Blazers coalesced into a shockingly stable group for their relative youth. When they were torching defenses in November, they refused to get too high, and when they were being roundly doubted as a paper tiger, they remained unaffected. Steady, never questioning themselves, they felt much more like a team in Year 10 than Year 2 of their time together.

The flip side of steadiness, though, can look an awful lot like complacency, and against the Spurs it was hard to keep the word out of mind. The Blazers are a proud team, especially Lillard and Wes Matthews, but they’re never particularly demonstrative aside from Matthews’ willingness to throw his body around on the court. It seemed as if the team was limited by their sense of composure, unable to tap into the sort of intensity that risks boiling over.

Perhaps this is why fans were so thrilled by Game 4, when Thomas Robinson and Will Barton came off the bench to electrify the home crowd and infuse a little mania into the team. Barton is rail-thin and in constant motion, a blur of hands, while Robinson, for all his flaws, still possesses athleticism that few players do. As the Spurs exposed Portland’s lack of top-end athletes, running their offense more or less untroubled, Robinson and Barton appeared, very briefly, to be the missing ingredient.

[+] EnlargeLaMarcus Aldridge
AP Photo/Eric GayThe Trail Blazers were a big surprise this season, but there's still much work to be done moving forward.
It didn’t last, of course. Put simply, Barton and Robinson just aren’t good enough to actually matter in a playoff series. Not yet, and maybe not ever. But this summer, they are where Portland fans will fixate, because they are just about the only variables in Portland’s foreseeable future.

The Blazers don’t have a pick in this year’s draft. They don’t have much cap space. They’re paying a host of nonentities and decent but overmatched players at the end of their bench, with only Earl Watson scheduled to come off their books. If they are going to get more athletic, if they are going to provide themselves the means to find a gear they seemed to lack this season, it’s very likely going to have to come from within.

That’s why Leonard’s double clutch was such a vivid illustration of where the Blazers still have to go. Leonard was brought to San Antonio to lend their well-worn engine a little more horsepower, to provide not just a talent they might build around in the future, but a dose of the sorts of things the Spurs just couldn’t do anymore. The Blazers, of course, are not as old as the Spurs, and Damian Lillard and Nic Batum will likely still improve, but there’s no Leonard in the pipeline.

There are a host of factors at work in this discussion, and I don’t mean to oversimplify: Leonard works in San Antonio because of their remarkable player development, his own maturity and intelligence and a host of other reasons. He was no riverboat gamble now paying off for the Spurs. But he does serve as a representation of how a structure, once in place, can allow the unexpected to flourish.

The Blazers have a structure, and they built it remarkably quickly. It’s a structure that will likely sustain this level of success, or close to it, for a few seasons at least. But in the next phase of their development, they’re going to have to find a way to add a little volatility to their mixture, a spark that they can nurture and channel into some productive heat. It’s not clear, exactly, where it will come from, but it is clear that’s what separates them from the teams still playing.

Trail has gone cold

May, 12, 2014
May 12
12:00
PM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
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Brook Lopez Tim DuncanAP Photo/Rick BowmerAnything seemed possible for Portland last week, but San Antonio is dishing out the cold, hard truth.
When a team is down 3-0 in a series, every media availability becomes a dance. What’s most frustrating? Well, we need to focus for the full game. What’s most disappointing? Well, obviously it’s tough to lose a game on your home court, or obviously it’s tough to let the other team get off to a hot start. And so on, for somewhere between four and six minutes. The questions must be seen as tough but not insulting, and players have to acknowledge responsibility without admitting any real emotion. As Wes Matthews put it perhaps a dozen times between Saturday night and Sunday’s practice, “It’s not ideal.”

For the Portland Trail Blazers, this is more or less the norm. A second-round series between them and the San Antonio Spurs was never going to produce off-court fireworks; both simply put too much effort into cultivated steadiness (or dullness, depending on where you’re sitting). But on the court, this series has been nothing short of revelatory when it comes to the scope of the Blazers’ limitations, which was difficult to see as recently as a week ago.

For three games, the Spurs have ferreted out every possible advantage they have over the Blazers and pressed it for everything it’s worth before moving on to the next Portland weakness. In each game, the Spurs have gotten out to a massive early lead, and in each game, the Blazers have shown signs of life before finally succumbing to San Antonio’s superiority.

The Blazers’ defense is built to encourage midrange shots; Tony Parker was built to drop floaters in from the elbow. The Blazers, despite making efforts to upgrade their bench, are now perilously thin after a groin injury to Mo Williams; a sequence in Game 3 saw a Kawhi Leonard post-up bucket over Will Barton immediately followed by a Tim Duncan post-up bucket over Thomas Robinson.

What’s particularly striking is that the Spurs are doing this without likely a single All-NBA player or even a stable of top-flight athletes. Their execution is such that even the slightest of mismatches -- mismatches that, in the hands of other offenses, might scarcely be recognized as such -- can topple a defensive structure. You wouldn't think, for instance, that Matthews switching on to Leonard to cover a weakside screen would expose much vulnerability. But several times as the Blazers fought back into the third quarter of Game 3, Leonard sealed Matthews, took an entry pass and worked to shoot over or, more frequently, fire a skip pass to the opposite corner. A mismatch of the slimmest margins -- a difference in wingspans, basically -- became a viable target for entire sets.

In a sense, it’s Matthews who embodies this dynamic from Portland’s perspective. He’s had a remarkable season, and his intensity and defensive selflessness are sources of strength for the entire team. But Matthews has always been just a little undersized, and a little slow. Over 82 games, against the entire league, he’s an inspiration. Against the Spurs, for seven, he’s a collection of small deficiencies thrown under a magnifying glass. It’s not ideal.

It’s easy to extend that sort of thinking to the entire team. The Blazers were one of the league’s least injured teams, and rode a subpar defense to a win total (54) that seemed at least a year early. It’s hard, now, to see where they might suddenly grow over the next week.

It’s unlikely that Damian Lillard becomes capable of staying in front of Parker, but it’s unlikely that having Nicolas Batum check Parker for more minutes won’t yield some sort of advantage the Spurs can contort into a massive leak.

It’s unlikely that the bench -- which, thanks to Williams’ injury, now prominently features players who wouldn’t be trusted even in meaningful regular-season moments -- will be able to curb the onslaught from Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli, as unlikely as that sentence seems. San Antonio has had so many answers that it’s hard to imagine the Blazers introducing a question that might help.

It’s fitting, in a grim way, that this series should follow the elation of Portland’s victory over the Houston Rockets. The Rockets were willing to match the Blazers stylistically, and lacked the discipline to consistently put the Blazers on their heels. The Spurs, though lacking Houston’s top-end star power, are years into their reign as the league’s most disciplined offensive team, and so the Blazers’ limitations are inescapable.

At practice Sunday, LaMarcus Aldridge was asked whether a sweep in this series would taint Portland’s season. He paused a bit, before offering a noncommittal, “I can’t look at all that right now.”

My own feeling is that it shouldn't -- that as thorough as this demolition has been so far, the Blazers far exceeded even internal expectations, and that their season is beyond tainting. But now that the Blazers have announced themselves as an upper-echelon team, if they can’t manufacture some source of improvement, this may be the sort of loss that taints the next few seasons.

The Trail Blazers are here to stay

May, 6, 2014
May 6
10:45
AM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Damian LillardSteve Dykes/Getty ImagesDamian Lillard's series-clinching buzzer-beater announced the Trail Blazers' arrival on the big stage.
The Portland Trail Blazers are once again a marquee team. There are qualifiers to be made and some nuance to add, but let’s treat Portland’s series win over the Houston Rockets -- and the Damian Lillard buzzer-beater on which it occurred -- as what it was: a step from the league’s periphery to its center, from a potential team of tomorrow to a team of today.

That’s sort of a sticky claim, I realize, so let me elaborate. In many ways, the Blazers have already had a legitimizing season. They came in with playoff expectations, won 54 games and established themselves pretty soundly as one of the more enjoyable viewing appointments in the league. But they were nonetheless more spice than entrée, a refreshing diversion from the title pursuits and metropolitan melodrama that keeps the focus of an NBA season elsewhere.

That has changed because of what the Blazers proved in the first round. When next season tips off, fans nationwide will make note of Blazers games. Matchups with teams chasing titles will become portentous measuring sticks. Visits from superstars will become showdowns. Over the course of this season, the Blazers were a team to tune in for; over the past two weeks, they proved themselves a team to invest in.

Legitimacy in the age of constant analysis is a fickle concept. Mostly, fans are smart enough now to understand that close losses aren’t really an indication of quality. If the Blazers had dropped the Rockets series -- after the Jeremy Lin-to-Troy Daniels prayer and the Chandler Parsons miracle putback preceding Lillard’s dagger -- most would understand that a good team caught some tough breaks. There would probably have been relatively quiet doubts about their toughness, and a few somewhat louder doubts about late-game execution, but the Blazers were already playing with house money.

All of which is an accomplishment, but not what you strive for. Broadly speaking, the NBA season is a drama starring LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and maybe four other teams whose play seems to organize the long months. There are other players who can enliven a few scenes, but the gap between character actors and star teams is a big one. And what the stars have in common, I contend, is their ability to contradict the sum of what we know about them, which is now a good deal more than it used to be.

We return to the Blazers. They peaked early, played intermittently acceptable defense and were anchored by a big man who shot more midrange jumpers than any other player in the league. We knew them. Until, that is, LaMarcus Aldridge went for more than 80 points in the first two games and Lillard buried what may be the most important shot in Blazers’ history.

More about that shot, because it deserves it: What will endure for me is not just that Lillard got off such a clean look, or that he buried it, but the way he clapped for the ball as he ran free around a double screen, already realizing what was coming. After the game, Nic Batum admitted that the first option for the play was Aldridge, but Lillard was clapping so confidently that Batum knew he had to get him the ball. For me, it’s the clap that elevates the shot to a place where it elevates the whole team.

Essentially, I am arguing that the NBA’s ruling class -- dysfunctional or competitive -- is the class of teams that have proven an ability to exceed fans’ imaginations, and in doing so hold their attentions. They elevate what could not happen to that which happens. Nobody, in their first NBA postseason, gets a wide open 28-footer with less than a second left to clinch a series on their home court. It’s simply too neat. Until Damian Lillard does.

With a series, and with a shot that changed the series, the Blazers join the small class of teams fans will entrust a season story to, because they have now proven an ability to go farther than reason could take them. We watch to see whether LeBron will become the indomitable force he did when he scored 29 of the Cavs’ final 30 points, to see whether the Knicks can best their own standard for dysfunction. To see whether Portland’s young point guard can possibly continue to be one of the league’s most dangerous options in the clutch.

If they were playing with house money before, the Trail Blazers are perhaps doubly so now. Though they’ve matched up well with San Antonio this season, they’re getting long odds on a series upset. If they lose, they will be remembered for their wildly entertaining series and that incredible shot, and they are positioned to improve for the foreseeable future. Of course they have more to play for, and of course they aren't just happy to be here. But after a series in which they took fans to a higher state than we could have predicted, they've proven they belong here, where everybody is watching.

Middle-earthy

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
10:37
AM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
 Damian Lillard AP Photo/David ZalubowskiLong after their peak has passed, Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers are now stuck in the middle.

About a month ago, the Portland Trail Blazers were in a bit of a shooting slump heading into a matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder. During Terry Stotts’ pregame media availability, a reporter asked the coach why the shots weren’t falling.

"Well all you guys in the media have been saying it was coming since November," Stotts responded. "So I guess now you can finally write it.”

It was a relatively banal remark, a coach’s show of exasperation with ginned-up media narratives, but it struck me for two reasons:

First, that the tone was uncharacteristically defensive for Stotts, and second, that it seemed to suggest that the team was bracing for impact on its way back down to Earth. A typical Stotts response, in a good mood, would be something like, "We’re happy with the shots we’re getting, and we’ll keep taking them." Instead, what he said was closer to acknowledging that the Blazers know they’re going to be judged by their early-season success, and they’re resigned to riding it out.

If that’s reading a lot into a single quote, it’s inarguable that the mood around the Blazers’ season has shifted, and the standard they set in November and December is a large reason why. ESPN’s own Kevin Pelton has written that the Blazers are likely "doomed" to the West’s No. 5 seed in the playoffs, a fate most fans would have called a best-case scenario in October.

Elsewhere, fans are clamoring for better play in close games, even as the Blazers recently enjoyed a two-year run as one of the more charmed crunch-time teams in the league. While the length of the NBA season has many side effects, few are more jarring than the collective amnesia it seems to induce.

But the current unease among Blazers observers gets to an interesting question: To what extent are players fixed entities, and when, if ever, can fans expect them to change? A useful reference here is Jason Quick’s recent Oregonian column. Quick argues, and I largely agree, that the Blazers have grown stagnant in close games as they revert to familiar tendencies -- post-ups for LaMarcus Aldridge, long jumpers from Damian Lillard, and a sometimes limiting determination from Nic Batum to hunt shots for his teammates.

Early this season, all these tendencies were a recipe for magic: Aldridge can get a shot on the left block against any defender, Batum has uncanny vision from the wing, and for a long while, Lillard’s hero-ball proficiency was unparalleled. But now that the bounces are going the other way, the Blazers can look unable, or unwilling, to change their formula.

All of which may just be fine. I've written in the past that the Blazers’ success stems in large part from the fact that every player is allowed to play not just to his strengths, but also to his preferences, and that allowance provides an unusually stable foundation. The Blazers are allowed to be themselves and learned early that it produces winning basketball. But when it stops working, is that, too, a referendum on the players themselves?

The Blazers are either free of, or lacking, a superstar player or coach who might offer them some structure in this regard. There are teams whose successes and failures -- LeBron’s Heat, Thibodeau’s Bulls -- revolve around the focal points of those stars, providing an easy cover when things turn south. Jimmy Butler’s shot is off? Thibs is running him ragged. Chris Bosh struggling? He’s just getting used to the spacing with LeBron in the post.

Without those high-wattage focal points, the Blazers are also without easy scapegoats. By most considerations -- and certainly by the players’ consideration -- Aldridge is the Blazers’ cornerstone, but he isn't the sort of star who exercises a gravitational pull over a whole organization. The same goes for Lillard, the only other real candidate for this designation. The Blazers’ collective approach to success is refreshing in the era of alpha dogs and hot takes, but it all denies a certain emotional satisfaction to fans craving context for the ups and downs of a season.

I can’t help but wonder sometimes whether a team’s quality is fixed, and the season is a six-month-long exercise in introducing complicated story structures. If you were to tell Portland fans that the Blazers were a .667 team that neatly lost the third of every three games, I’d imagine they could sit back and more or less contentedly await the playoffs. But the coin, even a weighted one, rarely flips so consistently, and so fans get streaks and lulls onto which they can graft their hopes and insecurities.

So depending on how you look at it, this team is either complacent or comfortable with itself, and depending on how you look at it, that's either a strength or a weakness. The Blazers have mostly sustained the relatively minor injuries they've faced, they aren't really integrating anything new, and they’re ahead of where most analysts projected them to be. They seem to be what they are, which is an uncomfortable position for fans, who would like to believe that all of the margins can be tightened and every weakness addressed.

But the Blazers believe they’re the same team now that they were in November, and it seems unlikely they’ll change their minds 64 games into the season.

The Trail Blazers go public

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7
10:00
AM ET
By Bethlehem Shoals
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
BlazersSam Forencich/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Blazers aren't just a Portland thing anymore. LaMarcus Aldridge & Co. are ready for the limelight.
Over the past few years, Portlanders have seen their city turned into an exportable commodity. Between "Portlandia," foodie buzz, the vogue for livable cities, and the tourists who flock around the Ace Hotel, the city stands for something other than itself; it’s communal property, easily beloved and useful for those who may just be passing by or imagining it from afar. It’s reached the point that Atlanta rappers Young Thug and Bloody Jay named their latest mixtape “Black Portland,” in part as a nod to the city’s reputation as some sort of Shangri-La for creatives.

At this point, Portland’s national -- and international -- profile no longer comes as a surprise. What made “Black Portland” unusual was that it used the Trail Blazers' logo, conflating the reputation of the city with its up-and-coming NBA power team. It’s a connection so obvious, you have to wonder why it’s not getting made more often. Especially when the team, behind dark-horse MVP candidate LaMarcus Aldridge and All-Star Damian Lillard, has found itself near the top of the West all season. These Blazers may not be a national phenomenon yet, but they’re well on their way.

Outside of Portland, the history of the Trail Blazers goes something like this: Bill Walton, the 1977 NBA title, the 1984 draft, Jordan’s shrug at Cliff Robinson, the 2000 West finals, Jail Blazers jokes, the Greg Oden pick, a notable Brandon Roy performance (your pick) and fin. Not bad for a far-flung sports team in a small city. But by and large, they Blazers have registered on the national radar only when they’re within striking distance of a title or reduced to a total laughingstock. Successful as Portland’s teams have been over the years, visibility and notoriety have rarely been their strong suit. That’s why it’s exciting to see them starting to really deserve, and get, that kind of attention.
[+] EnlargeNicolas Batum, Damian Lillard
AP Photo/Tony DejakDamian Lillard has blossomed into an All-Star in his second season.

For the Blazers and their fans, then, a return to national prominence might involve some growing pains. I’ve been in Portland for a little over a year now, in the Northwest for six years total. What’s striking about the Blazers and their fan base -- and here, I’m contrasting them with the sports culture of the East Coast -- is how darn easy to please they are. The “only game in town” argument never really goes away, but remember, Blazers fandom extends far outside of the usual demographics. In the same way that “hipster” is the rule not the exception here, gawking at nontraditional sports fans loses its novelty really fast in Portland. Blazers fandom reminds me of college ball frenzy or a city in the thick of the postseason. It’s all hands on deck, all of the time. And that special bond almost always errs on the side of supporting, encouraging and revering the team. You know, all those things that fans in theory do for their team. It’s a little bit quaint, until you remember how absurd its sports-talk-driven obverse is.

There’s been only one time that Portland has turned its back on the Blazers. That was, of course, during the Jail Blazers era, when Zach Randolph, Ruben Patterson and Qyntel Woods brought shame on a team already struggling to find its competitive footing. That period was also so abysmal that it ended nearly two decades of consecutive sellouts -- impressive in any sport, nearly miraculous in a league where regular-season attendance is something like an inside joke. Then came Roy and Aldridge, a sense of renewal, and an enthusiasm that seemed to celebrate a return to normalcy as much as a real chance at a title.

All of this sets up a tidy little ecosystem: As long as the Blazers stay credible, the fans can be proud of them and the pressures are minimal. But in a season like this, there’s a reason to take the national perspective, that all-encompassing, wide-angle view of the league, to ask how the Blazers stack against powerhouses like Miami or OKC.

This season, the Blazers are one of those teams. Aldridge isn’t just a star big man, he’s a guy showing up on MVP ballots. Lillard isn’t just the future of the franchise, he’s looking like a big part of the NBA’s future. The Trail Blazers have gone national without really preparing for it. Portland is no longer a team that lives in the nightly results, it’s the main event on a regular basis. Friday’s national game will be their second of the week . For a fan base used to having Portland as their team, I imagine this is somewhat disorienting. It must be hard to avoid making the shift from keeping expectations reasonable to expecting too much.

There’s another side to the Blazers this season that might be even trickier for hometown fans to appreciate. They may not be the most exotic or enthralling team in the league, but they’re certainly one of the prettiest. Strip away all concerns about winning and losing and focus only on the aesthetic of basketball: the Blazers’ ball movement, the jump-shooting that splits the difference between fearless and mechanistic, Aldridge’s sweeping movements, Lillard’s nightly derring-do, and Batum’s sleek resourcefulness. Spend enough nights watching and Portland will become one of your favorites really fast. The Blazers are irresistible if you happen to flip past one of their games.

They also are just dangerous enough, and inconsistent enough, that they’re never fully in or fully out of any game. They play with a confidence that, in less agile hands, could be mistaken for recklessness. Their defense kicks in at just the right time, usually in the second half; whether their shooting is on or off, the Blazers run their system, fully convinced that sooner or later it will bury their opponents under a flurry of jumpers and quick moves around the basket.

The Blazers are, for lack of a better word, one of the NBA’s great foils this season. Anyone versus the Blazers is going to be an entertaining matchup, something maybe only the Warriors can claim with any consistency. They somehow bring out the best in other teams, pushing the game without things erupting into run-and-gun absurdism. Portland isn't a team you want to play because there’s a high probability you will lose. However, playing them practically guarantees something entertaining.

So far, February has been a mixed bag for the Blazers. Aldridge wasn’t voted into the All-Star Game as a starter, meaning the team isn't quite visible enough to start winning popularity contests. But Aldridge and Lillard were both selected as reserves, a thumbs-up from West coaches that confirms the two can indeed play a little. Lillard has announced plans to participate in all five of All-Star Weekend's major events, a publicity masterstroke that he can more than back up. The team opened the month with a loss to the Wizards, the kind of bout with a mediocre Eastern Conference squad that the Blazers are supposed to win. They took care of the Knicks on Wednesday, hopefully righting the ship. Between the Pacers on Friday and a visit from the Thunder on Tuesday, the Blazers have a chance to head into the break with a real show of force. Or, if things go badly, a new round of questions about their legitimacy.

When asked about “Black Portland,” Lillard told Danny Chau that the title “shows that people are seeing what we’re doing, and people respect it. … The fact that they’re inspired by that, as artists, based on what’s in basketball -- that lets us know we’re doing something right.”

The Blazers aren't just catching on with NBA observers -- they've also started to take on some cultural cachet. And they know it. Last week, I saw a sign in front of a bar that said “Blazers … Get Greedy!” I first took it as a message to fans, urging them to expect more than they ever had before. But it’s also for a team that, in addition to the usual goals of making the playoffs and going all the way, wants to leave a strong impression. That’s certainly happening. And it’s why, sooner or later, this team will belong to everyone into basketball.

Has the Blazers' bubble burst?

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
9:57
AM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Portrait Trail BlazersAP Photo/Don RyanThe Blazers have far exceeded expectations. So why is their season colored by what they're not?
The Portland Trail Blazers just played their 41st game, but already there's a sense that the season has passed them by. Their 11-game win streak, their national coming-out party, happened nearly two months ago, and the NBA news cycle, as is its wont, has shifted its focus elsewhere. The Blazers have kicked around the top of the West standings and, after their close loss to Oklahoma City on Tuesday, stand just one and a half games out of first place in the conference. It seems that most viewers are content to consider Portland a fixed entity -- a good team, sure, but not fitting of that slippery honorific “contender” -- while the Blazers keep chugging along on pace to hit nearly 60 wins.

So it seems an odd task to readjust expectations for a team whose own success has already made a mockery of preseason expectations. The smart money had the Blazers competing for a low playoff seed alongside the Timberwolves and Pelicans, and they’ve now reached a point where .500 ball all but guarantees them a playoff spot in the packed West. So what gives? How is it that a team on pace, conservatively, to beat out predictions by more than 10 wins seems to have faded into the background?

Part of it, of course, is the Blazers’ disposition. Upstart teams are usually marked by young players coming into themselves as players, and by extension, personalities. But the Blazers are anchored by veterans and young players who aspire to veteran dispositions. Without a doubt, they are a happier gang than in seasons past, but they’re more contented sigh than barbaric yawp, and while they continue to shoot the lights out, they’re not big on stoking the fire of public interest. The Blazers are fine with the in-game spotlight, but less friendly to the off-court flashbulb.

Perhaps more pressing is the material issue of their defense. With wins come scrutiny, and Portland’s defense doesn’t hold up under much. While the Blazers have been, at their peak, an above-average unit, they’ve spent the better part of the season below average and are trending worse. They currently rank 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, a figure that no amount of squinting can make palatable. The question is: As one of the league’s healthiest teams, why have the Blazers slipped from their defensive peak? Do we read that as a team that possesses the gear necessary to defend respectably, or as a team building the habit of relying on its offense?

Either position could be credibly supported. While the Blazers rebuilt their bench into a net positive this summer, they are relying on heavy contributions from Mo Williams, Joel Freeland, and Dorrell Wright -- decent or very good players all, but none of them lockdown defenders. With the heavy minutes the starters play and the defensive limitations of the bench personnel, this may be a strict effort-preservation mission. They are 8-4 against the Spurs, Pacers, Heat, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder and Warriors. That’s a small sample size, but it may suggest that the Blazers are as capable as dialing up for premier opponents as any other contender.
[+] EnlargeBlazers sign
Cameron Browne/NBA/Getty ImagesUnder Terry Stotts, Portland has risen to the NBA's top offense ... and fallen to its fifth-worst defense.

On the other hand, 26th is 26th, and the truly elite teams don’t rely on caveats to bolster their credentials. To some extent, every team but a few must -- the Warriors have their #fullsquad, the Heat are coasting or “conserving” -- but by and large, top teams look like top teams on both ends of the court. A little more than 70 percent of the time, the Blazers have spackled over their porous defense with their shooting, but that’s probably not the profile of a champion.

Still, though, is being a subpar defensive team reason enough for the tepid embrace the Blazers seem to be getting? Put it this way: Title-ready or not, they skipped an organizational step entirely this season, going from a team that needed to figure out how to win to a team that needs to fine-tune its formula to make winning habitual.

So the Blazers have moved from one set of questions -- do they belong in the NBA’s upper class? -- to another. They took half a season to do the work that can take a franchise years, shedding lottery expectations and settling into life as a winning team. They have half a season now to focus on details, to make the incremental improvements that separate the Thunders, Spurs and Heats of the league from the asterisk class. If they can succeed, they just might recapture the attention of a league that seems to have moved on.

Terry Stotts' long road to the top

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
11:07
AM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Terry StottsAP Photo/Duane BurlesonTwenty-three years and three NBA lead jobs later, Terry Stotts has finally found his place in Portland.
In the spring of 1988, Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts was preparing to accept a job offer from Upjohn pharmaceuticals. He’d spent the eight years since graduating from the University of Oklahoma bouncing around the basketball world: cut after three months from a professional team in Italy; three seasons playing for George Karl in the Continental Basketball Association; a season in Spain; two seasons in France wrapped around years earning an MBA degree back in Oklahoma. When Upjohn called, he was 30 years old and hadn’t played professionally for a year and a half. The job offer came on a Wednesday, and he planned to accept by Friday.

On Thursday, two different French teams called. Stotts wasn’t expecting them, but after he and his wife had each finished graduate school, he figured the money in France would provide stability until he could come back stateside and put his MBA to work. “Honestly,” said Stotts this month, days after being named NBA Western Conference coach of the month for November, “if I had gotten that call a week later, I would have said no.”

So he went back to France, where one season turned into a second before it was time once again to contemplate retirement. He made two calls this time: one to a paper company in Boston where a friend worked, and one to George Karl, who coached Stotts during his CBA days in Great Falls, Mont., and with whom he’d stayed close. Karl was in Madrid, but like Stotts, had no clear destination for the following season. Says Stotts: “I called George and I said ‘I’m going to retire, I’d really like to be your assistant next year … wherever it is.’ And he said OK.”

It was the second time that basketball narrowly edged out the business world, and although he would never lack for hoops employment again, Stotts’ coaching career has been every bit as itinerant as his playing days. Now in his third NBA head-coaching job, Stotts, 56, has worked for nine teams in the past 23 years, including two in the CBA with Karl. That a twice-fired journeyman head coach would come to lead the Trail Blazers, fresh off a 33-win season, to a tie for the league’s best record may be -- is -- a surprise, but Stotts has a way of making even the exceptional seem mundane.

He speaks in lists, modifying his clauses one after the other, his tone the same following a 13th straight loss as it is after an 11th straight win, both of which the Blazers have experienced in Stotts’ year-plus in Portland. He is one of the league’s lowest-variance personalities, coaching one of its highest-variance teams.

On the court Stotts’ influences are clear. He is quick to credit Karl not only with providing him a toehold on the NBA coaching ladder, but with helping him establish a fluid approach to offensive basketball. “Particularly on offense,” says Stotts, “giving players freedom to play, that’s one of the things he’s given me.”

Stotts speaks of Rick Carlisle, with whom he won a title as an assistant in Dallas, in similar terms. Both coaches, it’s clear, have influenced his coaching philosophy, but perhaps the biggest influence on his approach is his time spent working his way from basketball’s periphery to the bench of the NBA’s winningest team.

The word that I always come back to is pragmatism. When I recently met him at the Blazers’ practice facility to ask about his background, he’d already typed out the chronology of his coaching and playing stops -- it’d be easier to refer to the sheet than for me to try to piece it together in transcription. But when applied to his coaching philosophy, that pragmatism reveals itself, on a deeper level, to be an almost jarring lack of ego. When I asked him whether he has, over the course of his career, developed a definitive Stotts style of hoop, his response was telling:

“In college, you know, it’s more of a coaches’ game. You recruit to a system, and players come and go. You know an Izzo team, you know a Krzyzewski team, you know a Bob Knight team. I think it’s very difficult to have that in the NBA. You’ve had it with [Gregg] Popovich, you’ve had it with [Pat] Riley, you’ve had it with [Jerry] Sloan … but I think those are the exceptions. If a coach can put his imprint on the team, that says to me that you’re coaching the team in the way that fits them. … When players get to this level, I think you can tweak their game, but you’re not going to overhaul their game. They got to the league for a reason, they have a certain skill set. They have, already, a talent level and strengths you need to accentuate, and they can build on that.”
[+] Enlarge LaMarcus Aldridge; Terry Stotts
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty ImagesStotts has become an early coach of the year candidate by taking Portland to the top of the West.

As is probably true of most winning teams, the word “chemistry” floats around the Blazers’ locker room this season -- LaMarcus Aldridge cites chemistry as the reason he’s happier than he’s ever been, visiting writers are struck by the apparent chemistry. Chemistry is the cliché process by which the clichéd whole becomes more than the sum of its clichéd parts. And yet, Stotts’ approach to his players’ strengths is to produce conditions designed to extract those strengths. If other coaches hammer their players into useful objects or redirect their forces toward more productive ends, then Stotts’ approach seems closest to mixing players whose reaction is the product.

Late in our conversation, I asked Stotts what he liked to do to decompress, whether he had any hobbies. “One of my problems,” he said, “is I don’t have a lot of hobbies. My wife is dying for me to have some. She’s worried when I retire I’ll have no hobbies.” It’s not for lack of enjoyment, he said, but that he’d prefer not to commit himself to something he couldn’t excel at.

“A lot of people really dive into something, really get consumed with it, and I don’t know if I necessarily want to do that," he added. "It’s a lot of time and commitment to really get good at something. Like playing golf -- I could go out and work my ass off to be a good golfer, and what’s the difference between shooting an 82 and an 85?

“It’s not worth my time to just dive into something and be consumed with it when basically I’ll be better than most people, but I’m not going to be great. Because I know how much time I had to invest to become a good basketball player. I wasn’t great, but I was a good basketball player. And I know how much time it took to get to that level.”

What it took, in addition to his high school and college years, was 11 professional seasons in four different countries, with stretches of uncertainty and unemployment. Stotts has been coaching now, in some capacity, for 23 years, which is how long it’s taken him to lead an NBA team that could conceivably be called a contender. He knows how long it takes to get good, and now that he’s closer to great than he’s ever been, he knows better than most how rare that really is.

On a hot streak and Blazer-focused

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
9:11
AM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
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Trail BlazersKyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsPortland has an NBA-high 13 wins, and, more importantly, has figured out a game plan to win more.
It’s been three weeks since the Trail Blazers lost a game. That’s not much time, but it’s enough to obscure the many questions that Portland seemed to carry into the early season. New players, middling attendance, a defense that seemed like a work in progress -- even as the Blazers squeezed out wins against a few overmatched bottom-feeders, their unknown variables seemed about equal to their known quantities. This was a season, it seemed, when the Blazers would test the timber of their core before deciding whether they had a collection of assets or a functioning and coherent team.

General manager Neil Olshey said as much before opening night to ESPN.com: “Upon conclusion of the 2014 season, we will know whether or not we have reached the fork in the road,” Olshey said. This season was to be an evaluative foray, a fact-finding mission, an effort to determine whether the Blazers were in transition or had staked themselves to a present tense. Three weeks has been enough time to answer that question. These Blazers are no starter kit for tomorrow’s franchise: They are a competitor unto themselves.

The shape of that competitor is a testament to the flexibility that seems to infuse the organization from Olshey down. The Blazers have a roster full of jump-shooters; they are second in the league in field goal attempts beyond 15 feet. Their frontcourt features willing but somewhat slow-footed defenders; coach Terry Stotts restructured pick-and-roll defense to allow the bigs to drop into the paint against penetration. They are bombing away without reserve, sticking to their principles on defense and showcasing the potency of a team that refuses to get hung up on potential limitations.

[+] EnlargeBlazers-Warriors
AP Photo/Ben MargotThe Trail Blazers have successfully stood their ground against top-tier teams like the Warriors.
In fact, let me cut to the chase here and say that what is most striking about the Blazers’ current success is the way it reflects the team’s embrace of its own character. The differences between this team and the team that last season won 33 games are differences of degree, not kind. Those Blazers also bombed away in a free-flowing offense. Those Blazers, too, were marked by a kind of quiet, self-possessed locker room character. The veterans added this past offseason -- Robin Lopez, Dorell Wright, Earl Watson, Mo Williams -- were brought in less to reimagine the team than to fill in the gaps and serve as an extension of how Nic Batum, Wes Matthews, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge were already playing. With that kind of support, the core of the team is able to embrace its own style, play without anxiety and carry itself without defensiveness.

I’ve spent a lot of time this season trying to draw admissions of epiphany from various Blazers, to get some quote describing a collective realization that this team is taking a step forward for the franchise. That’s a bit of a sucker’s bet in any locker room, and doubly so among this group. The players offer brief acknowledgements of the team’s maturity, of the infusion of veteran habits into a locker room dominated by youth and inexperience. These acknowledgements hover somewhere between standard lip service and conference-room-poster copy. Implicit in the Blazers’ unwillingness to explain themselves is a plea to let their play talk for them, but still they occasionally slip up and reveal themselves in front of a microphone.

On Saturday, the Blazers traveled to Golden State and salvaged a win out of what was shaping up to be a listless performance. Trailing by 14, Portland was ignited when an altercation between Andrew Bogut and Joel Freeland turned into a full-team scrum, resulting in the ejection of Matthews, several fines and the suspension of Williams. The Blazers stormed back after the shoving match behind a 15-point, nine-rebound fourth quarter from Aldridge. After the game, the power forward offered the following: “This team has a different feeling” than previous teams. “I wouldn’t say easier, but we just blend better.”

I hold it as a rule that any time a person prefaces a statement with “I wouldn’t say,” he would indeed say. And “easier” is a telling word for a player who has spent so much of his time in Portland under scrutiny. Last season, Aldridge fended off constant inquiries about whether he takes too many jump shots. Over the summer, rumors about his desire to stay with the Blazers swirled until Olshey put them to bed with no small amount of exasperation. Being scrutinized in a small, demanding market has not always been easy for Aldridge, and he wouldn’t say that it’s easier this season, except that it plainly is.

And so he’s free to play his game, doing his damage from midrange and mixing in bullish post-ups. He’s leading the league in attempts from 15-19 feet while making a mockery of any doubts about his toughness with 35 rebounds in his past two games. With license to blend strength and finesse in whatever proportion he sees fit, Aldridge played himself into Western Conference Player of the Week honors this past week. And when you dig into the statistics, it appears that each of Portland’s key contributors has been similarly liberated.

Batum has been allowed to fully indulge his preference to make plays for teammates, and he’s averaging more assists (five) than any forward not named Kevin Durant or LeBron James. Matthews likes to get his shots within the flow of a game rather than from stricter play calls -- he’s seventh on the team in usage rate, but second among guards leaguewide in effective field goal percentage. Lillard trails only Stephen Curry in attempts from 3. At every position, there is statistical evidence that the Blazers have been empowered to play to their strengths. If they want their play to speak for them, the message is clear: They know who they are, and they won’t be pressured out of playing their game.

The only question is whether that comfort bred success or vice versa -- after all, it’s easy to be vindicated in your habits when the result is 11 straight wins. But that tautology works both ways, and the Blazers now know that sticking to their game as individuals can translate into sustained team success, which is powerful knowledge, indeed. There will be regression, and injuries and other obstacles that will test the Blazers in ways they haven’t yet been tested, but three weeks of winning has confirmed that being themselves is a winning recipe. That’s a valuable lesson to learn this early and one that will matter a great deal more than hot shooting come playoffs.

Finding an identity under the flannel

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
11:49
AM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Damian LillardAP PhotosPortland or Portlandia? The Trail Blazers are looking to forge an identity amidst the city's new image.
The Rose Garden is no longer. This summer, Portland’s arena -- one of the few left without a corporate sponsorship -- was folded into the flock. The Portland Trail Blazers now play in the Moda Center. Elsewhere, the Blazers’ business team, just in its second year under president and CEO Chris McGowan, made subtler changes that seem to follow a pattern.

On the concourse at the Moda Center, Blazers fans can now choose from one of several locally owned food options -- Sizzle Pie pizza, Fire on the Mountain wings and Killer Burger have all been installed to lend the arena a more native flavor. The pregame safety video shown on the JumboTron now features the stars of “Portlandia,” Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, in costume and character, riffing on arena etiquette and protocol.

It’s clear that the Blazers’ brain trust is moving toward capturing the essence of Portland at a moment when that essence is more easily commodified than ever. The town has developed a certain set of associations in the popular imagination: the left coast Brooklyn; the moustache wax capital of the union; a place where an honest-to-God professional cuddler can pay her rent; “where young people go to retire;” haven of food carts and flannel. As the conception of Portland approaches self-parody, it also approaches profitability, and it would seem that the Blazers would like in on the take.
[+] EnlargeModa Center
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesThe Rose Garden is no more. Welcome, Moda Center.

But if the present Blazers organization is going to forge a real bond with their Portland, the heavy lifting is going to be done on the court. What that might look like is still an open question.

Like McGowan, Blazers coach Terry Stotts and general manager Neil Olshey are entering the second year of their tenure; unlike McGowan, who has pursued splashy moves geared toward the bottom line, Olshey and Stotts have ushered in a reign of pragmatism. This offseason, as some fans called (somewhat unrealistically) for the addition of a high-priced center like Tiago Splitter or Nikola Pekovic, Olshey decided instead to flesh out the rotation, signing Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Robin Lopez to transform the league’s shallowest team into one with respectable depth. Hardly high-wattage moves, but moves that have allowed Portland to get off to a 6-2 start.

Likewise, Stotts has brought an even-keel and tempered approach to a franchise whose past decade has been most linked with injury, organizational tumult, flashes of brilliance and heartbreak. While the Blazers play a free-flowing, shot-happy style, Stotts is unwavering in a sort of laid-back caginess, while locker-room leaders Wesley Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge favor a relatively tight-lipped professionalism. Whether wary of placing too many expectations on the team or weary of the scrutiny a small market can bring, Portland’s leadership tends to keep things close to the vest. When you add it all up, what you find is a team in the second year of a new era with relatively few defining characteristics.

Even with their cultivated reserve, last season’s Blazers managed to build a sort of insurgents’ image. Their season began on Halloween, with an upset of the Los Angeles Lakers that foretold the signs of catastrophe in Tinseltown. Damian Lillard exploded onto the scene with 23 points and 11 assists. Throughout the season, the Blazers managed to work their way back into white-knuckle fourth quarters, and carried a winning record into 2012-13’s second half, an event most optimists wouldn’t have predicted. They carried their cool into wild comebacks like seasoned heist men, quick triggers from behind the arc paired with deadpan affect.

But insurgencies must eventually become establishments, and so come to need an ideology. Expectations are relatively high for this team, which should contend for a playoff berth in a loaded Western Conference, and the element of surprise won’t sustain them.

All of which raises the issue: The Blazers announced a sellout on opening night, but if that’s the case then hundreds of fans decided to stay home and leave their complimentary T-shirts draped over empty seats. No game since has been announced as a sellout. Right now the Blazers rank ninth in the league for average home attendance, and a paltry 19th in percentage of home capacity filled. This is not in keeping with Portland fans’ idea of themselves, or with their reputation.

Across town, the Timbers, Portland’s MLS team, are battling through their first postseason. They played away at Seattle during the Blazers’ home opener, and a common joke in the arena was that the empty seats belonged to soccer fans. A local alt weekly recently made waves with a half-serious question: Which Portland franchise now owns the soul of the city?

Nobody needs to choose one team to root for, and nobody need panic over having the NBA’s ninth-best attendance; superlatives aside, Blazers fans provide a crowd most of the league would trade for. But it still seems that the Blazers’ hold on Portland’s psyche is slipping. If anecdotal and unscientific claims sway you, try this: When I went to Spirit of 77 -- a bar close to the Moda Center named for the Blazers’ lone championship season -- to watch the season opener, the Red Sox were on the projector screen until into the third quarter.

This is no indictment of the Blazers’ roster, or of the front office’s approach; from the wreckage of cartilage that defined the last era of Blazers, a competitive and stable team has arisen. But they now find themselves at the point in the organizational cycle when they can build their identity or have one assigned to them.
[+] EnlargeKeep Portland Weird
George Rose/Getty ImagesAs the city works on staying hip, the Trail Blazers are looking to find an on-court product that finally fits.

The players and staff, of course, aren’t worrying. Asked whether the team seeks to play to a particular identity or style, Stotts was himself. As a rule, the head coach avoids any statement that might place excess pressure on his players, and he spoke about the need to let team identity evolve organically. Rather than push a certain brand of play, he prefers to respond to the team as it takes shape.

Nic Batum and Robin Lopez gave somewhat more standard variations on the theme: We want to stress defense, we want to work hard, we want to let the offense come to us. Lillard, whose calm often seems to rest atop a reservoir of attitude, was the only player who offered something like a statement of stylistic purpose: “We don’t want to be fun to play against ... we want them to be mad that we’re being physical, we want them to be mad that we made a shot we weren’t supposed to make.”

In a way, these answers are fitting. While Aldridge is perhaps Portland’s steadiest and most valuable contributor, he is a low-key presence, a veteran and a professional but not the supplier of marquee-ready quotes. If, as Blazers fans suspect, this is truly Lillard’s team, perhaps his quiet intensity will come to define the team. Perhaps Stotts’ more patient voice comes to form the team’s backbone. The Blazers have poured an enviable foundation, a core of talent both on the bench and on the court that seems set up for long-term success. But in a city whose attention is increasingly divided, and in an arena that seems a touch cynical in its efforts to capitalize on Portland signifiers, the Blazers will spend this season trying to prove they can forge an identity more lasting and authentic than any simple caricature.

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