Finding an identity under the flannel

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
11:49
AM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
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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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