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Friday, May 16, 2014
Learning from the masters

By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com

Portland Trail Blazers
Rip 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.

LaMarcus Aldridge
The 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.