TrueHoop: LaMarcus Aldridge

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.

Blazers, Rockets take similar paths to Rd. 1

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
12:29
PM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
Archive

The Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets tip off Sunday in a first-round matchup that will seem, in many ways, like warp-speed shadow boxing.

This series is perhaps the most stylistically even of any in the opening round -- both teams are in the league’s top five in 3-point attempts, and both are in the top 10 in pace. Both are defined by inside-out, All-Star combinations, and both are led by staid coaches who believe in letting it fly when the opportunity presents itself. Both teams are in the middle third of the league in defensive rating, so fans of high-scoring marksmanship competitions will likely find this matchup irresistible.

For all the broad-stroke similarities between the two teams, however, the truly compelling aspects will be found in the details. For instance, Portland’s offensive style is committed to flow and ball movement; the ball tends to move radially around LaMarcus Aldridge post-ups in Portland, swinging around until it produces a seam to attack inward.

Houston, conversely, relies very much on James Harden’s ability to produce from the outside in, beating the game into submission with drive after drive to the rim and the free throw lane. In fact, with the league increasingly favoring shots at the rim and behind the arc as cornerstones of healthy offense, Portland and Houston represent two contrasting approaches to realizing the ideal.

On the one hand, Portland has an almost principled commitment to an open, aesthetically pleasing style of basketball, and coach Terry Stotts takes pride in a fan-friendly product. Houston, on the other hand, combines random bursts of transition frenzy with a stubborn, almost cynical dedication to producing free throws with Harden drives and Dwight Howard post-ups.

If you wanted to read that ideological divide into the teams’ organizational characters, you’d find plenty to support it. In Houston’s corner is GM Daryl Morey, high-volume trader king of the league, and his counterpart is former actor and workout guy Neil Olshey.

Olshey inherited much of Portland’s core, and what he didn’t inherit he has built with holistic finesse. Aldridge was the lone All-Star when Olshey took over the team -- adding a scoring point guard in Damian Lillard and a yeoman rim protector in Robin Lopez.

Morey inherited … well, who can remember? The Morey model views players as assets, and an accumulation of assets must always be gathering interest. After a few years of stockpiling, he liquidated and found himself holding the gems -- Harden and Howard.

When these teams played this season, it played out more or less how a bookie might call it. Houston held a 3-1 advantage in games and a combined margin of plus-26 points. Where the Blazers have All-Stars, the Rockets have superstars, and Houston has proven slightly more tenacious on defense than Portland.

Among rotation players, Portland has just two real defensive specialists, and, while Lopez and Wesley Matthews are smart, rugged, and dutiful, their Houston counterparts, Howard and Patrick Beverley, are simply more disruptive.

Crucially, Lillard is shooting just 25 percent against Beverley, and his ability to improve upon that mark might well decide the series. The Blazers rely on two pressure valves: Aldridge’s abilities from midrange on the left block and Lillard’s ability to cash in from any range when left unattended.

When Beverley is on the floor, Lillard is hardly ever unattended, and, what’s more, the Houston provocateur has done what few defenders have in seeming to get under Lillard’s skin enough to draw comment. After a particularly physical exchange earlier this season, Lillard somewhat famously told reporters "I’m just not going to let somebody be in my chest doing all that extra stuff." From Portland’s measured young All-Star, that rates as near-vitriol.

On the other side of the ball, the Blazers have had difficulty slowing Harden but might be more concerned with Howard bludgeoning their thin front line. Beyond Lopez, the Blazers lack a real post deterrent, and foul trouble will bring Joel Freeland, recently recovered from a sprained MCL, more in focus than Portland would like. Though the Blazers have consistently proven unable to contain Harden, they’ll need to be just as careful, over two weeks of attrition, not to allow Howard to control the series.

There are other players. Portland’s Nicolas Batum has oscillated between being the West’s most versatile offensive player and a nearly unfelt one; Houston’s Chandler Parsons provides a similar flexibility to the Houston lineups. It appears that everywhere you look this series, a strength is met with a nearly equal one.

Certainly, it appears the Rockets have a wider margin of error, but this series seems destined to provide viewers with the best that postseason basketball has to offer: adjustments, readjustments and two teams who figure to play larger roles over the next few springs.

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.

How the draft lottery weakens the East

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
1:00
PM ET
Harris By Curtis Harris
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
The current state of the Eastern Conference has been widely panned and rightfully so. As of Friday morning, only three East teams sit above .500, and the conference currently holds an overall win percentage of .442, which puts it on track for 36 wins per team. That’s a historically horrific track to be going down. Just once before has a conference had a lower win percentage -- and that was way back in 1960 when the West won 40 percent of its games.

This year may be the worst-case scenario for the East, but it’s continuing a steady trend. For 15 years dating back to the 1999-00 season, the Western Conference has won an average of 52.5 percent of its games overwhelming the East’s 47.5 percent. But since 2009, the West has held a higher win percentage than the East in every individual season.

There are many reasons for this. One of them that has not been discussed much is that the NBA draft system often unintentionally (but systematically) awards decent West teams slightly better draft picks than similar teams in the East. It's a system designed to help the weak get stronger, but it's rewarding the stronger conference almost every season.

It works like this. The lottery format, of course, semi-randomly assigns the top overall picks -- only twice since the 1999-2000 season has the worst team in the NBA won the top pick. But what matters is who gets into the lottery: specifically, teams that miss the playoffs. In the West, those are typically good teams. In the East, that's not so. So the top draft spots are going to a pool of teams that includes some strong West teams and weaker East ones.

Since 2000, 13 Western Conference teams have been in the lottery despite having one of the 16 best records in the NBA. On the flip side, this means that 13 Eastern Conference teams that did not possess one of the 16 best records in the NBA made the playoffs.

This odd situation is a quirk of the playoff structure, which takes the eight best teams per conference not the 16 best teams from the whole league. And it’s also a byproduct of the draft which then promises the top 14 picks to the non-playoff teams, not the 14 worst teams in the NBA, recordwise.

The average victories for the should-have-been playoff teams from the West is 43.3 wins. The average for those should-have-been lottery East teams is 39.6 wins. The situation reached its nadir in 2008 when the Golden State Warriors won 48 games, which was the 12th best record in the NBA. Still, they missed the Western Conference playoffs. Meanwhile the 37-win Atlanta Hawks got themselves a spot in the Eastern Conference postseason with the 19th best record in the league.

Other notable misfortunes include:
  • The 43-win Utah Jazz missed the playoffs, but made the lottery, while the 38-win Milwaukee Bucks saw the postseason in 2013.
  • In 2011, the Pacers won just 37 games and made the playoffs, while the Rockets won 43 and got a lottery pick.
  • In 2009, the 46-win Phoenix Suns didn't make the playoffs, but the 39-win Detroit Pistons did.
  • 2005 saw the Timberwolves win 44 and make the lottery, while the Nets won 42 and didn't.
  • In 2004, the 39-win Knicks and 36-win Celtics made the playoffs in the weak East, while the 42-win Jazz and 41-win Trail Blazers drew pingpong balls.
  • In 2001, the 45-win Rockets and 44-win SuperSonics earned spots in the lottery, but the 43-win Orlando Magic and the 41-win Indiana Pacers did not.

Those 42-, 44-, even 48-win Western Conference teams are getting an (admittedly slim) chance at the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. More importantly, though, they are absolutely getting a leg up on a better opportunity to collect talent compared to those Eastern teams which are losing three, five, or even 11 more games.

This discrepancy helps to reinforce the power of the Western Conference, while limiting the ability of the Eastern Conference to correct the imbalance.

The 13 West teams that missed the playoffs but got into the lottery received an average draft selection of 12.5 when in a league-wide draw would have been slotted in at around 16.5. That’s an appreciable four pick difference. Meanwhile, those crummy East teams got an average draft slot of 15 when they should have been picking at No. 13.

Obviously, the uppermost part of the draft is where the franchise-changing players are added. LeBron James, Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwyane Wade ... they were all taken in the top five picks. However that mid-range in the draft is important for complementing those stars with good role players.

Luckily for the East, the Western Conference has largely bungled its draft choices in this range. The 2008 Warriors with their 14th pick, instead of the 19th that they deserved, took Anthony Randolph ahead of useful players like Robin Lopez and Roy Hibbert.

You can lead a horse to water, but sometimes it’s going to drown in the pool, I suppose.

This quirky situation isn’t the end of the world, and it’s certainly not the cause of the disparity between the East and the West. I don’t think we’ll ever really know why the West is demonstrably better than the East for 15 years running now.

But the point here is that the current, peculiar format of the draft and the playoffs isn’t doing a lot to correct the imbalance and the solution is fairly simple.

This is yet another argument for a HoopIdea that many others have made before: It's time to reconsider the process of allocating talent to teams. At a minimum, it would make sense that the 14-worst teams receive the top 14 picks. The West is already formidable enough.

Killer Lineup: Portland's offensive machine

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
10:45
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive





Portland Trail BlazersLineup: Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez
Minutes Played: 556
Offensive Rating: 115.5 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 101.8 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively

Order and improvisation are two great competing principles in an NBA offense. On one end of the continuum, we have strict offenses in which every half-court possession comes with a road map; on the opposite end live the improv troops who believe that pace wins possessions.

Teams have won at either extreme of the spectrum, but a clear majority of successful offenses in the past 10 to 15 years reside somewhere in the middle. For these hybrids, clear-cut principles govern strategy and specific actions are called for, but, once a possession is set into motion, it’s guided by the instinct of players, not preordained sets.

The Portland Trail Blazers’ top-ranked offense has achieved that balance beautifully, specifically the starting unit, which is five points better per 100 possessions than the team’s league-leading mark. Portland’s half-court game is fundamentally read-and-react.

Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge embody the midpoint between script and ad-libbing. Both are temperamentally half-court players. Lillard is more powerful than explosive, and much of his game is predicated upon working off the jumper. He gets a fair number of those shots off drag screens or pull-ups on the secondary break, but Lillard is happiest working in the pick-and-roll and coming off flare screens.

Aldridge is mobile, but doesn't run the open court like Blake Griffin or Anthony Davis. Aldridge is an exceptional left block-right elbow player who likes a half court with an orderly flow. By no means does he need the game to screech to a halt, and he can bury a quick-hitter off an advance pass. But he’s a man who works in a corner office, so spare him the cute open floor plan with the foosball tables.

A player such as Aldridge doesn't want to be predictable, but there’s something to be said for the four other guys knowing precisely where, when and how their power forward likes the ball. Until someone can stop Aldridge when he dribbles middle into his right-handed hook, or spins baseline for a turnaround, repetition has its virtue.
[+] EnlargeLaMarcus Aldridge
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsLaMarcus Aldridge has looked better than ever thanks to a little movement on the offensive end.

This season, Lillard is finding more shot attempts off second actions. When the Trail Blazers acquired Eric Maynor in February, they got a chance to see what Lillard could look like off the ball in a half-court offense. Maynor didn't perform well individually, but the Blazers decimated defenses when he and Lillard coinhabited the backcourt, often with Lillard as the effective shooting guard.

Aldridge is getting a greater rate of his touches -- and a better quality of touch -- this season down on the left block. And the Blazers aren't content to feed Aldridge five feet off the lane in a stationary half court. Instead, they’ll put the defense into motion and run some misdirection before they deliver him the ball.

For example, while Nicolas Batum sweeps up from the weakside corner to collect a handoff from Robin Lopez, Aldridge will use a cross-screen from Wes Matthews to stake out his territory deep on the left block. In three seconds, the Blazers have completely flipped the court as Batum and Aldridge have morphed from weakside observers to strongside actors. Defenses much prefer to guard an offense that stands still to one that transforms like Portland’s.

Sounds like a pretty formal half-court offense, right? Kinda, sorta. The actions are tight and familiar, thanks to Batum’s vision, Matthews’ improved reliability as a passer, Lopez’s selflessness and the willingness of the two scorers to trust that the ball will find them. But the vast majority of what the Blazers get is the product of smart reads.

Every team aspires to play read-oriented basketball, but to rely on playmaking instinct, a team has to have personnel who can make plays. Batum can orchestrate an offense as well as any forward in the league not named James, and he’s also the place Portland goes when it wants to run an advanced action, or get into its corner split with Lillard and Aldridge. And if Lillard and Aldridge are covered late in the shot clock, Batum can almost always create some kind of opportunity.

All of these pieces fit, and here’s one of the Blazers’ favorite actions that demonstrates how: It begins with the ball in Batum’s hands on the wing. He feeds Lopez at the opposite elbow, then dives to the rim, rubbing his man off Aldridge at the near elbow. Lopez isn't a pure playmaking big man, but he’s a capable passer who can hit a moving target if he knows the option is going to materialize. If the play to Batum isn't there, Lillard promptly curls up past a stagger screen from Aldridge to pick up the handoff from Lopez. Lillard can stop on a dime and shoot, drive if he sees daylight, or hit Aldridge on a dive.

And watch out for Matthews in the corner on this and other actions. He’s third in the league on successful corner 3s this season and is hitting them at a 47.6 percent clip. Matthews has also become a wily, backdoor threat from that spot. With the Trail Blazers moving side to side so fluidly, help decisions become infinitely more difficult because, if you’re a defender, it’s hard to know if you’re leaving the weakside corner when the weak side keeps shifting.

Matthews can’t dominate every defender, but he has gotten pretty adept at sniffing out where he might have an edge. He loves to post smaller defenders, and, against a defender who’s a pick magnet, Matthews will move to an open spot on the weak side. That’s the nice thing about Matthews -- he’s always been aware that caginess would have to be a strong attribute because there probably wasn't enough raw talent most nights.

The Blazers’ starters have all kinds of counters in the half court -- wide pin-downs on the weak side, flare screens all over the board, dribble handoffs to Batum if the ball gets stuck at the top of the floor. This is not a stubborn, strongside offense unless Aldridge is eating his matchup alive, and, when that’s the case, who cares about a little stagnation over a four-minute stretch?

The starters in Portland have constructed an offense against which it’s impossible to load up. It’s a testament to careful roster construction and to a mindfulness that, to be maximized, diverse skill sets need to complement one another on the basketball court.


How it works defensively

When Lopez was acquired this summer from New Orleans, the Trail Blazers were out to address a couple of very targeted needs. For one, Aldridge's on-court quality of life was suffering playing next to a power forward disguised as a center in J.J. Hickson. With some rare exceptions (see: Bosh, Chris) a grade-A power forward isn't generally expected to casually slide over to the 5 spot, and the management wanted to make a demonstration it appreciated that.

But beyond the roster dynamics, the starting unit was pretty dreadful last season defensively, giving up 105.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark that will lose an NBA team a lot of basketball games. With an undersized center and a rookie point guard, the starting lineup began each game at a disadvantage.

Because Hickson’s best attribute is his speed, not his size, the Blazers were a “show team” that jumped out high on pick-and-roll actions. They had started the season determined to take away the 3-pointer and had performed reasonably well in that regard but had unfurled the red carpet in the lane for opponents.

Showing high made already challenging rotations even more difficult, as Aldridge and Hickson frequently found themselves behind the play, racing from the perimeter to the paint in search of their assignment. Matthews can run over a pick, but he’s not particularly quick or long. Meanwhile, Lillard was navigating the learning curve between checking Big Sky point guards and All-NBA talents.

Swapping Lopez for Hickson has allowed the Blazers’ starters to move from performing triage on every defensive possession to developing more honest defensive schemes. They've been able to follow the league’s prevailing trend toward dropping their big men into the paint against most pick-and-rolls. They’re not as radically conservative as a San Antonio, but Lopez and Aldridge rarely venture too far out.
[+] EnlargeRobin Lopez
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillPortland is more structured on D with Robin Lopez on the back line.

With the big guys committed to an attacking ball handler, Lillard and Matthews look to fight over every high pick, even against non-shooters such as Ricky Rubio. Lillard’s improvement on the defensive end is measurable. He clearly has a better grasp of how to distribute his attention between the oncoming pick and the ball. This might be the toughest task for first- and second-year NBA guards. Even if they have strength, length and speed (Lillard has a good amount of all three), they’re rarely certain when and to what extent to reach for each tool.

Batum is the best overall defender in the unit, and there are contingencies available when he’s on the strong side of the play. The Trail Blazers will switch most 1-3 and 2-3 pick-and-rolls with Batum picking up the ball handler off the action. When it comes to issuing defensive assignments on the perimeter in critical situations, Terry Stotts will often turn to Batum against a powerhouse point guard. Truth be told, Batum is a decent, but occasionally unfocused, defender off the ball, so having him on a ball-dominant point or wing is usually the best use of his strength.

The Trail Blazers ask a lot of Lopez in the interior, with mixed results. They place him on an island against even the most prolific offensive centers. There’s virtually no help coming low because, after watching a season of constant scrambling, Stotts and the staff decided structural integrity was the best course to pursue defensively -- take away the 3-point shot and deter point guards from the paint. No double-teams and no weakside fire alarms. If that means Lopez gets worked down on the block a couple of nights a week, so be it.

The cool thing about Lopez from the Blazers’ perspective is that he’s a trouper. Many bigs bristle at being forced to go at it alone, but Lopez bought in from the outset. The effect has been compounded because the perimeter defenders know they can be singularly focused on their man. This also allows Aldridge to exercise his best judgment; if he feels he has to show against a slick-shooting big man, he knows nobody will be hung out to dry if the ball moves inside because Lopez is there, rather than a 6-foot-9 forward.

This is far from an elite NBA defense -- 44.8 percent of their opponents’ shots originate in the basket area, and, although that’s considerably better than the brutal 48 percent mark for the starters in 2012-13, it’s certainly not airtight. There are nights when guards destroy this unit off the bounce, and teams with two backcourt playmakers give it particular trouble. There’s a fair amount of rearview mirror defense with contests from behind. Because the Blazers don’t place a priority on the gaps this season, this unit doesn't force turnovers. Batum has traditionally held his own as an isolation defender, but there isn't anyone else in the unit who excels in that capacity.

Yet, this five-man grouping is four points better than its predecessor per 100 possessions at a respectable 101.8. That’s far better than the team’s overall number and would be good for ninth overall in the league. The aforementioned opponents’ rim numbers speak to that general improvement. All the while, they've locked down the arc, giving up fewer 3-point attempts than last season and at a stingy 31 percent success rate. Whereas last season’s starting lineup allowed the opposing offense to recover 28.5 percent of its misses, that has dropped to less than a quarter this season.

Where you come down on the Trail Blazers’ chances to contend corresponds directly with how confident you are that a four-point improvement can become six.

LaMarcus Aldridge's big leap forward

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
12:43
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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video

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
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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.

Setting expectations for the Trail Blazers

October, 18, 2013
10/18/13
9:39
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Portland Trail Blazers
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images
After a grieving period over injuries to Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, the storm has settled in Portland.

Less than four years ago, the Portland Trail Blazers were thought to have as bright a future as any team in the league. Chad Ford and John Hollinger ranked them first overall in the 2009 NBA Future Power Rankings, commenting:

On paper, no other team possesses as bright a future as the Portland Trail Blazers. It all starts with the players. Nobody, not even Oklahoma City, can match the stable of young talent the Blazers have built. Brandon Roy is already a superstar, and joining him are potential stars like LaMarcus Aldridge (24), Greg Oden (21, even if he looks more like 51), Nicolas Batum (20) and Martell Webster (22).


The Trail Blazers were about to settle into a period of peace, prosperity and stability, but we all know what happened next.

Aldridge and Batum emerged from the rubble as the sole survivors among core players, coaching staff and management. The result has been an interesting exercise in rebuilding at a moment nobody ever dreamed the Blazers would have to rebuild. Catastrophes are devastating, but the only thing to do is start again, even if the final product isn’t ultimately as nice as what was destroyed.

"We can't live in the shadow of what might have been,” Portland general manager Neil Olshey says, “We'll never know."

Soon after signing on as general manager in the summer of 2012, Olshey drafted Damian Lillard and matched an offer sheet on Batum. Along with Aldridge, the Blazers now have a coveted point-wing-big core. That’s most of what they had last season, but without a bench, they played .500 ball for the meat of the season. They have a sturdy foundation if Lillard becomes the top-10 point guard he appears to be, and if Batum (only 24) achieves his potential as the full package of playmaker-shooter-defender.

We’re starting to get a glimpse of what the building is going to look like. Lost amid Olshey's candid, Oh-Dear-God media-day address on the persistence of the Aldridge nonstory was a pithy description of the organizational blueprint:

We’ve supported [Aldridge] with veterans. We've continued to do what we need to do in terms of bringing young talent in here. We've kept our long-term flexibility. We have the ability to aggregate our assets and put those into play if it gets to that point -- where we can put another star around him and [Lillard] and some of the other guys.


This is the design going forward in Portland: Develop the Aldridge-Lillard-Batum trio while accumulating assets and maintaining flexibility that can ultimately yield one more key piece.

“Upon conclusion of the 2014 season, we will know whether or not we have reached the fork in the road,” Olshey says. “Either we are on the right course with our current roster by having drafted well, signed good contracts, acquired Bird [rights] players, and this group will stay together and we’ll make a strong move forward. Or we’re going to aggressively look to aggregate some of our assets to consolidate them into one player to join those players we believe represent the core of the franchise.”

Either (a) the Trail Blazers crack the code, or (b) the roster beyond the core remains a little iffy, which means resources will be pooled and big game will be hunted. With that strategy in mind, how important is it that Portland wins in 2013-14? Last season, expectations were modest and priorities were more specific -- the primary one to develop Lillard's skills and confidence. The fact that the Blazers were able to accomplish that task is a far greater takeaway than the 33-49 record. The team played .500 ball until Feb. 10 and there was a general optimism in the Rose Garden.

This season, defining expectations for the Blazers is more complicated than merely improving on 33 wins. Odds are they will, but determining what level of success constitutes a good season is difficult. The roster is better than it was last season now that the team has acquired Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson to add depth where there was none, though seventh in the West is ambitious, even with the upgrades. Still, Olshey’s position is that W's are an imperative.

“All of our offseason moves were made with the intention of competing immediately while not jeopardizing our long-term flexibility,” Olshey says. “We are still focused and committed to developing our young talent, but it will not be at the expense of winning.”

There are important intangible factors at work, as well. Aldridge has stated he’s content in Portland, but it’s fair to believe the team’s success will be an important factor in his overall happiness moving forward -- and winning breeds satisfaction. And besides Salt Lake City, there isn’t a market more vested in the fortunes of its NBA team than Portland, so trajectory matters. The nice thing about 33-49 is the modest baseline it offers, and though a 41-41 record wouldn’t win the Blazers anything -- maybe not even a postseason berth -- plus-eight wins isn’t chopped liver. It’s the savory roasted game hen at Pok Pok.

The recipe on the floor should result in a better product. The Blazers ranked 26th in defensive efficiency last season, which means there’s virtually nowhere to go but up. There was only so much that a defense with a 6-foot-9 center could do, but this season Portland will feature Lopez in place of J.J. Hickson. With Lopez, Aldridge and Batum, there’s now some serious length on the floor, and a lot more for coach Terry Stotts and his staff to work with.

“We’re going to change our principles,” Stotts says. “We’ll have a style of play defensively that our team lends itself to -- changing our pick-and-roll schemes, not getting out and extending our bigs very much. The principle being we need to do a better job of protecting the rim and forcing midrange jump shots. We were in the bottom of the league in attempts at the rim and in attempts being converted at the rim.”

On the other end, the Blazers’ starters posted a healthy 104.1 points per 100 possessions, considerably better than the league average. Stotts runs a diverse, user-friendly offense that combines much of the philosophy he helped develop in Dallas with Lillard’s inclination to play in the half court, Billups style. Portland features more jump shooters than iso scorers, so Stotts encourages early jumpers, but Lillard and Aldridge are powerful tools in the half court, and you can do a lot worse than running two-man action for those guys several dozen times a game. The trick for the Blazers is splitting the difference, creating flow while exerting Lillard’s control over the game.

“Damian’s a scoring point guard who’s used to having the ball in his hands,” Stotts says. “The challenge for our team is being able to get the ball ahead quicker. I don’t want to play a 100-possession game but I do want to get the a ball ahead. That makes the flow in the half court easier.”

Lillard is still young, and we don’t yet know who he’s going to be. His potential is every bit as elastic as Aldridge’s is settled. We know precisely who Aldridge is, but projecting Lillard’s growth is tough, which, in turn, makes setting the bar for the Blazers challenging.

Whether clearing it means logging more than 33 wins, or finishing .500, or qualifying for the playoffs, this incarnation of the Blazers is now officially on the clock.

20-point streak ends for James in Heat loss

January, 11, 2013
1/11/13
3:00
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
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Following a pair of Dwyane Wade free throws, the Miami Heat led the Portland Trail Blazers by 12 with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter Thursday. Unfortunately for the Heat, the Blazers took control in those final eight minutes and hung on for a two-point win at the Rose Garden. The loss was the second straight and third in the last four games for Miami.

Miguel Cabrera
James
During that stretch to end the game, Portland outscored the Heat 24-10 despite almost identical shooting from the floor by hitting free throws and three-point shots. The Blazers went 11-for-15 on free throws and 3-for-4 on three-pointers during the run while Miami went 1-for-2 and 1-for-5 on those same shots, respectively. Among them was the potential game-winning three by Mario Chalmers that rimmed out as time expired.

But perhaps even more notable than the loss, LeBron James scored a season-low 15 points on just six field goals. The six made shots were the fewest he’s had in a game since March of last season.

Entering the night, James had reached the 20-point plateau in each of the 33 games he played this season, the longest streak by any player to start a season since George Gervin went 45-straight games in 1981-82 and the second-longest by any player since the 1976 merger.

What caused the run of 20-point performances to come to an end? Struggles in the half court. James scored just seven points on 2-for-11 shooting in half-court sets on Thursday (18.1 percent), both of which were season lows. James entered the night having scored over 20 points per game and was shooting 51.0 percent in the half court this season.

On the other end of the floor, the Blazers were led by LaMarcus Aldridge and his 20 points and game-high 15 rebounds. It marked his fifth double-double over the last six games and his second “20-and-15" of the season.

Also chipping in for Portland was Nicolas Batum who scored a team-high 28 points. It was his sixth game of the year with least 25 points and with the win, the Blazers improved to 5-1 when he reaches the 25-point plateau this season.

Five teams at a crossroads

October, 24, 2012
10/24/12
8:46
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Aldridge, Anthony and Curry
Getty Images
LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony and Stephen Curry: Gridlock or glory?

Think about your favorite team then ask yourself, "What are things going to look like for the next three to five seasons?"

A degree of uncertainty will find its way into every situation, but smart teams have plans. They might be in championship-or-bust mode like Miami, Oklahoma City or the Los Angeles Lakers. They might be straight-up rebuilding like Detroit or New Orleans.

Some teams pursue a more targeted plan. The Clippers want to perform well enough to maintain Chris Paul's faith in the organization, lock him up on July 1, 2013, then keep building from there. Others, like Phoenix, lost the flash drive with the PowerPoint on the way to the presentation.

Then there are those NBA teams standing at the junction, examining the map and looking at the routes. Do they stay on course? Take the scenic route, or the practical one? Get cute and try a shortcut? Slow down and move more deliberately and keep their options open?

Such is the challenge for several NBA teams entering the 2012-13 season, with some facing a better set of options than others.

New York Knicks
New York KnicksThe Knicks' crossroads are grander and better paved than most teams in their predicament, by virtue of playing in one of the league's two premier markets. It certainly ain't the cooking in the front office, which has prepared a roster slated for another quick April ouster from the postseason.

Let's rewind: Two years ago, New Yorkers were giddy and comparatively patient. The Knicks didn't bag LeBron James in 2010, but it wasn't for a lack of trying or bad bookkeeping. They signed Amare Stoudemire and, that winter, the Garden was alive for the first time in ages. The acquisition of Carmelo Anthony midseason signaled the Knicks' official return to relevance (even if the team was playing well prior to his arrival and forked over a king's ransom to get him). Aware that the 22nd-ranked team defense would be a train wreck, the Knicks anchored the middle with Tyson Chandler in the summer of 2011.

Despite the defensive improvement last season, the Knicks couldn't score and the old dysfunction returned, pausing for only a seven-week hiatus when Jeremy Lin single-handedly thawed winter.

That brings us to the 2012-13 season. Lin is in Houston, Stoudemire is sidelined and the Knicks are indisputably Anthony's team, which was always the design in New York. If nothing else, perhaps Stoudemire's injury coupled with the success Anthony had as a power forward in Olympic competition will finally convince Melo that he's a new-wave 4. Improving the Knicks will require some innovation, because Anthony, Chandler and a band of reclamation projects, post-prime players and question marks in the backcourt won't make much noise in the playoffs. If they fail to play into May, the Knicks would begin to look a lot like Mike Woodson's Atlanta Hawks -- a team with discernible talent, but no championship aspirations.

What happens then?

The Knicks could resign themselves to a nice house in the East's upper-middle class district or, much like the Lakers did in sheer defiance of what was thought possible, they could trade on the allure of their market and coax a game-changer to New York. It won't be easy. They'd either have to part with Chandler, convince a team with cap room to absorb Stoudemire's outsized salary along with a few goodies, get a superstar approaching free agency to hold his existing team hostage in exchange for a ticket to New York -- and probably some combination of the above.

The Knicks wanted superstars to elevate their brand and incite championship aspirations among their beleaguered fans. Now it's time to manage those expectations and find an acceptable alternative should the team fall short of them.




Golden State Warriors
Golden State WarriorsThe new regime in the Bay is committed to a serious rebranding campaign. It's not just the smart new threads and the Snøhetta-designed jewel box slated for downtown San Francisco. The Warriors finally seem primed to be more than the NBA's novelty act. They're practicing defense again in Oakland, using analytics for the first time to make personnel decisions and, aside from a hiccup or two on the cap-management side, forging something that looks like a future.

The Warriors traded roboshooter Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut, one of the five best defensive big men in the game ... when he can move on two feet. Stephen Curry has proven he's far more than a spot-up shooter ... when he can move on two feet. Add a little seasoning to Golden State's young wing tandem of Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, and you can pencil them in for the opener across the bay. David Lee makes a mint, but he contributes consistently and the Warriors have virtually nothing else on the books in two years, so why worry?

But that's the thing about cap flexibility -- it's a luxury that can lure smart people into iffy decisions. When you're a front office strapped for cash, you have to be selective in your decision-making. But when you have clean books, you can be tempted to populate the ledger with all kinds of stuff that isn't good for you.

The biggest decision facing the Warriors over the next week is whether to extend Curry. If not for his wonky ankle, this is a no-brainer for Golden State and even with all the concern, still is. But the cap can be unforgiving, and paying max or near-max money to a chronically-injured player can be devastating to a team's long-term ambitions. Bogut, the team's highest-paid player, has a bum left ankle and there's no timetable for his return.

The Warriors don't have to make a contractual call on Bogut for two more seasons, but it's hard for a team to forge a path without a vision of its future core. And, practically, it's difficult to achieve goals if there's $30 million worth of stars in street clothes -- just ask the Houston Rockets.

That's the gamble for the Warriors: Do they construct a team for the foreseeable future around the inside-out threat of Curry and Bogut, knowing it's very possible their two best players might not share a court for weeks, maybe seasons, on end?

Do the Warriors commit to Curry, then wait and see on Bogut once they have a clearer prognosis on his health, knowing they'll likely have some money to find an alternate big man? Do they look at their promising young wings as the guys who will usher in the new era, a Klay Thompson-Harrison Barnes ticket rather than Curry-Bogut? Can Golden State craft a clever contingency plan whereby there's some insurance in the backcourt should Curry's ankle be an indefinite concern?

Or do the Warriors act without prejudice, knowing that the revenue they'll generate in the most state-of-the-art arena in North America (with some of the most expensive seats in sports) can compensate for a lot of dead payroll?




Portland Trail Blazers
Portland Trail BlazersThe rug was pulled from the Rose Garden floor some time ago. What was once the most tantalizing roster in the league has been stripped of its jewels, with Brandon Roy's retirement and relocation and Greg Oden's injuries.

Beyond those bad beats, the Trail Blazers no longer play the flavor of deliberate, possession-focused basketball they did under Nate McMillan, for better or worse. Last season, the Trail Blazers were adrift. They no longer controlled the rim -- on either end -- and many of those familiar patterns that were solidified during the Age of Promise went missing.

LaMarcus Aldridge is a refined, reliable power forward -- probably a Top 15 player -- but is he truly the centerpiece of a contending team? What if the best blueprint of the team going forward has him at center in a more agile offense? Is he flexible and resolute enough to not only tolerate that adjustment, but embrace it?

The first question is a difficult one, though one that can be answered more optimistically if Damian Lillard can evolve into a lead guard who can simplify the game for Aldridge. The Trail Blazers' big man has spoken glowingly about how easy the game came to him after being paired with Andre Miller in Portland. It's unfair to expect Lillard to find that kind of command before he gets a couple of years of NBA basketball under his belt -- and right now he's more of a pick-and-roll scorer than a manager or distributor -- but Aldridge can screen-and-pop with the best shooting big men in the game and should be able to make ample use of Lillard's talent.

The Trail Blazers also re-upped Nicolas Batum long term, defensible given the spreadsheet. Throw in Wes Matthews -- probably a better third guard than a fixture at the 2, but the team's third or fourth best player -- a raw rookie center, and a couple of imports. Is that a foundation that can grow into legitimate power in the West? If you're a Trail Blazers fan or executive, how many teams would you happily exchange futures with? Three years ago, that number was minuscule. Today, you're making a lot of outgoing calls.

A creative Terry Stotts will work hard to develop the Lillard-Aldridge tandem to its full potential, and it could be something special. But if the chemistry doesn't translate into a winning combination, and Aldridge grows uncomfortable as Banana No. 1, do you reshuffle the deck? And, if so, is Aldridge an asset you'd discard if the right offer came along? Could you afford not to?

The Trail Blazers don't figure to win much in 2012-13, and will likely have another high pick in June to add more young talent -- as well as some money to throw around -- but it's going to be a painstaking process.




Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia 76ersEntering the offseason, the Sixers' crossroads looked something like a busy London roundabout. The team could take any number of routes, and there was an intelligent case to be made for each of them.

Hard-bitten realists argued it was time to blow up a core that was unlikely to finish higher than a Hawkish No. 4 or 5 seed. Romantics felt that the Sixers' young talent had finally cracked the code on Doug Collins' safety-first system. If the versatile roster could come back largely intact in 2012-13 and buy in for a full season, they could take what was already a Top 3 defense, win the Atlantic then, come spring, play with the elite.

Instead, the Sixers made a lateral move in trading Andre Iguodala, their best defender and ball-mover, for a true inside threat in Andrew Bynum. They also lost Lou Williams, one of their few creators outside of Iguodala.

So who are the Sixers now and what can we reasonably expect them to become, especially with Bynum playing out the final year of his contract?

Performance will dictate everything. With Bynum anchoring the post, Philadelphia will no longer need a cab to get to the rim. For a team that relied on an unhealthy diet of midrange jumpers, that's no small thing. But indispensable defenders like Iguodala don't come around every day. Systems matter, but you can't just plug Evan Turner into the small forward slot and expect the same results. Bynum is not exactly Collins' idea of a big-man defender. On pick-and-roll coverage, Bynum is a chronic dropper (in fairness, that has generally been the scheme employed by the Lakers), and he'll be pressed rather persistently by Collins to put some more bite into his defensive game.

Let's say the Sixers drop a few of spots defensively, rise a few offensively and their final tally looks a lot like previous seasons. What then? You probably try to lock up Bynum long-term, but is there anyone else on the roster who you'd automatically wave through the door? Do you punt on Turner? What do you need to see from Jrue Holiday to warrant handing him the reins for the next five years? Does all that add up to contention?

Philadelphia will have plenty of flexibility going forward, but cap room isn't an end unto itself. At some point, the Sixers need to figure out what the plan is along the perimeter, and whether their existing platoon of curios and vets can do the job around Bynum.




Toronto Raptors
Toronto RaptorsHead coach Dwane Casey got the hard work out of the way in Season 1, taking a team ranked dead last in team defense and catapulting it to 12th by installing some conservative principles and demanding full effort from the entire roster.

There were other bright spots, with more on the way. When Andrea Bargnani was healthy, he played some of the best basketball of his career. Once Jonas Valanciunas gets a feel for the NBA game, he'll demand attention down low. New acquisition Kyle Lowry can generate instant offense, which should also help.

There's a lot to like here, but still a ton of work to do to improve upon a 25th-ranked offense. The Raptors desperately need to open up some space in the half court to prevent the rigor mortis that bogged them down last season. Bargnani, when he's out there, helps inordinately, and Lowry can hit a shot from the perimeter and break down defenses off the bounce. But the Raptors simply can't build the kind of offense they want with their current supply of wings -- and that sober reality starts and ends with DeMar DeRozan, who enters the final guaranteed year of his rookie deal.

DeRozan, the Raptors' leader in minutes played each of the past two seasons, has never posted a player efficiency rating (PER) above the league average and it's not as if he's making up for it as a defender. He's not a proficient outside shooter, makes iffy reads on the pick-and-roll and is a ball-stopper in isolation with a less-than-stellar track record of converting those opportunities into anything -- a creator without much creativity.

To put it bluntly, there are very few things DeRozan is doing to help the Toronto Raptors win basketball games and it's hard to imagine an efficient offense that relies on him for a significant chunk of possessions.

The Raptors raised eyebrows by selecting Terrence Ross with the No. 8 pick in June. While Ross is no polished product on the offensive end, he's a Casey type of player, with quick feet on defense and a heady awareness of what's happening on the floor. Ross could watch tape of Tony Allen and craft a career as a stopper with a few offensive tricks. He'd be a natural replacement for DeRozan, provided he can find his shot or, at the very least, recognize his limitations and minimize mistakes. That would be an easier proposition if there was another wing on the floor who could create.

If the Raptors let DeRozan walk, they'd have some dough to find someone -- anyone -- who can score efficiently at the wing. Once that happens, the ball will start to move again in Toronto, this time with a stalwart defense to complement it.

Portland's two-pronged approach

July, 6, 2012
7/06/12
8:17
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Portland Trail Blazers
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images
Will LaMarcus Aldridge and Wes Matthews be part of a rebuilding or a retooling project in Portland?

“Rebuilding is a scary word,” Portland Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey said.

As much as we might tout it as a sound, grown-up strategy for getting off the treadmill of mediocrity, rebuilding is an admission to a fan base -- to say nothing of the young veterans on the roster -- that management has no expectations that the team will do anything more than chase a No. 8 seed, if it’s lucky.

For some NBA teams, it’s their only realistic course of action. The writing on the wall flashes in neon. There’s no way around rebuilding. They can take solace only in the fact that there’s a reliable blueprint now: The Oklahoma City Thunder.

For other teams, it's tough to determine whether that treadmill is running at a sluggish 12-minute mile or whether it just needs management to press that little green arrow to speed up the process. It's possible that with a tweak here or there, excellence is attainable.

Delineating the fine line between “rebuilding” and “retooling” is a tough distinction.

Rebuilding is easy enough: Blow the whole thing up.

Retooling is a more surgical exercise -- adding significant talent and salary, but with the reassurance that, when the offseason machinations are all over, the team can contend for a top-4 seed, with the prospect of improving the next season ... and the next ... and the next ... ultimately becoming a member of the NBA’s elite.

The question for Olshey and the Trail Blazers is -- can you hedge during the offseason? Can you demonstrate the finesse to keep both rebuilding and retooling as options while filling out the roster one piece at a time?

Olshey has stated that his first course of action is retooling, and that makes a lot of sense because the Trail Blazers start with a very nice centerpiece in LaMarcus Aldridge. He was the third-most efficient power forward in 2011-12, trailing only Kevin Love and Blake Griffin in Player Efficiency Rating (PER).

On top of that, the Trail Blazers have a ton of cap flexibility. With their committed salaries, along with the cap holds on their first-round picks and Nicolas Batum, they’re at only $36 million, leaving them about $18.4 million under the cap.

And here’s where that hedge between rebuilding and retooling comes into play. The Trail Blazers wasted no time in writing up a maximum offer sheet to restricted free-agent center Roy Hibbert of the Indiana Pacers -- a sure sign of retooling.

“If there’s a player on the same career arc as LaMarcus, Wes (Matthews), Nic (Batum) and our draft picks -- an All-Star caliber player who can really move the needle and accelerate our growth process, then I have no problem putting my chips on the table,” Olshey said. “But what I’m not going to do is run a race to mediocrity. Taking away flexibility to be mediocre is counterproductive.”

For Portland, Hibbert was that guy, a 25-year-old All-Star caliber player, the ultimate retooler. Extending that max offer sheet was a no-brainer.

Olshey appreciates that there’s a good chance the Pacers will match the offer. If and when Indiana does, Olshey has no problem shifting gears. He’s not going to overpay a low-caliber center on a long-term deal just for the sake of filling a hole.

Olshey is an ardent game theorist. He’s a big-game hunter, but he's also an exec whose eyes are always fixed on the long-term. The Trail Blazers won’t sacrifice their flexibility in a panic move. There will be no multiyear deals extended to the Robin Lopezes, no retaining Jamal Crawford or Raymond Felton. That’s not to say there won’t be one-year deals offered to low-cost veterans, but nothing to compromise the roominess of Portland’s clean spreadsheet going forward. Absent a needle-mover like Hibbert, the Trail Blazers are content to move into rebuilding mode.

No. 6 draft choice Damian Lillard will start at the point (in both a rebuilding or retooling plan). If Portland can’t snag Hibbert, then No. 11 pick Meyers Leonard will see considerable time alongside reliable gray-beard Kurt Thomas. The Trail Blazers are high on 23-year-old guard Elliot Williams, who is coming off an injury. Matthews might be a tad overpaid, but he’s a dogged defender who posted impressive on-off numbers on both sides of the ball last season.

The Batum question is far more dicey, and he’s a player who could potentially complicate that flexibility Olshey values.

On Thursday night, Batum agreed to an offer sheet with the Minnesota Timberwolves for a four-year contract that could exceed $45 million, according to reports. If the Trail Blazers are able to nab Hibbert following the moratorium, which ends on July 11, matching Batum would fit squarely into the retooling model, provided the team truly feels he can achieve his potential. Olshey publicly maintains that the Trail Blazers will match and won't engage in a sign-and-trade deals.

If Hibbert returns to Indiana, paying Batum would put a huge number on Portland’s balance sheet as the team tries to rebuild. If the plan is to rebuild and the Trail Blazers are looking to avoid a 38-win season, they might better off handing the small forward spot to, say, third-year player Luke Babbitt. If Babbitt flames out -- and even if he performs respectably -- Portland will likely find itself back in the top 10 in next June’s draft, with the chance to add another low-cost, high-ceiling pick to its stable in 2013.

This Batum dilemma is precisely the kind of wrench that can render all the planning in the world null and void. Do the Trail Blazers gamble on Batum, knowing they might be placing a top-flight center alongside Aldridge in another week, or do they punt on Batum and maintain their position as an organization with tremendous flexibility and deep pockets?

In this respect, Olshey not only has to be crafty, but also clairvoyant.

Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
Kaleb Canales: The man on the spot.



Then there’s the matter of head coach Kaleb Canales. Olshey raised eyebrows during his initial round of news conferences when observers interpreted his remarks as an endorsement of Canales. Portland is an intelligent, demanding fan base and the idea that management wouldn’t at least consider more seasoned coaching candidates was perplexing.

Are there more qualified candidates than Canales to coach the 2012-13 Trail Blazers? Probably. But just as Olshey likes to maintain flexibility with his cap and his roster, the same holds true with the head coaching position.

Let’s say the Trail Blazers land in rebuilding mode. That organizational strategy isn’t attractive to the big names on the coaching market, who’d much prefer to walk into a ready-made situation. As attractive as the Mike Malones or Brian Shaws might seem from afar, how certain are we that they’re significant upgrades over Canales, whatever his shortcomings might be?

We know this about Canales: If Portland opts to rebuild, he’s inexpensive at a moment when the franchise doesn’t expect to win more than 40 percent of its games. He’s certain to play Lillard, Leonard, Williams and Babbitt, who will need the royal jelly of playing time to flourish. If the brass concludes at a certain point that Canales isn’t the answer, they can always replace him at little cost.

If the Trail Blazers feature a frontcourt of Hibbert, Aldridge and Batum, then Olshey can go kick the tires on some more seasoned coaches who have the experience to maximize the team’s potential at a time when the Trail Blazers want to win.

While the Trail Blazers wait on Hibbert, they’re keeping their primary and secondary options open, like any team that runs a sound offense.

The key? That flexibility -- the mother’s milk of a team in flux, whether it’s rebuilding or retooling.

Bobcats are not at odds with NBA lottery

May, 29, 2012
5/29/12
5:54
PM ET
By Alok Pattani, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
With the 2012 NBA Draft Lottery on Wednesday (8 ET on ESPN), each non-playoff team’s fans are hoping that the ping-pong balls come out in their favor, giving them the No. 1 overall pick and a chance to select likely top choice, Anthony Davis.

Given each team's probability of winning the top pick in the lottery, here is a similar event related to that team that has approximately the same frequency.

Charlotte Bobcats (25.0 percent chance of winning the No. 1 pick)
Team-Related Event with Similar Frequency: Bobcats losing a game last season by at least 25 points. In 2011-12, the Bobcats lost 16 of 66 games (24.2 percent) of their games by at least 25 points.

Washington Wizards (19.9 percent)
Team-Related Event with Similar Frequency: John Wall scoring at least 24 points in a game last season.

New Orleans Hornets (14.8 percent, includes their own pick and the Timberwolves' pick)
Team-Related Event with Similar Frequency: Hornets winning a game by at least eight points last season.

Cleveland Cavaliers (13.8 percent)
Team-Related Event with Similar Frequency: Kyrie Irving scoring more than 10 points in the fourth quarter of a game.

Sacramento Kings (7.6 percent)
Team-Related Event with Similar Frequency: Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins combining for 50 points in a game last season.

Brooklyn Nets (7.5 percent)
Team-Related Event with Similar Frequency: Deron Williams scoring at least 25 points and also having 10 assists in a game last season.

Golden State Warriors (3.6 percent)
Team-Related Event with Similar Frequency: Stephen Curry scoring at least 25 points and also having 10 assists in a game last season.

Toronto Raptors (3.5 percent)
Team-Related Event with Similar Frequency: Andrea Bargnani scoring at least 35 points in a game in 2011-12.

Detroit Pistons (1.7 percent)
Team-Related Event with Similar Frequency: Greg Monroe having a 30-point, 15-rebound game last season.

Portland Trail Blazers (0.8 pecent)
Team-Related Event with Similar Frequency: LaMarcus Aldridge scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a half last season.

Milwaukee Bucks (0.7 percent)
Team-Related Event with Similar Frequency: Brandon Jennings making five 3-point field goals in a half in 2011-12.

Phoenix Suns (0.6 percent)
Team-Related Event with Similar Frequency: Steve Nash making 50 straight free throws during his career.

Houston Rockets (0.5 percent)
Team-Related Event with Similar Frequency: NBA team finishing two to four games above .500 and missing playoffs in three straight seasons (which the Rockets have, in fact, done the last three seasons).

How important is 'playoff experience'?

March, 7, 2012
3/07/12
5:58
PM ET
By Eddy Rivera/Magic Basketball
ESPN.com
Archive

Kent Smith/NBAE/Getty Images
Did an upstart Trail Blazers team fall short in the 2009 Playoffs because of lack of experience -- or was it something else?

Before Brandon Roy's knees degenerated and Greg Oden underwent his third microfracture surgery, the Portland Trail Blazers were the darlings of the NBA. With Roy, Oden, and LaMarcus Aldridge as its young core, Portland was a team built for a long and prosperous future. Portland ranked No. 1 in ESPN Insider's Future Power Rankings around the start of the 2009-2010 season.

How quickly could the Trail Blazers start winning big series deep into the postseason? Some argued in 2009 that they were too young and too inexperienced to win in the playoffs. And with Roy, Oden, and Aldridge in their early to mid-20s at that point in time, that claim seemed to conform to conventional wisdom. As the saying goes, you must fail before you can succeed.

But is that really true? Do teams with inexperience have to take their lumps before winning in the postseason?

According to James Tarlow of the University of Oregon, author of a study titled "Experience and Winning in the National Basketball Association," which he presented at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the answer is no.

Using a data set which consisted of 804 NBA seasons played by 30 teams between the 1979-1980 and 2008-2009 seasons, Tarlow concluded that two elements affect a team's ability to win playoff games: head coach postseason experience and team chemistry.
Coach postseason experience is defined as the number of postseason games coached as a head coach ... Chemistry then is defined as the number of years the five players playing the most minutes during the regular season have been on their current team with one another.

Tarlow also discovered that postseason player experience increase a team's ability to reach the playoffs but doesn't increase its ability to win playoff games.
First, the most common criticism is of the experience of younger teams and this study does not support this conclusion, regardless of whether their NBA experience or playoff experience is the top of discussion. Second, the number of years of experience a coach has in the NBA is an irrelevant figure. It is a coach's playoff experience, not the length of their NBA coaching career, which is relevant to winning in the postseason. Finally, it suggests that what should be assigned more attention is the value associated with keeping teammates together.

In the case of the Trail Blazers, with Aldridge, Roy, Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake, and Rudy Fernandez logging the most minutes during the regular season and playing in their first year together, while being led by a coach in Nate McMillan with some postseason experience, they lost in the first round of the 2009 NBA Playoffs against the Houston Rockets, a team coached by Rick Adelman -- someone who had an expansive playoff resume with the Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings -- with Yao Ming, Luis Scola, Ron Artest, Shane Battier, and Aaron Brooks leading the way in minutes played and also playing in their first year together. In a series that was relatively close, could Adelman have been the difference based on the conclusions reached in Tarlow's paper?

Perhaps.

Over the next two seasons, Portland lost to the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks respectively in the first round of the playoffs. Based on Tarlow’s criteria, team chemistry probably worked in the Suns’ favor in 2010 while team chemistry and head coach postseason experience likely aided the Mavericks in 2011 as they began their quest for an NBA title they eventually won.

Certainly there were other reasons why the Trail Blazers lost three consecutive first-round series, like injuries and matchups. But, as Tarlow has suggested, inexperience likely wasn't one of them.

Dallas proved during their championship run last season that head coach postseason experience and team chemistry does matter.

Just ask the Miami Heat.

Putting it into practice
How do the contenders this season stack up using Tarlow’s criteria?

In this case, the Heat, Chicago Bulls, and Oklahoma City Thunder will be examined. Based on minutes played this season, five players are outlined for each team in that order. Listed in parentheses is the number of seasons those players have played with one another. The number of games stated in parentheses for each head coach is the amount they’ve coached in the postseason for their careers.

Chicago Bulls: Deng-Noah-Boozer-Rose-Brewer (2nd season), Thibodeau (16 games)

This is the Bulls’ second go-round with this group. Richard Hamilton, brought in during the offseason to replace Keith Bogans in the starting lineup at shooting guard, has been hobbled with injuries this season. For the sake of continuity, Chicago may be better off relying on Ronnie Brewer more.

Miami Heat: James-Bosh-Chalmers-Haslem-Wade (2nd season), Spoelstra (33 games)

Like the Bulls, this five-man unit is enjoying their second season together. The difference is that Udonis Haslem has been healthy during the regular season this year. Will improved synergy and Erik Spoelstra’s growing playoff coaching resume be enough for Miami to win a title?

Oklahoma City Thunder: Durant-Westbrook-Harden-Ibaka-Perkins (2nd season), Brooks (23 games)

After acquiring Kendrick Perkins at the trade deadline last season, the Thunder’s first full season with this quintuplet together has been a resounding success so far. With coaches like Gregg Popovich, George Karl, and Rick Carlisle in the Western Conference casting a shadow on Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City can only hope chemistry will trump all.

Looking ahead
Assuming both teams stay healthy heading into the playoffs (which is asking a lot given the truncated season), it appears that the Heat have a slight leg up against Chicago with Spoelstra at the helm since there’s no discernible difference in the chemistry makeup of both teams.

As for the Thunder, what may derail their hopes is the fact that teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks are led by coaches oozing with postseason experience.

Taking Tarlow’s findings into account, consider the next few months an exercise in examination.


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