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December 18th, 2013 MIKE ACKER | Cover Story
 

On The Rebound

The Blazers broke our hearts. Are we ready to get back with the NBA’s hottest team?

lede-jeremyokaidavis_4007ILLUSTRATION: Jeremy Okai Davis
Maybe it was when Kobe’s alley-oop to Shaq sealed Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. Maybe it was when Greg Oden’s knee exploded for the third time or when Brandon Roy finally ground the last bit of cartilage out of his, forcing him to retire at age 27. Maybe it was Raymond Felton.
RIP CITY REVIVAL: Blazers fans are witnessing the team’s best start since the 1999-2000 season.
IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com

Somewhere between the coked-up Jail Blazers era when swingman Bonzi Wells declared the fans “really don’t matter to us” and the Felton-led mutiny against popular coach Nate McMillan, many of us gave up on the Portland Trail Blazers. (For a piece about the Moda Center's empty seats, go here.)

You don’t have to feel bad about refusing their come-ons year after year. It’s been three seasons since the Blazers reached the playoffs. They haven’t gotten out of the first round of the playoffs since 2000, the longest such streak in the Western Conference.

The pain and heartbreak of disappointment, listening to promises that things would change if you gave them just one more chance—you’ve heard it all before.

But now, out of nowhere, and for the first time in a generation, the team is the hottest squad in the league. It’s still early, of course, but as of press time the Blazers (21-4) had the best record in the NBA.

You don’t even have to feel bad about underestimating the Blazers—everyone else did, too. As Sekou Smith of NBA.com put it, the Blazers “snuck up on all of us.”

But excitement is building. After Nicolas Batum hit a late 3-pointer to seal the team’s victory over Oklahoma City on Dec. 4, Bill Simmons of ESPN tweeted, “Rip City just threw its hat in the ring.” Former Blazers coach Jack Ramsay has compared this team to the one he won the NBA title with in 1977.

How did this happen, anyway? Are the 2013 Blazers for real? Are Portlanders ready to get back into this oft-dysfunctional relationship? Here’s the story, as best we know it.


The Blazers are good now because Neil Olshey built this team to win now.

NEIL OLSHEY
IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com
The position of Blazers general manager over the past few years has been, shall we say, a bit unstable.

Consider the fate of Kevin Pritchard, the general manager who drafted Seattle native-turned-Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy, current star LaMarcus Aldridge and spectacular bust Greg Oden as he shepherded the organization out of the Jail Blazers era.

Pritchard took over a job famously held by “Trader Bob” Whitsitt, the GM who acquired players like shooting guard Ruben Patterson, a convicted sex offender who demanded to be traded unless he got 25 minutes per game and who once claimed “the devil” told him to curse out his coach.

Pritchard had an icy relationship with owner Paul Allen and was canned about an hour before the 2010 draft. His replacement, Rich Cho, lasted less than a year.

When Neil Olshey, who’d formerly been GM of the Los Angeles Clippers, was brought in, his mandate was simple: put out a product Portlanders will pay to see on a semi-regular basis.

He achieved that, in large part because of Damian Lillard. The sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft and the first player selected by Olshey, Lillard was a point guard out of tiny Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, who shocked the league by having a historic rookie season. He became only the third player in history to be unanimously selected Rookie of the Year, besting the No. 1 pick and pre-ordained “future top-five player,” Anthony Davis.

But being marginally watchable for two seasons in a row wasn’t going to be enough. With a new mandate—keep Aldridge or, if that’s not possible, get something for him—Olshey issued a public mea culpa, admitting he was not aggressive enough in his first season as general manager. He then went out and built himself a team.

The Blazers’ past team-building efforts included trading high draft picks on risky players and hoping they’d pan out, like journeymen center Marcus Camby and small forward Gerald Wallace, that came with an attached disclaimer: “He’ll be even better when Greg Oden is healthy enough to play 80 games.”

Not this season. Olshey made a decision that winning in 2013-14 was of the utmost importance. He acquired veteran guard Mo Williams from the Utah Jazz to back up Lillard and brought in 3-point specialist Dorell Wright, instantly improving the Blazers’ previously woeful bench. He matched the Minnesota Timberwolves’ offer for Nicolas Batum, signing him through 2016. And he traded for Robin Lopez, the first true center the Blazers have had since Oden.

Olshey made a decision that winning now was of the utmost importance, and to reward his diligence, that’s exactly what the team is doing.


WINNING COMBINATION: Blazers star LaMarcus Aldridge (above center) is having an MVP-type season playing under coach Terry Stotts (below left), who also relies on the steady play of Nicolas Batum (below right).
Photos by Ryan Prouty, Portland Trail Blazers

LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard work well together in a way Aldridge and Brandon Roy never did.

Beckley Mason, a basketball writer for The New York Times, recently wrote a column about the emerging chemistry between Aldridge and Lillard. Mason’s story repeated all the well-trod clichés about teamwork and players assuming their roles, but added that the Blazers seem to embody it: “[T]he looseness in the locker room imbued the banalities with profundity.”

Aldridge is a jump-shooting big man in the Dirk Nowitzki mold. Lillard is a hard-driving, take-it-to-the-rim-style point guard.

Aldridge prefers to hang out around the top of the key, setting picks for Lillard. Because the Blazers’ young point guard is a tenacious rim attacker, big defenders leave Aldridge in an effort to protect the rim. This is just what Aldridge and the Blazers want, since there’s no better knock-down shooter from between 15 and 20 feet.

To mitigate LA’s dominance with the midrange jumper, teams have been sending a second defender, sometimes the same defender charged with guarding Lillard, to help out. This doesn’t work either, since Lillard has shown time and again his shooting range starts when he enters the building.

Aldridge is averaging career highs in points (23.5) and field-goal attempts (19.9) per game as he learns where to position himself so that his young point guard can get him the ball.

But Mason’s story was about more than just on-court chemistry. Aldridge and Lillard are cut from the same cloth: Both are quiet and brooding, hyperknowledgeable about basketball, and loath to talk about anything else. Aldridge, a Texas native, has been open about his mother’s battle with breast cancer, while Lillard has described growing up “in the ’hood” of Oakland, Calif., but both clearly prefer to keep basketball their primary talking point.

Aldridge and his first co-star, Roy, got along fine. Roy was the star, on and off the court; Aldridge appeared comfortable with that and struggled to become a leader without him. With Lillard, he can once again share the spotlight, but in a way that complements and elevates both their games.


TO THE RIM: Lillard lays it in during the Blazers’ 90-89 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Nov. 13, beating former Blazer and Portland resident Channing Frye on the play.
IMAGE: Ryan Prouty, Portland Trail Blazers

Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum have figured out their roles. 

Batum is the second-highest-paid player on the Blazers’ roster; Matthews is the third. At about $11 million and $7 million per season, respectively, some might be asking for these two guys to take on more important roles.

Luckily, Batum and Matthews haven’t listened to that chatter. Both of Portland’s wing players are doing exactly what they need to do. Matthews was never meant to be a leading scorer: He was originally brought in as a backup for Roy.

This season, with Aldridge and Lillard humming, Matthews has had less of an offensive burden, and because of that, he’s come alive. He is currently hitting almost half of his 3-point shot attempts, while averaging a career high of just over 16 points per game.

And when you get into “advance metrics” like Player Efficiency Rating—a standardized measure of per-minute production—you find Matthews’ rating is the highest in his six-year career, 20 percent above the league average.

As for Batum, the 25-year-old Frenchman is also having his best season, PER-wise. His real value, however, can still be shown in the meat-and-potatoes stats. Batum is ahead of or tied with his career-high averages in defensive rebounds, offensive rebounds, total rebounds, assists and steals.

This season, Aldridge is going to be an All-Star for the third time, and Lillard is likely to join him. Meanwhile, behind them Matthews and Batum have been steady as the team’s third- and fourth-best players.


L&L: Damian Lillard (0) and Robin Lopez (42) get set for a Blazers possession against the Houston Rockets.
IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com

They’re healthy.

The Blazers made a number of changes over the past few seasons in a concerted effort to get the team competitive again—new head coach, new general manager, new team president, new arena name, new fast-food promotion—but one of the most important has also been the most underreported.

In May, the Blazers parted ways with longtime head athletic trainer Jay Jensen, who, during his 19 years with the organization, was present during the premature destruction of the careers of Roy and Oden because of knee injuries.

To replace Jensen, the Blazers turned to Dr. Chris Stackpole. His techniques differ from his predecessor’s. Olshey characterized his new hire as having “a vision and blueprint for developing innovative and evidence-based sports medicine services.”

That’s some opaque praise, but clearly, the organization finally felt it was time to move on from Jensen, who became a lightning rod for criticism back when it seemed like a different Blazers player was getting carted off the court every other game.

And hey, the Blazers have been without a major injury since Stackpole came onboard. Something is working. Will it work forever? No one knows. So far, so good.


Terry Stotts is a head coach with something to prove.

The Blazers’ second-year head coach started his career in 1990, working under future Hall of Famers Rick Carlisle and George Karl. Stotts’ previous head-coaching stops were in Atlanta and Milwaukee. He posted losing records with both.

Stotts came to Portland with fewer ties to basketball in the Pacific Northwest than his predecessor, Nate McMillan. His first season wasn’t great. He did the best he could with a roster so thin that Luke Babbitt—currently playing ball in Russia—got nearly 12 minutes a night. The finer points of Stotts’ struggle were lost on everyday fans who probably couldn’t see past Portland’s season-ending 13-game losing streak.

This season, Stotts has been mixing and matching his assets to put the right personnel package on the court for every possession. He looks for favorable matchups, de-emphasizing isolation-style ball built around a superstar. Karl had success with the method in both Seattle and Denver.

So far, the Blazers’ head coach has coaxed all he can out of Thomas Robinson, a raw player traded twice in his rookie season. Stotts has looked like a genius for elevating Joel Freeland to backup center over Meyers Leonard. He’s also employed the use of iPads to allow players to study game footage practically in real time. Most of all, he’s managed his rotations, so that this season there are no second-quarter letdowns or blown fourth-quarter leads.

In his first season, Stotts was stately, almost professorial, as he walked the sideline. As the Blazers have shocked the league, though, he’s grown incrementally more flamboyant. An outburst over a few bad calls in a recent home win over the defending Northwest Division champion Oklahoma City Thunder excited the Moda Center crowd and his assistant coaches. He’s even developing a trademark smirk.

If you’re having an unexpected level of success and are considered by Carlisle, your former mentor, to be a virtual lock for Coach of the Year, you’re allowed some swagger.


Robin Lopez came to town.

POWER IN THE POST: The addition of Robin Lopez has boosted the Blazers’ inside presence.
IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com
The Blazers—on pace to win more than 60 games and projected to have a 98 percent chance of making the postseason—will go only as far as Aldridge and Lillard take them. But center Robin Lopez has been just as important to the team’s early fortunes.

Lopez, a 25-year-old Stanford product, is a late bloomer, accomplishing little with the Phoenix Suns before moving to New Orleans, where he started rounding into form. He’s not an All-Star like his twin brother, Brook, who plays for the Brooklyn Nets, but the addition of a serviceable center has turned the Blazers from a lottery team to a contender and transformed Aldridge from an All-Star to an MVP candidate.

Coming off the best stretch of his career last year in New Orleans, Lopez is averaging three more rebounds per game than he did last season. He’s also averaging 1.5 blocks a game, while shooting 50 percent from the field and 80 percent from the free-throw line.

Most important, though, Lopez is playing 30 minutes per game, the most of his career. This means that Aldridge is almost never forced to play center. Last season, Aldridge frequently played out of his natural position, which is part of the reason the Blazers couldn’t stop any of their opponents from scoring and ended the year ranked 26 out of 30 teams on defense.

Lopez, a gangly but deceptively strong 7-footer, loves comic books, has a goofy hairdo and eschews the fancy clothes of his teammates in favor of polo shirts, faded blue jeans and white Adidas shell-toe sneakers. He’s easily the most Portlandy Blazer since Channing Frye.

For casual fans, that alone is something worth cheering. 

 
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