The Portland Trail Blazers are a walking contradiction in the Northwest. As one of the NBA's numerous small market clubs, they’ve succinctly been one of the best managed franchises of the past 30 years as far as bang for the buck goes. If they were tucked away in a similar corner of a metropolitan city on the East coast, they’d be the chic and hip Brooklyn Nets–but with better management and a winning record.Instead, they may be the nerdiest franchise in the NBA. They don’t have the brightest emerging star in the game on their sideline like Indiana, or the most legendary big man of Generation X scrapping for one last title before the twilight of his career expires.
This was expected to be another middling season. Instead, they’ve shocked the entire league by bursting violently out of the gates and supplanting their flags firmly atop the Western Conference.
Portland's existence as a small media market just north of California has hampered them historically, however, billionaire Microsoft techie/owner Paul Allen’s status as the wealthiest owner in professional sports, as well as the NBA’s most vociferous fan base, kept them relevant.
Despite a history of numerous setbacks and swirlies at the hands of fate since the '70s, The Walking Dead Blazers continuously pick themselves up and hit the ground running over and over again.
Their resiliency is admirable. Most franchises would have swallowed cyanide after going with Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan (or Greg Oden over Kevin Durant years later). But they did more than survive, they thrived. For 21 seasons, from 1983 to 2003, the Trail Blazers were guaranteed playoff admission. It was long enough to ensure the second-longest streak in NBA history.
Selecting Greg Oden over Kevin Durant was another tragic mistake compounded by faulty knees sending Brandon Roy and Oden under the knife more often than a second-rate magician's assistants.
Unfortunately, $15 billion of Microsoft money can only go so far in the salary handicapped NBA. Cultural cache is what speaks to NBA superstars. Allen set out to make it rain on LeBron James during the Summer of 2010, but their campaign didn’t gain enough attraction to get James to bat an eye at Nike City.
Allen’s pro sports ventures aren’t just limited to the City of Roses. The Seattle Seahawks owner may be sporting his first Super Bowl ring in 2014.
2012 was a watershed year for Allen. Two months after Pete Carroll drafted Russell Wilson, the keen scout’s eye of Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey, whom Allen scooped right out of the Clippers front office a month earlier by taking advantage of the Donald Sterlin’s frugality (and Olshey’s month-to-month contract), made Damian Lillard Portland's franchise quarterback..
Lillard doesn’t boast Westbrook’s exquisite leaping ability, Derrick Rose’s sudden, stop, go and jump-stop moves or John Wall’s baseline to baseline quickness. In addition to hitting at a 40 percent rate, no point guard in the league has made more three pointers than the Blazer’s sharpshooting guard has this season. His assist numbers aren't gaudy, but his responsibilities are elsewhere as the highest scoring point guard in the league.
Nearly two years ago, Olshey’s predecessor Rich Cho, parlayed a Gerald Wallace swap to Brooklyn into the sixth overall pick. Olshey, who was previously known for his franchise-altering Chris Paul transplant as Clippers general manager, generated a yawn from the draft community when he took the fourth-year Weber State junior. Just 20 games into his second season, Lillard has been an efficient and potent floor leader, but LaMarcus Aldridge has been the anchor holding it down in Portland. He can also be the difference between Portland withering away in playoff time as Denver did in the 2013 postseason without a go-to scorer.
Aldridge has played through three separate front office regimes, watched two star teammates’ knees implode before they reached their respective primes and seen three head coaches pass through Rip City.
This summer, he allegedly wanted out, and the Chicago Bulls were the franchise he shot a flare towards.
On Nov. 23, Derrick Rose tore the meniscus in his right knee against the Portland Trail Blazers. It was the first time in his career that he’d dodged the injury bullet. Suddenly, the Trail Blazers are 16-3 including wins over San Antonio, Indiana and Oklahoma City.
Superstars around the league don’t ask around about Portland’s middle-class Tim Duncan. Aldridge has even conquered the dullest shot in the league. There’s no hangtime in Aldridge’s game and his midrange game has become downright Duncanesque.
He’s attempted and more mid-range shots than any player in the league by a wide margin and is chasing Michael Jordan’s record for mid-range attempted made in a season.
As Portland's championship door creeps open, Aldridge’s prime has simultaneously arrived. One night after the Blazers handed Indiana its second loss of the season, Aldridge served up 38 points and notched 17 rebounds against Oklahoma City for Portland’s 14th win in 15 games.
The offense features a bevy of trained SWAT snipers from downtown led by Wes Matthews that has been the impetus to them posting the second-most points per possession in the league trailing Miami.
Lillard vowed in the offseason to improve his defense after watching himself on tape, and the praise has been raining down on his defensive performances.
“In my head, I was kind of embarrassed watching myself,” Lillard told NBA.com.
“He took a lot of criticism about his defense,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “Obviously he had a great season as a rookie. Historical in some ways. But people kind of chipped away at his defense, and he took that to heart. You can really tell that he’s put his mind to it, because he wants to be great at both ends.”
“Being a rookie, there’s a lot you don’t know coming into the league and it’s easy for some offenses to take advantage of your lack of knowledge.” Lillard said.
Via Hardwood Paroxysm:
For example, last season, when Lillard found himself matched up on defense with a bigger guard on defense, the offense would call out “punch” or “drop” and try to throw the ball down low to the guard and exploit the mis-match.
“Last year, I didn’t know the call,” Lillard said. “Now I do, [and I know] to try to force my man out a little bit on the catch. [That way] I can use my lateral quickness and get up under him to make him shoot a jumper, instead of him bodying me on the block.”
However, it’s not all smelling like roses.
Portland's post defense is the next issue to address before they can be a legit A-List championship contender. Their perimeter defenders are the NBA’s third-best in defending the three-point arc, but they're also 25th in the NBA when it comes to defending the paint, ahead of the Clippers, T'Wolves, Suns, Lakers and Jazz. Just for reference, Miami, Indiana Oklahoma City, Chicago and San Antonio are top-10. Establishing a post presence to defend their basket is what separates them from moonwalking into the Heat, Spurs , Thunder and Pacers playoff contending stratosphere.
There have been missteps, microfractures and failed rehabs along the way, but the Trail Blazers are done taking baby steps.