A Wild-Card Extravaganza

Closing the Cave of the Winds

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the Portland Trail Blazers controls the ball against Derrick Favors #15 of the Utah Jazz on December 6, 2013 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon.

Rip City Revival

How the Trail Blazers built a winner and soothed the lingering doubts of Portland's tormented fan base

Before we try to figure out the Trail Blazers, the NBA’s most surprising potential contender, there’s a moment we need to discuss. It was Saturday night, at the old Rose Garden, and there were 5.4 seconds left with Portland down two to Philadelphia. Just before the Blazers inbounded the ball, the crowd expelled the most deranged and desperate of screams. They stood as one, all 20,004 of them, and their voices blurred as they begged the five men in white jerseys to convince them this whole season hasn’t been a mirage.

It had to be real. Just look at the record. Moments ago it had gone up on the JumboTron — 26-7, the most wins of any team in the league.

It couldn’t be real. Not in Portland, not now. They were bad last year and they’d been bad the year before that. They’d made a few smart roster moves but added no star free agents. They’d done little to suggest that this season they were finally primed to contend.

It had to be real. I mean, have you seen this team play offense? The wings never stop moving; the ball barely seems to touch the ground.

It couldn’t be real. Tonight was different. The motion had stalled; the defense had devolved from porous to pathetic. Some fans had spent all season waiting for the Blazers they knew to reemerge. Tonight, against an opponent with an 11-21 record, those Blazers seemed to come back in force.

With the game on the line, Wesley Matthews inbounded to Damian Lillard. The noise eased as the fans looked toward their second-year star. Lillard drove left toward the middle, and once in the lane he crossed back to his right. With less than a second remaining, he scooped up a right-handed layup.

It rimmed out. The buzzer sounded. The game was over. Lillard may have drawn contact, but few fans booed the no-call. Instead, they fell quiet. A few wailed, “Oh, God,” or “No, no, no.” In Miami or Oklahoma City a loss like this would have felt like an unfortunate fluke. Fans would have shaken their heads, shrugged their shoulders, and walked out the door. But in Portland they lingered in silence, as if considering the possibility that this wasn’t some anomaly, that the Blazers’ spell was being broken, that the city’s early-season joy was coming undone.

Afterward, at a bar on Alberta Street, a middle school teacher named Molly said that when the Blazers lose, “It makes me want to kill someone.” Her boyfriend, a former Rose Garden usher named Clement, sat beside her. On the night Portland won the 2007 NBA draft lottery, he’d locked arms with his friends and jumped for joy in the basement of his home. Then he’d watched Greg Oden’s career unravel with injuries, just like he’d done with Brandon Roy. He could still remember the 16-point lead lost in Game 7 of the 2000 conference finals, just as fans born before him could remember the no. 2 pick in the 1984 draft, Samuel Paul Bowie. But after all that, and after this particular loss, Clement still tried to stay upbeat. “You know, if we can just go .500 the rest of the season, we’ll still be in the playoffs,” he said. “That’s still a good year.”

That morning, his team had more wins than any other in the NBA. But one day and one loss later, Clement was already managing expectations, hoping the Blazers could keep their heads above water. And that’s the reality in Portland right now. The standings and the game film say the Trail Blazers are very, very good. But no one knows if they can trust what they’ve seen.

This, we know, is real: The Blazers are 26-8, a game out of first in the Western Conference, and only eight wins away from bettering their record from last year.

When you ask people around the NBA to list the reasons for Portland’s success, common themes emerge. Some explanations are tangible: The Blazers score points more efficiently than any other team in the league and their defense is merely bad rather than dreadful. Terry Stotts’s “flow” offensive system keeps his players constantly moving,1 and this motion results in open 3s, which the Blazers make at a higher percentage than anyone else in the league. They are good because, says Bobcats guard Chris Douglas-Roberts: “This game is really simple. Really, really simple. You get a great 4-man (LaMarcus Aldridge) and a great point guard (Lillard) and then you surround them with shooters. When you have that, you really got something.”

The addition of a true center, Robin Lopez, has helped the Blazers defend the paint at a respectable level, leaving them eighth in the league guarding shots near the basket, according to Synergy Sports. Mo Williams and Dorell Wright have added scoring punch to a bench that was among the league’s worst a year ago. Several players — some young, some well into their careers — “just flat-out got better at basketball” during the offseason, according to Stotts.

Now, here’s something more elusive to explain this team’s growth: When members of the Blazers point to the differences between this year and last, inevitably, early in their answers, they all mention chemistry.

“Great chemistry on this team,” says Williams. “I can’t speak enough about the chemistry,” adds Aldridge. “Our hidden strength,” explains Stotts, “is that we just have great chemistry.”

Among the players, however, there’s some confusion about how exactly this came to be. “I wish I knew the secret to it,” says Aldridge. “I really do. You can have a good team without chemistry. I’ve been on those teams. But when you put certain guys together, sometimes it just works out. It’s just there.”

It’s on the court, where the guards orbit around Aldridge with improvised precision — every screen at the right time, every cut to the right place. It’s there on the bench, where Thomas Robinson shouts “lunch meat!” every time Aldridge gets the ball in the post. (“Whenever somebody on him,” Robinson explained to BlazersEdge, “he eat him. Lunch meat. That’s how it is.”) It’s there in the locker room, where players laugh about a free agent the front office once nearly signed, one whose wife came to hunt for houses, saw the lack of city lights and the abundance of evergreen trees, and told her husband that if he wanted a happy marriage, he needed to find a different team. And it’s there on the practice court, where Robinson interrupts an interview to bump fists with Aldridge’s son, LaMarcus Jr., before lifting the toddler in the air and carrying him, airplane-style, around the gym.

Though these moments occur organically, the structure that encourages them was created by design. Portland has constructed these Blazers with chemistry in mind.

In the summer of 2012, Terry Stotts stood on the floor at the Blazers’ practice facility and sent an intern and an administrative assistant running around the court, all to demonstrate for his potential bosses the principles of “flow.” Stotts had spent the last four seasons on staff with Rick Carlisle in Dallas, where he’d orchestrated the offense that helped the Mavs win an NBA championship in 2011. Now, he walked the court with a quintet of Trail Blazers staffers. He diagrammed his sets. He ran them through drills. “It was just like a practice,” Stotts remembers, “only the talent level was just a little bit lower than what we had in Dallas.”

By this time, Portland had already assembled its roster for the upcoming season. The front office wanted to wait until it signed its 15th player, and only once the team was in place did it find a coach who would fit. That roster included an All-Star power forward, a scoring point guard, and a bevy of shooters. In short: It looked a lot like the Dirk Nowitzki–and–Jason Terry–led Dallas team with whom Stotts had won a title. So the Blazers hired Stotts, a coach who could be called a “retread” after being fired from two head-coaching jobs.

Earlier that summer the Blazers had added Lillard, a lightly recruited high school player who had spent much of the previous four years dominating collegiate nobodies in the Big Sky conference. Like Stotts, Lillard had shown up for his interview in Portland certain that he deserved his future job. Stotts was the one coach who’d watched every play of every Blazers game in the season that had just ended before he arrived for his initial interview with the team. Lillard was the one who’d sat at dinner with team executives and explained why Portland needed a scoring point guard and why no one was better-equipped for the position than he was. “I didn’t try to impress them,” says Lillard. “I didn’t try to be anything but who I am. I knew the roster. I knew they needed me. And I wanted to come here.”

In Lillard, Stotts had a point guard who could play on or off the ball, and in then-23-year-old Nicolas Batum, he had a 6-foot-8 forward capable of running the point. “I love having that dynamic,” says Stotts. “Because when Nicolas is initiating the offense, a lot of times he’s guarded by guys who aren’t used to defending ball screens the way you have to in that situation. And when Damian is off the ball, a lot of times he’s guarded by guys who aren’t used to chasing someone around.”

Alongside Matthews, Aldridge, and then-Blazer J.J. Hickson, the team produced an offense that reached heights of dizzying beauty and effectiveness. Yet the Blazers were betrayed by their bench and by their struggles on defense. New coach, new point guard, same failures. The result: a 33-49 season and a star, in Aldridge, who reportedly had visions of leaving Portland behind.

The first time Aldridge visited Portland, as a 20-year-old preparing for the 2006 NBA draft, he saw the clouds and the trees and the hills and he called his mom, back home in flat, dusty Texas, and he asked, “Where am I?”

“Do you remember the computer game you used to play as a kid?” she asked. “Oregon Trail? That’s where you are.”

“Oh,” Aldridge remembers saying, “I guess that makes sense.”

Aldridge and Portland were not an instant match. Though he was drafted second overall, the front office discussed him as a “project,” while Roy, picked four spots lower in the same draft, became a star almost from day one. Aldridge remembers performing well one game, then languishing on the bench the next. He remembers the way the city embraced and adored Roy while paying scant attention to him. Even now, when a Blazers beat reporter refers to Aldridge as “Mr. Portland,” he shakes his head. “Nah,” he says. “That’s still B. Roy.”

And so it came to be that last season, with the Blazers losing and showing no signs of getting significantly better, with Aldridge in danger of joining the long line of All-Stars who never get to play for contending teams, reports began to circulate saying Aldridge wanted out. Aldridge says he never asked for a trade, but he has no qualms admitting that he’d grown tired of losing, and surely he’d also grown tired of the rotating coaches and executives, all preaching patience, all saying they were building something and that he was important to it, that he needed to keep doing his job and soon enough things would turn around.

But the Blazers’ front office held firm. They added a big man, Lopez, who could help Aldridge protect the rim on defense and give him more room to work on offense. They added bench scorers who could relieve Aldridge from watching Portland leads evaporate each time he sat down to rest. They looked for players who would complement — not compete with — the centerpieces already in place. If a free agent’s style of play seemed like it might clash with Aldridge, Lillard, Matthews, or Batum, the Blazers avoided him. The Blazers talk about being a “players first” organization, and with their new additions, that meant telling those players, with no sugarcoating, exactly what their roles would be. Lopez would bang. Wright would shoot. Williams would distribute and score, but he would not start. Earl Watson, the 34-year-old journeyman biding his time until the day he becomes an NBA coach, would instruct and advise and occasionally, when necessary, play.

Stotts made efforts to increase Aldridge’s influence on the team. “I view this as a partnership,” says Stotts. “He has just as much invested in this team as I do.” So Stotts relies on Aldridge to serve as the voice of the players. When he’s wondering how hard to push in practice, he asks Aldridge how much the team can handle. When he’s thinking of rescheduling a flight, or of arranging a team meal, he relies on Aldridge to let him know what works best for the rest of the guys. “Before this year, I couldn’t do that,” says Aldridge. “I felt like it was my team, but if I ever spoke up, I was just forcing it. It’s more natural now.” That’s partly due to Aldridge’s maturation. It’s also partly due to Watson, who’s been known to pull Aldridge aside and remind him when it’s time to speak. And it’s partly due to Stotts, who insists on granting Aldridge ownership, sometimes even consulting him on substitution patterns, asking which of two players is a better fit at certain points in a game.

In the offseason, Aldridge declared himself satisfied by the new additions, even predicting that Portland would be enough improved to make the playoffs as the seventh seed. But 26-8? “No one expected this,” he says. “But you could see signs of it. We looked good in camp and it was a question of, ‘Can we do it in games?’ Then it was good in preseason and the question was, ‘Is it going to be there in the regular season?’ And now it is.

“Soon,” Aldridge adds, “it’s going to be, ‘Will it be there in the playoffs?'”

And now we’re back where we started. Back to asking, Are the Blazers for real? The Blazers themselves don’t seem concerned with whether what they’re doing is, in fact, for real. Or perhaps they are and they just won’t say. Or perhaps the reason Aldridge half-shrugs and Stotts shakes his head with a grin and Matthews contorts into something that may not be a grimace but certainly is not a smile is because 26-8 — with wins over Oklahoma City and San Antonio and Indiana — should be more than enough to show that this team’s accomplishments and potential on a basketball court are, you know, real.

Maybe the Blazers can win a playoff series, or two, or even more. Their fans seem hopeful but cautious. “There’s a lot of wariness,” says Eric Gundersen, a Blazers blogger turned beat writer. “They really like this team — they love Aldridge and Lillard — but they’re really skeptical.” Says Clement, the former usher: “I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Yet asking if the Blazers can sustain their success may be missing the point. Come spring, this team may well contend, and if any fan base deserves a playoff run, it’s Portland. But regardless of what happens in April or May, Portland is getting moments worth remembering right now. Moments like last Thursday, late in a blowout win over the Bobcats. The night had been filled with moments that made you believe, moments when shooters caught the ball in rhythm and fired on balance and trotted back on defense before the ball sailed through the net. Moments when the offense looked exquisite and the defense looked pleasantly average and the Bobcats, by comparison, looked like they were not playing the same sport.

But the best moment came in the final two minutes. Portland had made 21 3s, enough to tie the franchise record, two short of the NBA mark. With just more than a minute to go, Meyers Leonard caught the ball near the top of the key. At once, the crowd cried “Shoot!” and Leonard, who has made only four 3s in his college and pro careers combined, looked like he just might. Instead he passed to a teammate, but seconds later he caught the ball again, this time on the wing. Once more the crowd begged him to fire away, and this time, Leonard did just that. A 3 would break the franchise record, would send the crowd into hysterics, would leave a raw second-year backup big man with one of the most fun moments of his young career. Everyone stood. Everyone screamed.

The ball hit the rim. Brick. There would be no record, no reason for the arena to erupt. And still, they remained standing and kept screaming, and soon the buzzer sounded and the streamers came down and the noise refused to subside. Judging by the crowd, Leonard may as well have hit the shot. The Blazers may as well have just won an overtime thriller against the Heat, or the seventh game of a playoff series, or anything — besides a blowout over Charlotte.

There will be time for the Blazers to be tested. And barring a collapse, the spring will allow them to prove whether they can truly contend. But for now there are moments like this, on a weeknight in early January against the Bobcats, and what, exactly, could be any more real than that?

Filed Under: NBA, Sports

Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn