The Blazers Are Weird in the Most Disciplined Way, and They're Winning
How the Blazers took advantage of a down year in the West, got pretty weird within a very disciplined system, and maybe figured out something big. Maybe.
Photo by Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports
This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
When the sell-off came last year, no one was really all that mad. The Portland Blazers had stalled out, won about the same number of games as they did the previous year, and then been thoroughly beaten up and down the court by the Memphis Grizzlies. LaMarcus Aldridge, no one's favorite player, was ready to move on. Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Robin Lopez were all in line for big paydays of the kind a rebuilding team carries like a millstone; letting them go or sending them away was the only responsible thing to do. GM Neil Olshey took a few fliers, made a few upside plays, and kept on hand all the recent draftees that had mostly languished on the bench under coach Terry Stotts; Damian Lillard was not going anywhere. Portland Metropolitan braced for a year of Rebuilding Basketball, as they had done before and would, inevitably, do again. Portland is an enthusiastic fan base, but not a particularly demanding or impatient one.
So, as we stand together on the precipice of a Portland Trail Blazers' second-round playoff series, it is reasonable to ask: What the fuck is happening?
Neil Olshey has graying hair and wears a suit at all times. I saw him wearing a tracksuit once, but people, that is still a suit. This guy loves suits. If you opened his closet, I am certain that there would be some number of suits in there. An interesting fact about Olshey is that his father was a particularly fine suit that latched onto a man like a parasite and controlled his brain. This means that Olshey is genetically half-suit. His mother is a regular person.
This summer, before LaMarcus Aldridge left but almost certainly after Neil knew LaMarcus was going to leave, he consulted a suit he holds in particularly high regard. "What should I do, Suity?" he asked. He closed his eyes and the idol responded: "NEIL, MY FINEST WORSHIPPER: FOLLOW THE PATH OF MODERATION, AND YOU WILL BE REWARDED."
And so he did. Batum was traded to Charlotte for the young, extremely raw big man Noah Vonleh and athletic bald shooting guard Gerald Henderson. Matthews and Lopez, walk-a-go-bye. C.J. McCollum and Meyers Leonard, the team's mercurial 2014 Lottery picks often benched by the vet-tending Stotts, were retained. Al-Faroq Aminu, a wonderful wings-and-forwards defender who has trouble shooting, and Ed Davis, a Default NBA Power Forward, were acquired in mid-market free agent signings. You know how rebuild acquisition goes: little moves, hitting singles, hoping to build a decent framework for whatever's next. Portland's only truly indulgent move was acquiring Mason Plumlee, a NBA-level center on the last year of his rookie deal who was languishing in Brook Lopez's curly-headed shadow in Brooklyn. The Blazers started the season $20 million under the salary cap.
But then all that slap-hitting created some runs; singles began dropping in, one after another. McCollum, this year's Most Improved Player, who really did seem like he was primed to wash out when he flailed around and rode pine as a 22-year-old rookie, thrived in a new role with secondary ball-handing responsibility. He and Lillard are both pick-and-roll guards who do great work spotting up, giving the Blazers a two-pronged dribble drive attack that allows the team to maintain exceptional spacing. Again, Suity's prophecy plays out: moderate.
Aminu maintained his level of stellar defensive play and also learned to shoot, lifting himself out of his rotational basketball life and into the glorious cosmos of starterhood. He even put a playoff hurt on the Clippers, the team that drafted him, from the perimeter:
Plumlee hasn't been the defensive force coaches pine after in the deepest night, but the relative open space and order of Portland, compared to whatever they hell the Nets were doing, opened up his offensive game in interesting ways. Watch that Aminu clip and take note of how many times Plumlee gets him the ball in the corner or on a baseline cut while meeting a defender in the paint on a pick-and-roll.
It's not really what you think of when you think of great big man passing—that's more about the high post, subtle wrists, and some weird wizardry from kind of a fat guy. A successful pass from Marc Gasol makes you sit back in your chair, eyes dilated, shot through with pure pleasure, laughing at how The Magic Bear tricked those idiots AGAIN. Plumlee, by contrast, heaves his square-shaped body down the lane, combining giant fast-moving legs and court-tracking eyes and snapping arms into a functional movement that honestly looks very difficult every time it happens. He's averaging six assists per game in the team's series against the Clippers, which is more than Lillard and nearly twice what McCollum has managed.
As the team came together in the middle of the season, nearly everyone ended up contributing in some way. Lillard remained Lillard. Vonleh is still an underdevolped black box, but he fit into the starting lineup in the second half. Maurice Harkless didn't blow up, but he's playing hard defense against Los Angeles. Henderson and Davis played the roles the good lord created them to play, with gusto and effectiveness. Allen Crabbe patrolled the wings in a one-man war to claim the Earth's entire supply of naturally occurring fast-break corner three-pointers. He's very serious about it.
As a thinking human, you like the Golden State Warriors, the same way you liked the Webber Administration Kings and the Nash Suns. They play fast, open, free, unencumbered—that's how basketball should be, how life should be. They play as a team, under control. They are geometry, a sphere in motion. It's beautiful, still.
But as time goes by, the New Thing becomes the New Normal becomes Normal, just normal. Basketball is nuts-deep in modernity—offenses are designed with math in mind, organizations systematically weed out egos and religious thinking from their front offices. You're into it now, and it's fun now, but it will get staler and staler. Eventually, as the NBA becomes a fully optimized workplace, we will all beg for the return of chaos.
Terry Stotts has been, very quietly, one of the vanguards of Modern Basketball. He was an offensive assistant on the 2011 Mavericks, the harbingers of our present philosophical state. He brought those same motion principles and heavy three-point attack the Blazers, and the product was good, orderly, hard to complain about, but touched by a sterility that made them difficult to really wrap a fan's heart around. Blame Aldridge for this, if you like.
But this new incarnation of the team is neither boring nor orderly. They do still play with Stotts' basic principles, and felt deeper and deeper in communion with them as the year went along, but the personnel just isn't disciplined the way the Aldridge squad was. Normally, I would be airing this point out to friends at a cool party but I believe that stuffing players this idiosyncratic, unpolished, and raw into Stotts' ultra-disciplined system is what gives the team its singular energy. The ball moves along per the modern tactical script, but the actors don't say their lines quite right. It's messier, sillier. They vibrate with an uncertainty and rough unpredictability that can't be simulated by players who are masters of their dominion.
Can I quit bullshitting? The West was absolute garbage this year. Just fucking terrible, top to bottom. The Pelicans sucked, the Nuggets sucked, the Suns SUPER sucked. The Jazz didn't put it together and the Grizzlies finally started to break apart in earnest. The Rockets, the surest and most reasonable team imaginable, drowned in hatred for each other and themselves, and just washed out of the playoffs in the most depressing way imaginable.
The only teams who weren't disappointments on some level were the Warriors, who you know about; the Spurs, who are the Spurs; and the Blazers. So even though Portland won ten fewer games than they did last year, they still managed to maintain their playoff seeding and look like successes. And then, when they got there, their opponents' two best players got injured as shit. They're going to win their series, which means this season is going to look like a triumph in retrospect.
This fact could bode poorly for their future success. Maybe everyone else progresses, they don't, womp womp, welcome to the lottery. Or everyone out West will remain kind of bad for a little while, and Portland can continue riding mediocrity or incremental improvement to more playoff experiences. Or, or: this experience has bonded them together and they will grow into a top-half payoff in short order. Picking any single one would be intellectually dishonest. Strange as it might seem, ruling out the last option would be, too.