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Portland Trail Blazers Emerge From Aldridge Saga Healthier Than Ever

Thursday, February 18, 2016

 

On Monday, Presidents Day, the Professional Basketball Writers Association announced their 2015 writing contest awards.

Among the big winners was the excellent Jason Quick, formally of The Oregonian, now of CSNNW. Quick won best column of the year for his piece in the immediate aftermath of LaMarcus Aldridge’s decision to sign with the San Antonio Spurs. It was titled, “LaMarcus Aldridge is gone, and now the Trail Blazers can exhale their relief.”

It was a terrific and intelligent piece of sports-writing – fitted with the anecdotes of a beat-writer and the clout of a columnist – but equally as important, it was right. Now, some seven and a half months after it was published, it looks close to prescient.

When Aldridge bolted – along with most of the rest of the Blazers’ 2014-15 roster – it seemed like this franchise was headed for several lost years at a minimum. In fact, much of the summer of 2015 in Portland felt like a Blazers funeral. 

But, while upholstered with chilly statements like, “I appreciated the level of relevance his [Aldridge’s] play afforded the Blazers,” Quick’s article stated from the outset the true feeling at One Center Court around LA’s departure. 

The Blazers weren’t happy to see Aldridge go. But they weren’t exactly devastated either.

For several years, the Blazers had placated Aldridge. The club made Aldridge the face of marketing campaigns, pushed his All-Star bids, and dealt with his reluctance to play injured.

The efforts wore people down. Aldridge’s bouts with selfishness and insecurity came to a head in the playoffs last year, when an absolutely dismal effort against the Memphis Grizzlies suggested that his head was already back in Texas.

As long as Aldridge – and his ego – remained in town, the Blazers couldn’t fully become Damian Lillard’s team. Of course, Aldridge’s presence made Portland a contender – and had Wesley Matthews not gone down last spring, who knows where the Blazers would have ended up last year.

So losing LA hurt. Bit when the dust settled this summer, the Blazers were left with Lillard, Neil Olshey, and Terry Stotts – and, starting from scratch as an NBA franchise, it’s hard to do better than those three.

The first half of this season has borne that truth out. The Blazers sit in seventh place in the Western Conference at the All-Star break, with eight wins in their last ten games.

With several of the teams teams at the foot of the Western Conference having collapsed in fairly dramatic fashion – hello, Houston! – it’s not at all difficult to envision a world where the Blazers are playing playoff basketball in the spring.

The fact that Portland is competitive now – and, for their warts at the beginning of the year, they’ve almost always been interesting – is terrific. Winning is always better than rebuilding.

But what the events of the summer – along with the new CBA – also gave Portland was a ton of flexibility. The Blazers need to spend. They need to spend in excess of $20 million before next season. 

And that brings us to Thursday’s NBA trade deadline. The Blazers have been kicked around in a multitude of rumors, with no clear signal that the team is going to be active in the next few days.

CJ McCollum, the Blazers’ dynamo two-guard, has been deemed untouchable by the organization. He shouldn’t be. McCollum and Lillard have so much in common, it’s hard to see a world in which they’re the two main components of a championship contender.

But whether Portland listens to offers for McCollum or not, this Blazers operation of 2016 should be treasured. It’s ridiculously hard to find good NBA coaches, and in Terry Stotts, the Blazers’ have one of the league’s best. 

If the Blazers’ successfully complete their playoff push, Stotts will be in the Coach of the Year conversation. Olshey will be in the Executive of the Year conversation as well. 

Mostly, though, this is a fun team. They play with zeal and get better each night. With Aldridge gone, the culture around the club is hugely improved. It’s onwards and upwards.

Paul Allen, so often guilty of meddling, has hardly made a Blazers-related headline in the last four years. That’s excellent news – and the single clearest sign that an organization that couldn’t get out of its own way for years has finally turned a corner.

The NBA is an interesting place right now. This year has been an exemplar in how important culture is in driving success. The Golden State Warriors, who have terrific chemistry, are tearing the league apart. San Antonio, of course, isn’t far behind.

Cleveland, meanwhile, is paying heavily for failing to build its own culture of accountability. The Cavs are a mess – and appear to be in the midst of blowing up what just a year ago looked like a can’t-miss championship lock.

And that’s just the top of the league. The Houston Rockets’ debacle – which the Blazers have had front-row seats for in recent days – has everything to do with the miserable atmosphere around the team. There are similar stories all around the NBA. 

This stuff matters. Talent, of course, counts for the most. But in today’s NBA, an onus is being placed back on franchises to do more than assemble stars. That helps a small-market team like Portland, and softens the blow of Aldridge’s departure that much more. 

This isn’t to say Aldridge was some sort of cancer. He was, by all accounts, capable of great kindness and generosity at times. But this new Blazers outfit feels lighter – more assured, more confident, and maybe even poised to become another perennial playoff team.

The health of this franchise is fairly miraculous when you look at its recent past and what its overcome in the last year. Some, like Quick, saw it coming from a mile away. Others weren’t so sure. But what we know now is this: the Blazers’ renaissance in 2016 is real – and it should only get better from here.

 

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