February 29, 2016

SHATZMAN | How the Trailblazers Avoided the 76ers’ Mistakes

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“Trust the process.” It’s the mantra that 76ers’ fans preach to one another when their team’s 15-point halftime deficit balloons to 25 five minutes into the third quarter. It’s what my friends, now semi-mockingly, tell me after a Nik Stauskas air-ball, or a Nerlens Noel missed dunk or when footage of Joel Embiid draining three-pointers surfaces online: good or bad, it’s part of the process. But what exactly is the process? In 2014, the Sixers went 19-63. Today they are 8-51. And I don’t mean to suggest that the Sixers’ young core lacks potential, or that Joel Embiid’s injuries haven’t delayed the process significantly, or that the upcoming draft is irrelevant, but I think most fans would agree that the process rhetoric that began as declarative is now far more interrogative: “Trust the process!” is now “trust the process…?

Draft picks are crucial. Teams tank to get the elite prospects. I get it. But there are other ways to rebuild a team, too. Heading into this season, the Portland Trail Blazers epitomized “rebuilding.” All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge left for the Spurs in free agency. Wes Matthews went to the Mavericks. Robin Lopez for the Knicks. Nicholas Batum was traded to Charlotte. Portland lost four of its five starters from what many believed was a championship-contending team. Despite acquiring some solid replacements in the offseason, Portland’s 2015-16 campaigns was declared over before it started. The Blazers were ranked 28th in Sports Illustrated’s preseason power rankings, ahead of only the Sixers and Timberwolves, and behind the Nets, Knicks and Lakers.

Today, the Blazers are 32-28, good for seventh in the Western Conference, two and a half games in front of the Rockets, who Sports Illustrated ranked sixth in the same rankings. How can this be? Portland’s offseason acquisitions were guys like Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee — not big-name, high-price free agents. In fact, Portland is currently last in the league in team payroll, paying just $53 million, compared to Houston’s $86 million, and Cleveland’s $107 million. It isn’t as though the Blazers’ went out and spent a ton of money to replace Aldridge and the other three starters. So, then, how are the Blazers’ this good?

Portland’s success can be attributed to a number of factors. First, Damian Lillard is criminally underrated, and his team’s performance this season confirms this long-held notion. Lillard’s greatness was somewhat overshadowed by Aldridge the past three seasons. This season, Lillard is the clear go-to guy. He’s averaging 25 points, seven assists and four boards per game on a winning team. But he doesn’t win games by himself. Portland’s success is also due in part to the emergence of CJ McCollum, who the Blazers drafted 10th overall out of Lehigh in 2013. McCollum is scoring more than 20 points a night, and is proving to be as consistent a knockdown-shooting two-guard as there is in the league. When Lillard missed a couple of games in December, McCollum led the Blazers in his absence, posting a 35-11-9 line in a win over Sacramento. McCollum was buried behind Wesley Matthews and Arron Afflalo on the depth chart in his first two professional seasons.

But the Blazers’ developed their 2013 lottery selection, and while basketball fans wrote Portland off, the Blazers’ knew they were about to unleash a stud guard who would have a prime opportunity to breakout in the Association. McCollum and Lillard — 24 and 25-years-old, respectively — are and should continue to be as dynamic a backcourt as any in seasons to come. Blazers’ GM Neil Olshey went in-house to improve the Blazers, handing guys like McCollum, Meyers Leonard and Allen Crabbe significant roles, to which they have responded with effective play. But Olshey was also frugal in acquiring productive on-court value while spending less than all other teams. I mentioned that Portland traded for Mason Plumlee and signed Al-Farouq Aminu, both of whom have been reliable starters for the Trail Blazers. Olshey also signed an athletic big-man in Ed Davis, and traded for Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh and Maurice Harkless, all of whom have contributed to Portland’s success, whether in a bench role or with the starting unit. When a scoring duo like Lillard and McCollum is surrounded with defensive-minded wing players who can shoot, and big-men who can both rebound and other big-men who can spread the floor, the result will be potent, consistent offensive production. Through in-house development, savvy personnel decisions, and the dependency of Damian Lillard, the Blazers have earned their spot in the Western Conference standings. Their success is no fluke.

Portland’s extraordinary rebuild isn’t something that can be copied to perfection. The front office, coaching, and player personnel must work in harmony for this to be successful. The Rockets, although not facing a rebuilding situation, flubbed big-time in trading for Ty Lawson, who is earning an elite-level salary to sit on the bench for a team fighting to make the playoffs. The Rockets also fired their coach midseason, in part because their star players are divas. So when a team lacks the unity of management, coaches and players, a situation like the one in Houston — from Western Conference Finals to eighth seed despite essentially the same team — can occur. In the NBA, big-name players don’t always equate to wins, as is the case in Houston, as well as Sacramento.

In Philadelphia’s case, though, a Portland-like rebuild is obviously out of the question. They have no Damian Lillard to surround with production. The Sixers traded their only possible Lillards — Jrue Holiday and Nikola Vucevic — in order to begin the “process” a few seasons ago. Now the Sixers must attempt to do what the Thunder did: capitalize on top lottery picks over a string of drafts, ultimately forming a Kevin Durant Russell Westbrook-like foundation to build upon. The problem is that the Sixers’ seemingly lack direction, as they have stockpiled big-men with no clear plan for how they will be utilized. The lottery format of the NBA draft — that is, that the worst team is not guaranteed the first overall pick — is also a negative in relying on the draft to rebuild. As other teams improve in far more expedient ways than Philadelphia, Sixers’ fans can only continue to trust the process, in hopes that it eventually works out. And maybe it will. But how long down the road?