Clippers' success hold the blueprint for Blazers
By Candace Buckner
Columbian staff writer
PORTLAND – The blueprints for these Portland Trail Blazers may be found stowed away in one of the cardboard boxes that Neil Olshey packed from his old Los Angeles office.
Before this summer when Olshey took on the Blazers rebuild as general manager, he watched over the Clippers’ ascent. A few years of smart drafting, some good timing with an expiring contract and one big assist from All-Star point guard Chris Paul turned the Clippers from a punch line to a playoff team.
Raw talent and viable assets bunkering down until the big break comes. That’s the hope, the reason to believe that these Portland Trail Blazers could be one magical summer away from Western Conference relevance.
But on Thursday night, the Blazers had to settle for studying from someone else’s blueprint. The Clippers built a huge lead, nearly lost it but their undulating wave of greatness and depth held on for the 103-90 win.
“They just played harder,” first-year Blazer Damian Lillard noticed. “We didn’t have a lot of energy.”
“You see guys like Chris Paul, like Jamal (Crawford) they’re great players because they keep playing,” Nicolas Batum complimented.
“They pretty much did what they wanted,” coach Terry Stotts said.
This is the team that the Blazers, now 2-3, can try to emulate. With Lillard playing the role of franchise point guard like Paul, who scored 21 points. Meyers Leonard harnessing rawness into respect like DeAndre Jordan – “the best center in the West,” just ask Shaquille O’Neal – who made 8 of 10 shots all within close range for 21 points. And the motion principles from the mind of Stotts that liberate scorers, like Vinny Del Negro’s offense that allowed Jamal Crawford to come off the bench and lead all scorers with 25 points.
No, the situations aren’t exactly the same – the NBA helped hand deliver Paul to the Clippers so the Blazers shouldn’t wait for another “basketball reasons” miracle to drop their way. Still, parallels do exist for the team Olshey once managed and the one he now watches over. It starts with the rosters.
The 2011-2012 Clippers had valuable players, Blazers are molding theirs.
“We need to develop internally right now and we need to grow there,” Olshey said after the Thursday morning shootaround.
Here’s how these Clippers were built
“The first step is asset accumulation,” Olshey said. “If we hadn’t accumulated the pieces, if we hadn’t had a 29-year-old All-Star like Chris Kaman on an expiring contracts and budding All-Stars like Eric Gordon and big-time draft prospects like Al-Farouq and the draft pick that they required from the Minnesota trade, we’re not in play for Chris Paul whether we want to be or not.”
“So, what you’ve got to understand in this league – especially with the new collective bargaining agreement – having assets which give you the ability and flexibility to make deals is paramount. And you’ve got to build through the draft, you got to acquire players through the draft and you get to the point where other teams that have franchise-caliber players, that for one reason or another, have to move them, you become a destination for those players. Not just because you have the pieces to acquire them, but you have the pieces that will still be on the roster that once that player gets there.”
Some of the pieces already play here.
In the rookie class: Lillard hit a pair of 3-pointers and dished out three assists during the lively third quarter, and finished with 16 and four. Leonard played more minutes than starting center J.J. Hickson and threw down three dunks and made his two free throws for eight points.
The veteran leaders: Batum chased around Paul and Crawford through various stages of the night and still contributed offensively for 23 points and five assists. The Blazers also have an All-Star in LaMarcus Aldridge but did not come close to meeting his his average for the season. Aldridge attempted and missed only two shots in the fourth quarter and finished with 14 points. Wesley Matthews scored 10 on 4 of 12 shooting.
So, the foundation is forming. These Blazers are attempting to build what the Clippers now enjoy. Nights like Thursday only illuminate how much work it will take.
“We know when we play like that, with a lot of energy and when we’re flying around and playing hard and moving the ball, we know that we can play with one of the best teams in the league,” Lillard said. “But at the same time, we can’t put ourselves in that hole because we’re not that level of a team to be able to fight back every time.”