By valuing continuity and team culture, the Portland Trail Blazers are setting themselves up for long-term success in a way few teams have done in the past.
It is no secret that throughout NBA history, the majority of championships have been won by large market teams. Since the NBA’s inception in 1946, the Celtics, Lakers, Knicks and Bulls have combined for 41 out of 73 possible championships.
This is largely explained by the fact that star players prefer to play for large market teams, making it very difficult for smaller franchises like the Trail Blazers to hold on to the star players they draft. Despite being drafted to fairly successful teams, it is no surprise that star players like LeBron James, Paul George, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony all elected to flee their teams for bigger markets at some time in their careers.
Despite the NBA’s attempts to level the playing field with salary cap limits, history has shown us that smaller markets will always be at a disadvantage in the NBA, with the only recent exception being the San Antonio Spurs. This makes things very difficult for GMs like Neil Olshey and franchises like the Portland Trail Blazers.
As great of a city as Portland is, the Blazers have struggled attracting free agents to the team throughout their history. Up to this point, the biggest-name free agents that the Blazers have ever signed have been guys like Andre Miller, Kenny Anderson, and Carmelo Anthony. And as we know, it took two or three failed attempts and complete desperation for Anthony to eventually take a chance with Portland.
Despite Paul and Jody Allen’s willingness to spend big on players, the Blazers have routinely lost out on free agents to larger market teams. In some cases, they’ve even lost out to smaller market teams who were much less successful than them at the time.
In 2015, the Blazers were unable to sign Greg Monroe to a questionable max-contract offer, who chose to sign with the Milwaukee Bucks instead. Similarly, the Blazers were unable to secure a max-contract deal with Chandler Parsons in 2016, who chose to sign with the Memphis Grizzlies. Even though the Blazers dodged a bullet with both of these deals, it is quite concerning that they were unable to make them.
Instead of ignoring the obvious disadvantage that the Blazers are at, Terry Stotts, Damian Lillard, Neil Olshey, and the rest of the organization have taken a different approach. While Portland’s passionate fans and wildly underrated city do draw attention, most of their success in convincing players to stay in Portland can be attributed to internal factors.
Behind Lillard’s incredible leadership and Stotts’ willingness to give players freedom on offense, most players have raved about their time in Portland in recent years. While attracting players to the team remains to be tough, getting them to stay has been much less of an issue.
Ed Davis, Mason Plumlee, Wesley Matthews, Shabazz Napier, Al-Farouq Aminu, Meyers Leonard, Enes Kanter, and Evan Turner all come to mind when thinking about players that wanted to stay in Portland but were voluntarily traded/unsigned by the Blazers in recent years. While none of those names jump off the page at you (or in this case, the screen), most of them are high-tier bench players that any top team would openly welcome for the right price.
Before being blind-sided by the Blazers in 2018, Ed Davis told the media that his intentions were to stay in Portland. When asked if he would re-sign with the team, Davis responded, “For sure. 100-percent. I’ve been here three years, so the comfort level is there. Since I’ve been here, the fans supporting me…I respect and appreciate that.”
As far as current players, CJ McCollum, Rodney Hood, Kent Bazemore, and Jusuf Nurkic have all praised the Blazers and signed, or talked about re-signing, for the team simply because of the culture that Lillard and Stotts have established. Hood and Nurkic both could have made far more money somewhere else, but chose to take a pay-cut to stay on a team that they felt a connection to.
When asked about his decision to re-sign with Portland, Hood explained his thought process. “What can make me happy? Where can I fit?… It was about long-term. Where can I find a home in this league? Where can I be the best player I can be? Where is my family going to fit? All of that played into it, and it always came back to Portland. Every single time.” For Hood, Portland was the first team that had made basketball enjoyable for him in a long time. He was happy here, and did not want to give that up for any money value.
Whether or not Kent Bazemore re-signs for the Blazers this summer remains to be seen. However, when asked about his fit in Portland, Bazemore gave high praise in an interview with Jason Quick of the Athletic. “I’m all about the law of attraction. And I always said, ‘You need to get to Portland … you need to get to Portland … you need to get to Portland.’” According to Quick, when he provided Atlanta with a list of teams that he wanted to be traded to, Portland was number one.
Perhaps Bazemore’s love for Portland will allow the Blazers to re-sign him to a team friendly deal. And although unlikely, the culture that Lillard and Stotts have created might just be enough to convince guys like Carmelo Anthony, Hassan Whiteside, and further down the road Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons, to do the same.
Although currently plagued by injuries, there is no doubt that the current culture in Portland has helped the Blazers overcome a significant disadvantage in attracting players to the team. Last season, the Blazers made their first conference-finals appearance since the 1999-2000 season.
As time goes on, the word will continue to spread to other players throughout the NBA, just like it did to Bazemore. Former Blazers will urge their friends to sign with the team, and current ones will continue to take discounts to stick around. And eventually, it will make a huge difference.
So next time you question Stotts’ defensive schemes or his allowing to let Lillard and McCollum shoot whatever shots they want, think about how much the franchise would be hurt by his firing. He is a stellar offensive coach and has built a culture that players love. The Blazers cannot afford to erase all of the progress that they have made since his hiring. Instead, they must remain patient and make smart moves, as I firmly believe that players will continue to show love for Portland, and that this will pay off in big ways in the near future.