Can the Portland Trail Blazers Become the Next Oklahoma City Thunder?

Bryant Knox@@BryantKnoxFeatured ColumnistOctober 30, 2012

Mar. 27, 2012; Portland, OR, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) shoots the ball over Portland Trail Blazers forward J.J. Hickson (21) during the fourth quarter of the game at the Rose Garden. Westbrook scored 32 points as the Thunder won the game 109-95. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-US PRESSWIRE

It’s no secret that the Portland Trail Blazers are going through a rebuilding phase in Rip City, and what better team to emulate in today’s NBA than the defending Western Conference Champion Oklahoma City Thunder?

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but the ironic part about this comparison is that it wasn’t too long ago when the Thunder were following the model of success created by the Trail Blazers.

Portland's goal was to groom their own Big Three organically through the draft and with a strong perimeter scorer in Brandon Roy leading the way, the team was expected to be one of the top contenders in the Western Conference by this point in their growth.

Unfortunately, the injury bug bit hard and both Roy and Greg Oden have been forced to move on because of incessant knee problems.

Now the tides have turned and Portland is looking to follow in the footsteps of their division rival.

OKC has gone from the basement of the Western Conference to being perennial championship contenders, and while the Blazers may not go down as the worst team out west in 2013, the potential for another lottery pick is right around the corner if the team can’t win with youth and energy on a regular basis.

Portland has never been a top-tier free-agent location. The signings of the past few years—and near signing of Roy Hibbert—have started to change that, but it’s unlikely that the league’s top stars will want to join a rebuilding program tucked away in the Pacific Northwest.

If you’re going to build through the draft, the first thing you have to do is make smart draft picks. The Thunder have drafted extremely well, and while luck is certainly part of it, knowing who is going to mesh with your roster is just as important.

The Blazers have been known in the past to draft players who haven’t panned out, but the selection of Damian Lillard in 2012 has left fans with the hope that recent trends are about to change.

Lillard was the right choice this season, and now the team is banking on the idea that he is one of the games’ next great point guards. His ceiling is uncertain at this point, but if he can convert talent and potential into on-the-court production, the athletic faceoffs between him and Russell Westbrook are going to garner national attention for these small markets.

Offensively, the Thunder are about as elite as it comes in today’s game. They scored 103.1 points per contest in 2012, they ran the fifth-fastest pace in the entire league and they’ve become known as one of the most exciting teams to take the court night in and night out.

Simply put, they're young, they're fast and they're one of the most enjoyable teams to watch in the entire NBA.

With Terry Stotts now running the show in Portland, the Blazers have a chance to earn that same kind of reputation.

This team has a chance to really pick up the pace with Nate McMillan out and a whole slew of young prospects in. The Blazers may not win at the same rate as the Thunder right away, but they have an opportunity to keep fans excited with a high volume of points in an up-tempo system.

The Thunder are known far more for their offense than their defense, but they certainly have their low-post stopper in Serge Ibaka, and they averaged a league-most 8.2 blocks per game in 2012. If Meyers Leonard proves to be as effective in the NBA as he was at Illinois, he has a chance to become Portland’s beast in the middle.

The big man is a wild card at this point on the offensive end, but with players such as LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum looking to score, Leonard will fill his role nicely if he can utilize his 7’1” frame effectively.

The Blazers will forever be linked to the Thunder because of the former I-5 rivalry and the 2007 draft. Fans in OKC might not know it, but it pains the people of Portland to watch Kevin Durant leading a championship-caliber team knowing the Trail Blazers had the option to select him.

If this young team is going to make strides toward greatness, it’s going to be a process. Rome wasn’t built in a day, the Thunder weren't champions overnight and Rip City hasn’t been revived just because of one decent offseason.

It’s going to take some serious work, but if the Blazers can stay the course despite the bumps that lie ahead, they have a chance to make the rebuild of 2012 a distant memory sooner rather than later.