PORTLAND, Ore.—Talent acquisition hasn't always been easy for the Portland Trail Blazers. Suffice it to say, free-agent superstars aren't taking their talents to Rip City, which is why the draft has been the best avenue to finding players such as LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard.
Entering the 2013-14 NBA season, the Blazers were considered a budding, if not middling organization. It was common knowledge that they were led by their All-Star forward and reigning Rookie of the Year, but having lost 13 straight games to close out 2012-13, nobody gave them a shot to contend in the 2014 playoffs.
As it turned out, expectations shifted almost immediately. The team that was projected to finish 10th out West by ESPN started 24-5, and thanks to the leadership of Lillard and Aldridge, it won its first playoff series since 2000, raising the bar for what's expected moving forward.
Rip City Revival
To comprehend where the Trail Blazers are today, you must first understand where they've been. Players such as Greg Oden, Brandon Roy, Sam Bowie and Bill Walton epitomize the heartbreak this franchise has endured, and if you look far enough into the past, you'll see that Geoff Petrie, the original Trail Blazer, falls into the same category.
While we could discuss ad nauseam the ups and downs this organization has been through in its existence, let's pick up where Aldridge started.
The former Texas Longhorn was selected in 2006, and through his eight-year career, he's been on the ultimate roller coaster. Having been drafted alongside Roy—not to mention a year ahead of Oden—Aldridge was a key cog in Portland's presumed return to prominence.
It took a few years to build a competitive roster, but when the Blazers went 54-28 in 2008-09, they made the postseason for the first time since 2003 and landed the No. 1 spot in ESPN's Future Power Rankings for November '09.
Unfortunately for Aldridge, dark days were on the horizon yet again. Oden played a preposterous 82 games in five seasons due to knee injuries, while Roy was forced into retirement for the same reason in 2011.
The Big Three of Oden, Roy and Aldridge never won more than the 54 games it did in 2009, and following a 2011 postseason elimination, things collapsed. The Blazers won just 28 games in 2011-12, and they earned the 11th pick in the ensuing lottery, as well as the sixth pick courtesy of a trade with the then-Charlotte Bobcats.
Then entered Lillard.
No team can realistically hope for a championship with one star at its disposal—at least not in today's NBA.
No, a team must procure multiple franchise faces when chasing a Larry O'Brien Trophy, and that's what Lillard has given Portland since he entered the Association.
Instantly upon his arrival, Lillard was a crowd favorite. His athleticism was on full display from the start, and his knock-down three-point shooting earned him comparisons to players such as Chauncey Billups.
As B/R's Josh Martin put it following the 2012 draft:
It took Billups five seasons with four different teams to figure it all out and find his niche, when he landed in the Motor City in 2002. The Blazers can only hope that Lillard won't need so much time (or so many stops elsewhere) to become the player that they (most notably, Chad Buchanan) think he can be.
Martin was, without equivocation, correct. Portland drafted Lillard not just to be a starter but also to be a major contributor right away. Luckily for the Blazers, those lofty expectations ultimately came to fruition.
Lillard went on to win Rookie of the Year in 2013, but the team missed the playoffs for its second-straight season. The good news was that the Blazers had drafted a player who was on the brink of stardom—something the organization had desperately craved in a guard since the departure of Roy.
Even better was that the Blazers drafted someone who helped enhance Aldridge's already-solid game. Having seemingly plateaued between 2011 and 2013, the power forward had been graced with a teammate who could simultaneously get him the ball while taking the pressure off of him to score.
That's a rare combination that you don't see in an average floor general, and while Lillard is a former Rookie of the Year, he's more importantly an All-Star alongside his 6'11" teammate; not to mention a third-team All-NBA member (so is Aldridge).
Aldridge and Lillard both made the All-Star game in 2014, marking the first time a Portland tandem had earned that honor that since 1994. The duo was one of just two sets of teammates to reside in the top 17 in points per game this past regular season (the other being Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook), and the same theme held true for top-10 scorers in the postseason.
On top of everything else, Lillard's attitude and mentality complements Aldridge's soft personality perfectly. Emboldened by Lillard's fearlessness, the entire starting lineup—Aldridge included—stepped up its game in 2013-14, and while the deadly pick-and-pop combo of Lillard and Aldridge led the way, leadership is only an effective quality if the players behind you buy into what you're selling.
How Far Can They Go?
Before Lillard ever took the floor as a Trail Blazer, I personally asked him if he and Aldridge could become the next John Stockton and Karl Malone. The question was admittedly sportive, but expectations were high, and fans wanted to hear confidence coming from their point guard of the future.
As it turned out, Lillard delivered, as he has time and time again since.
"That’s saying a lot," the then-22-year-old humbly responded while failing to hold back a chuckle. But the humor was quickly cast aside, as gravitas kicked in.
"I think we can be productive together," the guard said with his brow raised. "I think we complement each other, and hopefully we can be."
Asking Lillard and Aldridge to become one of the greatest one-two punches of all time is unfair two years into their stint together (let alone before they ever played alongside one another). However, the guard was correct that they do, in fact, complement each other nicely—they've already become one of the best guard-forward tandems, as evidenced by their showing in the 2014 postseason.
With Lillard and Aldridge clicking, the Trail Blazers are on the cusp of something great as a cohesive unit. General manager Neil Olshey (not to mention head coach Terry Stotts) has work to do when it comes to bench production and overall defense, but the starting five is one of the best in the league, and the core—as young as it is—has finally turned the corner behind the two go-to options after years of being mired in mediocrity.
As it is for so many teams in today's star-driven NBA, Portland's success starts with the stars. The team must improve to win a title, but its ascension to the top five out West has not-so coincidentally come with the selection of Lillard, who's now 23, and the advancement of Aldridge, who's in his prime at 28.
The Blazers have seen heartbreak over the years, but this group isn't focused on the past. It's ready to compete at the game's highest level, and it's ready to begin fighting for an NBA championship.