Portland vs. Minnesota: Grudge Match!

Photo by lbsterling of Flickr.

The Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves crossed paths several times this summer. Between the two Northwest Division rivals’ long, drawn-out, all-too-public tug-of-war with the heart of Nicolas Batum and the Wolves’ signing of the most popular Blazer of the past 10 years, Brandon Roy, this is shaping up to be one of the more intriguing rivalries in the Western Conference for the next few years. Steve McPherson and I, of course, decided this was a good excuse to email each other a bunch of times about our two hometown teams.

Steve: I’m going to start with a story: Back when Portlandia debuted on IFC, my wife and I watched it to great hilarity. Having visited Portland the year before, we were, of course, blown away by how well it nailed the culture there, from “The Dream of the ’90s” to “Did You Read?” But while we were watching—and also while we were in Portland—we were also struck by how much Portland lined up with our experiences of the Twin Cities. There were the same kinds of hipster bars, independent bands, bike culture, and ironic sports leagues. And personally, I’ve always counted the Trail Blazers among the top tier of non-Timberwolves teams I pull for in the league. I mean, I had a Blazers snapback hat when I was in high school (the one with “PORTLAND” in sans serif and “Trail Blazers” in that brush script).

So how come you hate us so much? Is it just because we stole your title as the nation’s best biking city for one year? You sure seemed hyped up to get that title back.

Sean: So funny story about that: I don’t actually hate the Wolves or Minnesota at all. In fact, I plan on moving out of the northwest in the next year or so, and Minneapolis is very high on my list of possible destinations. Everything I’ve heard about the culture and the makeup of the city tells me that it’s the kind of place a Portland kid could adapt to very easily. And I’m a huge fan of the current incarnation of the Timberwolves. Ricky Rubio (once he’s healthy) and Kevin Love are one of the most exciting point guard/big man tandems in the league, I love the Andrei Kirilenko signing, and I’m still pretty high on Derrick Williams despite a relatively disappointing rookie year.

The only bad blood between these two teams is between Paul Allen and David Kahn, a pick-your-poison battle of eccentrics to side with if there ever was one. The hilarious part of their beef is that it’s over, of all things, Martell Webster.

Steve: Martell Webster?! He of the dreadhawk and the clutch dunk when the Wolves needed a 3-pointer? It’s hard to believe anyone beefing over him. I mean, I know the Wolves got him for Ryan Gomes and that guy who won you all a bunch of chalupas. And Paul Allen’s pissed about that? This has to do with the Blazers’ medical staff, doesn’t it?

But also, explain to me this: Paul Allen owns the team, while David Kahn is the general manager of the Wolves. Something doesn’t seem to line up there. Is this like when it gets heated at a bar between some dude and some other dude’s girlfriend and then it’s up to the first dude’s girlfriend and the other dude to squash that beef? And then are Neil Olshey and Glen Taylor the girlfriend and the other dude? I know this: Kahn used to be part of the media in Portland when he wrote for The Oregonian in the ’80s. Maybe this goes back further than Webster. I bet Paul Allen likes the Voodoo Doughnut across from Sandy Hut and Kahn always liked the one on Burnside. Also, it’s just hilarious that a man as rich as Paul Allen seems to be ragingly, apoplectically pissed at someone like Kahn.

Photo by Marshall Alsup of Flickr.

Sean: For the record, I’m definitely #TeamSandyBlvdVoodoo. All day. No question.

I don’t know the extent of their beef, but from everything I’ve heard from various people, Olshey was open to negotiating a sign-and-trade but Paul shot it down and said there was no way he was letting Minnesota get Batum. It might also have something to do with the Wolves signing Brandon Roy, and thus potentially making the Blazers look dumb for giving up on him if he has a science-defying season. Speaking of which, what are your expectations for Roy as a Wolves fan? How much do you think they’ll get out of him?

Steve: Well, no matter what happens with Roy this season, I will fully admit the Blazers got screwed by him coming back. If this story from Ric Bucher is correct, then Roy’s return to playing means insurance will no longer cover his salary, leaving the Blazers on the hook for something like $17 million over the next two years for a player on a division rival. And, jeez, didn’t the same thing happen with Darius Miles a couple years back? This is really on some Breaking BadMike-letting-Lydia-live-and-her-coming-back-and-screwing-him-over business.

But enough about vengeance. What can the Wolves expect from Roy? It’s tough, because this is a place where stats and predictive measures largely fail us, I think. Neither Roy’s dizzying heights or dismal lows as a player seem like reliable harbingers of what this season will hold and so all we’re left with is our sense of how these kind of narratives play out. We can either envision a Roy Hobbsian return to glory or a Jason Street-esque pipe dream that falls completely apart. While we can understand that the reality will likely fall somewhere in the middle, it’s hard for us to feel that storyline, largely because stories ill-prepare us for the rocky, uneven quality that life usually ends up having.

And this is where I have to show my hand because I so badly want Brandon Roy Hobbes. Although I’d been a fan of the Wolves since 2000 or so, my serious involvement with them began when I moved to the Twin Cities in 2004. And as much as picking Flynn over Curry or Jennings or trading the pick of Lawson away to Denver hurt, missing out on Roy when the Wolves traded him for Randy Foye was that first Draft Night wound for me. For years, I would always run a Wolves franchise in NBA2K where I traded him back to the Wolves. I loved his game, loved how smart it was, how it wasn’t predicated on being fast but rather on change of pace, built not on hops but on floaters or other deft little moves. As someone who grew up loving the flash of basketball—the dunks, the crossovers—liking Roy’s game made me feel a little like I’d grown up a bit. Watching his rise and fall with the Blazers, I felt maybe a little like Mac’s biological mother in that episode of Veronica Mars where Mac finds out she was switched at birth, seeing what could have been from afar and knowing you can never genuinely experience it the way it should have been. And clearly, I filled the gaping hole in my heart by watching a lot of serial TV dramas.

So for me, this is that chance to reclaim what could have been. I get a little giddy every time I see Roy in his Wolves uni, or wearing a “Minnesota Basketball” warmup shirt. And yet, like any good Wolves fan, I expect and fear crushing disappointment. I have thus had to basically abstain from letting myself make a prediction about what will happen with him, instead focusing on Alexey Shved as the shooting guard of the future and trying to figure out what he’s all about.

But enough about the Wolves. Let’s talk about how the hits just keep on coming for the Blazers in the industry department. Since your last email, the Blazers announced that Elliot Williams tore his Achilles in a workout. I guess we’ll be seeing a lot more of Will Barton, who—amazingly—was a big favorite of plenty of Timberwolves fans before the draft. Oh and get this: Barton was picked 40th, a pick the Blazers got from the Rockets who got it from … the Timberwolves as part of the deal that brought Brad Miller to the Wolves. This is starting to get bananas.

Sean: Because it’s Portland, the Elliot Williams injury has been met with a hail of “… and the Rip City injury curse rolls on” reactions. I hate this stuff because it unnecessarily brings up the Oden-Durant thing for the millionth time, which leads to Roy, which leads to Darius Miles, which leads to Sam Bowie, which leads to the way the Bill Walton era ended, which leads to me wishing a relatively insignificant backup shooting guard getting injured could be treated as just that, like it would on any other team. Really, this just sucks for Elliot, who missed his entire rookie season in 2010-11 after surgery on both knees, and somehow lost none of his dazzling athleticism following the procedure, showing legitimate promise in his limited minutes last year, only to suffer a season-ending shoulder injury just as the team was blown up, opening significant minutes up for the young guns, and THEN tearing his Achilles in a voluntary pre-training camp workout session this week. It doesn’t really get more unlucky, unless you’re Greg Oden. And I’m not ready to talk about that yet.

As for Will Barton, he’s as skinny as I am, which is a liability for someone trying to play professional basketball. I can see, though, why Wolves fans may have been high on him pre-draft. When I watched him in Summer League, he was one of the players who seemed to get better every game, going from one of those guys that made you say “Man, that Will Barton is relentless…if only he’d learn to play basketball” at the beginning of the week to a confident, do-it-all wing who could score, pass, rebound, and play defense by the end of it. He’d fit well in Minnesota. He strikes me as the kind of guy without one elite skill but capable of doing many things well when needed. Of course, this is Summer League, which means less than nothing in the grand scheme of things. But the Williams injury means we’ll get to see a lot of him this season, whether he’s ready or not.

Let’s talk about the Wolves’ biggest injury hurdle a little. Rubio was one of my (and everyone else’s) favorite players to watch last season. A couple of poor seasons in Spain led to a calming of the insane draft-day hype, which made it all the more thrilling when he arrived in the NBA fully formed, not just the elite passer we were promised but a better-than-expected scorer and defender as well. And then, of course, he blew out his ACL, because our teams aren’t allowed to have nice things. I keep reading that he’s ahead of schedule in his rehab, as if anyone other than Oden has ever been publicly announced as behind schedule. How much are you realistically expecting from him?

Steve: Well, as Zach Harper has often noted, there is no schedule for rehabbing until one actually begins doing things like running and putting stress on it with game drills and such. There could, of course, be no greater Christmas gift than the return of the Spanish Unicorn and the sweet scent of puppy breath and cinnamon to the Target Center to face the Thunder on December 20—a game that will be on TNT, no less. It would be too perfect. And thus, it won’t happen, of course.

All that said, when he does come back, I think I have a bevy of reasons, both scientific and emotional that point to him being very good upon his return. Kevin Pelton from Basketball Prospectus looked into how players return from ACL tears and found that age plays a big role. This means that Rubio (who’s 21) is expected to decline in production only by about 2% in the season after his tear. Science!

My less scientific reasoning has to do with the way Rubio plays the game. He is not as dependent on sheer speed or change of direction as Derrick Rose is. His game is predicated largely on two things, both offensively and defensively: vision and length. The way he sees the court is what makes him great both as a passer/playmaker and as a defender and his length is what allows him to make some of those passes and harass other players both on-ball and in the passing lanes. Now, most likely his speed will take a hit and that could be problematic in terms of keeping up with people on defense and limit him some in fast breaks. But looking at his whole career, what he really needs to do is develop shooting consistency, not worry about losing athleticism. If he can become a shooting threat, I can see his career being a long one like Nash’s. Nash depends on many of the same skills, including change of pace, but has that great shot.

So in essence, I’m expecting him to be fine once he’s back. The team is a better team and good players will make him look better. But here’s where it gets emotional, because I have to believe he’s going to come back strong if I want the Wolves to have any hope of getting into the playoffs which is about the only way I can see them even beginning to make the case to Kevin Love that he needs to stay in Minnesota. Which is interesting with regards to the Blazers since you had your sweet-shooting big man come out and say, “You don’t reach your prime until you’re about 28 or 29. I’m 26 so I got a few more years until then. If we bring in the right guys, we’ll be very good down the road.” Whereas we have a 24 year old with one foot out the door already. Do you think Aldridge is really that patient? Is he just saying the right things? I feel like he’s handling it better than Love is right now, but is he also maybe hurting himself by being so understanding?

Sean: It’s difficult to get a read on where LaMarcus’ head is at. I may be looking at things through rose-colored lenses, but even if he does secretly want out, I don’t get the impression that he’s wired to hold his team hostage like Dwight Howard or Carmelo Anthony did. But at the same time, the essence of that quote isn’t all that different from what Kevin Love has said recently—it’s just framed differently. Love spent a few weeks in Team USA camp as the only guy on his team who had never been to the playoffs (some guys had even won championships and made multiple deep runs to the conference finals, etc.) and said, essentially, that he wants to stay in Minnesota, but only if they can become a contender. Aldridge likewise put the pressure on the Blazers with his comments, more or less giving them a deadline of his truly reaching his prime to turn things around before he thinks about wanting out. If Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard pan out, Nic Batum keeps improving, and Portland becomes a playoff team again, he’s good. Otherwise, I don’t think he’ll want to sign up to waste the rest of his prime on a bunch of middle-of-the-lottery teams, and I can’t exactly blame him for that.

Fortunately, I think Lillard and Leonard have the kind of skillsets that will mesh well with Aldridge. Lillard is a quick, athletic scoring point guard who runs the pick-and-roll well and can hit shots from pretty much anywhere, which will take some pressure off Aldridge when he draws a double-team. And Leonard, while a little more of a work in progress, is a true seven-footer with the mobility of a guard, which will be a nice change of pace for LMA to share a frontcourt with after years of either being forced to slide over to center or play with aging Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas. So I’m optimistic about the future of this core, even though I’m not expecting them to do much this year. Still, and I’ve written about this recently, I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t be in the Blazers’ better interests to trade Aldridge sooner than later and avoid a potential CP3/Dwight situation. His trade value will probably never be higher than it is now, coming off his first All-Star appearance and with three years left on his contract.

Do you have the same thoughts about Love, or are you optimistic that they can build a winner around him and Rubio quickly enough to convince him to stick around? Also, explain the thinking behind only giving him a four-year extension with a three-year out when he was willing to commit to five. I’ve never understood that.

Steve: No one has ever understood that move. Oh sure: there have been plenty of ideas floated about keeping that five-year contract for Rubio or whatever, but basically, the logic behind it falls in line with decisions like trying to avoid getting drunk by doing all your drinking at home before you go out or dropping out of school because your grades aren’t good enough. Or, say, tweeting as if you’re re-tweeting yourself. I’m not much for the whole “disrespected” storyline that a lot of players and teams try to use to motivate themselves, but if anybody has the right to that, it’s Kevin Love, and this is part of that. In spite of everything he does, things like this 3-year contract with a player option for the fourth seem to speak to a sense, even within the organization itself, that how good he is is an illusion, which is flat-out ridiculous. Instead, they’re gambling on Rubio becoming something even better than Love, which—while not impossible—is hardly less illusory than Love’s very real abilities right now. If the Wolves keep doing him like this, I wouldn’t blame him for leaving to go somewhere that understands how truly good he is.

But as far as whether they can build around Rubio/Love, a lot will depend on this season. And I mean A LOT. While I like the improvements the team has made in the offseason (in summary, the average WS/48 of all the players they’ve added is DOUBLE the average WS/48 of the players who have left), I still feel like this iteration of the team is a transitional one. Players like Kirilenko and Roy are not long-term solutions. Even if Roy gives this team a lot, I can’t see him holding up for another three seasons and Kirilenko is already 31. I see them more as demonstrating what this team could be if they get younger players who can do some of the same stuff. Last season they had solid work from three spots in the lineup and atrocious work from two. If they can make the playoffs this year with even neutral work from SG and SF, I think they hope that’s enough enticement to sell a free agent like Harden or someone else on coming to Minnesota.

You said you’re not expecting the Blazers to do much this year. So what are you expecting from them this season?

Sean: I have to qualify that statement: When I said I wasn’t expecting much from the Blazers this season, they had yet to sign Adam Morrison. I had an answer to your question all worked up about how I expect them to win somewhere between 25 and 30 games and make a return trip to the lottery, but all of that is irrelevant now. With the addition of “The Stache,” I’m expecting nothing less than home-court advantage in the playoffs, based on his veteran championship-level experience. One thing you can’t deny is that he knows how to win. Count the rings.

Sean Highkin

Sean Highkin is a staff writer at Hardwood Paroxysm and a writer for the ESPN TrueHoop blogs Portland Roundball Society and Magic Basketball. He has also written for The Classical, among other sites. You can follow him on Twitter at @shighkinNBA. He can be reached by email at highkin (dot) sean (at) gmail.