Two reminders for the Blazers from Grizzlies/Thunder

Two reminders for the Blazers from Grizzlies/Thunder
May 16, 2013, 5:45 am
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Watching the Memphis Grizzlies close out the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 on Wednesday night left me with two Portland Trail Blazers-related thoughts.

First, even the most carefully laid plans are subject to ruin by even the slightest knee injury. Russell Westbrook's early exit from the playoffs left the remaining Thunder players struggling to cobble together lineups and responsibilities much like Brandon Roy's ongoing issues kept juggling things in Portland for multiple seasons.

Sam Presti put together arguably the league's deepest and most balanced roster, one that withstood a blockbuster trade of James Harden just fine all season long, only to have all that hard work go poof when Westbrook went down. Basketball can be cruel, as Portlanders have known for years (decades).

Second, and more immediately, the Grizzlies serve as a great "culture" case study, or "identity" if you prefer. Much like the Thunder, the Grizzlies have continually improved and refined over the last few years, setting a franchise-record for wins this season and qualifying for the Western Conference finals for the first time ever in their franchise history.

It took awhile to get there, but Memphis did it using the same fundamental principles that Kevin Pritchard was pitching during his Portland days. 1) Identify core players. 2) Shape the roster to take full advantage of those players' skills. 3) Foster a healthy, team-first environment on and off the court. 4) Prioritize draft, trade and free agency targets in terms of fit with the established team framework.

Everything looks a little bit prettier now that the Grizzlies are among the NBA's Final Four and could easily qualify for the Finals, but the series of acquisitions that were made to shape their current rotation look great, and totally logical, in hindsight.

With Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph serving as the organization-defining core pieces, Memphis came to realize that "Grit and Grind" was their destiny. Tony Allen -- brilliant defender, add him to the mix. Mike Conley -- unselfish with upside and good work ethic, add him to the mix. Rudy Gay -- needs lots of shots and big money, give him his chances and then sell high for Tayshaun Prince, a solid, versatile defender with loads of playoff experience. Jerryd Bayless -- brash confidence with a little dynamic ability to add to a perimeter group that needs it, all at a reasonable price.

The squawking over Gay's departure was totally out of line with reality. It was clear as day where Memphis was coming from on the financial side of things, but the basketball stuff has been just as evident. Gasol's role is now wide open, and he impacts the game like a superstar on both ends. In Gay's absence, Randolph stays fed. Conley does a little more offensively, too, and he's showing nice flashes and a little ambidextrous finishing with his right hand.

Each of those additions and subtractions "fit" the identity established by the core guys. Coach Lionel Hollins clearly commands the respect of his team, given how hard they play defense, and -- voila -- there's your culture. The Grizzlies know who they are (tough, rugged), what they're good at (defense), what they're not good at (perimeter shooting), and what they need to avoid (high-possession games). They've had good luck with injuries this season and -- boom -- here they are as championship contenders.

The current Blazers have personalities -- LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews -- but the core hasn't germinated long enough to build a true identity or culture. It's not easy (or cheap) to keep pieces together contractually as long as the Grizzlies have kept Gasol, Randolph and Conley, and contract overlap will certainly be a defining question for Portland as Aldridge's free agency gets closer and closer.

For now, this summer's moves, whether they come by free agency, trade or the draft, must be executed in a framework that takes into account fit (personality, skillset, etc.) with the major core guys, Lillard and Aldridge especially. Otherwise, you risk repeating the misfit disaster of 2011-12 or the half-baked roster of 2012-13.