PORTLAND – If you thought Paul Allen’s year as a sports owner couldn’t get any better, drive 175 miles south on Interstate 5 and check out his budding NBA team.
Consider the Portland Trail Blazers’ success as a nightcap to the Seahawks’ Super Bowl triumph in February. They’re now one of the most intriguing young teams in the NBA, after a 54-28 regular season and All-NBA-caliber seasons from power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and point guard Damian Lillard. And they’re now one victory away from winning their first playoff series in 14 years.
With a 3-2 lead over Houston in the best-of-seven first-round series, the Blazers return home Friday with an opportunity to eliminate the Rockets. Finally, after years of uneven results and dismay, after the Jail Blazers and the injuries to Brandon Roy and Greg Oden and the bizarre firings of general managers and coaches, Portland can announce its return to relevance, and it doesn’t have to be a short stay.
If kept together, this team should be good for a while. With one more impact player, this team could be great.
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So it’s strange to think back just two years, to early 2012, and remember all the second-guessing of Allen and his teams. Back then, the Blazers had just completed a 28-38 season. Nate McMillan, Mr. Sonic, was fired before the end of the season despite having led a patchwork roster to playoff appearances the previous three years. Allen had also fired general manager Kevin Pritchard two years earlier, even though Pritchard had put together a talented young roster. Rich Cho, a former Sonics executive and the NBA’s first Asian-American general manager, replaced Pritchard, but he was fired after one season even though the Blazers made the playoffs in 2011.
It was a mess, and Allen was portrayed as the typical meddlesome sports owner who didn’t know how to take care of his toy. On the NFL side, his Seahawks were rebuilding gradually, but they still didn’t have a stable quarterback situation, and after two losing seasons, Carroll – Allen’s man-crush, to many – was about to enter Year 3 with significant pressure to win.
Now, look at where the Seahawks and Blazers are. Now, look at Allen, if you can find him, still uncomfortable with the limelight, not seeking credit, enjoying every moment.
Let’s also not forget that Allen has a minority stake in the Sounders FC, which is currently tied with FC Dallas for the best record in Major League Soccer and possesses the league’s most mesmerizing player, Clint Dempsey.
Allen is having the best year of any American sports owner. Donald Sterling is so jealous that he’ll probably offend Allen on his next recorded rant.
Over the years, Allen has been a billionaire owner prone to drama behind the scenes. But he seems to be evolving. He’s learning from the difficult lessons that are inevitable in sports. With Carroll and general manager John Schneider in charge, the Seahawks have a much healthier football-operations situation than they did in the final years of the Tim Ruskell-Mike Holmgren partnership. With the Blazers, his hiring of general manager Neil Olshey has had a stabilizing influence, and though coach Terry Stotts was a secondary choice, he has the Blazers playing an exciting brand of basketball.
“Our whole team, we look to each other,” Lillard says. “It’s not about one or two people.”
As good as Aldridge and Lillard are, the Blazers are an unselfish, well-rounded team. They’re tough, and they have good chemistry on the court. That’s why they are so close to eliminating the Rockets, who have more hyped stars in James Harden and Dwight Howard.
“We’re at our best when our backs are against the wall, when everyone is against us, whatever you want to call it,” Stotts said. “We have a determination to us. We know what we have to do, and most times, we do it.”
There aren’t many similarities between the Blazers and Seahawks, not when you look at them deeply, but they do match when it comes to toughness and togetherness. They do have a matching love for playing their sport, which makes for competitive environments. Spend time with both of these teams, and you like them. You don’t just respect them for winning. You like the characters, the style of play and the consistent focus on trying to do the right thing.
Is Allen responsible for all of this? No. But he is the man whose money and dedication sets the table. In that sense, he is the linchpin.
From here, Allen needs only to stay the course. He lets Schneider and Carroll operate the Seahawks with great freedom, and they now have the best organization in the NFL. Because he loves basketball so much and the NBA allows for more leeway with its looser salary cap, Allen must fight a tendency to have a heavier hand with the Blazers. But he has the right balance now, and he shouldn’t stray from it.
For all the joy Allen has experienced recently, you can look at two moves as the difference between runaway success and frustrating mediocrity. If the Seahawks hadn’t drafted Russell Wilson in 2012, and if the Blazers hadn’t drafted Lillard later that year, where would the franchises be?
It’s that simple — and it’s that hard.
Allen’s teams are thriving, though. It’s only May, and he has had a sports year to cherish.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277
On Twitter @JerryBrewer