When the playoffs begin Saturday in Portland, the games will mean a little more to three Trail Blazers.
After they were doubted, labeled and discarded early in their careers, something happened when Maurice Harkless, Shabazz Napier and Wade Baldwin arrived in Portland.
Their careers were resurrected.
“Rejuvenated,’’ star Damian Lillard noted of the three players.
All three were former first round picks who had one foot out of the NBA after their teams gave up on them. Baldwin was waived by Memphis after one season. And in separate trades, Orlando sent Napier and Harkless to Portland for next to nothing.
All three are expected to play a role in the Blazers’ first round series against New Orleans. Harkless, an energetic starting forward, is hopeful to return from knee surgery sometime next week. Napier, a jitterbug guard, has become one of the team’s top scoring reserves. And Baldwin, a barrel-chested guard, late in the season emerged as a defensive weapon that coach Terry Stotts said could be an option in the playoffs.
While each player’s Rip City rebirth took different paths, and included much of their own work, each ascension spawned from what have become the defining traits of the Blazers’ franchise: astute scouting, nurturing and hands-on coaching, and an inclusive locker room culture.
And of course, there is timing.
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“What we have tried to do is get guys when we know they are ready for basketball to be the most important thing in their life,’’ said Neil Olshey, the Blazers’ president of basketball operations.
Here are their stories, and the background to how Olshey, Stotts and his staff have become one of the NBA’s best player development success stories.
When Maurice Harkless flew to Las Vegas in the summer of 2015 he was anxious.
He had just been traded to the Blazers from Orlando, where he was trending toward being a first-round bust, and he was scheduled for a workout in front of the Blazers’ coaches.
“I was like … over excited,’’ Harkless remembers. “It was almost nerve-wracking.’’
His emotions were on tilt because he knew he was getting a fresh start. Three seasons into his NBA career, two teams had traded him, and he was coming off a season in Orlando where he sat the bench more than he played.
“Any time you can get a fresh start, it’s motivating, because it’s like you can create your own destiny at that point,’’ Harkless said.
In the Vegas gym, Harkless was a ball of energy. In fact, he and assistant coach Nate Tibbetts recently chuckled at the memory of how amped he was in the workout.
“I was just bouncing all over the place,’’ Harkless said. “I was … yeah, I was pretty good.’’
To Olshey and the Blazers’ coaches, Harkless’ impressive workout wasn’t a total surprise.
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Olshey said he nearly drafted Harkless in 2012 with the 11thoverall pick, but after much deliberation he instead selected center Meyers Leonard. Harkless went to Philadelphia at No. 15, then was later traded to Orlando as part of the massive three-team deal that included Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and Andre Iguodala.
“The big takeaway from the first workout was that he had far more potential as a shooter than he had shown,’’ Olshey said. “And he was thrilled to be given a new lease on his basketball life.’’
Harkless has a hard time talking about his time in Orlando, mostly because he doesn’t fully understand what happened.
“It was a weird situation in Orlando – brand new coach, whole new front office – they were trying to figure things out,’’ Harkless said. “And for some reason in my third season, I couldn’t get on the court, no matter what. We had guys playing, starting games, that aren’t even in the league anymore. Rookies, second-round picks, starting games.’’
In his three seasons in Portland, Harkless has averaged 71 games a season and he has started 120 times. He is widely credited this season with helping turn the Blazers’ season around with his defense and three-point shooting after he recovered from an early season benching.
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“The way they run things here, as long as you work hard, eventually your opportunity is going to come,’’ Harkless said.
Harkless’ emergence also underscored one of Olshey’s most consistent traits since becoming the team’s top executive in 2012: scouting.
“I think the one thing that has to be recognized is Neil has an eye for talent,’’ Stotts said. “There are a lot of players you can take a chance on; you just can’t pick anybody. You have to have an eye for a guy who is worth taking a chance on.’’
And in the summer of 2016, nobody wanted to take a chance on Shabazz Napier.
Napier’s once proud resume as a two-time NCAA champion at Connecticut, which garnered him much ballyhooed praise from LeBron James, had been tarnished two years into his NBA career.
His rookie season in Miami, he admits he was headstrong and difficult.
“In Miami, I was very stubborn. Very stubborn,’’ Napier said. “I guess they felt I was entitled to something, but I never felt entitled. I just never felt I got an opportunity. I was being told different things, and I became moody, and they didn’t appreciate it. And looking back, I couldn’t agree with them more.’’
After one season, the Heat traded him to Orlando, where he played sparingly. Then, after acquiring D.J. Augustin, it became clear to Napier he had no future in Orlando.
The former first round pick was traded to Portland for $75,000.
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When he arrived in Portland, he found a coaching staff different from his previous two stops. They listened to him, and they didn’t judge his past.
“The staff here understands different stories. It’s not about just one guy. They understand Dame’s story, Pat’s story, Shabazz’s story … and they all want to not comfort, but support and push you,’’ Napier said.
One of the tenets of Stotts’ coaching philosophy is giving everyone a chance, which requires an open mind.
“I don’t like having preconceived notions of guys coming in,’’ Stotts said. “There are situations that are created and everybody has a history – but you don’t know the whole story. So when I get a player, I don’t even want to call a previous coach … because now you are getting a bias. Whatever it is with a player – their personality, their character – it’s going to come through sooner or later. So why not start out with a clean slate?’’
What they found with Napier was a strong work ethic, a tenacious playing style, and a player who had learned from his past mistakes.
This season, he emerged as a game-changing reserve whose offense played an instrumental role in keeping the team afloat during a trying early season.
And to think, two seasons ago, he was worth $75,000 to an NBA team.
“This league is all about having an opportunity,’’ Napier said. “Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t.’’
And as Wade Baldwin found out, sometimes it’s how you handle that opportunity.
When Memphis raised eyebrows across the league in October by releasing Baldwin, one year after they selected him 17thoverall, Olshey decided to take a chance, with one stipulation: Baldwin would have to prove himself in the G-League.
“There’s a reason why we didn’t just bring Wade right to Portland,’’ Olshey said. “We made him go to the G-League for two months. It was to humble him. And it was an important lesson.’’
In the weeks before he was released by Memphis, coach David Fizdale said Baldwin needed to “be a better teammate” and veteran Mike Conley said Baldwin was “too cocky” as a rookie.
“My attitude might have been misconstrued,’’ Baldwin said. “That’s all I can really say.’’
Still, the reports were enough to give Olshey pause.
“I wouldn’t have traded for him,’’ Olshey said. “I wouldn’t have given up a second-round pick because I don’t know if that humbles him to the point where he is broken down and you can build him back up.’’
Olshey said the first step in Baldwin’s reclamation was “showing him love.’’
He needed thumb surgery, and the Blazers flew him to New York for the procedure, then guided and monitored him through six weeks of recovery.
After a 17-game stint in the G-League, when he averaged 18.2 points, 4.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals for the Texas Legends, it was time to call him up to Portland.
On his first day, a Jan. 31 game with Chicago, Baldwin said he knew things would be different with the Blazers.
Veteran Evan Turner was one of the first to approach him.
“He invited me over after the game,’’ Baldwin said.
They sat on Turner’s couch and watched television, and shot the breeze.
The next day, the team flew to Toronto, and when the team landed, Baldwin was asked out to dinner by the team’s two stars, Lillard and CJ McCollum.
And when they returned to Portland, Lillard again invited Baldwin to dinner, this time at Lillard’s home.
“That’s coming from starters, you know, seasoned vets. And I’m coming in as a two-way player from the G-League,’’ Baldwin said with a chuckle. “That’s not really supposed to happen. But it did.’’
Turner, for one, was keyed on the attitude of the second-year player. He figured attitude problems led to his release in Memphis.
“I was actually waiting to see it, to tell you the truth,’’ Turner said of Baldwin’s attitude. “I mean, it had to be something if they cut their lottery pick. But I was a guy who got the bad rap too, so I had sympathy. I know how it can be: The right (jerk) made the wrong decision and said it loud enough.’’
From the rap sessions on the couch, to the dinners on the road and in Portland, Baldwin had become accepted, something he said he never really felt in Memphis.
“The initial feeling I got here … like when I got drafted it was totally different feeling than joining the team here. I was welcomed, invited, and it kind of makes you want to give back,’’ Baldwin said. “What you receive you want to give back. It makes it easy.’’
Baldwin’s comfort became another layer in the Blazers’ storied culture. The players, led by Lillard, are about inclusion, and the coaches are dedicated to development.
“When Wade came here, nobody looked at him like a two-way player,’’ Lillard said. “That first day coaches were pulling him to the side, going over film, and he was being invited to dinners … it’s almost like a family. When players come here, they feel like they are being looked after, and that somebody actually cares about you. And I think you get more out of them when they feel like that.’’
As the playoffs start today, perhaps no team is getting more production for so little. Between Harkless, Napier and Baldwin, the Blazers had to give up a grand total of $75,000.
How do they do it?
While Olshey points to the Blazers’ exhaustive scouting, the development skills of the assistant coaches and Stotts’ ability to utilize and maximize that development, another factor is at play.
Maybe more so than any other NBA power structure, the Blazers can relate to the underdog story.
In their own careers, Olshey and the Blazers coaching staff know what it feels like to be a Harkless, Napier or Baldwin. They’ve been doubted, fired, and deemed not good enough for the NBA.
Olshey admits he has an “underdog mentality” because he went from soap opera actor to player development coach to front office executive. And Stotts notes that every coach on his staff either coached or played in the minor leagues.
“I think that is very unique,’’ Stotts said. “If you’ve spent time in the minor leagues, there is an appreciation for what you have, what it takes to get there, and what it means to be a guy who has to get better to take root with a team.’’
Added Olshey: “There’s an empathy here. What we have built, and what we take great pride in is we are a team, and we want to be in the gym helping guys get better.’’
It’s one reason why amid the rain clouds and Douglas Firs so many players have found an oasis of opportunity in Portland. Some, like Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, Nicolas Batum, Mason Plumlee, JJ Hickson, Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland have had career years. And others, like Tim Frazier, Will Barton and Allen Crabbe used the chance to springboard to bigger and better things.
What will be the final verdict of the Blazers’ latest reclamation projects? Neither Harkless, Napier nor Baldwin wanted to say.
“All I know is I love it here,’’ Napier said. “But I don’t call it resurrection or reclamation, because it’s just starting.’’