While Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and the rest of the Portland Trail Blazers are packing bags, readying themselves for tropical getaways, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and the rest of the Warriors are unpacking bags after a two-game stand in Portland.
Thanks to a dominant sweep of their first-round NBA Playoffs’ opponent, Golden State players get a few days to rest, recover and rehab while other teams continue to battle for a coveted four-game series win.
Talented, skillful players and expert coaches certainly helped the Warriors to sweep the Blazers. But what other factors contributed to such starkly different first-round outcomes for the two teams?
According to The Oregonian’s John Canzano, the Warriors’ sweep and the Blazers’ butt-kicking come down to team culture — starting in the executive suites, and showing up both on and off the court.
In his article published the day after the Blazers were manhandled by the Warriors, bringing Portland’s season to an end, Canzano took the franchise to task, shining a light on the culture issues woven deeply into the fabric of the organization, which he claims will make it hard for the team to succeed moving forward.
Beyond trades and drafts to bring better players in to support McCollum, Lillard and Nurkic, Canzano deems the franchise’s culture to be the area in most urgent need of a complete overhaul. He does not mince words about the improvements needing to start from the top down — namely, with Blazer’s owner Paul Allen and general manager Neil Olshey.
To argue his point, Canzano made specific and detailed comparisons to the behavior of Warriors’ players, coaches and executives that he witnessed during their time in Portland to that of the Blazers. As a columnist for The Oregonian, Canzano has undoubtedly witnessed up close and personal many things fans would never see:
Simple gestures, like handshakes.
Simple words, like “thank you.”
By members of the Warriors’ organization.
Meanwhile, he accuses the Blazers’ organization of running a franchise based on fear, intimidation and bad attitudes from those who do not know how to handle power with humility, stating:
[GM Nick] Olshey instituted a rule at the beginning of the 2016-17 season that prohibited media from occupying the folding chairs near the team bench during the pre-game period. Those 20 or so seats are off limits. Media now assembles on the baseline area during warm-ups. The rule change was pitched as if it were the creation of some kind of NBA-player sanctuary. But guess which franchise employee used that off-limits space prior to Games 3 and 4 in Portland to sit and avoid having to answer questions about his roster?
Thus, a sanctuary for players was not to be.
Canzano contrasts this maneuver against what he witnessed of the Warriors’ personnel:
Kevin Durant being the nice guy that he is, for one:
Durant wore a pair of headphones during warm-ups. He dribbled. He spun. He shot. Then, he dribbled while spinning and shooting. There were a couple of violent dunks, too. For 15 minutes, Durant broke a sweat and wore out the nets. Then, the guy making $26.5 million a year did the most interesting thing -- he slid the headphones off his ears and he walked around shaking hands with each of the half dozen ball boys and staffers who had chased balls down for him.
“Thank you, I appreciate it,” the eight-time NBA All-Star said to each of them.
Warriors’ fans know this is nothing new.
Despite the hostility he received from Thunder fans during his first return to Oklahoma City this season, Durant could be seen before and after the Warriors’ drubbing of the Thunder hugging arena workers — older women working low-wage jobs — who seemed to be the only people willing to defy mob mentality and be decent to him. When the Warriors play in Charlotte, hometown hero, Curry, can be seen treating arena workers the same way.
These busy millionaires do not have to behave so humanely. By contrast, it almost is expected in this culture that wealthy famous people will treat others terribly, just because they can. But this mentality obviously doesn’t fly with the Warriors, and Canzano pointed out why Moda Center security staff workers, earning $12 per hour, were more impressed by Curry’s treatment of them than by his scorching stat line that night:
Curry walked by each of them on Monday night, stopping to shake their hands and thank them. Charlie, a long-time Moda Center staffer who works the spot just beyond the darkness of the tunnel opening, held up his hand and examined it after Curry passed. He announced, “This is the hand that Steph Curry shook.”
Humility and accessibility
Canzano took note of Bob Myers arriving at the arena on the team bus, slightly disheveled — just one of the guys. And, despite being very ill and in significant pain, Steve Kerr stepping forward to give an interview about the status of his health — an interview Myers had originally agreed to do, to ease the duties of his friend.
Canzano also quoted Warriors’ beat reporter Connor Letourneau as stating: “I joke that it’s easier for me to get a one-on-one with Steph Curry than it was for me to get a one-on-one with the back-up quarterback at Cal when I covered Cal. It’s a very open, family-type atmosphere and I think that’s a big part of why they’re successful.”
No power trips here.
Now, these are flawed human beings we’re talking about — not gods, not angels. Just people, like the rest of us. Some are known for hot-headedness leading to technical fouls, while others are known to smash a clipboard or two; some get into bar brawls while others have legal cases pending against them. (Names need not be mentioned.)
But the players are grounded by a Zen-like coach who loves basketball and loves winning, but who doesn’t take it all too seriously, who gets that there are really serious issues in the world, like war, famine, gun violence, poverty, terrorism and myriad other injustices. So if the coach and GM are rooted in humility, and certain players are also, the ripple effect of positive attributes is inevitable.
One act of kind and compassionate behavior can start a ripple that spreads out into the whole ocean.
Anyone who has ever had a job has probably experienced a dysfunctional workplace in which the problems usually could be traced to management. An overbearing, micromanaging leader can make workers feel stressed or even fearful. At the other extreme, leaders who are too lax or too slow in addressing problems foster a culture where anything goes, where things like workplace harassment or bullying go unchecked. The Miami Dolphins’ locker room circa the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin years would be one example.
Canzano describes the Portland Trail Blazers’ organization as being filled with dedicated employees who “work under heavy-handed guidelines and directives.” Of the team, he said, “They play scared.” But how could they not, given the oppressive environment that “feels paranoid and clouded by the sticky culture of Vulcan, Inc.”?
Canzano is not just making off-the-cuff remarks here. He recounts a specific event that occurred during the team’s mid-season slide as evidence:
The team’s media partner, Comcast Sportsnet Northwest, fired an employee who criticized Olshey on Twitter. The Warriors would never have been so myopic and reactionary.
He’s right — the Warriors understand things like free speech and even have a healthy respect for criticism. Can’t you just hear Steve Kerr or Bob Myers stating bluntly in an interview something to the effect of, “Well, actually that employee was right to say we [whatever]. It’s definitely something we’re working on”?
Call for change meets deaf ears in Portland
John Canzano called on players to speak about the organization’s culture in exit interviews, but he also called for team management to interview people on the ground, like security personnel, about their experiences working with the Blazers versus what they have experienced of other teams, like the Warriors.
Of course, neither is likely to happen because workers — from janitorial staff to players — would fear losing their jobs. In this kind of culture, the opinions of arena workers would not be sought because upper management would not value them, and discussions with players, as if by script, would focus on roster moves alone ... which, of course, misses the point entirely.
The comments to this piece — some readers calling the author “CLOWNzano,” others praising him for telling the truth — demonstrate just how resistant to change some people can be. Attacks on the author aside, is there any way that anyone in their right mind could defend the organization beyond the efforts of the few players who did everything in their power to avoid a sweep — namely Lillard and McCollum?
The sweep in the first round of the playoffs is but a symptom of a larger problem. Perhaps it would behoove the Blazers’ organization and the doubters in its fan base to scrutinize the differences in how their franchise operates versus how the teams at the top of the West every year are run. Those would be the Warriors and the Spurs. And only a quick glance to the East shows very clearly that the Knicks’ shitty toilet of a season is but a symptom of greater dysfunction in the New York organization — starting with Phil Jackson.
Pretend you’re a pebble
Yes, the Warriors should be looked to as a model for how a franchise should be run. The Spurs also should be viewed in a similar light. The down-to-Earth, homey feel of both organizations results from low levels of ego and high levels of humility. Furthermore, it would behoove much of Corporate America — and the entire executive branch of government — to look into the ways a positive culture fosters the best quality of work and the strongest productivity. Bullying, threats, intimidation and indecent treatment of others do not get the job done.
Finally, would it kill any one of us to search for ways to exhibit these positive traits as individuals, in our everyday lives? For those of us who consider ourselves to be kind, empathetic people already, can we search our souls to find what more we can do? Or, how we can do whatever we’re already doing even better?
If a society’s culture can shift towards abrasiveness, aggression and anger because of a ripple effect of bad behavior cast by a single stone, then certainly it can shift in the opposite direction with a ripple effect of kindness, compassion and patience cast by a different stone.
Pretend you’re a pebble.
What kinds of ripples will you make today?
Also, shouldn’t we all be mortified that basic human decency is newsworthy because of its rarity?