Wisdom may be a scarce commodity in the NBA, but there's some sense of how to build a championship contender. Start with two bona fide stars. If money permits, round up a third—or, in the case of this year's Los Angeles Lakers, a fourth. Surround them with serviceable teammates who fill their circumscribed roles well and lack delusions of grandeur, a "supporting cast" as a certain retired Chicago Bulls shooting guard used to say ad nauseam. Then allow a few years to ferment. "Playing my whole career with a guy like John Stockton, I can tell you how important it is to have another guy opponents have to be concerned with," says Karl Malone. "It seems the best teams, even going back to the last generation with the Lakers and Celtics, have all had at least two real top guys."
How then to explain the Portland Trail Blazers' success? After most of the country has long gone to bed, the Blazers have quietly rolled to a 16-4 record through Sunday, second only to Utah's 17-4. Yet had there been an All-Star Game this season, Portland probably would have failed to send a representative for the fifth straight year. The Blazers, in fact, have so little star power that if the current TV schedule holds, they won't appear on NBC until they begin postseason play. And forget about role players with well-defined tasks: The duties on this team of generalists are as vague as the term impeachable offense. Portland's best pure passer is its center, ponderous Arvydas Sabonis; power forward Rasheed Wallace often defends all three frontcourt positions in the same game; and while almost every Blazer has three-point range, there's no designated outside shooter. "We're kind of weird that way," says swingman Jim Jackson. "We don't really have hard-and-fast roles."
What Portland does have is unmatched depth and a roster that's more versatile than a Swiss army knife. Sacramento Kings forward Chris Webber is essentially right when he says the Trail Blazers have "two starting lineups." Seven Portland players—Jackson, Sabonis, Wallace, guards Isaiah Rider and Damon Stoudamire, and forwards Brian Grant and Walt Williams—are averaging nine points or more, and each had scored at least 21 in a game this season. But forward Stacey Augmon, center Kelvin Cato and point guard Greg Anthony also are in the regular rotation. "Hey, I'd love to have two or three true superstars in their prime," says Blazers president Bob Whitsitt. "Our strength is that we come at you with different looks and different identities."
Every game presents a new battery of choices for coach Mike Dunleavy, who, with playing time at a premium, has become a clock-watcher a la Dilbert. He professes no formula for dispensing minutes, other than to "ride who's going good"—and that system can yield some bizarre results. On March 8, for instance, Williams played 29 minutes as a starter in a 92-73 win over the Vancouver Grizzlies. The next night, in a 103-98 defeat of the Kings, he got only seven minutes of garbage time. "There's a minutes crunch, but when a guy doesn't get in, it's never anything personal and never anything consistent," says Dunleavy. "If you don't get the minutes you want one night, you can bet the next night will be different. You just have to check your ego at the door."
Asking NBA players to sublimate their egos, of course, is like asking Courtney Love to sublimate her narcissism, but the Blazers are grudgingly making the supreme sacrifice. Take the case of Jackson, who four years ago scored 25.7 points a game—tops among guards—while with the Dallas Mavericks, and now says he is happy averaging just 9.3. Or consider Wallace, who willingly ceded his starting job to Grant earlier this season. "I'm not going to lie and say that we don't all like playing a lot, scoring and taking shots," says Stoudamire, who's averaging a career-low 12.3 points, "but the bottom line is that we cats want to win, and we're realizing that it has to be about we, and not about I."
If so, they're in the right place to harbor such sentiments. In this quirky city—town, really—of loggers and lagers, a pair of new work boots passes for conspicuous consumption, while membership in a food coop is the ultimate status symbol. Scattered about the Rose City are dozens of municipally owned yellow bicycles that are free for anyone to ride. The user just leaves one on the curb for the next person who needs it. Staggeringly few bikes ever disappear. This sharing-is-caring approach counts among its admirers Monica Lewinsky, who sagely observes in Monica's Story: "Portland is a city where recycling is more than just a big word."
The Blazers' socialist bent might blend with the local Zeitgeist, but part of their success is owed to raw capitalism. After dropping out of Washington State in 1974, Paul Allen, and a bookish buddy named Bill Gates, founded a small company called Microsoft. Today Forbes puts Allen's net worth at $21 billion, a fortune that has enabled him to do anything he wants: from buying the Trail Blazers in 1988 to purchasing the NFL's Sea-hawks in '97 to recently breaking ground for a Seattle museum dedicated largely to Jimi Hendrix. If getting a ring means lavishing a Mount Hood-sized $80 million contract for seven years on a solid, if stolid, player like Wallace, well, there's plenty more where that came from. "It's one reason we're stacked," says Stoudamire, himself the beneficiary of a seven-year, $81 million deal. "Paul's willing to pay top dollar."
Beyond the inordinately high wage scale, Allen's opulence has also created a veritable workers' paradise. Players fly aboard the league's most decadent team plane (witness its five-star cuisine and the color TVs mounted on every armrest), and often emerge from their sparkling practice center to find their Humvees and Range Rovers washed and waxed. The Blazers' brass, however, bristles at the suggestion that Allen's bottomless pockets give Portland an unfair advantage. "We could be like Rocky and put the guys in a sweaty gym with no lights and make them hungry," says Whitsitt, who's also president of the Seahawks, "but we do things first-class, and that's one way we sell Portland to the players. We're not Los Angeles, we don't have sunshine every day, we're not a big media market. So we sell the community, the tradition and the way the organization does things."
It was precisely those inducements that lured Grant, the Blazers' most reliable player. After three years of hard time in Sacramento, he turned down more money elsewhere to sign a seven-year, $56 million contract with Portland before last season. "I was looking for a solid organization, but one in a city where I'd want to raise a family—and I found it here," says Grant, who lives in Tigard, a suburb, with his wife, Gina, and three children. "I don't even mind the rain. It reminds me of sitting in my grandma's house in the summertime and hearing the rain beat against her tin roof."
Befitting a player who spent his summers during high school not at a fancy hoops camp but cutting tobacco in rural Ohio for $3.50 an hour, the 6'9" Grant is a plow horse whose average of 10.9 rebounds ranked fifth in the league through Sunday. Against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 20, he snatched 24 rebounds, the most by a Blazer since Bill Walton had 26 in 1977-78. With his Sideshow Bob dreads swaying to and fro, Grant has a Rodman-like penchant for retrieving loose balls, and he scores 12.7 points a game, many of them on tip-ins. "It's got to be embarrassing for other guys to see what Brian is doing," says Portland assistant coach Bill Musselman. "A lot of players don't see rebounding and hustle as ways to make it in this league, but Brian is all about winning."