On the eve of training camp, the Trail Blazers watched film of themselves walking off the floor. They saw how they staggered out of the playoffs in the first round two Aprils ago in Houston, and again last spring against the Suns, as opposing players celebrated around them. Then they were forced to take in a montage of playoff moments that occurred in their absence: Doc Rivers pleading for defense in a timeout, Phil Jackson asking for a stop in a huddle, Steve Nash directing, Kobe Bryant instructing, Kevin Garnett imploring. As Portland guard Brandon Roy listened to each of those renowned leaders, all he could hear were words he never said.
"I kept asking myself, What is the difference between those teams that made the conference finals and ours?" Roy says. "It's not talent. We had plenty of talent. It comes down to leadership. They had better leaders." Roy is the Blazers' best player, their top scorer, the face of their franchise. "But I was also the kind of guy who would leave work at work," he says. "Kobe is the kind of guy who is always thinking, What more can I do to help my team?"
Roy requested that the team arrange a meeting for him this summer with a sports psychologist, and in their first session the psychologist asked, "What do you want?"
"I want a championship," Roy answered.
"Do your teammates know that? Can they sense it?"
"They know I want to win. I don't know if they can sense it."
"They have to," the psychologist said. "Every day, they have to see how much you want it." Roy spoke with the psychologist for 90 minutes, and since then the psychologist has flown to Portland twice a month to see him.
"I thought I was a positive person before, but I realized I actually wasn't that positive," Roy says. "I'd walk past a teammate, and if he'd be down, I would keep going. A leader has to do more." Roy—who at 26 is entering his fifth season in the league—prefers not to identify the psychologist, but he makes it clear how counseling has affected him. He called trainers over the summer to check on the health of ailing teammates. He warned family members that he would be spending more time at the practice facility this season. He asked coaches to treat him like a rookie during camp. And he came up with a plan to integrate injured players into the practice schedule.
Last season Portland had 13 players combine to miss 311 games—even coach Nate McMillan ruptured his Achilles tendon while filling in during a workout—and many wound up commuting between their homes and hospitals. "This team used to be so close, we sometimes looked better than we were," Roy says. "But with all the injuries, guys got separated, divided, worrying about their own situations. We have to rebuild the brotherhood." Roy wants every injured player to stretch with the rest of the team before practice, go off to rehab and come back to join the huddle at the end.
Like Roy, the Blazers have evolved. Two years ago they were what the Thunder is right now: talented, trendy and still terribly young. The sheen wore off with consecutive first-round losses, and yet the long-term outlook improved. Because of the injury epidemic last season, McMillan discovered depth he did not know he had, and he coaxed Portland to 50 wins, sticking with his methodical offense that stands out in the rollicking Western Conference. The Blazers started to wonder what they could accomplish if they ever got the least bit lucky. They say their goal this season is to win a playoff series for the first time in more than a decade, but with a modicum of health, they can do more.