PORTLAND, Ore. -- Bamboo is tolerant to drought, but balancing water with restraint is tricky business, especially if you're a young NBA player. This was the message delivered to the Trail Blazers' roster last October after the team heard from Greg Bell, the author of "Water The Bamboo: Unleashing the Potential of Teams and Individuals."
The bamboo becomes a running gag among the Trail Blazers, and it's the source of quite the shtick between All-NBA point guard Damian Lillard and reserve Luis Montero.
"I would always tell him, 'Did you water your bamboo?,' like, every day," Lillard says. "So he started singing, like, 'Waaaaater the Bamboooooo.'"
Montero has played all of 42 minutes as a rookie, but he apparently excels as the team's musical director -- though he speaks broken English. The song metastasizes into various riffs and remixes. Pretty soon, Lillard begins calling Montero "Water," and Montero calls Lillard "Water."
In colloquial Spanish, attaching an "ito" or "ita" to a name or object is a term of endearment, literally meaning "little." So Allen Crabbe is now "AC-ito," and Maurice Harkless is "Mo-ito." Eventually, everyone on the team is just "Water-ito."
Just after the All-Star break, Lillard gets a call early in the morning on a "blackout day" -- designated as such by coach Terry Stotts in lieu of "voluntary," so players understand they can stay away from the practice facility in suburban Portland without being perceived as unmotivated. It's Montero, who doesn't drive, hasn't dabbled with Uber and whose normal ride is away.
"'He says, 'Water-ito, I need a ride to the gym,'" Lillard remembers.
"You know it's a blackout day," Lillard tells him.
"I need to get the work in," Lillard recalls Montero saying.
Lillard drives to Montero's apartment, and they head to the facility. While Montero works out on the floor for a couple of hours, Lillard lifts in the weight room. Lillard has been concerned about Montero's wardrobe, so after they finish up, they hop over to Saks Fifth Avenue. "He hadn't been suited up," Lillard says. "'You get you a black one. You get you a blue one. You get you a gray one. You can wear the suit. You can wear a nice button-up shirt with the sport coat and some jeans and nice shoes.' I was just breaking it down for him."
By the time Lillard drops Montero back home, it's dark -- but Montero is now suited up.
"We had spent the whole day together," Lillard says. "I had picked him up at like 9 o'clock. And by the time we got home, it was 5 o'clock."
When told that it's fairly unusual for a player of Lillard's stature to pay that kind of attention to a rookie 14th man -- that it's probably even more unusual for a 14th man to feel as if he has the privilege of interrupting the team's franchise player on a blackout day, much less ask for taxi service -- Lillard shrugs.
"I don't know what other people do," he says
The NBA is a healthy market for the motivational-managerial-leadership genre, and before his 40-point outburst in Game 3 and 36 points in Game 4 of the Trail Blazers' conference semifinals series against Golden State, Lillard can be found with a copy of "Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us," gifted to him by John Ross, the team's personnel video coordinator.
"When they think about leadership, most people think you just follow one person," Lillard says of the book's central theme. "But you build a tribe. You give people something to believe in. You give them hope. They don't become a follower. They join your tribe. It's more important to believe in what we're working toward as a tribe than it is getting them to follow what I want them to follow. Our purpose becomes the same."
Lillard sits on a metal bench alongside the Trail Blazers' pair of practice courts. Practice is over, but as is customary in Portland, the majority of the team is still on the floor working, save for a couple of guys who have retreated to the treatment area and Chris Kaman, who is generally presiding as the town elder.
"Practice has been over for a while, and all these guys are getting their work in, and it's been like this the whole year every day," Lillard says.
If the Trail Blazers don't win another game in this series, which they trail 3-1 headed into Game 5 on Wednesday night, they've enjoyed a remarkably successful season for a team projected by oddsmakers to win 26.5 games. They won 44 games in the regular season and reached the conference semifinals with the NBA's lowest payroll and its third-youngest roster, largely made up of young, wandering journeymen who hadn't yet found their niche in the league.
"Whatever the narrative was this offseason about our expectations and our projected win totals, and about what we lost, Damian never set a tone that this was a rebuilding year," Trail Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey says. "A lot of our guys are having career years. A lot of that is what they do on the floor with Damian, but also how he treats and embraces them and empowers them to be more than what other people might have thought they were."
Basketball games are won and lost with on-court execution, but chemistry requires bonds between particles. By virtually every account in Portland, Lillard has been the catalyst for that process in his fourth NBA season. With the dispersal during the summer of the veteran core of LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez, the Trail Blazers became Lillard's team. That vacuum wasn't merely filled; it was made more cohesive culturally.
"We have a player who just took over 80 percent of a new starting lineup, none of whom were All-Stars, a lot of whom were basic rotation players on other teams," Olshey says. "And here we are in the second round of the playoffs." The question for the Trail Blazers moving forward is how to parlay that goodwill and vault their way toward contention. More times than not in the NBA, that means pairing a dynamic point guard like Lillard and his young supporting cast with some elite talent from the outside. That's a challenge for Portland.
"If we're able to accomplish that, it would be unprecedented," Olshey says. "When you look at the free-agent history of Portland, it has not traditionally been a destination, and you have not been a part of those conversations."
The NBA's free-agency carousel isn't an exact science, but there have historically been a few leading indicators that guide the decisions of top-flight free agents. Compensation is first and foremost, but the league's collective bargaining agreement has leveled that playing field, with a marginal advantage granted to an incumbent team.
After that, we move onto other considerations such as media market size, climate (sun belt franchises tend to fare better) and franchise health. On rare occasions, stars will choose to play closer to home.
Portland doesn't factor well in these categories. It's the nation's 24th-largest media market, with fewer than half the television households of Atlanta or Houston. It's geographically remote, and though the summers are exhilarating, the weather can be gloomy for much of the year. The population is relatively homogenous. While it doesn't bother Lillard or C.J. McCollum, who have made year-round homes in the area, it's not a feature that helps the Trail Blazers.
But something is afoot in the NBA. Maybe it's the social media explosion that's allowed stars in smaller markets to gain more exposure on a growing number of platforms. Maybe it's watching players like Lillard score impressive endorsement deals outside of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Maybe it's a generation of players who came of age while LeBron James was leveraging his power and hand-picking his teammates.
Whatever the case, a growing number of free agents are bypassing teams such as the Lakers and Knicks to join teams in less glamorous but more hospitable markets where they have a more appealing supporting cast and a superior work environment.
Aldridge might be the case study when he decided it was time to leave Portland last year. He canceled a meeting with New York and consigned the Lakers to his second tier, as he ultimately chose San Antonio, where there's no such thing as a marketing campaign based around an individual player. Ironically, it was Aldridge's departure that has enabled the Trail Blazers to begin building their strongest selling point in any July free-agent meeting:
Damian Lillard is the guy you want to play with.
Such a meeting is strictly by invitation only. Many NBA organizations spend years assembling their resumes and lobbying agents year-round to get on "the good list" of teams that warrant free-agent consideration.
When he was running basketball operations for the Clippers six years ago, Olshey called in chits and hailed the potential of Blake Griffin as a means of securing the final spot on LeBron's dance card in the summer of 2010. It would be unseemly for a franchise to put a couple of plane tickets to Cleveland in a shadowbox in their executive suites, but at the time, it might have been one of the Clippers' greatest achievements.
The Trail Blazers' mailbox tends not to be full in early July, and as noble as Lillard's generosity with Montero might be, it's not something that's likely to lure a max player into the Blazers' lair. But this season's success allows them to check one essential box off the free-agency checklist.
"Players start with, 'I want to go to a playoff team,'" Olshey says. "And while everyone knew that Damian was a foundational player, it was very hard to prove it last offseason. And I think the fact that now, making the second round of the playoffs is critical."
Lillard carries himself with an uncommon combination of sturdiness and humility. He's both serious and accessible, the guy at the bar secure enough to nurse a drink by himself, but completely sociable if his solitude is interrupted. It's easy to imagine him inside a suite above Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills alongside owner Paul Allen, Olshey and Stotts, wearing either his black, gray or blue suit, pitching one of the league's most eligible free-agent bachelors.
"As far as recruitment, I never see myself getting overly involved with it," Lillard says. "In free agency, people will ultimately make their own decisions. But I have thought about the fact that what our culture is here, what people see here, that will attract people."
Spend a little time around the Trail Blazers, and anecdotes like the Montero outing seep out -- but never from Lillard. His playing host to an extracurricular training retreat last summer in San Diego has been well documented. McCollum will volunteer the story (it goes by the shorthand, "Emergency exit row") about how he and Lillard bought a couple of seats on Southwest Airlines last-minute to embed themselves with the Trail Blazers' summer league squad.
In the NBA, stars often distribute their attention and goodwill proportional to a teammate's station on the team. But Harkless, who spent much of the winter out of the rotation, testifies that he never received more positive leadership from Lillard than when he was collecting garbage-time minutes. Whether it was a trip to Benihana or a litany of text messages, Lillard barraged Harkless with encouragement, citing McCollum and Crabbe, who each sat for extended stretches only to see meaningful minutes, as evidence of how opportunity is almost inevitable if you put the work in.
"He doesn't put himself above the team or above other players," McCollum says. "He's not taking Uber to games instead of arriving with the team. He just works hard. He treats the rookies like he treats vets. He never demoralizes people and doesn't talk down to them. It's rare you see a player of his caliber so humble, so laid back. He's caring."
How do the Trail Blazers trade on caring, on Water-ito, on benevolent Benihana therapy sessions? This is the $100 million question, and for all the power of Lillard's presence in Portland, the attributes that make him such a rock also make him an uneasy recruiter.
"I'm not saying I won't say anything to people, but I'm not going to go completely out of my way," Lillard says. "I'll talk to a guy and be like: 'This is what we do here. This is how you can help.' I would express about what I think they could do, how they could help, what we could be with them, things like that -- why I think it would be good for them, why I think it would be good for our team. I could see myself doing that."
The show-don't-tell, slow-play strategy might not deliver immediate results in the marketplace, and like most home-grown product, the appeal of Lillard's team will have to spread word-of-mouth. Right now, 23 teams are at home getting a sample of the on-court goods. They watched how Lillard pivoted his Game 3 scoring outburst to a seven-assist third quarter when the coverage favored changing course. If the Trail Blazers are lucky, a top-shelf forward imagined himself on the receiving end of one of those dimes.
"I don't know that everyone knew that before because we had other All-Stars on the roster, and even though he was an All-Star and an All-NBA Player, he hadn't done it on his own," Olshey says. "Now he is one of those guys. I don't think it's something we as a front office have to go out and sell. I think it's evident to everybody, the fact that opposing teams are doing everything in their power to take him out of games in the playoffs. And what was the constant there? The constant was Damian Lillard."
There's an old adage that's usually credited to former Clippers president Andy Roeser: "In the NBA, you can sell hope or you can sell success." And it's largely true that you can sell hope if the target audience is season-ticket holders, sponsors or even broadcast partners. But with free agents, you must sell success.
For his part, Lillard refuses to worry about talent acquisitions. When pressed about it, he conveys a sense that it's a bit tacky to discuss it in polite company, a betrayal of existing teammates and almost beside the point. He undoubtedly perceives himself to be the organization's most indispensible representative, but as its guardian, not its sales rep.
"We've started from here and just built and built and built," Lillard says of this season. "At this point, I'm confident we could bring in a guy and get him to buy into it. I'm willing to protect our culture. If we can get some guys in free agency or whatever, and they buy into this kind of stuff, then we continue this. But we don't change how we are -- and we won't because I won't allow that to happen."