The Oregon House's District 47 Representative is squeezed into a corner table at the Cha! Cha! Cha! on Northeast Broadway, leaning over chips and guacamole on the first truly sunny day of 2012. Birds chirp and tee-ball bats clank from nearby parks but Jefferson Smith is inside, explaining why he is running to be the Mayor of Portland.
"The Blazers wouldn't hire me," he said, waiting the comic's half-beat. "I'm kidding."
Smith, 38, is one of three candidates -- along with Eileen Brady and Charlie Hales -- vying to replace outgoing Mayor Sam Adams. It's made clear within minutes that the East Portland Democrat is the candidate most devoted to the Portland Trail Blazers.
"I'm running for Mayor so I don't like to admit it, but I wouldn't miss a boxscore," Smith said, lamenting the fact that his legislator's schedule prevents him from attending as many games as he has in the past. "I like me some Gamecast. I do extensive boxscore analysis, which does little good for democracy, but I enjoy it very much."
A Portland native, Grant High graduate and self-described Blazers "addict," Smith spent an hour with Blazersedge on Saturday, remembering the good old days, licking his post-deadline wounds and extolling the virtues of his lengthy championship vision for the team (which you can read below the fold).
He listed his favorite Blazer (fellow Portlander Damon Stoudamire -- "He was homegrown, and I'm the homegrown candidate"), his least favorite Blazer (Qyntel Woods -- "I have a new dog, now I understand") and even his height (a touch under 6'4" barefoot but "easily 6'5" in sneakers"). He said he wants to convene a further discussion on the future of the Memorial Coliseum and thinks side-by-side arenas could help Portland "compete better economically" for large-scale non-basketball events. And he even took unprompted shots at Bill Simmons over the "Drexler's Pistons" fiasco ("Didn't even get the name right. I'm a Bill Simmons fan but I do not find him persuasive on the Blazers") and the BlazerDancers ("My wife has a bone to pick... There's more we can do to ensure the Blazers experience is inspiring young girls to be their very best").
Smith is a machine gun -- non-stop and unapologetic. He's in the middle of another packed campaign day, a morning filled with a townhall style discussion of ideas and an afternoon booked with house party schmoozing. He is a natural born orator, the one kid in the class who rubbed his hands with glee when it came time for extemporaneous speeches in high school. He has that Ken Jennings vibe where he is interested in just about everything, even obviously uninteresting subjects, and he has a measured opinion on all of it.
He conducted the interview jacket off and white shirt sleeves rolled up, a Mac laptop open at his side. Nothing was off the table but his lengthiest answers, deepest belly laughs and longest sighs were reserved for discussion of his Blazers.
"As a 16-year-old kid, I went with a group of friends to greet the Blazers at the airport after they beat the Phoenix Suns," he recalled. "We didn't win a title but we thought maybe we were going to have a chance. We were freaking out. I don't know many people were there but it was a lot. I remember the only reason Katie Miller could see was because I put her on my shoulders. I hurt my back for like a week and a half. She was up there for an hour."
Smith's path to mayoral candidate has been a swift, steady rise. After attending the University of Oregon and Harvard Law School, home to his intramural basketball "glory days," he founded the Bus Project, a non-profit organization focused on grassroots voter registration initiatives. In 2008, he was elected to the Oregon House where he was later appointed to leadership positions. In 2010, he gave an opening address for President Barack Obama's stop in Portland. He said that analysts looking to compare his candidacy to an NBA team would probably choose the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the thought caused him to shiver: "In my heart, I'm always the Blazers."
He described the current state of the team as "painful," although he approved of the decisions to trade Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby. He said that he has, for the better part of a decade, passed on unsolicited advice on draft picks and trades to a friend who works for the team. Regarding the demise of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, he said: "The end of something I care about but not the end of the world, I want to have some sense of perspective."
Reminded of the old adage "all rappers want to be athletes and all athletes want to be rappers," Smith looked like he had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. General managers all sound like they want to be politicians and... he interjected to finish the thought: "All politicians want to be general managers."
There's no question, he said, which job is more highly coveted.
"If anybody is sensible, more people want to be the GM of the Blazers [than the Mayor of Portland]. It's one of the best jobs in the world... Sports has some real advantages. First of all, it's fun. Second of all, it's fun. Third of all, there are other things that are not as fun. Sports offer a degree of clarity. We know who wins and loses. In politics, it's very hard. You understand who wins an election, but it's still not clear who's really winning. Are the people winning? Is a certain set of donors winning? Are our most important objectives winning? Is democracy winning? It's hard to know... Escaping to entertainment is always more fun than the hard work of democracy and government. Everybody would rather do that."
Fun or not, Blazers management hasn't had it easy in recent years. President Larry Miller, in particular, has taken extensive criticism. An abbreviated list of Miller's alleged shortcomings include: failing to proactively take control of the Kevin Pritchard situation; failing to thoroughly evaluate Rich Cho during the hiring process; failing to clearly communicate his vision of the franchise's future; failing to possess any real authority under owner Paul Allen; failing to deliver on promises related to the availability of the team's games on television; failing to properly assess the health risks before handing out a maximum contract to Brandon Roy; failing to give his organization's basketball operations department enough autonomy; failing to fill the team's open GM position for nearly a year despite starting and stopping the search process multiple times; and refusing to admit that the team is in a rebuilding process despite mounting evidence.
Miller did admit to Blazersedge in March that he regretted the organization's handling of Cho, but he has otherwise stood by his handling of just about everything else, including other unpopular and second-guessed decisions, such as the trade for Raymond Felton. Miller also said at the time that he doesn't particularly enjoy the public aspects of his high-profile job, preferring to remain out of the headlines.
Smith and his fellow politicians are arguably better positioned than anyone else in the state to understand what Miller goes through when it comes to criticism and scrutiny. Asked to grade his own performance as a Representative, Smith dissected his votes and goals session by session, giving himself a B+, a B+/A- and an A-. In his self-critique, he made mention of his detractors and general public sentiment on multiple occasions. He acknowledged that there "certainly have been mistakes" and admitted that some of his critics might go as low as a C- when assessing his early work as a legislator.
But being in the crosshairs, he said, has made him more "forgiving" when it comes to his fellow targets, with one notable exception.
Informed that Chris Dudley, the 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate and former Blazers center, has plans to move to Southern California in the coming months, Smith cracked, "Is he running for Mayor of San Diego? Give it some time."
Regarding Adams, though, he extended an olive branch: "Sam and I have had some pretty public disagreements. As we stand right now, I view him as underrated. I think so many people are piling on with their disagreements that it's now switched to the other extreme."
He expressed similar empathy for Miller and Portland's management, especially when it came to the issue of admitting mistakes.
"It's emotionally painful," Smith said. "[Leaders in a public position] don't like to think of ourselves as people who could ever be wrong... I want to be a little forgiving, or more forgiving for general managers. A career is made as a sports GM based on a single move. You take or don't take Michael Jordan, your career is made. Another portion is competition. If you say too often, 'I got this one wrong,' there will be people who hear you and respect that. But there's somebody else who wants to beat you. In politics, they might even be willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to tell everybody you're an idiot -- or a flip flopper -- based on that."
A mistake Smith is willing to admit: he was honking once for Team Oden. His rationale: elite centers historically deliver multiple championships at a better rate than elite small forwards.
"I stand by my decision but I acknowledge that the decision was flawed," he said. "My friend pointed out at the time that Kevin Durant had a better chance of being an historically great small forward than Greg Oden had at being an historically great center. That's probably accurate."
While Smith understands what Miller is dealing with on a daily basis, he doesn't share the Blazers president's inability to paint a clear vision. Throughout the interview, he was careful not to toot his own horn but he did say at one point: "Sometimes I do strategic planning uncommonly well."
He went on to deliver his stump speech to his one-person audience in a well-organized, fluid fashion. Even a sportswriter could process his three-plank platform: getting the city's residents working, getting the city government's agencies working better, and getting the city's services working for a great percentage of its citizens. Smith portrayed himself as an East Side candidate running for people who have been overlooked and shortchanged and his competition as representatives of a status quo responsible for those inequities.
"There's no New Seasons east of 42nd," Smith said, in reference to Brady, who co-founded the grocery store chain. "There's no street car east of I don't know where," he added, a nod to Hales, a former city commissioner and well-known advocate of the public transportation project. Smith pointed to the distribution of stimulus money, transportation-related dollars and subsidized loans for energy retrofits of public schools as three areas where certain segments of the city have not gotten a fair shake.
"We need a commitment to seeing the whole picture, to making the city work for everybody, understanding that our city is changing. It isn't getting whiter and it's not getting smaller," Smith said. "I'm bringing that perspective. I think other candidates are responding to it. The challenge is, with political issues that impact people who have less power, it can be a nice thing to talk about on the campaign trail. But if they're not organized, if they don't have institutional memory, if they don't have lobbyists, if they don't give much money to politicians -- the candidates for office are good people and are well-intentioned, but there are so many things to do and something always has to give. The small fact that I would be the first Mayor in the history of the city elected east of 82nd Avenue will hopefully make it harder for me to forget."
Having gone fairly deep down the wormhole, Smith remembered his audience and did a crossover dribble on his language.
"The player whose attitude I admire most is Steve Nash," he said. "Not only on the court but also how he interacts with other players, the encouragement he gives them, how he makes people better, how he delivers the ball and impacts team culture. His humility, his effort to be accurate when he answers questions, his obvious humanity. I've become an enormous fan of Steve Nash the human being. I wouldn't claim to be like that but that's someone I look at to make myself better."
"I care a lot about what I do," he said, as he packed up the Mac and whisked off with a 20-something staffer to the day's next stop. "I believe my own bulls***."
Click through for Jefferson Smith's championship vision for the Blazers.
PS Blazersedge would like to extend a public invitation to Brady and Hales if they would like to share competing visions of the Blazers and/or the city.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter
aka, the Plan of the Well-Fitting Misfit.
aka, the Example of the Championship Pistons
Quick summary: The theory I'm working on is the "well fitting misfit" theory. Essentially, that the way for the Blazers to win a title is to find well-matching misfits. That is, players who don't fit perfectly with typical teams (so they are undervalued), but they can be cobbled together with similarly ill-fitting pieces to create something special. This is otherwise known as the Detroit Pistons championship theory.
I am running for mayor now, so I can't elaborate much. Nor can I attend to my writing as much as I'd like. But below is a working post.
1. The Champions Rule
Aka, "To win an NBA title, assume you have pretty much the best player in the league." For the 30 years -- pretty much since the era when the Blazers won the title -- the NBA title has gone to a team led by an All-Time Great player who was arguably the league's best player that season -- at least top 3-5.
NBA Champions and their Champions. In ancient battles, armies had champions -- top warriors who would fight for the King. (Historical example, see Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy. "Historical" might be a stretch.) The NBA champions have similarly had champions. Nearly every recent NBA championship team has been led by a player who was had an all-time great player -- a hall-of-famer (or soon to be one) who was in the conversation as the best player in the league, or at least the top 3 or so.
Here is a list of all the championship teams of the past 30 years, along with their all-time great (* denotes a team that may not fit the rule and will receive further discussion).
- Mavericks (2011): Nowitzki was the best in the playoffs last year, and one of the very best all year.
- Lakers (2009-10): Kobe Bryant
- *Celtics 2008: Kevin Garnett (pre-injury)
- Spurs (1999, 2003, ‘05, ‘07): Tim Duncan
- Heat (2006): Shaq and Wade. And in those finals, Wade played like the best player the league. At least the referees thought so.
- *Pistons (2003): Rasheed Wallace and Chauncey Billups were both excellent players. Neither was the best player in the league.
- Lakers (2000-02): Shaq & Kobe
- Bulls (1991-93, 1996-98): Jordan (& Pippen)
- Rockets (1994-95): Hakeem
- *Pistons (1989-90): Isaiah Thomas was an all-time great. But few were arguing that Isaiah was in the Jordan-Magic-Bird group.
- Lakers (1980, ‘82, ‘85, ‘87-88): Magic (& Kareem)
- Celtics (1981, ‘84, ‘86): Bird
- Sixers (1983): Moses Malone (& Dr. J)
This rule has proven elusive for our Blazers to follow. Drexler was probably top 5. Aldridge might be or reach top 10. Barring a time machine to draft Jordan or Durant -- or miracle cures to the legs of our historically tragic centers -- we haven't unlocked the door to having the league's best player. (Note: as any logician knows, having a Top 3 player does not ensure a championship. Ask Charles Barkley.)
2. The Exceptions to the "Champions Rule"
The Arguable Exceptions: There appear to be one clear exception and two arguable exceptions to the "Champions Rule." The Isaiah Thomas "Bad Boy" Pistons and the Kevin Garnett Celtics. Both Garnett and Isaiah were all-time greats -- and truly excellent their championship years. But it is arguable whether either was one of the league top 3 players in the year their teams won the title.
The Clearer Exception to the Champions Rule is the Chauncey Billups Pistons aka "The Misfit Pistons". Those Pistons are an anomaly. Neither Chauncey Billups not Rasheed Wallace nor Rip Hamilton nor Tayshaun Prince nor Ben Wallace was clearly an all-time great; none of them is a cinch to make the hall-of-fame (Sheed, Billups and Hamilton all have a fighting chance). Neither Billups nor Sheed ever averaged 20 points per game for a season. Billups never reached 9 assists/game. Only Richard Hamilton ever averaged 20 points/game...and his season average never topped 20.1. Each of their players was a bit of a misfit. None reached the same level of success elsewhere. None fit precisely the prototype for their position.
3. Another Path -- A Different Rule: The "Well-Fitting Misfits"
These Pistons offer an alternative path -- a second "rule" -- for an NBA title. I am calling it "The well-fitting misfit" rule. Those Pistons offer a guide.
Remember The Misfit Pistons:
- Chauncey Billups had a more shoot-first tendency than a traditional point guard. But it worked for that team, because they needed the scoring. And Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace were both better than average passers/playmakers at their positions.
- Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince were skinny for wings, but with Billups and Ben Wallace, the team had enough muscle.
- Ben Wallace was short and a poor shooter. But Rasheed Wallace was extra-long and an extra-good shooter. Relatedly...
- Rasheed Wallace shot more jumpers than a typical big, but with grunt worker Ben Wallace, it still worked.
- They played excellent one-on-one defense, and even better team defense
Each of these guys was a bit of a misfit.
But they fit together.
And they played defense.
Remember the Garnett Celtics: The Garnett Celtics also had some misfit characteristics. Garnett might well have been the best player in the league that season -- certainly defensively. But he's also a bit of a misfit; he's skinny for a 4. Extra long and athletic, but skinny. With Kendrick Perkins -- another (less talented) misfit -- they had enough girth up front. Rajon Rondo shoots less ably than the vast majority of small guards, but with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce on the team, the court spread sufficiently. Those Celtics provide another arguable example of the Well-fitting Misfit rule. And like the Misfit Pistons, the Garnett Celtics played excellent defense.
4. Principles of a successful "Well-fitting Misfit" team:
a. Undervalued talented "misfits" who fit well together.
b Solid at every position.
c. Great or near-great defense
5. Misfits and Value -- aka "Second Degree Moneyball":
Well-fitting pieces, of course, are important to every team. Even last year's Mavericks championship team had a bit of misfit flavor -- with offensive-light Tyson Chandler as almost a perfect match for defensive-neutral Dirk Nowitzki. Perhaps no player is really a prototype or interchangeable piece. But there might be ways to find well-fitting, odd pieces -- that by virtue of their oddness might be undervalued.
The recent example of Zach Randolph: Recent examples of misfits success stories include the Zach Randolph Grizzlies. Most teams wouldn't and didn't want Zach Randolph. The Blazers traded him for essentially zilch -- for a player they waived. Zach's lack of value was not merely because of off court issues; troubled players have been sought after before. Zach is a challenging player to fit into a traditional team. A traditional team wants more defense from their power forward; Z-Bo offers little. And most teams don't want a ball stopping, black hole, vacuum of a scorer at the 4. But with a team of Marc Gasol, Shane Battier, and Tony Allen, the Grizzlies had enough defense to be competitive. Z-Bo was a misfit, but he fit well. He wasn't undervalued because of hidden advanced statistics -- points and rebounds show up pretty clearly on a scoresheet. But he didn't fit well on most teams. And those same players mean that the Grizzlies needed the post offense that Zach Randolph can provide -- and provide as well as any big player in the league.
Most sports fans and execs in America have now seen Moneyball. (Some may have even read the book.) Most individual players will not be undervalued for long in the modern, metric-based league. But a player who has little market value and little actual value to most teams could be undervalued -- aka actually valuable -- for a team who has a unique or rare fit for that player.
The Blazers and other teams might be able to find undervalued players by thinking in terms of player combinations. Not just Moneyball but a sort of "second degree" Moneyball.
6. "Well Fitting Misfits" -- a possible model for the Blazers?
I want the Blazers to win another title. Championships aren't everything. We can find some joy in a team that plays together, plays hard, and competes. But my family held onto a 1977 bottle of Blazers 7-Up that we pledged not to open until until the Blazers win another title.
I thought we would open it during the Drexler years. My friends and I piled into a buddy's Volvo to greet the Blazers at the airport after beating the Suns in 1990. The Pippen years got me thirsty again.
The Oden draft and Roy emergence made me think we had a chance to win a title through the traditional "Champions" model. It now seems likely that we should prepare for the likelihood that LaMarcus Aldridge will be our best player. He is an excellent player. And even if he is unlikely to be a Top 5 or Top 3 player, he can be better than Rasheed Wallace and Chauncey Billups. He could make the Hall of Fame.
Relevance to the Blazers: The Blazers are unlikely to attract one of the league's very best as a free agent. It is very hard to trade for such a player. And it doesn't look like we will draft him (or if we do, it seems unlikely that they will retain his ability to walk ably). So I have a growing interest in the "well fitting misfits" theory.
Who are the potential well-fitting misfits? Here's where I could use some help.
Who are players who are undervalued by virtue of their imperfect fit for a position?
What players do you like that others don't like enough? Kawhi Leonard is an over-rebounding 3. Kenneth Faried is an interesting young player. Athough other GMs might covet both players.
Who might make for interesting fits? Who might complement those players?
For example, Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace are actually pretty apt misfits, but don't fit well together, because both are light on shooting for their position. They both might complement someone (Aldridge?), but they don't complement each other.
I'll take a cue from the folks at One Center Court and watch the ball get passed down to the court. Rather than pretend I have the magic answer, I'll watch the crowd pitch and evaluate the best answers.
Let the brainstorming commence.