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What Difference Does Culture Make?

One of the most intense debates this pre-season can pretty much be summed up in a single question:

How much difference does culture really make?

The locus of the issue so far has been Andre Miller's meshing with the team, which somehow has mushroomed into a Nate McMillan-Kevin Pritchard-Steve Blake--Oregonian-National Media-Society At Large maelstrom.  I'll restate succinctly here what I stated in my earlier post.  I don't get the hubbub.  Do people think the Blazers are the only team in the universe dealing with the issue of playing time and trying to fit many people, all of whom believe they are deserving, into few spots?  Nate McMillan is hardly the first coach to deal with an eager, talented, protective, perhaps headstrong, perhaps disgruntled player.  That list would include...let's see...every coach in existence.  I guarantee you there are six thousand guys out there coaching fourth graders dealing with angry agents...errrrr...parents who firmly believe their clients/children should be in the starting lineup and are threatening mayhem unless that's accomplished.   I'd bet every team in the NBA is going through this drama at some position.  It just seems a little odder and more pressing in Portland because:

A.  The Blazers haven't had a hint of it (publicly) in the last few years.

B.  The last time the Blazers did have a hint of it the franchise fell into disaster.

C.  The team is on the cusp of some really nice seasons and has plenty to lose if things don't turn out well.

Portland has pretty much the perfect storm to make whatever controversy exists here seem more controversial.  And that's exactly what's happening.  In reality it will all get resolved by mid-December or somebody will get smacked down, the system will get shaken up, and everybody will reset and soldier on.  So be it.

The greater issue coming out here is the misunderstanding of the importance and significance of culture itself.  One can hardly blame the Blazer faithful for valuing it highly.  It was the lantern that lit the way out of the pit, held steadily in the hands of our Guide GM and Head Coach.  Without it we would still be lost in the dark maze of a bygone era, or so it seems.  But even to the extent that the analogy holds true, as one approaches the surface and sunlight the lantern light becomes less critical.  It's still valuable both as a reminder and as a safeguard against the lights going out again.  You wouldn't want to be without it.  But watching the light swing back and forth doesn't produce the same shadows it once did nor need it produce the same fear.  In fact if the lantern isn't moving, as rattling of an experience as that can be to those who have experienced the darkness, neither are you.  And if you're not moving the light has lost its purpose.

Culture does make a difference in the NBA.  But the difference is not that between absolute success and failure.  Rather culture focuses and maximizes your success.  Culture cannot in itself make a bad team into a good one.  Show me a team that's lacking in talent but full of great guys who listen, cooperate, socialize together, and are brilliant with the media and I will show you a team that might win 22 games instead of 18.  Similarly, except in the most bone-jarring train-wreck circumstances, holes in the culture will not turn a good team into a horrible one.  Talent comes first in this league.  Culture hones talent.  The Blazers are still a talented team.  The Blazers will do well this season.  End of story.

The point at which culture becomes most critical is the ultimate point at which all great teams aim:  the championship.  The league is full of talented teams.  It's hard to run roughshod over all comers.  Somewhere you have to find unity of purpose, self-sacrifice, and communal belief that give you the edge when another team's talent approaches yours.  Most championships aren't claimed by teams who netted 70 wins and steamrolled the opposition.  They're won by teams who eked out the extra 3-4 wins needed to emerge victorious that season.  There's your culture.

It's quite possible--in fact it's overwhelmingly likely--that the Blazers could garner 3-4 extra wins this year from pristine culture and still not ascend to the summit.  Though expectations for some kind of advancement are strong to the point of being immutable, the reality is the Blazers still have another year to work out the final kinks--in roster and chemistry alike--before the prime-time lights hit.  That's plenty of time to resolve anything that needs adjustment...if anything really does.

It's more likely that the Blazers' culture quotient has been unnaturally high the last couple years, when basically nobody significant made waves and every player of note was either media-friendly or a rookie.  It was fantastic to behold, but one wonders about the utility gained from the 91-99% tier of culture aptitude.  Perhaps one or more players who needed (or still need) to be added to the mix might bring the level down a little especially in areas (like media relations) that are a wonderful bonus but not strictly integral to on-court success.  Maybe waves need to be made.  Maybe the locker room needs to get feisty and competitive.  Maybe this needs to be more of a job and a battle sometimes.  Losing a little of the shiny veneer doesn't mean the foundation disintegrates as well.

I am not disagreeing with the mantra we've heard throughout the Pritchard years.  Culture is important.  But it's also important to understand how, why, and in what specific ways.  Most critical of all is the understanding that culture doesn't equate to lack of controversy.  Culture turns controversy towards productive ends.  You have culture precisely so you can endure and grow from (very common) situations like this.  

If one guy pushing the boundaries destroys the Blazers' culture then what they had wasn't culture in the first place.  If the organizational culture is as strong as advertised then whatever sparks are flying right now will just end up making the bonfire bigger in the end.  If this is the worst test the Blazers will go through in the next couple seasons they should count themselves lucky.  The farther along you progress on road to greatness the bigger the pitfalls become.  That's why it's not the road to "everybody gets there".

--Dave (