Rebuild or “reload.” “Retool.” These are the words being bandied about around the Blazers lately. With only six players currently on the books, two lottery picks about to join the team and a host of cap space left over, the front office—such as it was before Neil Olshey came aboard—wanted to get the word out that the Trail Blazers would not be taking any steps back before moving forward. So with Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard now the two newest Blazers, how much more do we know?
Well, not much really. The reality is, and always was, that there were no real franchise-altering opportunities available to the Blazers last night. In a certain sense, you can take the “re-tool” approach as a tacit admission that nothing this off-season was worth stripping the roster to the studs, and that the “problem” of a ticking clock on LaMarcus Aldridge’s prime is easier to deal with than bottoming out for relatively little reward.
So what of the picks themselves? On both counts, I would describe myself as dubiously hopeful. My own position—a minority one among Blazers observers, I realize—was that the team should’ve swung for the fences with Drummond and paired him with the best available ball handler at 11. Still, it was clear early they were taking Lillard, and a franchise getting its target player and filling a roster need with another pick is as close to an instant success as there can be. The larger point, however, is that neither Leonard nor Lillard provide a direction for the team that they didn’t have yesterday morning.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Lillard could work out as a pick and roll orchestrator that the team has been searching for, or he could be more of a penetrating scorer who creates tangentially. Leonard could be a mobile defender and shot blocker, or he could be more of a face-up offensive player. Any of those things help. But just about any basketball skill is helpful in a vacuum, and the Blazers still have a vacuum.
The obvious next step here is a coach. Neil Olshey has proven himself capable of acquiring talent, but he has also sometimes shown a propensity for sticking many parts together and trying to force a whole. What the franchise needs to target next is a coach who can collaborate with the front office and help shape how the team plays. If only there were a coach with great credentials, a reputation for pick and roll ingenuity, a history of maximizing stretchy power forwards and developing defensive centers…. If only just such a coach were available…
That’s right Portland. I’ve brought my Stan Van Gundy crush straight over from covering the Magic, and he is my new pipe dream for the Blazers. There are a lot of reasons to believe SVG won’t come here. I can’t imagine that after dealing with Orlando’s front office that Van Gundy would want to deal with Paul Allen and company. Similarly, I’m not sure that the Blazers have proven themselves up to managing a coach with Stan’s penchant for shooting from the hip. But with the players that Portland just drafted, I can’t imagine a better coach.
Damian Lillard is basically built to be a better version of Jameer Nelson, a fearless scorer with range on his shot and an ability to leverage his own aggression to create shots for teammates. LaMarcus Aldridge is probably the best power forward in the league for a varied arsenal of pick and rolls. With rangy wing defenders at his disposal and a young center to fill with defensive zeal, Van Gundy would have at his disposal all the tools he’d need to absolutely max out the roster.
All that said, Van Gundy ain’t coming to Portland, I don’t think. Signs point to him taking a year off, and Ihaven’t heard much by way of the Blazers coming after him. That said, I think Van Gundy’s approach to coaching is exactly what the Blazers—and for that matter, almost every team in the league—need. Van Gundy crafts teams based on what his players can do, and leaves their deficiencies unacknowledged. If his team doesn’t have a ball-dominant shot creator, they play inside out with a ton of ball movement. If his team has a slug-footed wing defender, he is supported from the back line. That’s the mentality the Blazers need to replicate moving forward.
Just about any prediction I could make at this point would be wrong. Just about any concrete scenario I could wish for would be a pipedream. But what the Blazers need now is to find a coach—and he may already be in Portland—and an identity that lets their young players flourish based on their talents rather than struggle to adapt to precast roles. Until that happens, the Trail Blazers will be a collection of talents without a focus, an engine with no wheels. We’ll see what happens.