(Note: New PRS contributor Jeremy Conlin approached me about doing a post examining whether the Blazers had committed themselves to a core that will linger between the haves and have-nots of the NBA for several more years. As you’ll see below, I had very strong feelings, so we agreed to settle this like old fashioned gentleman scholars: by debate. What follows is long, yes, but proves a worthy inquisition into the very fabric of basketball philosophy. Enjoy.—Danny)
Jeremy Conlin: The 2009 Blazers had everyting figured out.
They led the league in offensive efficiency, pouring in 113.9 points per 100 possessions, piloted by all-world shooting guard Brandon Roy, who posted a PER competitive with Kobe Bryant that season. Roy was joined by forward LaMarcus Aldridge, a budding star, as well as two-headed center monster Groel Odezybilla, who combined for 14 points, 15 rebounds, and 59% shooting from the floor. They were upset in the first round of the playoffs by Houston, but everything was looking up – Roy, Aldridge, Oden, and hot prospect Nic Batum were all 24 or younger. By all accounts they were the team of the future in the Western Conference.
Greg Oden injured his knee (again) the following season. He hasn’t stepped onto a court since. Roy’s knees also took a turn for the worse in 2010 – three years later he runs like he’s 82, not 28. Aldridge continued to develop, but the team fell apart around him over the next few years, even as the front office scrambled to re-tool. They eventually decided to cut the cord and dealt Gerald Wallace for a lottery pick and all but gave up on the season. You can’t quite say they “tanked,” but let’s just say that Jonny Flynn and Hasheem Thabeet were prominently involved.
So the Blazers hit the re-set button. They parlayed their two lottery picks into point guard Damian Lillard and center Meyers Leonard (who fill what were two positions of extreme need for Portland). They re-upped with Nic Batum on a long-term deal, which locks up their entire core through 2015.
But here’s the question: if this is their core through 2015, where is it taking them?
Championship teams are built around transcendent superstars. The ones that aren’t are built around transcendent defenses (2004 Pistons), a lesser superstar in a diluted league (1978 Bullets, 1979 Sonics), or overwhelming depth of talent (1989, 1990 Pistons).
Which one of those models to the Blazers fit? They don’t seem to have a transcendent superstar in the making – Lillard is a rookie but he’s already 22 years old – he doesn’t have the upside that guys like Kyrie Irving or Derrick Rose did as rookies. It’s highly doubtful that the frontcourt of Leonard and Aldridge will anchor a 2004 Pistons-level defense, and while it’s futile to try to project a roster three years in the future, the odds are against the Blazers turning a league-worst bench in 2013 into a championship-level bench by 2015.
The Blazers are clearly building for the future, but are we certain that the future they’re building towards is worth that effort? Are they building towards a glass ceiling that’s lower than championship-level?
Danny Nowell: I hopped into this post idea of yours not because I disagree with your premise—that the Blazers aren’t built around a transcendent superstar, and that a championship with this core is unlikely—but because I can’t fault the Blazers for that fact. You point out that in 2009, this team was poised to compete for several years, stacked not merely with talent but with complementary talent, perhaps the hardest thing to find for a developing roster. Of course we know how that went, and the Blazers current situation is comparatively lamentable. But I think that criticizing them for this is difficult; no they don’t have a “transcendent superstar,” but neither do about 26 other teams. In a town that has a long history of striking out on free agent acquisitions, the Blazers have drafted a likely Rookie of the Year, groomed LaMarcus Aldridge into a two-time All-Star, and in hiring Terry Stotts changed Nic Batum from a premium floor-spacer into a hybrid distributor/shooter. So I think my question is, and it’s not rhetorically, what realistic opportunities have the Blazers missed out on?
This gets into a recent hobby horse of mine and something that I don’t think most fans like talking about. In the past 30 years, 9 teams have won championships. I don’t know whether that sounds bad to most people, but 3 teams have 18 of those titles and 5 have 24. Championships don’t really move around in this league. The only franchises to win a title in the past 30 years that don’t have at least one more are the 76ers in 1983 and the Mavericks in 2011. Otherwise, the Spurs, Celtics, Pistons, Bulls, and Lakers win and a few other good teams get lucky every now and again. Ergo, I think fans would be better served taking a healthier outlook on championships. Not only do you have to amass a “championship” caliber core, but you have to outlast whichever team probably already has one. Put it this way: It’s an open question whether the Thunder will be able to break through for a ring. I think it’s likely, but right now one team in the league has what looks to be the recipe for success: a stable, winning roster with a talent no other team can match. That team is the Heat. Even Kevin Durant can’t count anything as inevitable, because that’s not how it goes in the NBA.
JC: But Danny, don’t you think it’s a bit irresponsible to lock yourself into a ceiling which, at least for right now, appears to be below “championship contender”? You mention Oklahoma City, and while you’re absolutely right to say that the Thunder winning a title is far from an inevitability, they’ve at least put themselves in a position where a title is within reach. They made the Finals last year, and are probably the favorites to represent the West again this year – who’s to say with a few bounces of the ball their way (or a poorly-timed injury to an opposing roster) they couldn’t be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come mid-June?
My basic philosophy is this – every team should have the goal of being a championship contending team at some point over the next five years. For teams like Miami and Oklahoma City and San Antonio, this is manifesting itself already. For teams like Houston and Cleveland and New Orleans, they have franchise-altering stars that are more likely than not to develop into the transcendent superstar that can lead a team to championship contention. For teams like Charlotte and Orlando, they’re in the process of bottoming out to hopefully secure that type of player in the draft.
For teams like Portland, I’m not sure how they fit into that equation. Even if we look at the best-case scenario for this roster, are they going to be better than San Antonio, Oklahoma City, or the Clippers at any point in the next three years? What about Oklahoma City, the Clippers, Memphis, or Houston at any point over the next five? And that’s before we even get to teams like the Lakers (who always seem to be able to re-tool), Minnesota (if they can ever get and stay healthy), and Golden State and New Orleans (who seem to be built for long-term success, even if we aren’t quite seeing it now).
It’s the Five Percent theory – if you have a five percent chance at winning a title, you should pull out all the stops and move heaven and Earth to try to make that happen. The problem is, I’m not sure Portland will even have that five percent chance with this roster as presently constructed. They seem to be setting themselves up as the perennial also-ran – the team that can advance to Round 2 if everything goes right, as opposed to the team that can play for a title if everything goes right.
DN: If I could find a single thing “irresponsible” about what Portland is doing, I might agree with you. Let’s stay with OKC, since theirs is the model after which the “blow it up or compete” gospel is constructed. You write that they “put themselves in a position where a title is within reach;” the single largest thing they did toward this end was to draft after the Blazers. They took Kevin Durant. Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo were taken before Russell Westbrook in 2008; Kevin Love was taken after. You can bottom out and time and again and end up the Kings, or bottom out once and get lucky like the Spurs, or never really bottom out and get lucky like the Bulls did with Derrick Rose. You can’t fault the Blazers for getting unlucky with their own efforts to acquire a superstar—by all rights, they had two, and haven’t blown anything since.
Damian Lillard is on a rookie deal. Nic Batum makes a lot of money, but because it was a matched offersheet the Blazers signed him to, we know he plays at market value. LaMarcus Aldridge makes 13 million dollars right now—or, $3.5m less than Zach Randolph, and less than Eric Gordon makes. Exactly what is your prescription here for this “irresponsibility?” Trade all these guys and start drafting? Sacramento, Charlotte, Toronto, and lately Detroit, New Orleans, and Phoenix would probably like to discuss just how much control you can have over that process.
20,000 people go to the Rose Garden most nights. To be safe, let’s call it 17,500. The Pacers, a better team than the Blazers, would likely consider serious malfeasance for the Blazers’ levels of attendance and fan devotion. This is a playoff core, to be sure, that is not at all overpaid. The one player on the team who might be considered a “mistake” player would be J.J. Hickson, if his production at the end of last year had hornswoggled management into paying him a lot. They didn’t—he makes $4 million this year. I can’t get my head around why a team in a devoted town would tear itself down to the studs to put itself in the same position it was five years ago: losing to maybe get a draft pick for an incredibly talented player who might stay healthy.
JC: You’re right, teams don’t have total control over the draft process, but for the overwhelming majority of teams, it’s the only way to acquire a sure-fire superstar. It’s an incredibly tough pill to swallow, but I think it’s generally the smart move to make. The teams that wallow in the lottery for years on end are the teams that either (a) completely screw up their draft picks, or (b) are incapable of developing those players once they get them on the roster. Portland has never fallen into either one of those groups. Yes, they took Greg Oden over Durant, but there are 25 other teams around the league that would have made that same “mistake,” and it’s not like there’s a slew of recent players who have gone on to great things after leaving the Pacific Northwest.
It ultimately comes down to what your goals are as a small-market team (and perhaps “irresponsible” was the wrong choice of words). If your goal is to win as much as you can while staying fiscally responsible and ensuring that your fans remain supportive, then Portland is certainly doing so. But if your singular goal is to win a title within a reasonable time frame, in most cases, you have to get worse before you get better. Portland did get worse, and swindling the Nets out of a lottery pick certainly helped, but it seems to have left them in no-man’s land. Not bad enough to secure another star player in the draft, but not good enough to contend for a title, and not much flexibility to dramatically improve the roster through other means.
DN: Tracy McGrady, Chris Webber, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Penny Hardaway, Yao Ming and a host of other players are tank-worthy talents. None of them succeeded in getting their team past the point this Blazer team could reasonably hope for. However, some teams have tinkered their way to titles and taken advantage of off years. The Mavericks, for example. I’m not saying the Suns need to ride the Goran Dragic era to glory, but I’m saying that a team with legitimate hopes of making the playoffs in the short-term is doing its job. “No man’s land” perhaps, but if that’s the case, history suggests that almost all of the league has always been in no man’s land.
JC: That’s why there’s a combination of luck and skill involved. You need some luck to land a high draft pick, and then from there you need to nail a few other picks or be judicious with your available cap space. There are guys like Serge Ibaka, Kenneth Faried, Ryan Anderson and Portland’s own Nicolas Batum who have been impact players for teams drafting late in the first round. There are teams like Houston and San Antonio and Denver who manage their cap at expert levels that border on wizardry.
There’s always going to be luck involved, but the way I see it, I’d rather roll the dice on a big gamble – bottoming out for the highest draft pick possible, or putting together a blockbuster trade package for a superstar already in the league – than roll a bunch of dice on a series of smaller gambles, trying to piece together a contender by improving 2% here, 5% there. As the saying goes, go big or go home.