The Blazers have spent their season resisting definition. Oscillating between stretches of shocking competitiveness and desultory losses, this team has refused to declare its true nature or intentions. But it’s February 19, and that means they don’t have much choice any longer. Whether by decisive action or relative stasis, the Blazers have eight weeks to cement the descriptors by which they’ll be remembered.
The two biggest issues are the playoffs and the pick. Really, they’re two sides of the same question. The Blazers sit three games out of 8th place in the West today, having lost five straight before the All-Star break blessedly helped them pump the brakes. It’s an uphill climb into playoff contention—Hollinger’s Playoff Odds have the Blazers at less than 8%, behind both the Lakers and the Mavericks—and for some fans, even attempting to make that climb seems like a bad idea.
The reason is this year’s playoff pick, which the Blazers owe to the Bobcats if they end up with a pick lower than 12th. My sense is that most fans would be comfortable punting on the pick if it were a guarantee that the Blazers would make the playoffs, but the chance of the team finishing just short of the 8 seed and still losing the draft pick is too much to swallow. I understand this thinking, but my strong sense is that the organization disagrees with it; barring a surprising J.J. Hickson trade within the next few days, I think the Blazers believe it’s in their best interest to keep trying to win as much as possible.
Often lost in this discussion is the fact that, should the Blazers retain their first-round pick this year, they would owe it to Charlotte next year. So the question is not, then, whether the Blazers are best served by falling just short of the playoffs—it’s whether a pick in the 12-14 range this year is more valuable than one, presumably, in next year’s 10-20 range. Discussing draft scenarios in the future, I am begging for complicating factors to make me look like a fool, but at present it seems the Blazers have their choice of picks with roughly equal value, and they have to give up one. So then the question becomes: is there any reason it’s better to have a first-round pick this year and not next?
I say no, for a few reasons. First, of course, there is the fact that this year’s talent pool is apparently shallower than usual. Even setting that aside though, I’d argue that the Blazers may be at a better point to add a mid-round talent next offseason than this.
The Blazers’ biggest needs are back-court scorers and centers. In both cases, one of each may be on today’s roster in nascent form; Meyers Leonard and Will Barton have not been best-case scenarios, but neither has done enough to dissuade the organization that they could be important rotation contributors in a few seasons. With cap space for this offseason and several potential fits at the Blazers’ areas of need, the Blazers may well be improving regardless of how they draft.
Further, whether they draft this year or next, it is unlikely they’ll be finding an instant contributor. If this proves to be the case, I say it’s preferable to be nurturing talent along on a team a year further along in the winning process. The Blazers have every reason to believe they’ll be making a run at the playoffs next year, and raw talent on a steep development curve has a little more value to a team that doesn’t so desperately need an infusion of production. Put it this way: if the Blazers were starting a Kosta Koufos-type player this year, how much more secure would you feel about Meyers Leonard’s presence? I feel most confident about a mid-round talent on a team with a more stable culture and roster, so I don’t see any reason this year’s pick is preferable to next.
All of which is a long way of saying that I think we’re in for eight more weeks of ambush wins and tightly contested games. I just can’t really see a reason why the Blazers don’t keep exerting maximum organizational effort. The myth of tanking’s magic has taken on water in the past few seasons, but even so we exist in a climate where blowing a team up is the preferred hypothetical to unspectacular results. But the Blazers have proven themselves closer to health than many would have predicted, and it may be that there is no dramatic reveal of the team’s true character in store. In fact, given the way the season has played out to this point, staying the course may well prove the most exciting possible conclusion to this year.