As we move towards the frenzied crescendo that NBA trade deadline coverage brings we're going to see more and more rumors and suggestions surrounding Portland's young talent and attractive contracts. Before we deal with all of those, however, we need to answer a basic, preliminary question: Should Portland make a trade?
This question is impossible to answer through theory alone. In fact I get frustrated with people who do, or who assume the answer is easy or given one way or another. Former professional wrestler Lance Storm has an excellent website where he takes questions and answers from fans. One of the oft-asked questions is, "Lance, what do you think is the best wrestling move ever?" Also you hear a lot of, "What do you think of this guy's move or that guy's?" He actually gets a little testy with some of these. He says, in essence, that moves don't matter in the abstract. Where, when, and why you make a move determines whether it's good or bad, effective or not. The goal of professional wrestling is to get a reaction (and thus draw interest) from the crowd. Some guys can throw a simple punch and have the audience on its feet. Others can do a triple-flip off of the turnbuckle onto the floor to a chorus of yawns. Timing and reasoning matter as much as execution or the inherent characteristics of the move itself.
This seems to me a pretty tight analogy for NBA trades. "Making a trade" isn't right or wrong, good or bad in itself. Where, when, why, and for whom are the critical questions. Make a move too early and you could stunt your growth or lose out on talent that might have otherwise flourished with your team. (Jermaine O'Neal is a painfully obvious example.) Make a move too late and the window closes. (Maybe the Blazers should have traded Kersey and Duckworth for Barkley in '92.) Hesitating can also cost you a particular move even if it doesn't miss your window as a team. (Last year's potential Devin Harris acquisition is being speculated about currently.) Sometimes it's wrong to mess with a good thing. On the other hand that cake you're baking will never turn out right if the ingredients aren't complete. All the oven time in the world won't change that.
So these are the key questions:
1. Where are the Blazers in their growth process?
2. What are they aiming at?
3. Do they have the right mix of ingredients?
4. Is the time advantageous in terms of trade value?
Only after you've answered these can you address the more familiar, "Who's available and how much will they cost?"
Let's spend a minute with each question.
Where are the Blazers in their growth process?
Obviously they're young and not yet fully-blossomed. Frankly this could be an argument for or against trading. It's hard to tell how players will turn out individually, let alone together, until you've seen them for a couple seasons. This is triply true when they're young. On the other hand if you do need to make a trade it's usually better to make serious, potentially disruptive moves before you start competing for real prizes instead of in the middle of your deep playoff runs. You don't know what you have, which makes trading a player away a riskier proposition, but it's also riskier for the receiver. Many players have higher value precisely when they're young and haven't played as much compared to when they get that 30 minutes and show they're only so-so. Just as a move has the potential to harm the chemistry that this young team has just discovered, that same move also has the chance of triggering greater production from young players who don't yet know how to get the most out of themselves or each other.
The take-away point here is that the Blazers can make a trade, but they don't have to. It's not like they're a definitive piece away from making a run at rings and their time to do so is running out. If they do make a deal it'll be to accelerate their growth process and secure their future, which is all to the good. If they don't then they have plenty of time with most of these players, which is also to the good. This luxury is rare and the team should enjoy it. It will not last forever.
What are the Blazers aiming at?
This was heavily discussed in the podcast today. The best-case scenario for the team is someone who boosts production immediately but is also viable for the next few years to help the early playoff runs. Getting someone who matches the exact age of the current group is probably not desirable unless the talent upgrade is overwhelming. Guys projected to blossom four years out won't add enough right now to balance the disruption. They will also carry most of the same liabilities as our current players between now and the time they mature. Guys who are too old, unless they make an enormous difference in the next two years, won't give enough when it matters. Ideally you're looking at guys in the early to middle parts of their prime. But those guys are also notoriously hard to obtain if they're any good.
When deciding whether to trade or not based on age, however, you have to figure out whether your young players are still going to be here and producing when they get older. In the case of some current players the answer is no. Either they won't be satisifed with their minutes or we simply won't have room to play all of them. So even though they're young their value three years down the road may be near zero. In that case aiming at someone who helps more than they do right now but won't be around later might actually be viable.
The Blazers have considerable leeway as far as talent level. They wouldn't turn down a star at a position of need but they could also use another solid role-player. The target is big in that sense.
Portland is somewhat limited by position if you assume the major players aren't being bundled in the deal. They don't need shooting guards or power forwards and they have to be particular about what small forward or center they'd take back, depending on who left the team. This narrows the field.
Even with the talent leeway, the target is fairly small for a mid-season deal. The players available in February who match all of these criteria can probably be counted on a couple of fingers. Summer is easier, but the Blazers may not have as many assets this summer. A compromise in aim may be necessary if Portland wants to trade in the next two weeks.
Do the Blazers have the right mix of ingredients?
So far the outlook has been nebulous with certain factors favoring a deal and others not. But in this category the meter swings pretty solidly towards a move. It's not that any of the Blazers are particularly bad. It's more a matter of distribution.
Portland has three point guards who could make arguments for playing time. One starts by consensus and the team is hoping at least one of the younger two will develop into a viable player. That leaves the third youngster out in the cold, needing to develop a career and not being able to here. You can carry three point guards but you want your emergency third guy to be reliable in case you have to use him in a pinch. Neither of the younger two would fit that description.
Portland has a hot mess at the forward positions. So far the team has been bailed out by the Martell Webster injury. But Nicolas Batum looks like he could have a future. Martell will not take kindly to riding the pines. Travis Outlaw, though mostly playing power forward lately, has gotten minutes and shots by swinging. If Travis is exclusively a power forward then he'll struggle to find minutes behind Lamarcus Aldridge. If he plays small forward as well then either Martell is wasted and unhappy or Nicolas doesn't develop. This assumes, of course, that Lamarcus is the answer at power forward. Meanwhile Channing Frye becomes the honorary appendix of the team and Ike Diogu never sees the light of day. That's six names trying to squeeze into two positions...more like five names shoehorned into one and a third positions if you take Lamarcus as a given. That's too much talent at too young of an age to sit with. There are too many assets there to let wither and fall away also. Some of these guys will be worth something, if only as throw-ins.
Besides that, the Blazers still have some obvious ingredients missing. Experience, individual defense, and bulk in the backcourt and at small forward come to mind without a thought. Portland is getting by on youthful inspiration and offense right now but as soon as they enter the playoffs they'll find that those don't win many series. More than anything the Blazers simply lack known quantities. You know what Steve Blake and Joel Przybilla will give you night-in and night-out and you can probably bank on Roy and Aldridge showing up. Beyond that it's a crap shoot. Reliability at almost any position would be a premium upgrade for this team.
Is the time advantageous in terms of trade value?
This is another category which offers a solid "yes" to a trade. From the Raef LaFrentz gift-wrapped money to the incredibly cheap price and untapped potential of our available guys, everything points to Portland being an attractive partner. As these players age the guys who don't pan out will become less attractive and the guys that do will get more expensive. The Blazers will never have as many opportunities in front of them that don't require their top four players in return as they will have in the next year. Some of those might not last beyond the next couple of weeks. Their ability to execute a blockbuster may get better as their stars come into their own but their ability to build around those stars without moving them will not get higher than this.
Total all of that together and you've got one factor that allows you to go either way, one that will make it harder for you to make a move, and two that could well urge that a move be made. On the balance, then, I'd say that the Blazers should indeed be interested and active in seeking out potential deals. At the very least it would be hard to argue in the abstract that a deal should not be made at this time.
I suspect if we don't see a move it will be more because the right players weren't available at the right price than because of any philosophical aversion to trading at this time. I am also in the camp that believes that "we don't want to mess with this right now" is a default, fall-back position and not a firm credo. I'm not suggesting it's a smokescreen. I'm sure Kevin Pritchard and the staff are speaking the literal truth that they'd be happy enough to keep the players they have now. Chemistry and time to gel are legitimate concerns. Not messing with things is a fine option. But it may not be the best option and I believe they know that as well.
If the right move isn't there "let the cake bake" will be a wonderful explanation and affirmation of the way things turned out. If the right move is there then those same words will be used to explain why this move was really, REALLY right and should be valued because it's better than good. I believe the team will continue with the cake-baking mantra right up to the day they make a deal but I don't believe they will hesitate for a second in actually making that deal.
I don't necessarily foresee a trade coming before the deadline but I do see Portland being active in talks up until then. If a trade does happen in the next couple weeks it would not surprise me a bit. I will be shocked if the team carries this same basic lineup into next training camp, however. Somebody south of Oden and Roy but north of Randolph and Diogu is going to get moved.