Moving On...But In Which Direction?

So yesterday we eulogized the Portland Trail Blazers Roy/Resurrection/Redemption Era that ended last week with the announcement of Brandon Roy's medical retirement. Today we begin to tackle the inevitable follow-up question: What Now?

The first step is the admission that the business of the last five years is done. Brandon Roy is gone and he's not coming back. Greg Oden's career should now be viewed just as Bill Walton's was when he left the Blazers for San Diego. He's not going to play anytime soon. He may play at some point but he's almost certain to be a shadow of his old self. In Walton's case that "old self" was incredibly basketball smart with enough talent to make him one of the best players of all time. That made him a key cog for Boston's 80's championship aspirations. Considering Oden's "old self" never got beyond the very raw stages of NBA rookie-dom it's safe to say that his eventual years may not be as strong. For the sake of sanity and proper planning the Blazers have to cross Oden off of their list of contributors and consider anything he might give them, whether under this contract or a new one next year, a bonus.

Believe me, I don't make these statements lightly. I burn for a championship in Portland again. I've always been of the mindset that if there's even a 5% chance you have to take it rather than lose it to a speculative Plan B. If we were still waiting on either of those huge stars I'd be happy staying the course another year. But we aren't. 0% is 0% no matter what kind of math you're using. Operating like nothing has changed would be foolish. In order for that to be true Roy and Oden couldn't have mattered at all or made any difference. We know that's not accurate. If it was the Blazers should be drummed out of town for drafting them in the first place! So the story is now etched in stone: good guys, great potential, great contributions in Roy's case, awesome gamble taken, many incremental rewards achieved, but now it's over and a new plan is in order.

That's not to say the Blazers have to rebuild the roster immediately. Technically speaking they have a full year to make decisions, as they'll be unable to change course drastically in 2011-12 outside of making a huge trade. In a year, though, plenty of contracts will expire: Marcus Camby, Nicolas Batum, Raymond Felton, Greg Oden, and perhaps Gerald Wallace if he chooses to opt out of the final year of his current deal. Provided Roy's medical retirement is both approved and the last word on his financials, his contract will come off the books then as well. This should provide the Blazers plenty of opportunity to reset.

The corollary to that statement is that the Blazers have to be careful not to make any deals in the meantime that would bind them unless they're already certain what their next five-year plan looks like and who fits into it. Temptation to chase good money with bad in an attempt to make the immediate future look better will be strong. Unless you think you can get into title contention you don't want to lock yourself into the current situation: a talented yet expensive, tangled, and perhaps mismatched group able to perform decently but unable to reach elite status. Portland is no longer one decent player away from the Promised Land, even on paper. You don't want to glom a B+ guy onto this group with any kind of Crazy Glue contract.

Now, if you can grab a superstar around whom you can build the next half decade--presumably with LaMarcus Aldridge as the twin pillar--that would be a quality move. In essence your next five-year plan would start with that trade and off you'd go. That's not likely but not impossible with the array of talent that the Blazers have to offer. Another maxim when you're charting a new course: if you already had the guys you need we wouldn't be talking about this. You can't hold too tightly to players who aren't going to take you where you need to go if a better opportunity presents itself. We're no longer baking a cake. We're starting a new recipe. If an ingredient fits, keep it. If it doesn't, it has to go no matter how tasty it is otherwise.

Absent a trade for a superstar-level player (in which case every Blazer should be up for grabs) the obvious route would be to build around youth, particularly the young-ish players they already have under contract. The two shining examples are Aldridge and Wesley Matthews. I'm confident they'll soon add Nicolas Batum to that list. That's likely your core going forward.

Two names almost certain to be recycled in the face of reorganization are Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby. The reasoning on Camby is obvious. Wallace is a tougher pill to swallow. He's a fan favorite, a hard worker, an incredible guy to have on the team. Other than Roy he's the Blazer I'd least like to lose personally. But he's already in the prime of his career, he's expensive, he's been injured a ton and could be one hard knock away from non-functionality, and he plays positions you already have covered. If the old roster were healthy Wallace would be the guy to have. Over a longer rebuilding process you assume all those minutes go to Batum and Aldridge and try to get value at positions that aren't so well covered. If the Blazers can trade Wallace for decent return, they should.

Another guy who's position may be precarious is Coach Nate McMillan. The question at hand: Does he have the patience and the will to go through a second reconstruction? Another: Are his face and voice so associated with the first construction that this team can't truly re-start with him at the helm? The Blazers don't have to answer these questions as much as Nate himself. He's a good coach, considered great in many corners. He's been on the launching pad here for a half-dozen years but never experienced the stratosphere. If a team farther along its ascent came calling, could he refuse that offer and maintain his enthusiasm for this job? He's an expensive guy to keep around. Portland needs to be sure they're getting the best out of him and that this is still a good fit. Were the old team healthy and still trending upward there'd be no doubt. Now there is.

The only major name we've not mentioned here is Raymond Felton. This year should be an extended audition for him. He's certainly young enough and talented enough to stick with the team and become part of the next core. But if he's not the right fit or doesn't bring the right skill set then the Blazers shouldn't feel like they're married to him even if they did trade Andre Miller to get him. Miller was another of those acquisitions that made sense from the old perspective. He'd be an anachronism in a rebuild. If Felton looks like an anachronism too, no loss. The Blazers have young point guards to try and will no doubt draft even more in the future. It'll be a couple years at least before missing that veteran floor general will cost them anything tangible. At that point they could always snag another one. The Blazers are in the driver's seat here, hoping Felton pans out but not bound to him if he doesn't.

Beyond that Portland carries a motley group of untried youngsters and a couple of spot-minute veterans. That's a decent enough mix for now. It's time to see if the young guys can play. The vets might save a game or two during the season. There's no cost to keeping, trading, or releasing any of them. You just have to see how it goes, juding their games and acting accordingly.

On another note: This team has just become as draft-reliant as it has been at any time since 2007. That's not to say a return to the lottery is in the offing, but the Blazers will have to maximize every opportunity to add talent. That includes the draft. If they think Chad Buchanan can handle that they should name him General Manager. If that time isn't here yet then they need to get somebody who they're sure can handle it. They need strong, clear leadership at every level of the organization but particularly anywhere that directly impacts the court.

This team does have plenty of talent left. The question will be how they use it and towards what end. It'd be possible to bolster the team enough to guarantee a playoff appearance this year but I doubt they could acquire anybody that would assure them of more than their current annual total of two post-season wins. The second round wouldn't be beyond reach but that's not exactly a mighty achievement either. The Blazers could also swap out some of that talent, probably sacrificing wins this year, to build for the future. In that case they'd hope to make up the difference with a higher draft position. Or they could simply play out the string for a year and make their big decision next summer. Likely you'll see a little bit of dabbling in all three directions defaulting to the third.

Whatever the choices they make, it's time to roll up the sleeves in Blazer-land. Now more than ever there's work to be done. The only bad move would be keeping eyes so firmly trained on what was lost that you miss an opportunity to create a newer, brighter future. That opportunity won't be handed to Portland. There will be no first-overall-pick draft miracle, at least not immediately. They're going to have to use every bit of intelligence, agility, and a little luck to manufacture a future that's brighter than mediocrity without plunging into the darkness of a complete rebuild. We'll see if they're up to the task. One thing's for sure: it'll make the next few tomorrows plenty interesting.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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