RIP City: Basketball Purgatory

Creative Artists Agency put together a project of extraordinary mediocrity and colossal stupidity. Other than that it was great. -Mikhail Baryshnikov

If you replace Creative Artists Agency with "Paul Allen, Larry Miller and Chad 'What's My Job?' Buchanan", you have my feelings for the 2011-2012 Portland Trail Blazers. Sure, the Blazers are a playoff team, but they aren't positioned to win more than one round. Sure, they have a solid group of core players for this year (LaMarcus Aldridge, Raymond Felton, Gerald Wallace, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Jamal Crawford, Craig Smith, Marcus Camby and Kurt "Julio Franco Is My Hero" Thomas), but a lot of age at center and uncertainty at point. Sure, LMA is an All-Star caliber player and made the 3rd team All-NBA, but is he really a franchise player who could lead the Blazers to a title?

With the start of any pro sports season, a preliminary ranking of teams takes place in an exercise to figure out where each team stands in the pecking order relative to other teams in their league/conference/division/etc. Predictions are made and prognostications issued. Here are two snippets from two ESPN articles. The first was the Blazers' 5-on-5 roundtable where the various writers looked at the biggest questions facing each NBA team this year. The question was "What do the Blazers need most?"

A healthy Brandon Roy and a healthy Greg Oden. Looking at this roster top to bottom, you see one All-Star (LMA) and several quality starter/rotational role players (Felton, Matthews, Batum, Wallace, Camby [Jamal Crawford, Craig Smith, Kurt Thomas]**). Add to that the player that Brandon Roy was, and the player Greg Oden was supposed to be, and they're contenders. Without that -- or a reasonable facsimile -- they're tapped out somewhere around the lower half of the Western Conference playoff bracket. (Tim Donahue of Eight Points, Nine Seconds.)

**The roundtable was written before the additions of Crawford, Smith and Thomas. Crawford will be a very productive third guard off the bench, Blazer fans will fall in love with Smith for doing everything he does (namely, push people around and score in the paint), and Thomas (probably) (hopefully) has one more decent season left in him.

That is the most accurate evaluation of the Blazers I have read yet. That paragraph is all any Blazer fan needs to know about the upcoming season. However, recent events have changed the Blazers' short and long-term outlooks. In a tragic end to an all too-short career, Roy retired earlier this month, and was amnestied by the Blazer brass (saving themselves $15 mil off the salary cap). Oden, as expected (one should not be surprised by this), encountered yet another setback in his rehab; his return his season is uncertain. So where does that leave the Blazers?

Well, our answer is in the second part of that paragraph. "Without [a healthy Roy and Oden] - or a reasonable facsimile - they're tapped out somewhere around the lower half of the Western Conference playoff bracket".

The second snippet from the ESPN season previews is this, about a Western Conference team:

Or they could hold steady and fight for that No. 8 seed. You wouldn't knock them for trying to win now, but there's considerable risk if they go that route. There's no worse place to be than in NBA purgatory, outside the playoffs but not quite bad enough to land a top pick in the draft. The ____ might be better off in the long run if they hoard picks and young talent. Since _____ isn't a prime landing spot in free agency, the time to strike a fruitful trade is now. (Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.)

The team he's talking about is clearly a playoff contender in a small (read: non-LA or Dallas) market. Of playoff contenders and small-market WC teams, that leaves Portland, Denver, Utah, Phoenix (because Robert Sarver is a notoriously cheap owner), Memphis, Houston and San Antonio. The team he was talking about (Utah) is irrelevant. It is also irrelevant that I think the Blazers will be the 5-7 seed this year. What does matter is that it is all too easy to read that as: "The Blazers might be better off in the long run if they hoard picks and young talent. Since Portland isn't a prime landing sport in free agency, the time to strike a fruitful trade is now."

Short-term we could absolutely make the playoffs this year and maybe, just maybe, in a weird, short season of back-to-back-to-back-to-backs, if absolutely everything goes right, if we get lucky with injuries and match-ups, make it to the conference finals**. But long term? We're looking at a perpetual 45-52 win team. A team with no long-term answer at center or point guard, with one All-Star and some quality starters/rotation players. Or, as Haberstroh put it, "basketball purgatory".

**This scenario implies Nate McMillan changes his style of play. Don't get me wrong, defense wins championships, and I love the style of defense he puts on the floor every night. But I HATE his offense. He MUST change from the slowest team in the NBA to one of the fastest. This team is full of players who should run, not play half-court, grind-it-out, iso offense. If he can't change, he needs to be fired. Don't get me wrong, MCMILLAN IS A GREAT COACH. Period. He has gotten more out of an injury-ravashed lineup the last few years than any other coach in the league could have. But the Blazers do not have the players to play his style of offense. Great coaches can adapt to the players they have; if he can't, he has to go.

There are three, and only three, possible ways to escape basketball purgatory:

  1. Stay the course. Hope LMA develops into a franchise player this year and next. Find (either via free agency or the draft) a young defensive/rebounding/shot blocking center to put next to him. Sign Felton to a 4-year deal, pray he doesn't gain 50 lbs and hope he ages well. Hope Batum learns from Wallace and becomes a great defense player after adding 20 lbs of muscle. There's a lot of hoping and luck going on in the first scenario. It's risky because 45-52 win seasons are good. But they aren't going to ever win you a championship either.
  2. Blow it all up. Trade LaMarcus, Batum, Wallace, Matthews and anyone else who isn't nailed to the floor for draft picks and young talent.. Bottom out for the next two-three years and pray the lottery gods smile on Portland and we find another Roy/Aldridge/Oden trio who stay healthy this time around. There at least as much, if not more, luck involved in this scenario than the first. It doesn't guarantee us anything but several very rough years. But if it works, it could be magical.
  3. Trade for Eric Gordon and Emeka Okafor. This would come with a lot of contingencies. First, that Gordon doesn't resign with the Hornets. Second, that he doesn't hit free agency and sign with his home-town Pacers, which would be a dream come true, and perfect fit, for him. Third, the Hornets would have to decide to not go through a LeBron saga with him and actually make him available in a trade. Fourth, and this is the most relevant to Portland's interests, we would need a guarantee he would sign a long-term deal to stay in Portland.

If we could trade for Gordon, what would it take to get him? David Stern made it clear in the Chris Paul trade he wanted the Hornets to acquire youth and draft picks for Paul. A package of Matthews, Batum, Camby, cap filler, a first-round draft pick, and taking back Trevor Ariza's contract would be a very good offer to the Hornets. They would be getting youth in Matthews, Batum and a draft pick. The Hornets would get financial relief from getting rid of Ariza's bad contract (he's owed roughly $18 mil over the next three years) and Okafor's deal ($36 mil for the next three) and would get immediate relief from Camby's expiring contract. Further, Dan Gilbert couldn't complain about another big market landing a star player, as Portland is not a big market. The NBA has proved that it's not about money when it comes to superstars changing teams. If your team has a superstar, you either building something meaningful around him to entice him to stay, or you don't and he leaves. The Spurs and Hornets did it with Duncan and Durant, and the Clippers are trying to do it with CP3 and Blake Griffin. Cleveland failed to do it with LeBron, and he left. So that brings me to why Gordon would be enticed stay if he came to Portland.

First, he would go to a team with one of the best big men in the game in Aldridge to form one of the league's best inside-outside duos. Second, he would be on a contending team right away. A lineup of Felton, Gordon, Wallace, Aldridge, Okafor, Crawford, Smith and Thomas could contend immediately. Due to NBA salary rules, Gordon and Ariza cannot be traded together until February, and there's no guarantee he would even want to come to Portland. But it's the best option when faced with mediocrity for the next 5 years.

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