Simple question. If the Blazers' goal is an NBA title, how to get there?
No need to rehash what has happened in the past five years. We drafted 2 guys with franchise player potential, one of whom actually was PLAYING like a franchise player for significant levels of time--both are now hurt. One is probably done as an All-star calibre player, though he can still turn in an occasional dominating performance. The other hasn't shown that he can stay on the court, and some rumors indicate his days in Portland are numbered.
We've made two trades, and one free agent signing, for veteran players. Getting Andre Miller cost us nothing; getting Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace cost little. Camby's decidedly on the tail end of his career, though; Miller probably isn't far behind, and neither has an adequate replacement (barring good health for Oden). Wallace still has a few productive years left in him, and has Batum behind him, but he may well be in the second half of his NBA career as well.
The Blazers have three good young players. One made significant strides and emerged as an All-Star calibre player this year (even if he didn't make the squad); another was impressive as a sophomore, and a third shows flashes of brilliance but disappears for a time. Previously heralded as the next Scottie Pippen, Nicolas Batum is starting to more resemble his countryman, Boris Diaw. Wesley Matthews is a fine young player, but it's hard to judge his ceiling. And LMA has turned to a very good player. But he's a long way from being a true franchise player--the sort of player you pretty much need to win championships. Franchise players aren't punked by the likes of Tyson Chandler.
The rest of the roster (that includes Rudy) is a collection of spare parts that doesn't merit mention at this point.
Given all of that: Is there a path to a championship, one that doesn't involve
tankingrebuilding? Or would the Blazers be better of trading LMA, Wallace, Batum, and/or Wes for picks and expiring contracts, and partying like it's 2005?
Obviously, my assumption is that to win a title, you need a dominant franchise player. Every team that has won in like forever, has had one--Kareem, Magic, Bird, Isiah, Jordan, Hakeem, Duncan, Shaq, Kobe, Ben Wallace, Wade, Garnett/Pierce. (I know some will scoff at putting Big Ben on this list--his overall career is not at the level of the other names, but in 2004 he was something special--a terror on the defensive end that is rare to see in the league). And there's quite a few guys at this level--Nowitzki, Durant, Rose, and LeBron, who haven't yet won a title, though one of those four will win this year. (Chris Paul and Dwight Howard probably merit the designation as well among players still in their primes; though they obviously won't be winning a title this year).
So. If we assume that a franchise player--a guy who the other team is terrified to face, and a guy who always has another gear--is a necessity--the question becomes: Where do we get one?
The choices are:
* Grow one. Among current players, barring a medical miracle, the only one who is presently close is Aldridge. He made great strides this year, going from above-average starter to All-Star calibre player. But the jump to MVP-candidate is just as big, if not bigger, than the leap he took this past season. He might be able to do it, especially if surrounded with players who better complement his game, along with credible backups so he's not pulling 40 minutes/game. (His best stretch of the year came with Dante Cunningham at center--which suggests that he might benefit from a big strong guy who can rebound, play credible D against opposing bigs, and hit open shots. Gerald Wallace is too small to play in the post for long stretches, and Camby's game is declining). Wallace is a fine player, but probably more suited as a second banana than as The Man. Neither Batum nor Matthews has shown All-NBA , though both of them are still quite young.
* Draft one. Unfortunately, look at where the guys on that list were drafted. Kareem, Magic, Hakeem, Duncan, Shaq, LeBron, and Rose were all #1 picks. IT and Durant were #2s, Jordan was #3, Wade and KG were #5, Bird was #6, Dirk was #9 Pierce was #10. Kobe was #13. The only non-lottery pick in the above list was the un-drafted Wallace, and again--his inclusion here is suspect. Obviously, having a #1 pick isn't a guarantee of getting a franchise player (we ought to know this as well as anyone), but in many drafts, there's a clear #1 who is heads or tails better than anyone else. The point is, the chances of the Blazers getting a top-quality guy with a late first round pick is slim. It does happen occasionally, but its a crapshoot, and probably not a dependable way to build a contender. Of Portland's recent late-first-round picks, only Batum looks like a long-term keeper.
* Sign one. The conventional wisdom is that this approach only works if you're New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.--a big market team in a top media market, something which Portland is not. And while Portland has done reasonably well in free agency lately (Wes Matthews and Andre Miller were both excellent pickups); its rare that franchise players change teams unless they're going to one of these big market teams--even when a small-market team is able to offer maximum money, the only franchise players that sign in smaller cities are the guys who are staying, not the guys who are moving. (Guys who follow the money, like Joe Johnson or Carlos Boozer, are probably not who you want to build a team around). And it goes without saying that the new CBA may restrict free agent mobility--what the new rules will be, nobody knows.
* Trade for one. Sometimes, quality players are traded; but trades involving true franchise players are rare, and when they do occur, often occur when a star-caliber player forces his way out of a small market to a big one. Looking at the list again (and ignoring Ben Wallace)--the vast majority of them were not traded in the prime of their careers. Kareem was and KG was. Kobe was traded on draft day, but the pick was made by the Lakers. The rest of them either spent their entire careers with one team, or only changed teams in the twilight of their careers. Many second-tier players have been traded in recent years (Carmelo, Deron Williams, Pau Gasol, Z-bo many times), but the A-list players who dominate the NBA finals are seldom found on the trading block, unless they force their way there.
* Trade for a pick. This is probably the best option for a team like Portland, which wants to land a potential franchise player, but doesn't want to earn a lottery pick the old-fashioned way. Quite a few of the high-level picks used to draft players on the list above were acquired in trade--Magic, Bird, and Kobe are obvious examples where playoff teams took advantage of other teams' mistakes and landed top-drawer players. But these sorts of plays are more rare than they used to be, with the professionalism of the GM role--and in years where there's a Duncan or a Shaq in the draft, such trades are rare. (Smart GMs will lottery-protect their picks when trading future draft choices).
Given all of that--how should the Blazers proceed? Should they stay the current course, hoping that the current young players improve, the injury bug decides to go somewhere else, and that guys like Miller and Camby can provide a few more years? Should they continue to trade older (and backfill the bench with draft choices and free agency) in hopes to improve in the short term? Should they tolerate a small backslide--keeping a reasonable core (say, LMA, Wallace, and Wes) but playing for the future--sacrificing the next couple of seasons to do a minor rebuild?
Or is it time to blow it up--trading the key players (that means everybody) for future picks and expiring contracts, including giveaway trades designed to shed bad contracts (the Blazers have only one of these, fortunately) and fielding a team of youngsters and stiffs that gets embarrassed on a regular basis, in the hopes that this enables you to land the top-drawer players needed to succeed at the highest level in the future? And if the current course is continued--how long before it is abandoned?
Keep in mind--given competent management, tanking works. It worked for the Spurs; it is working for the Thunder, and it was working here until the injury gods destroyed not one but two promising careers.
But it sure stinks in the meantime.