The Blazers, to say the least, are at a crossroads. In the past several years, the team has lost once franchise player to injury, with another potential franchise player not getting on the court enough to even make his potential talent worth discussing. The team has no GM. The Jekyll/Hyde owner appears to be wearing his Bad Paul hat--indifferent to the team's fortunes, as the front office has acted in a bizarre fashion for the next two years. A season that started off with promise is spiraling out of control. Vultures, some of which have wanted Nate gone for years, are circling the coach. One young forward prospect didn't get a contract extension, causing his agent to pout. The starting SG has been mired in a season-long shooting slump, and the starting point guard has been mired in a season-long sucking slump.
And presently, the team is out of the playoffs.
What to do?
Last year, former GM Rich Cho was unexplicably let go. Rumor has it that it was over a difference of opinion on the team's direction: Cho thought the current roster was not going to lead to a championship, and ownership reportedly thought differently. Recent events suggest that Cho was right.
But the Blazers are where they are. So where do they go?
There are, realistically, four options.
One last push
The team started off on a tear, winning 7 of the first 8, including on the road at Oklahoma City. Was that the fluke, or is the recent struggles? Could the team regain its early-season mojo and become a contender?
It's a possibility that Messrs. Matthews and Felton, in particular, will work out whatever is bothering them, and return to the level of play of seasons past. It's possible that young prospects such as Nolan Smith or Eliot Williams will demonstrate that it was not a mistake to draft them. It's possible that Batum and Gerald will find the consistency which has eluded both. It's possible that a coaching change, were it to occur, would invigorate the team. It's even possible that Greg Oden will become healthy and make an impact.
It's also possible that the empty chair that says "general manager" will find some way to pull a rabbit out of hat at the trade deadline. Steve Nash gets mentioned as a possibility (though I don't see that happening). Other prospective deals might occur.
Are these things likely? I have my doubts, personally. And even if the Blazers right the ship--does this look like a championship-caliber team?
Another option is to make the claim that the foundation is there, and try to do a mini-rebuild. The team has a top ten talent (arguably, definitely top 15) in LaMarcus Aldridge, and he's continuing to improve. He's not in the rarified heights of a LeBron or a Durant or a Kobe--but he's a legit double-double threat every night, who commands a double-team, plays far better D than any of the other elite power forwards in the league, and won't shoot you out of a game. And he's doing this against defenses who collapse around him, unafraid of the Blazers making them pay from the outside. In the mini-rebuild scenario, one basically writes off the season, looking to rebuild in the off-season. Depending on who stays and who goes, the Blazers will have cap room. Quite a few Blazers will (or can) be FAs at the end of the season--Oden, Camby, Batum, Felton, Wallace (player option), Crawford (player option)--the team will have a lot of options.
What sort of players should we surround Aldridge with? Ideally, there would be a multiple-threat point guard, wings who can hit outside shots and cut to the hoop, and a big man who can rebound, set picks, and hit open jumpers. The hardest to come by is the first. Some of the Blazers recent moves, though, are a step back if you want an Aldridge-centered team. Felton is simply bad; although on paper he looked like a good fit. Gerald Wallace is great on the break and on defense, but isn't a good fit in the halfcourt offense. Batum and Matthews do fit the bill, at least when they are hitting their shots. Camby also is a good fit with Aldridge when healthy--but last season, LMA's best games came with Dante Cunningham at center.
If the Blazers write off the season, but try to keep the core intact, they MIGHT get lucky in the draft lottery. This year's draft will be deeper than last, due to the lockout, but the lottery is a crapshoot--Portland may well end up picking 14th as well as in the top 3. The other risk is that the players who can leave will. Camby is likely to retire, Batum's agent has made noise about not bargaining with the Blazers after the team allegedly lowballed him in extension talks. (And even though he's an RFA, and the Blazers can match offers; that only applies if Nicolas stays in the NBA. He might well decide to return to Europe). It's possible the Blazers might be left holding the bag.
In the medium rebuild scenarios, the Blazers essentially make Everyone But Aldridge expendable. If there is concern that Batum wants out, trading him might make more sense than letting him into free agency. Likewise with other players (such as Wallace) who might be coveted by contenders, and may have young(er) prospects who are a better fit to offer in return, or draft choices. The Blazers might still try to land a free agent or two, but this scenario makes it harder; top free agents for some reason like to go to GOOD teams, not rebuilding ones. A talent dump now also makes the Blazers' lottery pick this summer more likely to be a good one, and increases the chance that the Blazers will also be in the lottery NEXT summer, meaning we keep our pick instead of sending it to Charlotte (the 2013 pick was traded to the Bobcats in the Gerald Wallace trade, but is top-12 protected). Of course, executing a rebuild requires ownership and management committed to the process, and who have a good plan to get the right talent needed. Six years ago, when Good Paul and Kevin Pritchard started the rebuild with the 2006 draft, that was in place. Now? I'm not sure. Bad Paul appears to be holding court, there still is no GM, and many observers think that Allen has no stomach for another rebuild.
And there's one other concern: What if LaMarcus wants out?
This is the most drastic of the options. In this option, Aldridge is shipped out as well. In theory, a player of his caliber should command a high price, but in practice, rebuilding teams who dump stars for prospects/picks tend to come up with the short end of the stick. A longstanding bit of advice in the NBA--it's always good to trade four quarters for a dollar; and in many such trades, even four quarters aren't returned. The teams who often covet stars (think of the Celtics getting Garnett or the Lakers getting Pau Gasol) generally don't have high draft picks to offer in exchange. The Grizzlies got lucky--one of the prospects they got back (Marc Gasol) turned out to be good; whereas the T'Wolves essentially got diddly-squat for Kevin Garnett.
Were the Blazers to go this way, it would be like 2005 all over again. There is a light out of that tunnel, of course, but it takes a long time. And it takes front-office vision and talent, and a little bit of luck; many teams get stuck in perpetual basketball purgatory, and they are the ones with cheapskate or disinterested owners. For this to work, Good Paul HAS to drive off his demons and his vulcans and stick to a plan. A bigger question is--would the fanbase be ready?
Regardless of what occurs, the front office needs to get its act together. Someone needs to own the evaluation, selection, and acquisition of talent. Ownership needs to support that person, and not simply use the GM (or whoever) as a scapegoat for when decisions go bad. A coach is needed who can implement the team's philosophy going forward, whatever it is. Maybe it's Nate, maybe it's not--McMillan might not desire another rebuilding effort, even if the team is interested in keeping him. (And given all that's happened, were he to want out, I wouldn't blame him). And, the owner needs to be ready to pony up the money needed. Good Paul does. Bad Paul, generally, does not.