The NBA's trade deadline is sneaking up on us like a flatulent elephant sneaks into a church service. Everybody has a trade idea and every columnist, national and local, seems to suggest the Blazers will be involved. Given the team's performance-versus-talent ratio and the contract situation of their players, that's hardly a reach. But we need to sort out some probabilities here to keep our heads on straight.
Here are several types of moves the Blazers could make, their pros, cons, and probability.
The Big Whopper
This is the deal everybody wants. Deron Williams, Dwight Howard...when are they coming? Could the Blazers package Raymond Felton, Gerald Wallace, Nicolas Batum, and Jamal Crawford and get this done? Don't forget Marcus Camby! Everybody outside of LaMarcus Aldridge would be on the block for this kind of player.
The problem is, this kind of deal makes little sense from the other team's perspective. All the players we just mentioned save Batum are veterans meant to bolster a playoff run. Cut the heart out of a team by trading away its big star and those incoming players won't matter much more than they do for the Blazers. Expiring contracts aren't nearly as attractive when compared against superstars who would be described as being "traded away for nothing" in this kind of scenario. Plus these particular superstars, both rumored to be moving, have expiring contracts of their own. Nicolas Batum is a nice piece but he's not enough on his own to swing such a deal. Plus the Blazers would have no guarantee the incoming superstar would stay with them any more than their current team.
The Orlandos and New Jerseys of the world would want to acquire Portland's veterans to help convince their superstar to stay rather than in exchange for them. No matter how many players and picks get thrown their way from the Blazers' end the chances of this are infinitesimal.
The Whopper Junior
Next down on the desirability list would be big names who aren't league-defining superstars but fill a need for Portland. Rajon Rondo would probably top this list and Steve Nash represent the lower end. It's possible that a package including some of the names above could draw interest from Boston or Phoenix, particularly if Batum's name was dangled. Assuming Batum would have to be a part of the deal, the Blazers would need to ascertain if the star's ability transformed the team enough to lose a young, talented player. They'd also need to know if enough was left in the cupboard alongside the incoming player and Aldridge to help the team contend, as you wouldn't make that drastic of a sacrifice or pay the salary a good point guard would command just to break even.
In the case of Steve Nash the answer would probably be, "No", as Seth Pollack and I discussed the other day. He wouldn't have longevity, wouldn't lead the team to the Conference Finals or NBA Finals during his tenure, and Phoenix would ask too much. Rondo is a much more interesting case. It's not hard to see Danny Ainge enticed by some of Portland's wing, scoring talent and the option for a ton of cap space surrounding Paul Pierce in a year when good free agents are available and teams will be thinking about ducking under the luxury tax. Would the Blazers feel Rondo was enough of a boost to get them deep into the playoffs? If so, they should make that deal. The question is open, though.
Either way, this level of move is not outside of the realm of possibility. Maligned or not, the Blazers do have talented players with nice salaries available.
The Fancy Name or the Contract Leverage
The Blazers also have the option to parlay expiring contracts into good players with heavier deals, either in isolation or with a young player. Kevin Martin might be an example of the former, taking on Corey Maggette's contract along with D.J. Augustin the latter. (Note: These are EXAMPLES. Don't jump down my throat because you don't like these particular players or because you think there's no chance their team trades them. That's not the point.)
Salary is the big issue for the Blazers in this scenario. They need to re-shape their team. That takes flexibility. They'd need to feel like every player incoming was part of their future, especially a high-salary guy. Since other teams would be trading away contracts they felt were onerous, by definition these players would have under-performed somewhere. That's not a great recommendation for an expensive player. It smacks of Portland's current situation, taking on other teams' veteran leftovers and watching them fall apart. Except now you're wedded to them because of the contract.
The exception would be if a younger player dangled as bait with the high-salary guy really floated the Blazers' boat. This might be one of the only ways Portland can acquire the kind of young, rising player they'd covet for a rebuild.
Because the Blazers will be averse to taking on extra salary, though, I'd deem the chances of this smaller than a Whopper Junior-type deal.
The Second-Tier Stopgap
Over the last few days we've heard several rumors about players who would solve Portland's immediate needs without necessarily impacting the future in terms of talent or salary. Luke Ridnour, Steve Blake, and Eric Bledsoe fall into this category. Portland needs point guards and centers, the two positions all but impossible to fill. Maybe they need to lower their sights a little, applying a band-aid to the situation.
This kind of trade is certainly possible. I just don't see why the Blazers do it. None of those players is guaranteed to put the Blazers into the playoffs, let alone help them succeed there. That they seem so enticing is a reflection on Portland's current situation more than the talent or desirability of those players in the abstract. Before the season Portland fans would have turned up their nose at the very suggestion. Making this kind of move feels like a finger in the dike. If the Blazers can't stand some of their current players for even one...more...minute it makes sense. But all of these guys have longer, if modest, contracts. I'm not sure why Portland wouldn't just ride out the next month of the season and look for something better in the off-season with the money they'd save.
Throw in a first-round draft pick, particularly in this year's draft, with any of the above possibilities and the Blazers will take notice. This is the gold standard of returns for them. It's a cheap way to get talent that will last years. I believe the Blazers would take a first round pick for Crawford, Felton, or one each on the spot as long as the players coming back didn't gum up their cap. Perhaps they'd take one for Wallace as well if the pick was decent.
The problem with this scenario: trading partners with the most attractive picks are also the ones who need Portland's assets the least. The Blazers' available players will be desirable for teams looking to bolster a playoff run. By definition those teams will have lower picks. No matter how deep the draft, choosing below 20 brings marginal return. Ideally you'd want a team in a marginal playoff seed or just on the cusp of making the post-season, not too high and not out of it entirely. You've just eliminated around 20 of your 29 potential trading partners. Finding a willing partner among those remaining 9--who will also covet young draft talent because they're not set to contend yet--will be difficult. Likely the Blazers would have to settle for a lower pick than they'd like. Alternatively, they could try for a pick in the far future from a current contender. Low or high, Portland has a couple players they'd love to deal for any first-rounder. We'll see if they can get it done.
Since each of these categories presents its own challenge, the likelihood of the Blazers having a fantastic trade deadline is remote. Their wishes won't all come true. The question will be how much they're willing to hold their nose and compromise. The answer depends on how much they're already having to hold their nose with the current roster. Historically Portland hasn't been willing to make concessions when making deals. Is their current situation desperate enough to change that trend? We'll know in a few days.