As the trade deadline approaches, it often feels like a last, best hope to salvage something out of a season gone unexpectedly wrong. This particular deadline for the Blazers has the added onus of moving past the Oden/Roy era of Lost Hope.
In thinking about what I actually want to see in the next week (more losses? more wins? big trades? draft picks? what?) it really helped clarify, in my mind, what's really going on with the Blazers and how to best assess the coming couple of seasons. My speculations have led me to the following hypotheses that I offer for your consideration, beginning with the trade deadline and moving into more global concerns:
Hypothesis 1) Your (and the press') certainty about a trade is inversely correlated to its final outcome. I'm a "Moneyball" kind of a guy in the sense that I think could programs, good data, and good systems trump the "eyeball test" of good scouting. In Moneyball, the Oakland A's had great success in drafting players nobody else wanted based upon a new system of data analysis. The press, assessing the Oakland draft choices against conventional wisdom, was dead wrong. Trades work the same way: if everybody thinks the incoming player is good, then you can assume that player is overvalued. I know there are exceptions. But in general, when I see a trade announced, I want to see a lot of "Who is this guy, again?" comments peppered with geeks talking about advanced math metrics instead of scoring and rebounding averages. This will make me feel good about the trade. If the player comes with hue and cry of salvation, I will feel dubious regarding the outcome. In thinking of players received and sent from Portland, I think this trend (pointing only to correlation rather than universal truth) holds.
Hypothesis 2) Between the trade and the draft, I want to see evidence of a plan. By this, I mean players following a similar philosophy. Again, looking at the Oakland As in Moneyball, there was clearly a plan in place. I think the Blazers have had plans as well. I saw a time when they targetted high school players. I saw a time when they targetted European players. While these didn't work out very well, I loved the philosophy behind them: look for undervalued players and build a dynasty based upon those smart buys. If Europe really was a wellspring of unspotted/unrealized talent, then a Blazer team of Sergio/Fernandez/Claver/Koponnen/Freeland (or whatever) would've been a very exciting time. I haven't seen a plan lately; I've seen a team coping. Players have come in to caulk leaks rather than build dynasties. I want to see a team being built again.
Hypothesis 3) The fundamental disconnect between front office and Nate is advanced metrics. Nate is, in the end, a great coach. I have a huge degree of respect for him shepherding this team through the last few years. It was an ultimately thankless job that he executed well and with honor. But looking back, this is what I see: I see KP, Penn, and even Cho as a kind of cabal working with advanced metrics. They attended specialized conferences, had secret algorithms, and worked towards the kind of Moneyball-like assessments that I personally find so intriguing. The players reflect this: a lot of drafts and trades that didn't make sense according to conventional wisdom but were at least executed with a purpose and a philosophy in mind. Nate is, I think, an old-school coach in that he scouts and coaches based upon what he sees and feels. He is, in the end, an intuitive coach focusing on very traditional and fundamental statistics and measures. In the last few years, I see players coming in based upon a philosophy that Nate was skeptical of. Obviously, Allen ultimately agreed with Nate and we've seen a house-cleaning but a house-cleaning with a reversion back towards traditionally valued players (Andre, Felton, Crawford, and even the proverbial Nash). The Lakers/Yankees approach, if you will. What has happened is that the collapse of the KP-method of advanced metrics has left Nate in a very poor position in trying to build a more traditionally-styled team. In the end, this team is neither one nor the other but an unholy mixture of the two.
In the end, I think a lack of a GM really hurts the team but, more importantly, the lack of a GM that has the support of the owner in how to funadmentally build a team is what has been lacking over the last few years. Allen, now faced with more years of rebuilding, is doing well to consider very carefully how he wants to approach these years because we've clearly demonstrated that a mid-stream adjustment is unwanted. I am very uncomfortable that Portland is approaching this trade deadline and this draft without that GM structure and philosophy in place. (I recall that about this time KP would start talking about his research, for example).
So with the next few days and weeks, I will be looking for some shred of philosophy in team-building emerging from whatever intelligentsia is operating within the Rose Garden. While I want a Moneyball style approach if we're going with the traditional approach, that's fine to. I just want to know and trust that some forethought and design is taking place.