As most of us with a functioning brain and a pair of eyes can see, our beloved Trail Blazers are not championship contenders this year. They may not even make the playoffs (gasp). But, with a few moves and a few tweaks, I think that we can be real contenders in the near future with a nucleus of LA, Batum, and Elliot Williams (yes, I said Elliot Williams). If the Trail Blazers want to be an elite team, in the short-term and without a standard "rebuilding" process, I have a few ideas.
Feel free to share yours as well, but keep it in mind Dwight Howard isn't coming to Portland any time, ever.
First, I want to start with the three players I see as long term contributors for the Trail Blazers. One of them may seem a bit outlandish, but this is my personal opinion.
LaMarcus Aldridge is obvious. He went from being a potential third option, role player on a championship team to Portland's all-star and the leader of the transition from the era of the "Big 3" to a new brand of Blazer basketball. All of this and he still is only 26 years old with maybe 5 or 6 "prime" years left.
Nicolas Batum is a little different as people seem to have mixed feelings about him. Personally, I see Batum as a major part of this team's future and a future all-star. This may sound crazy, but I see him as someone who could average 20 and 6 with over a block and steal per game. In fact, I'm so confident in this that I have a running bet with a friend of mine that Batum will be an all-star in two years (2014). Batum can rebound, play defense, and most importantly for the Blazers, score consistently. I see continuous improvement in his game and I wouldn't be surprised if he was a top 5 or 6 SF in the league someday.
Now, to Elliot Williams (let the trolling begin). He has played limited minutes this year, but has shown flashes of greatness. He seems to have developed a consistent jumpshot already and obviously can finish at the rim. He could definitively use some NBA seasoning and is a little erratic at times, but all in all, I see him as a good NBA prospect and in a few years could break out in a similar way that Batum has this year.
Everyone else is expendable in my opinion (except Matthews until Elliot peaks), especially Wallace. I think it is essential to trade Wallace before the deadline this year because if he is still a Blazer at the end of the year, the Blazers are in a lose-lose situation. This is because they will either...
a) Overpay for Wallace, a role player whose only consistent at missing layups, and get tied down for the future
or b) Let him walk and get nothing back for him
Alright, now to the PG position. The position that has sparked so many debates among Blazer fans and has eluded Blazer management for years. Obviously, Ray Felton is not getting the job done. My strategy involves the draft. More specifically, Kendall Marshall. Kendall Marshall, for those who don't know, is the best pure PG and passing college prospect in a while. He is often compared to players like Mark Jackson and Jason Kidd. For some younger fans, I would compare him to Rajon Rondo without the elite finishing ability, but with better passing, yes I said better, court vision, and leadership. He definitely makes his teammates better and is a big reason why UNC was able to manhandle Duke on Saturday night (20 and 10). So, he can play, but how can he become a Trail Blazer? Most of the mock drafts I have seen have him slated in at about the 15th slot and rising. Now, some of you may believe that the Blazers won't make the playoffs at all this year and that getting that pick should be easy, but I have a bit more of an optimistic approach. Assuming that we will need to trade up for him, an enticing package would be our 1st round pick, 2nd round pick, and maybe Nolan Smith (while we are on Nolan, I know its early, but it looks like we blew that pick by taking him over Faried, but that is off-topic). Marshall WOULD be the long-term answer at PG and is a realistic option assuming he declares for the draft.
So, now we are set at the 1, 2 (maybe), 3, and 4, but what about the 5? Who would have thought that center would be our weakest position when we drafted "The Next Bill Russell" back in 2007. For this position, I think it is best to work through free agency as we will have a massive amount of cap space this upcoming summer. So, with that cap space, we have a few options. First of all, we could overpay someone like JaVale McGee or Roy Hibbert. Out of those two, I would definitely prefer Hibbert because I see McGee as a headcase who is somewhat overrated. I mean, he is a great shot-blocker, but not so great as a rebounder and has no offensive game to speak of.
Hibbert on the other hand, is much more attractive. However, we would have to massively overpay for him as he is restricted and an all-star at the hardest NBA position to fill. We could offer him maybe $15-$16 mil, but the Pacers might still match. It would be overpaying, but again, he is an all-star center, which is invaluable in the NBA.
A more realistic option would be either Omer Asik or Robin Lopez. They both provide exactly what the Blazers and every NBA team, rebounding and shot-blocking. Although they are both restricted, it wouldn't take too much of an offer to pry them away from their respective teams. Asik because the Bulls wouldn't have enough cap space for him and Lopez because the Suns already have a serviceable center in Gortat. This may seem less sexy, but it allows for a deeper bench (through FA or keeping current role players).
Now, for the bench. First of all, I would be in favor of keeping Crawford to provide scoring punch off the bench and to help out when the Blazers go cold, which happens way to often, by the way. Kurt Thomas will be around another year as well. About the rest of the bench, if Wesley doesn't get moved he could be serviceable and would probably start at first in this scenario until Elliot is ready to step in as a starter and make an impact. The rest of the bench could be filled with some role playing FAs.
This potential lineup that could win both now and in the future would look something like this...
Hibbert or Asik or Lopez
Bench: Crawford, Thomas, and some nice FAs with all of the cap space available
*Whatever is acquired in potential trades (ex. Wallace) is not included
All in all, with Aldridge and Batum already in place, assuming Batum resigns this summer (which he better), the Trail Blazers are not that far off from a championship caliber team. The right moves must be made, however, to avoid the "long-term losing" that is typically associated with rebuilding.