As you know if you read this FanShot the Portland Trail Blazers took out an ad in the local Sunday paper saying, in part, "This summer we welcome new faces, rebuild around an All-Star, and rediscover why we love this team." It's always dangerous to read too much into any given word. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if the use of the term "rebuild", heretofore absent in Trail Blazers parlance, came without much intended definition. We don't know who writes and edits copy in a case like this. We don't know how much input Paul Allen and the front office basketball decision-makers had in the text. But I, personally, am happy to see the "rebuild" word, if nothing else because it saves me from writing the bold and semi-scathing headline originally intended for this piece regarding the company line on the summer we've seen so far. That line is probably best encapsulated in the narration provided by Mike Barrett as the Trail Blazers TV crew summed up the season following Portland's final game:
What now awaits is a summer of change and major opportunity. The potential of two lottery picks and with money to spend in the market, this could easily be a reload and not a rebuild. With pillars to build around, an owner committed to winning and the best fanbase in the NBA, it's easy to see why hopes are high for next season, even as we close this one.
Thank you Rip City for continuing to believe. We'll be back, we'll be better, and it will all be here again before you know it.
What difference does a word make, in this case "rebuild" versus "reload"? Maybe everything. The Blazers are entering a summer which will bring significant transition, dealing with choices that will frame their future for the next few years...including the heart of the Aldridge Era. They have the potential to reform this team for the good, but they also have the potential to stick themselves with unsuitable players, wasted picks, and non-transferable contracts. They're playing with dynamite here: picks and cap space enough to do great good or powerful harm to their prospects. If they are not starting that process with an accurate self-assessment, reasonable goals, and a clear plan this could easily blow up in their faces.
No doubt the Blazers are prepared for the usual lottery luck (or lack thereof) and the intentions of players and teams around the league. My worry is a potential hidden enemy: cultural inertia...unexamined assumptions carried into a scenario which color your perception and move you towards choices that you wouldn't otherwise favor. In this case we're talking about the assumption that the Blazers are this close to being good and all they need is a couple of the right moves this summer to get back on track into contention.
The tricky thing is, that assumption has been true for a number of years. I have no doubt that had Greg Oden and Brandon Roy not developed devastating knee problems we'd be talking about a potential trip to the NBA Finals this year, not the best use of lottery picks. The Blazers really were that close to achieving their dreams, exactly four knees away from contending.
But that era is over now. It's been surgically removed, cut from the team, amnestied away. In no way, shape, or form is it coming back after a hiatus this brief. The cultural assumption that a little luck, the right break, will send this team to the stratosphere is now the enemy. Many fans still hold it. That's their right. But Portland's decision makers cannot afford that luxury. It's the equivalent of hiding in the closet when the horror movie chainsaw mask guy is coming for you. "I'll be safe here, I'll just curl up" isn't going to save you. The world has changed now. If you don't move on and use every ounce of your ability to get an advantage you're going to get carved up.
Let's take a hard look at Portland's current roster. Put aside sentimentality and hopes for players "if things go right". Winning NBA teams don't hope for things to go right. Winning NBA teams know that things will go wrong and they find a way to emerge victorious anyway. Smart planning doesn't involve large doses of hope, but anticipating the adversity you're going to face and figuring out how to step through it towards your goal.
Let's assume that the Blazers are not insane enough to bring back Raymond Felton or Jamal Crawford under extended contracts. Under those conditions I'm looking at Portland's roster and seeing exactly three players who have proven that they can handle big minutes in a regular rotation. You have one All-Star in LaMarcus Aldridge. You have two players you hope will someday be great in Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum but you have to regard their current contributions as average, or at least inconsistent. That's it. Folks will argue for J.J. Hickson because of his late-season spurt and I'd tend to agree he could be part of the rotation, but we don't know that yet. Everybody else is either too young to have shown anything under serious conditions, too old to bank on for extended minutes, or not talented enough to make a good team.
So what's the problem with that? The Blazers just use their cap space and picks to leverage trades and signings that will put experienced, talented players around those three, right?
I shudder to imagine them trying.
Trades and free agency are a great way--maybe the only way--to find the last couple pieces you need in order to complete a great team. But except in incredibly rare situations which the entire league can see coming from miles away (think LeBron James) trades and free agency cannot revolutionize your team to the extent the Blazers require right now. Why? It's simple. Guys available via trade or free agency all have one thing in common: whoever had them before didn't want them...or at least didn't want them badly enough to throw the kind of franchise-binding contract at them which would make them stay. There are reasons for that. Good players are certainly available via both avenues. But fantastic, franchise-altering players almost never are.
This means when you're going the trade-free agency route you're going to have to compromise in some way, accepting whatever wasn't attractive about these players to their old teams. That's not a problem in itself. No player is perfect. As we just said, when you're looking to add just that final piece of the puzzle, it's a non-issue. Your established team provides a cradle around the guy, a place for him to step into. You probably value him because he had one or two skills or characteristics that your team lacks which will put you over the top. Bingo! Make that deal.
But when your franchise has as many holes as Portland's does right now--and particularly when you're trying to fill spots that every other team in the league covets like point guard and center,as the Blazers are--you're going to make a lot of compromises. In certain cases you might have to compromise deeply with a single player, as he's the only suitable guy you can get at that position. But even if you only compromise a little with each player multiplied by four or five players, that's a lot of compromising.
Consider this: outside of Chris Paul, Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford were pretty much the best guards on the market last summer. The Blazers did well in acquiring them. They could not have done better, in fact. We all saw how that worked out.
Now consider that the mandate of "reload, not rebuild" implies that you're going to do the bulk of your work in just one summer. Your pool of prospective players is now limited to those available right here, right now. The short time frame multiplies your potential compromises again.
When you look at the breadth of Portland's needs, the chances of a truly big-time (no-compromise) star coming here right now, the high-demand positions they're trying to fill, the pool of players who are going to be available, and the short time window you come to an inescapable conclusion: the "reload" thing isn't a game plan, it's just more crossing your fingers and hoping for a miracle.
Haven't we had enough of that for one decade? And didn't that full-page ad rather imply that the compromising was through?
At best I could see the Blazers constructing a low-level playoff team given these constraints. That's technically a step forward, but when you consider that you're offering contracts whole cloth and potentially trading away lottery picks without hope of acquiring more, you're pretty much giving up any potential to get better beyond that. You're paying full price for a half-baked team. No amount of desperation should drive the franchise there.
Granted the alternative--building slower and through the draft--involves its own pain with no guarantees. You won't win for a while. You may have to make hard decisions about your current players such as not matching Nicolas Batum's offer sheet if it's too high. You may get some busts, even high in the draft. But this is the only route through which you can find bona fide franchise-changing stars who are both loyal to your team and leave enough cap space behind them to sign other players. It also opens up a larger window of time for player acquisition and thus a larger pool of potential candidates from which to draw. The ramp-up time is extended but the compromises are fewer, easier to swallow, and (with the aid of a good scouting corps) more in your control.
Make no mistake, these two approaches require different decisions and different leadership skills. Assets rise or fall in value based on whether you're viewing them in the short time frame or long. Drafting ability in your GM doesn't mean much if you're looking to move those picks for established players. It's everything if you want to use those picks and anticipate more. If you're locking yourself into a point guard right now you have to shape your team differently--around his abilities--than if you're growing over time. If it's a one-summer reload then money is no object with your signings and trades. You have to use that space or you'll lose it. If the reload is long term you want to limit yourself to inexpensive or short-term players to preserve that space for the day you really need it.
Either way, this is not a decision easily undone. The Blazers will have to choose one path or the other within the next few weeks and act accordingly. We're going to see whether the direction-changing ad or the company-line inertia will win out. Both they and their fans are going to be stuck with that decision for quite a while.
Here's hoping they make the right one.