So, something has been on my mind. We've all spent months discussing this draft. I think we've covered every possible angle of this draft and its prospects. But something has been nagging me, sitting in the back of my head: What if we're looking in the wrong direction?
New Blazer GM Neil Olshey has said he's evaluating not only prospective draft picks, but also the value of those picks, and any other options available. Meanwhile, LaMarcus Aldridge is about to enter his prime. Unless we can draft players who immediately contribute at a high level, they will probably need years to develop. So as our new draft picks enter their prime, it's likely Aldridge will be nearing the end of his. Why set up a team where the best players will not share a prime? Perhaps that's not his plan.
It's no secret that there are few paths to becoming a contender in the modern era. You need a solid front office, and one of these methods:
- Be a large and/or desirable location for free agents (LA, Miami).
- Draft a franchise-changing star, and/or multiple major stars (SAS, OKC, ORL).
- Find a way, through free agency or trade, to acquire the assets you need (PHX, DET).
Portland has never been a desirable location for major free agents. So as the draft approaches, most of us are hoping one of the rookies will pan out to be the next Russell Westbrook, Andrew Bynum or Dwyane Wade. But what if the Blazers are quietly looking at path #3, acquiring semi-available high-level assets in order to be relevant again?
Just getting one All-Star on your team is tough enough. You really need three to make serious noise. And acquiring three All-Stars in their prime is nearly impossible. The last team to acquire three All-Star level talents in their prime is... um, I'm still thinking. But twice in the past 5 years, a team with one All-Star has acquired two more. We know what happened in Miami, but let's talk about Boston for a minute.
The Perfect Storm
Boston was the big loser in the 2007 draft lottery. They had one regular All-Star in Paul Pierce, and some good supporting players like Al Jefferson. But they were going nowhere, and they fell out of the top two. But soon after, they found themselves caught in the Perfect Storm. The Sonics organization, under new (ahem) management, were looking to stink out loud, though they'd never admit it. The more they stunk, the more they could justify a team move due to low attendance. However, they were smart: If you're going to stink, why not trade your star for young assets to build around the surefire #2 pick? Enter the Celtics, who gave the Sonics the #5 pick (and unimportant players) for Ray Allen.
Meanwhile in Minnesota, Kevin Garnett wanted out. He was an MVP-level talent, but his trade demand left the team without leverage. After negotiations with multiple teams (and rumors that Stern himself told Minn to make a decision), they decided Boston was their best option. Two months earlier, if you'd visited a Celtic blog and suggested these trades, you'd have been laughed at. "You think you can get Ray Allen for two bad players and a lottery pick? And KG for Al Jefferson and Theo Ratliff? And we'll magically be contenders? And I'm marrying Eva Longoria!". The thing is, it's hard to see where unique circumstances will take you.
At the time, only KG was seen as a player to build a contender around. But they all wanted a chance at a title. So they were able to put aside their personal aspirations, and bond in the attempt to win NBA Titles. Few (if anyone) thought, "Ray Allen. Cornerstone of a championship contender". Until he was. These players did not independently sign in Boston as free agents, but as trade assets they had no choice in the matter.
Is the timing right again?
Well, in a rare event, we also have some interesting assets, cap space, and an existing All-Star. There are no MVP-caliber players available. Most of the time, All-Stars aren't available either. Perhaps this Summer is an exception
Why would a team want to get rid of an All-Star player near/in his prime?
- Overwhelming contract. He's a great player, but you can't justify the price as the leader on a team not winning a title. With the new CBA, some teams may be willing to dump a contract signed a few years ago, before the Luxury Tax was as punishing.
- Rebuild / Youth Movement. The player just doesn't fit the ongoing (or upcoming) rebuild, so they want to get value now. Utah pulled this off nicely with Deron Williams, trading him before they lost leverage. But not all teams get that leverage.
- The player wants out. He's disgruntled. He's unhappy. He wants to be anywhere but there, and a trade is the only way it's going to happen. As with the KG scenario, selling teams never have leverage in this situation.
- An irresistible trade appears. Let's say a very promising player is still available at the #6 pick. Perhaps that player works well with your rebuild, plus a sweetener looks interesting. Normally you'd ride it out with your All-Star, but when you get a good offer...
So let's say the Blazers are buyers instead of sellers. What requirements are necessary?
- LaMarcus Aldridge must be one of the Big Three. It's nearly impossible to gain two All-Star players, let alone three. He's our guy, and we're simply giving him the core to work with.
- At least one recent All-Star appearance, without any use of the word "token" ("Token guy from the team with a winning record", "Token Center with few other quality centers", "Token choice as injury replacement when all the worthy guys are already chosen")
Possible Alternative: You could acquire a player you're absolutely convinced is about to take The Leap, and would become a multiple-year All-Star soon. This certainly increases the risk of failure, and you have to hope your front office is prescient.
- At least one team was built around the player. There's a big difference between building a team around one player, and building around three, and a previous failure will help the player desire to win.
- He must be in a similar age range as LaMarcus. This is more an art than a science. This will not only maximize our window, it will give the new core some commonalities, based around shared experiences in the league. Conversation over previous failed attempts to build teams around them will hopefully help them bond and be willing to sacrifice just enough to be an effective core.
- When possible, you want one guard, one wing, and one big guy. LaMarcus is our big guy (there will of course be other big men needed, likely a reliable defensive anchor/rebounder, but that's a separate topic). This rules out big men like Pau Gasol, who could become available under certain circumstances. I know that's a weird position to rule out, so if you really want to make the case for a big man, hit the comments.
- You must be willing to burn through your cap space, your picks in the short term, and one or more promising players.
What requirements are NOT necessary?
- Being a point guard. I know, I know, PGotF. But it's really not necessary to be a contender.
- Being an MVP candidate. This is a tough one, typically a Big Three has at least one player recently in the running as MVP for your go-to guy. But you're not getting an in-prime MVP in trade or free agency unless something insane happens, such as the events of CP and KG. But if you believe an MVP-level player is the only way to go, this retool won't be for you.
What players meet these qualifications, and are rumored to be available?
Andre Iguodala (SF, Philadelphia)
28 years old, 2012 NBA All-Star. 2 years, $30,623,000 guaranteed.
Philly is discussing Andre's possible departure as part of their youth movement. Rumors state that Philly is asking for a small fortune in trade, but it's possible their expectations fall to earth over the next month, as they see teams unwilling to pay $15m/yr for a strong, but non-MVP-caliber, player.
Danny Granger (SG/SF, Indiana)
29 years old, 2009 NBA All-Star. 2 years, $27,080,394.
The Pacers aren't having buyers remorse halfway into Danny's five year contract, but they are definitely weighing their options. After successfully rebuilding Indiana into a young playoff team, the front office may be ready to move Granger for more youth to build around.
Joe Johnson (SG/SF, Atlanta)
30 years old, 6 time NBA All-Star. 4 years, $89,295,016 (!)
There are no rumors about Joe right now, but his contract keeps him in conversation. Atlanta might decide to give in on the Johnson experiment. He's not a guy who can be the centerpiece on a contender, and he's seen 30 birthday candles. But if he can keep his ego in check, and you can choke down signing those checks, he could work well in a three person core. You just need to find a way to trade for, and work around, his insane contract.
Rajon Rondo (PG, Boston)
26 years old, 3-time NBA All-Star. 3 years, $35,863,636.
Without an injury to Derrick Rose, the Celtics may not have been in the Conference Finals. Rumors say the team knows their window closed. With Rondo's legendary backstage attitude (and previous trade rumors), the Celtics may decide to grab value now. But he's still young. Unless he's just unbearable, they'd probably want to try retooling around him. Right now you'd probably need to part with LMA to get him.
Luol Deng (SF, Chicago)
27 years old, 2012 NBA All-Star. 2 years, $27,580,000.
Reports have broken that the Bulls may trade Deng for little more than a draft pick and a trade exception, so they can retain the rest of their core. Deng is an All-Star, and young, but his injury may come into play.
Deron Williams (PG, Free Agent)
27 years old, 3-time NBA All-Star. Assume a max contract.
You'd need to make one amazing sell to get him interested in Portland. Very, very low likelihood he'd ever play in red and black. Perhaps the team can convince him that he'd fit in well with the core, and would be on national TV more than with his other signing options. If he somehow did sign, he'd be making the max.
What players could come into play, but don't meet the requirements?
Dwight Howard. Ok, ok, technically he meets every requirement. But here's the problem: He's a rental. And most people believe he, like Deron, will sign with a large market team at the first opportunity. So you could trade for him, and attempt to convince him to stay. But don't overpay for him, because you don't want to be left holding an empty bag. I'll generally leave him out of the discussion since I think his arrival odds are even lower than Deron signing here.
Steve Nash. He meets all the requirements except age. Could the Blazers squeeze 4 more good seasons out of him? Maaaaybe. But there are still strong odds he's on the verge of noticeably declining. Afterward, we're just funding his retirement.
Monta Ellis. Probably too early for the Bucks to flip him, but they might be willing to go all-in if they can grab a good pick. Monta will give you lots of points, and no defense. There is a metric ton of negative rumors about his attitude and personality, including lying about an accident that caused an injury. Nonetheless, very unlikely that he moves anywhere.
Rudy Gay. Memphis wouldn't mind moving his contract in order to pay their younger players. Considering his lack of an All-Star appearance, he's overpaid, and arguably overrated. But if you think he'd work well as a core, you might give him a shot.
Goran Dragic or Kyle Lowry. Let's group these two together, because their fates are inevitably intertwined. Neither have played an All-Star game. Dragic will use up a fair amount of cap space, but Lowry will likely be costly in trade thanks to a reasonably-priced contract.
Tyreke Evans. He went from Rookie of the Year to "what happened to that guy?" in Sacramento. Rumors persisted that OKC passed on him (for Harden) during the draft because they believed he wasn't a team player. And now the Kings are rumored to not offer a contract extension. He's young and still has the ability to mature. But can you trust him? How crazy would post-rookie contract negotiations be?
Eric Gordon. With New Orleans clearing salary, it looks very likely he's going to stay put. The Hornets say they'll match a max offer. Would you be willing to offer him that, just to call their bluff?
Nicolas Batum. He has to come up in conversation, right? If you think Nic is going to make The Leap, you have to keep him, and grab one All-Star. That's much easier, right? Well, first he has to make that Leap. And second, are either LMA or Batum natural leaders? You need one person who vocally leads. You may need to bring in an All-Star with leadership qualities to finish the core. And cross your fingers.
Can we pull it off? Would we want to?!
Now comes the hard part. Let's say we could pull this off. That leads to a lot of questions...
1. Is this plan a good thing? If so, what would be your preferred core, if you assume Deron is very unlikely to sign here?
2. How steep do you believe the price would be? What if we gave up our picks, Batum (either via sign-and-trade or declining to match an offer), and Matthews? Would you be on board?
3. Pretend we've lost much of our current core, but started the season built around a core of, say, Aldridge, Iguodala and Granger. Or another combination. Would you be ecstatic, or angry? Do you believe such a core would be more than, or less than, the sum of their parts? Could they reach the Conference Finals? The Finals?
4. What if we could only get two All-Stars? For example, would a core of Aldridge, Johnson, and Lowry (or Batum) leave you more or less happy? Would it affect your preference of the Blazers' direction?
5. Am I missing any players that have had legitimate rumors of trade, and are All-Stars? If so, who? How would they fit?
In the end, the Blazers really have three directions they can take. I've included them in the poll at the bottom. After reading this, and looking at the realistic options for a new Big Three, which direction would you want the Blazers to pursue if all options were available?
PS: It's way too easy to post an opinion online and say "THIS IS THE ONLY WAY TO GO!". That's not my intent here. To be clear: I'm not advocating this path as our only option. I'm not really advocating any path. I won't get defensive if you think this is a bad idea. My goal here is to really define our possible options, and spur conversation about our choices. If you disagree, awesome. But don't just say "THIS IS A BAD IDEA!". Converse about what better options are available instead.
[Pictures from Wikipedia, salary numbers from the always-reliable Storyteller]