I have seen a few comments lately that have some truth to them. That the Blazers have achieved the NBA's mushy middle. The no man's land where teams aren't bad enough to get the good draft picks. Nor are they good enough to be contenders. Always being that 6-8 seed in the playoffs, but never amounting to anything.
To some extend, that might be right. We haven't particularly reloaded after losing Brandon Roy's all round clutchness to his meniscusless knees or Greg Oden's potential game-changing presence to his bad breaks. That Roy-Oden-Aldridge big three would have been potent. Would have been contenders. They would have been talking about how OKC or Miami matched up to us. And I firmly believe that. But alas, it was not to be.
We have Aldridge left. And he's an All-Star. Barely. A very good player. Top 25 in the NBA. But not the best primary option. Nor very good in late-game situations. A player most teams would love to have. But alone, is not nearly enough. He likes Portland. He has no real reason to leave yet. But we need to get some talent around this guy, quick.
And that seemed to be the plan. We traded Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby away for draft picks. We couldn't get a max level free agent this off-season, so we banked on next year by leaving our bench emptier than a package of cookies at kindergarten. We kept a core group of guys, mostly because we didn't want them to walk away for nothing. A perfect recipe for tanking into a high draft pick to go along with cap space to reload our roster with young talent that can grow into future stars.
However, our current core had something to say about that. Nicolas Batum has indeed stepped up. There are really only three small forwards in the NBA who are better than he is right now. Durant, James and Anthony. He's better than Luol Deng (who is carrying the Bulls with Rose out) He's better than Paul Pierce (Though Pierce has slowed). He's better than Gay, Gallinari and the afore mentioned Gerald Wallace. He's got his flaws (Turnovers!), but there is talk of Batum as maybe being an All-Star. Probably not this year with the number of good PF's crowding in. But with some consistency (finally!), he could be there.
Damian Lillard has been quite a surprise. He was certainly on my list of players I wanted. (With Jared Sullinger!) But I didn't think he'd be this good, this soon. I thought there would be a lot more rookie mistakes. A lot more being lost. A lot more getting used to the NBA. But these are his rookie mistakes, this is his lost. This is his getting used to the NBA. And he too is getting All-Star mentions.
Of course, actually making the All-Star game is not what matters. But playing to the level where you are in the conversation is. Because that means you're playing well. While watching League Pass Broadband, I have heard it said many times by many different broadcasters. The Blazers have one of the best starting lineups in the NBA right now. Matthews plugs nicely into that core. Hickson is thriving by plugging into that core.
The rebuilding/retooling priorities have changed with what we've seen this season. While it would have been nice to get a high draft pick, I'll take knowing that we've already got our core right now, over wondering if these players could ever pull it together. We know who they are now. We know what we've got to work with. We will still have room for a $12.8M contract (depending on how we deal with Hickson), which will get a nice player, or a few spots on our bench filled.
This isn't a core that is mushy middle bound. I don't know if it will be enough to be full blown contenders yet. But I know that it's enough to build on. To plug pieces into in order to make the whole better. This is a team that can work it's way UP from the NBA's no-man's land. And I'll take that over the uncertainty of draft picks any day of the week.