With the trade deadline approaching, talk on the Blazers' future and possible roster moves has run rampant on Blazer's Edge. And, if we're being honest with ourselves, this is our favorite part of being fans: backseat GM-ing. We can throw out fake trades (thanks to ESPN.com's Trade Machine), suggest free agent signings, and pretend Neil Olshey reads BE for ideas.
Going into the season we all had different expectations for the Blazers this season. Personally, I expected the Blazers to end up in the 36-42 win range, and miss the playoffs (probably end up somewhere around 10th in the Western Conference). That expectation was based on several factors, including the talent level on the Blazers and the talent levels of the ret of the Western Conference teams.
The Blazers have hit a rough patch, going 4-6 in their last 10 games. They currently sit at 20-21, 9th place in the Western Conference and on pace for a 40 win season. So now Olshey needs to decide if the Blazers can make a serious run at the playoffs, or if they need to try to acquire assets for the future. Damian Lillard has been far better offensively than anyone thought he would be his rookie year. Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews have improved this year (Batum fairly dramatically), and JJ Hickson has turned into a double-double machine (more on him in a bit). However, the Blazers have zero depth (as Olshey has recently conceded) and have been incredibly healthy. Everyone on the Blazers bench has been more or less worthless this season, but the Blazers' starters haven't missed any significant time. (Don't get me wrong, Wil Barton and Meyers Leonard have real promise. But they haven't done anything this year that you couldn't get from a replacement-level player.) If Batum or Aldridge miss any time (as they are prone to do), the Blazers season would go downhill fast.
In deciding whether the Blazers are serious playoff contenders, the other teams in the Western Conference must be taken into account. The Lakers, Timberwolves and Mavericks have all been playoff contenders in recent years that currently sit below the Blazers in the standings. Dallas broke up the team after their championship run, and the Lakers and Timberwolves have been decimated by injuries (plus the Lakers doomed themselves with a lack of depth and awful coaching). Denver, Utah and Houston are all probably going to be buyers at the trade deadline as they look to improve for the playoffs, and Memphis today made a trade that is addition by subtraction, allowing them to keep Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph for the playoff run.
The question Olshey is now facing is given the Blazers' unexpected success and the disappointments around the Western Conference, does he "strike while the iron is hot" to make a playoff push or be patient and wait until the offseason to make roster improvements. The Blazers, while under .500, are still exceeding expectations with a Pythagorean W-L of 17-24. They have the 10th easiest strength of schedule thus far, a league-average offense and below-average defense (ranked 15th and 22nd, respectively).
And this, dear friends, is where y'all come in. I've seen scattered opinions about what each of you think is the core of the team, who you think should be traded or not traded in order to improve the team. From my perspective, there are four different opinions of who Blazers Edge-ers think should be the core of this team:
Option 1: Three Man Core of Lillard-Batum-Aldridge. A number of you see this as the future of the Blazers, with Matthews and Hickson as expendable parts. This model relies on the "Big 3" method of team building, but it is completely dependent on Lillard and Batum developing into All Stars in the next several years.
Option 2: Four Man Core of Lillard-Matthews-Batum-Aldridge. I think this is the most popular opinion out there, with most of you seeing Hickson as being expendable due to the fact he plays the same position as Aldridge and will probably price himself out of a backup role this offseason. (What his role should be on this team.)
Option 3: Five Man Core of Lillard-Matthews-Batum-Aldridge. This, to me, is the most unreasonable of the options. It leaves Olshey with zero trade chips (again, every bench player is worthless except as cap filler). The only options open to Olshey at that point are to trade away draft picks or take on bad contracts (thus destroying any cap flexibility going into the offseason).
Option 4: Three Man Core of Lillard-Matthews-Batum. This is probably the least popular view amongst Blazer fans, as it would mean the team would trade Aldridge (something Olshey has made basically crystal-clear will not be happening, as a playoff run without Aldridge is virtually impossible) and possibly Hickson as well.
So let me know what you think, Blazers Edge. I think it's an interesting question, because the answer determines what the Blazers do going forward. Personally, I think Olshey sees Option 2 as the future of the franchise. He (and Paul Allen) seem fully committed to moving forward with Aldridge and Lillard as the faces of the franchise. Let me know what y'all think.