I wrote a post the other day about the Blazers and their "arrival point" in the upper echelon in the West. A lot has been said and written about why and why not the Blazers have established themselves as one of the top 1 or 2 tier teams in the West and I want to throw this thought into the hat, so-to-speak. The more I've been thinking about it, the more I've realized that this whole "Big 3" roster structure for title contention - where a team brings in 3 elite, All-Star caliber players and then packs old, savvy vets and young cheap rookies around them - is a relatively new approach to building a contending roster. As of late, it's been widely assumed to be the only way to build a true contender - as evidenced by teams like New York, Brooklyn, and to a WAY lesser extent Detroit. Of course, it's not a bad model by any stretch - it's obviously proven to be quite effective - I'm just proposing that it's not the only model for building a legit contender. There are other ways that teams have built contenders in the past and will continue to build contenders with in the future.
Now, to build my case, I'd like to draw your attention to last years 8 playoff teams (in the west) and their roster structures. Below, I have listed all 8 teams, the number of All-Star caliber players on each team, and, for reference, who I consider those players to be:
1. Oklahoma: 2 (Durant + Westbrook, Role Players)
2. San Antonio: 2.5 (Duncan + Parker, Ginboli and Role Players)
3. Denver: 1 (Iggy, Role Players)
4. LA Clippers: 2 (Paul + Griffin, Role Players)
5. Memphis: 1 (Gasol, Role Players)
6. Golden State: 2 (Curry + Lee, Role Players)
7. LA Lakers: 3 (Kobe + Gasol + Nash + Injuries + I hate the Lucking Fakers)
8. Houston: 1 (Harden, Role Players)
As you can see, only 2 of the West's contending teams had more than 2 All-Star caliber players on them. Furthermore, 3 teams had 2 All-Star caliber players and 3 teams had only 1. Also, out of the 8 teams above, only 1 team had 3 legit All-Stars - and they, the Lakers, came in at 7th in the standings. (I should also note that I understand there will be some contention regarding some players like Martin, Leonard, Randolph, Lin, et al - but I would argue that for every Splitter and Leonard that you show me, I could show you a Lopez and a Batum that readily compares with those guys. In other words - I understand we may disagree on a few of my player classifications, but I left those guys out because I don't believe that they're in the top 1 to 2, All-Star level tiers.
All of that, to preface this: the Blazers had their 2 All-Star caliber players in Aldridge and Lillard already last season - and they had 2 out of the 6 (or so) necessary role players in Matthews and Batum. However, 4 quality players on a team is nowhere near enough to contend, obviously. This previous offseason, many were championing the idea of bringing in a 3rd All-Star caliber player to have a chance in competing in the tough, highly competitive West. Niel, however, knew that he already had more than enough talent in that upper tier (or two) of players, but simply lacked the role players around them that were necessary to be competitive.
My conclusion is this - the Blazers are there. We're THERE. We now have the proper role players surrounding our 2 All-Stars (I would argue that there's no way Lillard doesn't get voted in by the coaches to the All-Star game as soon as this season or next). We now have our defensive-minded, team-play oriented, lane clogging center. We now have our points off the dribble, instant scoring punch of a 6th man that can take the load off of Lillard and Matthews. Freeland has made the jump to the defensive and rebounding stop gap that we needed off the bench in the front court. We have our rebounding and 3 point specialists in T-Rob and Wright respectively. It would also be good to mention the fact that we're pretty much 3 deep at every position if you consider the multi-positional capabilities of players like Lillard, Mo, CJ, Batum, Wright, Freeland, and Aldridge. So not only do we have our 2 All-Stars and all of the necessary role players surrounding them, but we're practically injury proof. (Barring a catastrophic, bench-clearing brawl that injures half of our players - which I wouldn't rule out at this time.) I would even go so far as to say that this is an objective assessment of our situation - absent of the classic hopeful optimism and unrealistic expectations that come with homerism.
So with that, I would like to submit that our 13-2 record is actually a legit reflection of who we are - and that we will continue down the path that we've embarked on. I strongly believe that we're either there or 1 to 2 small upgrades away from true contention. It's taken me by surprise, for sure - but quite pleasantly.