Blazer's Edge Mailbag:  Contending

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Dave answers a couple of Mailbag questions about the Blazers contending in X number of years. What is "X" and how do they get there from here?

Today we soldier on in the never-ending quest to catch up with Mailbag questions. We love them so send yours to blazersub@gmail.com

We say this every time but please PAY ATTENTION. Put "Mailbag" in the subject line of your e-mail somewhere. This makes it easy for me to sort and find questions. That makes it more likely your question will get answered.

Dave,

What do you think about hoops-world assessment of Portland in 5 years? Could the word "powerhouse" really be thrown around so quickly? (Depending on your opinion of 5 years being 'quick')

Matt

I've linked Joel Brigham's Hoopsworld article in the question. Click through to read his complete thoughts. As far as the Blazers he ranks them as the 5th best team in the five-year outlook, opining:

Portland Trail Blazers - Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge will probably be two of the best fifteen players in the league five years from now, and that sort of dominant high-low tandem is the kind of thing championship teams are built on. If they're able to keep amassing talent to put around those guys (their bench is currently one of the weakest in their conference), the Blazers have a real shot at turning into something special. It hasn't been a great season for them, but they'll do nothing but get better in the seasons to come.

The NBA is like high school. Five years is an eternity. Five years ago the Blazers were on their way to multiple future NBA titles behind Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, and LaMarcus Aldridge. Five years before that the Rasheed Wallace era was on the precipice of disintegration and Zach Randolph was about to become the brightest hope for the franchise. Anything could happen between now and 2017-18, up to and including every player from the current roster playing elsewhere.

I'm not sure I'd call Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge a "high-low tandem" in the strict sense either. They're more of a "high-and-higher tandem". "Big-small" would describe it better. If the Blazers don't get a little more "low" in their game on both ends it's hard to see them being one of the best teams in the league no matter how many years pass.

Also keep in mind that Aldridge will be 32 in five years. That's a fine age if you're in the middle of a great run but a tough age if you're just starting one. The Blazers probably need to get good sooner to take full advantage of their assets. The current roster's assets provide the basis for that five-year projection of greatness, after all.

In the meantime we need to ask two questions:

1. How much improvement can the Blazers expect from their current roster?

2. How much can they improve by adding pieces to their roster?

On paper the current incarnation of the Blazers has room for improvement. In practice my spidey-sense says they won't get as much upward mobility as desired. Aldridge is at or near his ceiling and it's darn good. Wesley Matthews is young and will probably get a little more consistent but what you're seeing is probably what you'll get...again, just fine. J.J. Hickson is not a future factor and banking on anyone off that bench at this point is more hope than analysis. Some of them will make the rotation, but how high and for how many minutes will they contribute? I don't see a ton of future starters or 6th men in the bunch.

That leaves us Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum.

Lillard's a rookie. He's going to get better timing, better shot selection, a deeper understanding of how to fit in and help his team win. His three-point percentage will rise from its current 34.4% as his court sense improves. He'll be a 20 ppg scorer, up from 18.3 now. He could peak in the 24-25 range for a season or two but I don't see him scoring there consistently unless he ends up being the only good offensive player on a bad team. I don't see him becoming a defensive force either. Assuming he does end up in the low-20's for most of his career, how much that extra 2-3 points a game will get you is up for debate.

Batum remains the biggest hope for a break-out difference-maker. He has two-way ability, a well-rounded game, can take and make the big shot...he has all the tools. As we've talked about ad nauseam his ceiling depends on how good he wants to be and how much sacrifice he's willing to make to become great. He doesn't have a star personality. I'm not sure that can be developed. But there's always hope, I suppose. This hope--and the performance-potential gap--explains why I get and answer more questions about him than about any other Trail Blazer.

Summarizing: If you're talking current improvement you have Lillard for some, Batum as a maybe, the bench as a super-maybe. That's not much upon which to build a contending team.

That's why this summer is going to be critical for the Blazers. In actuality last summer was critical for the Blazers but they didn't get their man. They can't afford to strike out on another off-season. They have to have their pieces in place in the next year or two or they can forget keeping a straight face when talking about contending in the Aldridge Era. Lottery ping pong balls are the only possible escape from the pressure, but that's a thin and common thread upon which to build a future.

The real answer to our second (and most critical) question is, "We'll have to see." We should know more by October of this year. Until the Blazers have enough quality players signed under contract it's impossible to forecast their future. It ranges from "Pretty Good 6th-9th Seed" to...who knows?

Dave,

What will the Blazers look like if they are going to contend for a championship? They've got players. They've got cap space. How do you build from here? Neil Olshey said they won't have a Big 3 model. I think LA, Lillard, and Batum could be those three. But assuming he's right what model will put them over the top?

Julie

The precedents cited in these cases are three: Detroit circa 2004 (Wallace, Billups, et al), Dallas circa 2011, and San Antonio to this day. Of the three, San Antonio is probably closest to Portland's current situation because they grew organically and keep shifting out pieces around a core of 3-4 solid guys. Detroit was a veteran team through and through with a really scary defense. Dallas kept purchasing slightly over-the-hill stars until they slipped through a crack and into a title. I'm not sure either Dallas or Detroit can be duplicated in Portland. LaMarcus Aldridge isn't in the same class as Tim Duncan as far as effect on his team but he and Lillard will be good enough to prosper with enough good players around them.

That said, I imagine the Blazers are going to try their own model. Call it San Antonio but not quite so centered around a single Hall-of-Famer.

You've heard the phrase, "He doesn't really have a position, he's just a basketball player" many times before. Usually it's the kiss of death. The actual translation is, "He does have a position but he's too short and slow to play it so we're trying to play him one position lower on the short side and one position higher on the slow side." Players who don't have a position end up not having a job either.

The Blazers have this little glimmer going though...an interesting mix of players who are versatile, have talent, and mix in enough athleticism to stay credible. None of the Core Four is limited to a single position in the traditional sense. Lillard is a point guard but also has the mindset and killer ability of the best shooting guards. Wesley Matthews plays shooting guard but can defend most wings and points and can give you utility stats. Ditto with Batum except he's even more versatile and productive. Aldridge is a power forward or center at need and he plays outside more than in, deadly anywhere on the left side and (when he's on and up to it) in most positions defensively. Terry Stotts coaches this team and he's all about trust, shared responsibility, not pinning yourself down to one role but doing whatever is needed in the moment. Do you see the pattern emerging here?

The ideal acquisition would be a mean, athletic, hopefully defensive-minded starting center. Plop Al Horford on this roster and you start to get excited. News flash: that's not going to happen. The Blazers would have settled for Roy Hibbert last year and couldn't get him. The traditional All-Star Center isn't coming. But as we've mentioned, the Blazers might be able to complete the lineup with another versatile guy or two. The archetypes of the style among players available this year would be Tiago Splitter and J.J. Redick. If you pretend the Blazers could pick up those two guys (unlikely they'd be able to attract and afford both) they'd now have a Top 6 rotation of smart, versatile, and productive multi-position players interchangeable in a hundred ways. You see how guys like Victor Claver and Meyers Leonard--multi-threat players themselves--could eventually fit in. Maybe Will Barton would work as well.

Now that you have an extended core of multi-tool players, rounding out the roster is a simple matter of acquiring specialists to insert during particular situations. I say "simple" because guys like this usually come cheap. You definitely need a rebounder...a Reggie Evans type. You need a tough guy enforcer in the Joel Przybilla mold. A Herm Gilliam-esque one-on-one scorer off the bench wouldn't hurt if Barton isn't that guy. A speedy reserve point guard would be great. A defender/game-manager at that position could work too. You're not banking on these players for 25 minutes per game. You just want them to turn the tide when needed. It doesn't really matter if they can't play for other teams who require a more well-rounded rotation player. You've already got that kind of player eight times over.

The big question here--right after "could the Blazers actually acquire that center and 6th man--is whether this approach would actually work. At the playoff/championship level teams with lots of people who do lots of things well generally lose to teams with one or two players who do things extremely well. How does your wall of versatile talent handle LeBron James or Kevin Durant? If you can't answer that question definitively for at least 4 out of 7 games your system will ultimately come up short.

Assuming the Blazers can't get that third transcendent talent, however, I wouldn't mind seeing an approach like this...if nothing else because it'd be interesting and a neat thing for basketball purists to watch. It'd almost have the flavor of the International-vs.-U.S. struggle in the Olympics and World Championships with the Blazers playing as the International side. Besides you never know. If you hang around the 52-55 win level long enough you can start attracting a higher quality of reserve specialist perhaps...former starters with a few years of tread left. Then you're combining the San Antonio and Dallas approaches. That would be fun to watch.

Alas, like any specific plan in this league it's unlikely to transpire just as written. It's just as likely the Blazers trade away their core for young players and picks to start over. But hey, you have to dream about something, right?

Don't forget to help us create the next generation of Blazers fans by sending underprivileged kids to the Blazers-Warriors game on Blazer's Edge Night, April 17th of this year. You can get all the details of the event and how to help RIGHT HERE.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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