The Summer of 2013 has descended upon the Portland Trail Blazers. Normally off-season vacation means a relief from day-to-day stress, punctuated by a few high points. For the Blazers the stress is just starting.
This team had it easy during the regular reason. Low expectations, a season spent kicking the tires on their rookies...how could they lose? It boiled down to an 82-game experiment, a time to take stock, explore lingering questions. The waiting is over now. Whether they Blazers have the answers or not, they're going to have to make decisions this summer that will make or break their future. Consider how many issues they face:
1. Don't look now, but LaMarcus Aldridge has only two years remaining on his slightly-less-than-max-level contract. Normally two years is half an eternity in the NBA, but Aldridge's contract just got radioactive. The Blazers have to be concerned about its half life. We don't know the ending of the Aldridge saga in Portland but we do know that the Blazers cannot allow him to walk away without compensation. Next summer the Blazers and Aldridge will choose between two outcomes: extension and trade. That moment will brand this franchise for the foreseeable future both on the court and on the cap roll.
The Blazers will need to know whether they're capable of building enough of a roster around Aldridge to make a deep playoff run. Aldridge will need convincing as well. He'll turn 29 in the summer of 2014. The next contract he signs will exhaust his NBA prime. As one of the premier power forwards in the league he's not likely to sign for less than a max deal and he's not likely to sign with a team that's not going anywhere. The Blazers will need to pony up in both departments to get him to forego the free agency experiment and marry himself to them.
2. Barring a total meltdown and team restructuring, this summer will carry two significant "lasts" for the team: last time with this much cap space, last lottery pick. Talent-for-talent the Blazers will rise to a more advantageous trade position in the future, but that's it. They'll never be able to execute the kind of unbalanced trades they can achieve this summer. They'll not have the cash for free-agent signings. If they're this high in the lottery again something went wrong.
3. This is Neil Olshey's second summer pushing the buttons while sitting in the chair from which two predecessors were abruptly ejected. I do not have any sense that Paul Allen is considering jettisoning Olshey, but that story could change.
The Blazers had significant cap space last summer. Quick, name Olshey's successful free-agent signings. If you're not scratching your head right now, you must be Neil Olshey. Charisma and the ability to lure players to Portland are Olshey's supposed strong points. If he should come up empty again his ability and credibility will be called into doubt...and rightly so. Blazer fans (and one would presume Blazer bosses) have been promised a coherent, if not wonderful, strategy since Olshey came on board. Will anybody believe that's true if the team can't land its man (or men) this summer? Unless we're dazzled within the next few months Olshey's seat will become uncomfortably hot in the court of public opinion if not in actuality.
4. It goes without saying that the Blazers will never be in more desperate need than they are right now. Or at least they better not be in more desperate need. They'd probably need to add 6 guys to the rotation to make a credible second-round threat. They might have .5 of those 6 on the roster already. (Note there was a decimal point in there.) They're not going to be able to get all half-dozen at once but they absolutely, positively need 2 players who instantly raise the level of the roster plus another strategic veteran with their room exception and/or a promising rookie with that draft pick. The only substitute would be a bona fide star in place of any 2 of those assets. If they come up short of that target we're looking at another season of intolerably high minutes for the core group and fading success for the team as a whole.
If you're getting the sense that the odds are stacked against the Blazers, you may be right. The stakes are high, the needs great, and nothing is guaranteed. The last time this franchise saw a summer with this combination of importance and uncertainty was 2007. That's when the Blazers held the #1 overall pick and had to choose between Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. No single choice the team faces this summer will be that weighty but the sum total will certainly shape the franchise for the next 4-5 years. They'll either be heading for the next (much closer to final) step in a big buildup or putting one and a half of their feet on the slippery slide to a tear-down.
This off-season could be a dream come true or it could be a nightmare. Likely the team and its fans will end up having to compromise with something in between. Whichever way it goes, it's guaranteed to be interesting.