How bad do we need to be in order to find future success?

Recently I’ve read a lot of posts promoting the idea of blowing things up, trading LaMarcus Aldridge, and relying on draft picks to build a good playoff team. The premise of the argument, if I can sum it up succinctly enough, is this: Multiple high draft picks are necessary to build a sustainable, successful playoff team. In other words, suck now to benefit later. But that raised a question for me. Is that really the path to success? Consider a few teams that were successful last season and how they got there.

First the Denver Nuggets. Despite flaming out early in the 2013 postseason, no one could argue that they weren't a very good team. Their bench looked like the Miami Heat when compared to the Trail Blazers bench. But it was assembled primarily by trading assets, not through the draft. Consider: from 2000 to present, only two Denver draft picks were in the top 19. Those netted Carmelo Anthony and Nikoloz Tskitishvili. One big hit, one big miss. The only other current contributors drafted by the Nuggets? Fournier and Faried. So what happened to all those draft picks? Some flamed out as misses by management, but overall they were treated as assets, much like we’ve heard Olshey describe them as. Denver has an impressively convoluted trade history over the last decade. Consider how they got their current roster.

Iguodala? He was acquired with Arron Aflallo and Al Harrington. Aflallo was acquired with a 2nd round pick in 2011, Harrington was a free agent acquisition in 2010. So Iggy cost a second rounder and a free agent. Nice!

Lawson was drafted by Minnesota, Denver used a 2010 first rounder to acquire him. That first rounder became Luke Babbit, traded to POR for Martell Webster. Lawson > Webster > Babbit. Excellent move.

McGee was acquired with Nene, who they had for quite some time. Nene was one of the assets acquired when Denver turned McDyess into Camby, Nene and Mark Jackson. I’m not sure how to label the move, since McGee can be a headcase, albeit a talented one.

Corey Brewer? Cost a second rounder in a trade from Dallas. Andre Miller? Cost them Felton. And Felton, Mozgov, Koufos, Gallinari and Chandler were all part of the Anthony trade. So their #3 pick turned into 5 quality players. Would they still be better with Anthony? I don’t know, but there is no arguing that Denver has done what Portland is aspiring to do: gain assets. As someone recently said, collect underpants. A lot of them.

LESSON #1 I learned: You don’t need a bunch of top 5 picks to build a good team. Trades can be a valuable tool should your draft history not be spectacular.

Second team, the Indiana Pacers. They have had higher draft picks recently than the Nuggets, so compare how their roster was assembled. They still have more of their own draft picks on their roster than Denver—Granger (2005 #17 pick), Hansborough (2009 #13), George (2010 #10), and Stephenson (2010 #40). They traded away their 2011 #15 for George Hill and acquired Roy Hibbert using Jermaine O’Neal. O’Neal was acquired with Dale Davis, who was the 1991 #13 pick. David West was a FA acquisition, as was Gerald Green and DJ Augustin. That means the bulk of their team was built with a couple FA and first round draft picks 17, 13, 10, 15, and 13 along with a second rounder, pick 40.

LESSON #2 I learned: You can build a really good team without having a single pick higher than #10.

Third team, the Memphis Grizzlies. Remember Shareef Abdul-Rahim? 1996 #3 pick, traded later to the Hawks for Pau Gasol, who was later traded infamously for Marc Gasol, thereby spoon feeding the Lakers another championship ring. Thank you Grizzlies. However, Marc is also the reigning Defensive MVP, so I’m sure the Grizzlies are feeling better about that trade now that a little more time has passed by.

In 2007, Memphis signed Darko Milicic, who was traded in 2009 to the Knicks for Quentin Richardson. Richardson then went to the Clippers for Randolph, who was a risky signing at that point in his career. His career rebound has allowed Memphis to have a dominant front line and push them deep in the playoffs.

Mike Conley was the #4 pick in 2007. Tony Allen was a FA acquisition in 2010, Bayless in 2012. Pondexter arrived via trade for Greivis Vasquez, the 2010 #28 pick. As for Tayshaun Prince? He came as a result of Shane Battier. Battier was drafted in 2001 with the #6 pick by Memphis, traded to the Houston Rockets for their #8 pick Rudy Gay in 2006, who was then traded to Toronto in a 3 way deal that brought Prince to Memphis. Voila! Conference championship, here we come!

LESSON #3 I learned: Sometimes risky moves pay off.

LESSON #4 I learned: While Memphis isn’t as deep as Indiana or especially Denver, you aren’t always as far away from contention as it might seem. Memphis turned a #3 pick in 1996, a #6 pick in 2001, a #4 pick in 2007, and a #28 pick in 2010, added a couple FA’s, and produced a heckuva NBA team. They did it the very very hard way. While not ideal, it was a nice reminder that the situation is never as hopeless as it seems. So how do the lessons I learned affect my view of the Trail Blazers?

CONCLUSION: Portland’s situation is not as bad as it seems at times. Take lesson 1, trades can be valuable. We aren’t just discussing trading our top players for upgrades. Cap space and second round picks can be turned into players like Corey Brewer and even Andre Iguodala. We don’t need to shed our best players to get dominant ones. Sometimes they can be had by other means.

Lesson 2, you don’t need high draft picks to sustain success. We don’t have to suck this year to get better next year. Aldridge is a #2 pick and an All-Star. Damian Lillard is a #6 pick and a very good player already in his career. Those are higher picks than anyone the Pacers drafted. Let’s say next year we barely miss the playoffs and get the #12 pick. Fine, let’s take it. We don’t need to trade Aldridge, Batum, etc to guarantee we are terrible in the off chance of moving up 10 spots in a deep draft.

Lesson 3 I’m less convinced about. Risky moves are just that, and like Memphis found out, sometimes they set you back for a lot of years. But one that pays off can change your fortunes overnight. Their players took 10 years to acquire, much slower than the other teams I looked at.

Finally, #4. We might not be that far away. Indiana’s big FA splash was David West. Nice landing, but he was no Dwight Howard pickup. Memphis’ big FA splash was Tony Allen. Sometimes when we are looking at players we’d like to see Portland sign, we don’t see a LeBron or Chris Paul sitting there and we throw our hands up in frustration. But moving the needle doesn’t always take that big of an acquisition. I guess the point of this post is simply this: the world is not ending for the Blazers. Let’s just enjoy the moves that are made. And if they aren’t earth shaking moves, that’s probably okay. Natural growth from the assets they have along with judicious use of their draft picks and cap space could vault Portland into the territory we’re hoping for. Ask Sacramento how tanking has worked out for them. Successful teams don’t make a habit of doing it, as shown above. Let’s now build on what we’ve acquired from sucking in the past, not worry about what we might acquire from sucking in the future.

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