Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Should the Portland Trail Blazers Make the 2014 NBA Playoffs?

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Dave Deckard of Blazersedge.com discussions the merits and implications of the Blazers making the playoffs and rails against the horrors of tanking.

Dave,

Plenty of talk about whether the Blazers can make the playoffs lately.  But aren't we ignoring a bigger question?  Should they make the playoffs?  Where do you stand in the 7-8 seed vs. lottery debate?  Would a low seed help the team grow that much?  Would clearing that bar help us keep LaMarcus Aldridge?

Gary

Tons of deep questions there!

Every time the playoffs versus lottery question comes up I answer the same way.  You have to keep short-term blinders on.  I understand the bigger philosophical and growth curve implications, but games are played today and tomorrow.  That's all you can control.  Win every game you can every time you play.  Let the chips fall where they may.  If you've done that, you've done your job.

I'm not sure this team would recover from any kind of tank attempt.  Forget logistics and the uncertain outcome and just consider the psychological implications for a moment.

Imagine you worked in an office with a dozen other experienced professionals.  You have goals, objectives, all that stuff.  Then one day the Big Boss comes to your department and says, "OK, you guys have been failing so badly that we just do not care anymore.  Go ahead and miss your goals.  Forget the objectives for a year.  Just do whatever.  Show up at 8, go through the motions, go home.  After graduation next spring we're going to hire a hot young college grad and he's going to get this department in shape.  Then we're going to be cooking!  Until then, just be your sucky selves."

What would your reaction be?  Morale drops to subterranean levels.  Your goals and objectives don't mean crap anymore and likely never will to you again.  You're going to resent the idea that a college kid is going to lead you into the next era and you're really going to resent management's assessment of you and your department, that you need that kind of boost.  You're quickly going to come to the conclusion that the problem isn't you sucking, it's the company sucking.  You're going to find the quickest way possible out of that job and latch onto an organization that actually knows what they're doing.

Now imagine your job is the NBA, you've worked all your life to get there, millions of dollars are riding on your reputation, and the year you're being asked to waste is one of a handful you get in your whole career.  Let the above sentiment spread into the locker room and instantly everyone from Damian Lillard to the 15th man is going to start marking time and looking to bail on your sorry, mixed-up franchise in favor of people who actually know how to win.

The only way in which that kind of move works is if you intend to keep zero players beyond the next year or two.  But if that's the case you probably don't have to worry about intentionally tanking.  Your talent level is so low you'll auto-tank.  The teams to whom the tank strategy makes sense from a season-long perspective are those who don't have to employ it because it's happening anyway.  If you're going to lose, you might as well look at the bright side I guess.

Failing that, the only appropriate message inside that locker room is to win everything you can, every time you take the floor.

Granted, management can jimmy the process so that their team will naturally tank through lack of talent.  (See also: Boston, circa 2014.)  But even then you have to be careful not to outsmart yourself.  Ping pong balls offer no guarantee you'll get a top pick.  (Minnesota)  There's no guarantee your top pick will actually pan out.  (Greg Oden)  The only absolute guarantee from losing is that you lost.

Absent talent, the know-how to win, and the ability to attract top-level talent you are only 1 or 2 bad decisions away from a rut and the dreaded "losing culture".  How many teams have spent years trying to extricate themselves from that predicament?  The Cleveland Cavaliers had the single best pick in recent memory and multiple first overall picks since.  What do they have to show for it?  They stunk before LeBron.  They made it to the Finals with him but won no titles, in part due to the inability to capitalize further.  Now they stink again.  I'm not at all suggesting they tanked to get their picks.  The point is, intentionally going the Cleveland route doesn't guarantee you ultimate success even under the best of circumstances.  No matter how tempting those picks look on draft night, that's not a road to travel voluntarily.

As to the implications of making the playoffs, that's even more speculative than whether the team can make the playoffs in the first place.  The natural progression in the minds of many is that an 8th seed this year would lead to an upper-tier seed the year following and contention after that.  Absent a major talent upgrade, that's highly unlikely.  Portland's 8th seed would probably be just that...an 8th seed.  Next year they'd be vying for a low seed again.  At no point does this group project to a Thunder-threatening bunch.  You could claim "playoff experience" but to what end?  That mantra was important in 2009 when a young Roy/Oden/Aldridge core was just getting rolling.  It's less so now.  Trades, drafts, and signings are still the primary means of growth for this team.  Nevertheless, succeeding enough to make the post-season would highlight the areas in which Portland needed to grow further, and thus the path ahead.  That's probably more valuable than the "they need everything" or the general asset-based approach.  At least they'd know what they were collecting assets for.

Likewise, a 7th or 8th seed would be unlikely to sway Aldridge if he's leaning one way or the other.  LeBron James, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton (to name a few) all left teams they had been to the Finals with in order to pursue a shot at a ring.  A first-round playoff exit isn't a strong selling point.  The fact that just making the playoffs would be a big deal to Portland right now only confirms that impression.

Whatever implications making the post-season would or wouldn't have, it's still a worthwhile endeavor for the reasons illuminated above.  Unless trades or injuries put the playoffs beyond reasonable reach, that should be the primary goal for the franchise this year.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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