Although I did entertain the idea of trading LaMarcus Aldridge, I am not in the all-or-nothing, championship-or-tank camp. Perhaps the only way for the Blazers to win a championship is to luck out and draft a franchise-changing superstar. But, an actual championship isn't the only barometer of success. I would be excited to see our Blazers win a series or two, maybe even give us some (false) hope the Finals could be within reach.
As Neil Olshey put it according to a recent Grantland article: "I don't talk as much about trying to win a title, but more about being a factor in the playoffs. And I define that as being a team that's going to advance to the second round. Once you're there, a bounce of the ball, health, chemistry, matchups — all those little things come into play once you're in the final eight."
Once you get in the playoffs, (if you're not the Bucks playing the Heat), a few lucky breaks or good matchups and all the sudden you're in the next round. Just ask the 76ers of 2012, who beat the Bulls when Derrick Rose was injured, or the 2007 8th-seeded Warriors, who got a relatively favorable matchup with the top-seeded Mavericks and nearly ended up in the conference finals.
This post isn't to argue that the Blazers WILL be contenders. But it is to argue that the Blazers' window isn't slammed shut on contending with this core. With a little internal development, good management, and help from other teams, Portland could regain their proud status as a team constantly a threat in the playoffs.
So who will hold on to the Western Conference throne for the next few years (while LaMarcus Aldridge is in his prime)? Even the elite teams have flaws.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are the most obvious choice, with two top-20 (maybe top-10) players on their roster. If they hadn't traded James Harden, we'd probably be stuck watching Heat-Thunder in the Finals several years in a row. They are still an elite team, but they do have chinks in their armor.
Without a lot of internal development, they have an over-reliance on Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant on offense (see their free fall in last year's playoffs after Westbrook's injury). The loss of their only other legit offensive threat does not help. The utter offensive incompetence of their starting center really hurts, and they do not have the elite three-point shooters (like Miami) to stop defenses from honing in on their top-two. They do have intriguing young pieces, but no cap flexibility for several years.
The San Antonio Spurs have a shorter explanation. Every year, some write them off because of age, and it never comes true. However, the fact remains; Father Time is undefeated. They have seen Manu Ginobili's play drop , and if Tim Duncan or Tony Parker can not play at All-NBA levels, than the talent they somehow constantly add will not be enough to get them to the Finals again.
The Clippers look poised to make the jump from good to great as they addressed their biggest weakness by adding one of the best coaches. They also improved their starting lineup and maybe even their already-strong bench. However, they have several weaknesses.
Blake Griffin has never made the jump from popular All-Star to legit franchise player. In fact his numbers have gotten worse instead of better and he still has several glaring holes, including defense and a lack of offensive polish. DeAndre Jordan has the same weaknesses (though obviously not the same strengths). Unless you are a big Jamal Crawford fan, the Clips lack a legit third-best player. While most teams would be in trouble if their superstar was injured, the Clippers would be doomed if Chris Paul had a major injury, which wouldn't be surprising considering his history.
The Rockets look poised to make the jump to contention as well, with two top players in their lineup and a host of role players. They have a lot of questions too though. Their third highest paid player can not realistically share the court with their first, and their other third highest paid player was outplayed by his minimum-salaried backup, is overpaid, and not the greatest fit. If they can turn either of those players in to helpful pieces, it would go a long way.
But there are also questions about how Dwight Howard will fit in the offense, and whether he has fully recovered from injury.
The Warriors are yet another team looking to take a leap. They look promising after adding Andre Iguodala and retaining plenty of young talent. But three of their starters, including their star, have seen major injuries. It also remains to be seen how much of an improvement Iggy and the rest of the players they added are over supersubs Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry.
Denver lost one of their top-three players in free agency, and will be without another for part of the season due to injury. They also lost a great coach, and while they added depth, it is largely redundant. They certainly don't have the look of even a second-round team.
The Grizzlies also lost their coach, and while I think Mike Miller could be one of the more underrated pickups of the summer, they didn't improve as much as other teams in the conference, and have little upside or flexibility.
Which leaves a ghost of a chance at the WCF for team with an elite young player, an All-Star in his prime, and several other intriguing pieces...
We'll go in to detail on the Blazers' upside next time.