The Portland Trail Blazers are quickly approaching the midpoint of the 2013-14 season, a time when the focus shifts from "They're a pleasant surprise!" to "Now what?"
Even after going 5-5 in their last ten games, including head-scratching losses to Philadelphia and Sacramento this week, Portland enters Saturday's game against Boston as the second-best team in the West. The Blazers also feature the best offense in the NBA, scoring at a staggering 109 points per game clip. At least for now, Portland is primed to be in win-now mode.
There are a multitude of decisions facing the Trail Blazers front office, from what to do with their current bench situation to how patient they should be with some of their younger players. These are the types of questions winning teams have to face, and the answers to those queries, among others, will certainly change the outcome of this season.
Portland, though, is hardly the only franchise facing the "Now what?" theme.
In fact, between a slew of league-wide injuries plus teams playing well above and below preseason expectations, franchises all over the NBA are set to make some tough decisions about their futures.
Likely with the calendar flipping to 2014 -- and the prospect that, at a certain point, it's going to get more and more difficult to get back in (or drop out of) the playoff race -- this "Now what?" story was one heavily covered on SB Nation this week.
Some teams have already faced this question and changed course. This includes in Cleveland, where the reeling Cavaliers traded Andrew Bynum and a variety of draft picks to acquire Luol Deng from the Chicago Bulls. Deng, 28, could very well be the type of two-way player the Cavs need to pull themselves out of their ten-games-under-.500 predicament.
In his article "Stalled at a crossroads, Cleveland Cavaliers get a jump in the form of Luol Deng," Ryan Mourton of Fear the Sword praises for the Cavaliers for only giving up the opportunity for financial savings to acquire an All-Star level player (the Bulls waived Bynum to go under the luxury tax threshold).
"In a year where tanking is in vogue, and the talent in the draft is as good as it's been in a long time," Mourton writes, "[Cavs GM Chris] Grant has instead sent a message to his team of mostly 23 and unders that this organization wants to be about winning basketball games, not lotto draws."
Thus, their answer to the "Now what?" question.
There are many more teams, though, that are still pondering on "Now what?" and have yet to make a move. A few of them were written about this week.
"Stop me if you've heard this before," Chase Thomas writes in his piece "Choosing the right path for the Hawks."
"The Hawks are too good to tank, but not good enough to win a title."
Shifting gears to losing when the preseason plan was to win is the type of dilemma a variety of teams currently face. This year, generally big market teams like Brooklyn, New York and the Los Angeles Lakers are staring it down. It's also one that Chicago has already decided on: rebuild and look toward next season.
As for the Hawks, they are now without their best player for the rest of the year. In the article, Thomas weighs both sides of giving up on this season vs. the major problems with trying to do so (mainly, the roster might be too good to lose epically). His conclusion is that "whichever route [Hawks GM Danny] Ferry decides to take it'd make sense," though that doesn't necessarily mean that either choice would be easy to swallow.
On the other hand, there are some teams that have the complete opposite "issue": they are better (and sometime much better) than expected.
Maybe the best example of this phenomenon is the Phoenix Suns. Mike Lisboa of Bright Side of the Sun asked "Are the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns Too Much of a Good Bargain" this week, delving into how truly amazing the Suns' win total is based on preseason expectations.
Lisboa looks at a pretty fascinating chart that shows the dollar amount paid, i.e. total salary, per win for each team in the NBA. Phoenix is fifth on that list, which includes Emeka Okafor's $15 million contract (by comparison, Portland is second). Lisboa's concern, though, is not with the idea of bringing in good talent to vault into win-now mode. Instead, he questions whether bringing in an elite player in lieu of guys that are on incredibly cheap deals per their output might actually hurt the team. Either way, Phoenix will soon have to decide how to approach the rest of this season: Go for broke, stick to the status quo or make the 180-degree turn for the lottery.
Portland is very much in the second category of teams -- those that have exceeded all expectations and now face questions about what's next. This was a major talking point in the most recent Blazer's Edge Videocast, prompting some commenters to argue to stay the course, while others looked to how to take advantage of this early season success.
There are legitimate arguments on both sides. In the NBA, having a team with camaraderie both on and off the court is something that doesn't come around very often -- changing the roster may improve the team on paper, but could hurt team chemistry. On the other hand, building a winning program in the league isn't easy. Having an opportunity now to make a run at the conference finals or even further isn't one that you want to squander if the possibility exists. After all, why would you keep building for the future when the future could be right now?
Regardless of which side you're placed on, the fact of the matter is that the Blazers are just one of a number of teams facing tough decisions about the future of the franchise. It may be artificial, but the turning of the calendar seems to have made these questions more real not only for fans and analysts, but the teams themselves.
The question remains, then: Now what?
Be sure to follow our new @Blazersedge Twitter account right here.