As we found out today, the Portland Trail Blazers elected to forego trade deadline moves, standing pat with their current roster for the remainder of the 2013-2014 season and the playoffs. We also found out that several other teams made a different decision. Now that the smoke has cleared we're free to ask the critical questions: What does this signal? How do Portland's prospects look for the remainder of the season? Was this the right move?
You don't have to splice tea leaves to figure out what the lack of movement telegraphs about the franchise mindset. They're on a multi-year track. 11 of their 15 players under contract carry 5 or fewer years of NBA experience. They've also set up a potential $30 million of free cap space in the summer of 2015. They're hewing to the longer-term plan, whatever that might be. Unless they found a player to vault them into title contention this year--a player young enough to provide service into the years beyond, a player who wouldn't upset their salary structure and chemistry--making a deal today didn't make sense.
The counter-arguments are equally clear. It's hard to talk about a long-term plan when you're fielding one of the weakest benches in the league, when your young players are stumbling over themselves every second game, and when you're bereft of near-term draft picks to further augment the roster. The Blazers have made an amazing run so far this season. Absent help, they're unlikely to sustain it. Anticipating a sweet driving vacation next summer rings hollow when the car's breaking down right now.
That vacation may not be as cheery as anticipated either. As we detailed last summer, Portland's 2015 cap space is predicated on losing every current member of the team save Nicolas Batum, the rookies, and the sophomores. Every contract the Blazers commit to in the meantime eats into it just as trade today would have done. A LaMarcus Aldridge extension (or cap hold if they don't extend) will cost them. Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez...if the Blazers want them back they'll have to sacrifice that space. If preserving 2015 cap space was the only, or even primary, reason for passing up on fire-sale veterans today then we may anticipate the 2016 Trail Blazer lineup looking radically different than it does today.
Put it all together and you end up with five alternatives to explain the lack of a deal:
1. The Blazers didn't find any available players desirable at this point.
2. The Blazers found somebody desirable but didn't have the juice to get the trade done.
3. The Blazers had the desire and means but figured that their prospects would be better this summer or at a later date. This could include picking up one of the players traded today off of the waiver wire.
4. The Blazers are satisfied with their roster as-is, figuring they'll be able to contend over the next few years without major changes.
5. The Blazers think a radical change in the summer of 2015, occasioned by a virtual cap reset, will be necessary before this team enters a new era. They won't do anything to tamper with that opportunity before then.
Whichever motive you attribute to the decision, the current outlook for the team doesn't change. The team sits at 36-18, in a virtual tie with the Clippers for 4th and 5th place in the Western Conference. They are 6 games out of the conference lead, 4.5 games above 8th-seeded Dallas. The Rockets, Warriors, Clippers, and Spurs--bracket-mates all--made moves to bolster their lineups and the Clippers are rumored to be active in pursuing waived players as well.
Meanwhile injuries have started to bite the Blazers. Opposing teams are better prepared than during Portland's early run. The schedule roller-coasters a little, on the balance not as easy as the first months of the season but not as tough as the gauntlet the Blazers have run over the last few weeks. With no improvements forthcoming, a rise back near the peak of the standings seems unlikely. Falling to the bottom of the bracket also seems unlikely, though injuries provide an unpleasant variable. If Portland's fortunes do change they're likely to get worse.
The Blazers will hope for favorable matchups in the playoffs. That's not a recipe for sustained success but it can get you past the first round, provided your wish is granted. The flip side: unfavorable matchups exist as well, by definition. Draw one of those and Portland's playoff run could be short. Again one wonders if Spencer Hawes coming off the bench could have helped the seeding, maybe pushing a greater number of matchups into the "favorable" category. But if that doesn't happen, fans must remember that not maximizing this year's results was part of the master plan. The cause isn't coaching or ceilings being reached, rather what happens this season being deemed as less essential to the long-term future than what happens over the following 15 months.
For now the shortcomings inherent in Portland's system will not alter, nor will their strengths. We're going to find out just how far that will carry the team...an unsullied experiment without outside interference. Perhaps the Blazer brain trust doesn't yet know (or trust) the upper limits of the current group. Perhaps they're still evaluating whether an Aldridge-Lillard-Batum-Matthews-Lopez core can contend, whether Leonard and Robinson can play well enough, soon enough to supplement that core. Perhaps they've already green-lighted this group and have a grand plan in place to shore up the rest of the roster. Perhaps, privately, they know that the current group looks better than they really are and will need a retool soon. Either way, the "It gets better" promises in Blazer land will once again find a future target. It's time to play out the rest of the season and pin hopes of a revolution, even a small one, on the Summer of 2014.
Whether this was the right decision depends on your perspective. It's a decision...less a matter of right or wrong than priorities. Like so many things about the Blazers right now the day could have gone better, but it could have gone worse too. Between now and the end of April the team will play hard. Its fans will root hard. Everybody will hope for the best and see how it all turns out. Then we get to re-examine those priorities, hoping this time the payoff isn't pushed back again.