How Do the Portland Trail Blazers Improve from Here?

Chris Covatta

The Portland Trail Blazers exceeded all expectations in the 2013-14 season. Where do they go from here? How do they get better?

We have the ultra-rare single-question Mailbag before us today, but it's a doozy.

Dave,

I think we can all agree that the litany of small moves that Neal Olshey made last season paid off in spades. However, the Blazers aren't just a few minor tweaks away from being a contender, they're a major piece away (and a better bench) from joining the perennial ranks of the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, etc.

If you accept my proposition that the Blazers need to add another substantial piece, the question is how you get there. The Blazers don't have any cap room to add a marquee name (though they could wait until 2015, but given their track record of landing marquee free agent talent in Portland, I'll pass on this option) and don't really have enough room to facilitate the lopsided trade it would take to reel in the third piece.

With that being said, the only other option is to try and find that third piece through the draft, coincidentally the same way the Blazers found Aldridge and Lillard. The 2014 draft also looks deep beyond 1-10. Would you in in favor of trading away some of our young assets (assuming they have value) to get into the draft and select someone around the 10-15 range? I would think a combination of a CJ/Meyers or Barton/2015 1st round draft pick would at least get the Blazers in the conversation with teams like the 76ers or Suns who have multiple 1st round picks are are looking more for asset acquisition than anything else.

Thoughts?

Thanks,

Mike

The Blazers' moves paid off in spades, diamonds, and any suit you care to name this season. The issue now: finding resources to make the same or more happen again.

Since the Monopoly analogy from yesterday's Mailbag fomented interesting discussion in the comments, let's use another board game analogy.

Sometimes you can tell when you're getting behind midway through a game. You can see the pack of leaders, you've determined their resources, and you know that you're not going to catch them unless things change. In those situations it's not uncommon to gamble all out for a game turn or two, using all your special abilities, making wild trades, expending every bit of material to pull closer. Sometimes it works! Advancement might be due to your skill, spending more resources than anybody else, or just a lucky roll of the dice. Whatever the cause, for a minute you look just as good as everybody else.

After you (and if they're astute, the other people around the table) get done marveling at the achievement, the inevitable question arises: "What now?"

This is the problem with playing catch up. You did a masterful job on Turn 32. Your position looks good in comparison to everybody else, especially considering where you started from. But on Turn 33 you look down at the board and realize you've spent all your money, burned through all your special cards, and have no means to duplicate your feat. Meanwhile the guys who were cranking out advantages like clockwork will do so again this round.

At that point you either find a miracle somewhere or you content yourself with doing well considering the circumstances...with being a good player even if you didn't end up winning the game.

Portland's lousy die rolls a few years back put them in the position of playing catch-up. The 2013-14 season was Neil Olshey's "Turn 32". The Blazers made a big leap. They look good compared to their prior position. Olshey got votes for Executive of the Year. It was well played.

The Blazers also hold no first round draft pick this year, no second round draft picks for years to come, no cap space, and no valuable assets that they can bear to part with unless they rip up the core of the roster. They played all their special cards and expended all their resources, just to get here. They need a miracle or they, too, will have to content themselves with doing well considering the circumstances.

That summarizes the situation you laid out. The question is, will your proposed solution--trading into the draft--provide that miracle, or at least enough of a boost to make a significant difference?

The four assets you're willing to part with are C.J. McCollum, Meyers Leonard, Will Barton, and Portland's 2015 first-round draft pick.

McCollum and Meyers are lottery picks from 1 and 2 years ago, respectively. We've hardly seen McCollum play. We've seen too much of Leonard given his progress so far. Neither will be overwhelmingly attractive on the market. You're probably right about the Blazers being able to buy a draft pick with these guys, but they won't get into the lottery. Is it worth trading players obtained with recent high picks for a lesser pick this year? Is the 2014 draft that deep compared to 2013 and 2012?

Barton is an interesting case. He was a second-round selection. He's also shown the most promise of any of his youthful peers outside of Damian Lillard. The on-paper exchange isn't as embarrassing to the franchise as moving McCollum and Leonard would be. At least the Blazers wouldn't be hanging up a sign saying, "We blew these prior picks!" But they'd be giving up the one guy who has actually produced on the court, again for a modest pick.

The 2015 first-rounder makes the most sense of all, as the Blazers can rightfully expect that pick to rest in the bottom third of the order. Portland's trading partner would expect the same, though. Unless a team found nobody desirable on the board, the pick alone wouldn't be enough.

All four of these assets register on the low end of the desirability scale. Four less-desirable assets bundled together don't amount to a single desirable asset. You're looking at a low-level return no matter which way you go.

My guess is that the Blazers will find the chances of Leonard, McCollum, or Barton becoming that boost-worthy asset you crave greater than the chances of a low pick in this year's draft doing so. This will hold true even if they assess those chances as small. For that reason, I'm thinking these deals don't get done.

That said, your original line of reasoning is sound. The draft might prove the best avenue to transform the team radically. To accomplish that the Blazers would have to spend far more, and get far higher up in the order, than you've suggested. They'd need to move highly desirable guys for a highly desirable pick. They'd plan on that pick becoming a bona-fide star, wait long enough to give him a chance to do so, sacrifice immediate progress for a chance at getting better later. In the meantime they'd use the salary cap space left by departing player(s) to further bolster the roster. They might trade excess young guys to improve the bench or they might let those young guys develop along with their new draftee, becoming the new bench in 2-3 years.

That plan has merit as long as you think the Blazers don't have much ceiling remaining before hitting their peak. Those who feel upward mobility is only a player and some patience away will rightfully object to this scheme. Using cap exceptions and making a minor trade to help the bench would be sufficient for them. But if you go with your original assumptions, the team can't putt-putt their way into the passing lane. Fiddling around with low-level picks qualifies as "putt-putting". The Blazers will need to downshift, sacrifice a little immediate momentum, and then floor their way through multiple gears if they want to gain ground on the league leaders.

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard

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