The Spurs faced a dilemma in 2011: they were aging, their payroll was expanding and their roster's ceiling was up for debate.
After looking around at a number of options (as highlighted in a 2013 Grantland piece), San Antonio decided to trade Gregg Popovich’s favorite player, George Hill, for a lesser known lottery pick from San Diego State.
Kawhi Leonard turned out to be one of the best decisions made by a franchise that’s had more than a couple over the last two decades.
With the 2014 NBA Draft now less than a week away, Trail Blazers fans can recall how difficult life was when the lottery was all we knew. Optimism and drama substituted for success.
The Draft represents the height of "Risk-Reward" in the Association. The Spurs provide the historical example, Joel Embiid the current one. Having suffered through back issues during his lone season at Kansas, undergoing foot surgery this week, the previously-assumed No. 1 overall pick now labors to stay in the Top 5. It's risk and reward: Lottery teams are ready for risk but Embiid’s upside might not outweigh his medical issues. To take him or not...that’s the million dollar question, quite literally.
The risk-reward dynamic isn't unique to the draft. June is just the first reminder, the first opportunity to put your franchise on the line this summer. If you don't take a chance, you can't get ahead.
Look at the two teams that made the Finals this past season. In Miami, guys like Norris Cole or Chris Andersen brought obvious risk. Yet without them, Miami doesn’t win the 2013 championship, and a trip to the 2014 Finals wouldn't have been guaranteed either. In the Western Conference, San Antonio turned Leonard, Danny Green, and Boris Diaw into gold. If neither of these teams put chips behind their bets, the gold sits in different trophy cases today.
Blazers followers know the other side of the story, with Greg Oden and Sam Bowie exemplifying risk gone wrong. (Evan Turner and James Harden illustrate the point for other teams as well.) But we can't get jaded, expecting the negative outcome when positive is possible too.
So, if risk is the way to ultimate success, the Blazers have to start asking whether the draft or free agency brings the biggest reward and how to take advantage?
The answer in Portland at this point seems to be free agency. If that’s indeed the case, then maybe we need to start to wonder whether guys on the risky side could pay huge dividends in the future. Would Nate Robinson have an explosive season? Could Evan Turner turn his career around in Portland, assuming the price is right? Or what about a young guy like Jordan Crawford lighting up the scoreboard on any given night? While it seems obvious that the team needs a veteran, maybe there’s a way one of these young guys fits alongside a vet at a much lower salary. It could be the spark this team needs.
But maybe we shouldn't dismiss the Draft too quickly. If there’s a guy with the type of upside to get this team to the next level, you have to take a serious look at buying in. Proven commodities traded out in big swings can pay off, as the Leonard-Hill deal shows. The Spurs are World Champions; the Pacers are stuck. Not every deal will pay off like that, but you have to look at least.
Next Thursday brings opening night of gambling season in the NBA. While every team in the NBA will make calculated bets both in the draft and in free agency, the jackpots are only available to those that bet big. The Blazers should be ready to take a sizable risk this offseason…and hope it pays off.