As you no-doubt have surmised by the lack of neon-flaming, "Trail Blazers Get Player X!" headlines on site this morning, Portland sat out the 2014 NBA Draft, making no moves into or around the selection process. Though the evening lacked the thrill of your typical draft year--without so much as a second-round pick to get excited over--the approach wasn't all bad.
The Blazers have been in the business of selling hope for almost a decade now. 2005-06 marked the final demise of the Jailblazers regime, a lost year, a 21-win season. The LaMarcus Aldridge-Brandon Roy draft in 2006 lit the flame for a new generation. That flame sputtered under the weight of injuries and would have gone out entirely but for the fresh application of fuel each June. Year after year hopes for growth rested with rookies, long on hype and short on experience. Sometimes those hopes paid off. Roy and Aldridge came through in spades, as did Nicolas Batum. But those diamonds lay scattered in the rough of Sergio Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez, Jerryd Bayless, Luke Babbitt, Nolan Smith, Armon and Chris Johnson, and more. Aside from a few brilliant selections, hope was all the Blazers ended up selling.
Make no mistake, this franchise is still in the business of selling hope. The Blazers have no clear and easy path to elite status. They're not ready to battle the San Antonios and OKC's and Miamis of the world. They may not even be ready to cut a swath to the second round of the playoffs again. Envisioning them wearing Championship Rings in 3-4 years requires just as much hope as envisioning that 23rd pick becoming the steal of the draft while all your second-rounders "have first-round talent". But at least it's a different kind of hope now. It's not the vain wish that everybody else made a mistake and "we were smarter" that every team from 2-60 invokes. It's a hope shared by the upper 55% of the league, that with the right moves and a free agent or two, the path ahead is open. It's a hope based slightly more on known quantities than lottery gambles. It's fine for Blazer fans to turn that gem in their fingers for a year or so before its luster becomes commonplace. Draft picks would only serve to distract.
Absent that distraction, it's good to remember for a year that most draftees don't pan out. They fall short of their hype. They take years to develop. The plays in between are 5% highlight, 25% headache, and 70% "Who cares?" (If you're tempted to regard that as sour grapes from the city without picks, most of my draft reactions have been measured over the years. Greg Oden was a notable exception and look how that turned out.) The draft provides a crucial vehicle for talent renewal, particularly for franchises like the Blazers. But you want to add those players to the mix sparingly, like Ascorbic Acid, not depend on them to flavor the whole solution like High Fructose Corn Syrup. The Blazers have been syrupy enough to gag on over the last 10 years. Change is welcome.
Superstar-level players provide exceptions to the rule. No franchise can have too many. Despite the indisputably deep nature of the draft class, this night was about three names: Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid. If anybody thought to cut in line, those were the players to shoot for. Nobody could. Wiggins, Parker, and Embiid went 1, 2, 3 at the top of the order. Good players, even stars, will emerge from the crop below them. But those lower teams were taking the same gambles they do every year, perhaps with a somewhat higher likelihood of a payoff than normal.
The Blazers aren't in a situation where gambling will help. I's hard to imagine any of the final 57 draftees stepping in for Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, or Robin Lopez right now. Four years down the road? Maybe so. But the Blazers don't have four years of LaMarcus Aldridge's career to fool around with, nor can they keep this lineup together that long if it doesn't produce.
If the Blazers were going to gamble in this draft they needed to go all out. If they couldn't get a Top 3 pick they were probably better off staying out. Nursing their draftees from the last couple years will provide enough risk and potential for now. With 8 baby-shoe players already on the roster how could they justify absorbing more? They'd need to drop players in order to acquire them, just as a practical matter of team balance. In their current position moving from risk to new risk isn't the right play.
To the extent improvement comes, it'll arrive via internal development and trades or signings for bankable veteran players. We've been saying that all summer. Watching the next crop of youngsters enter the league to glorious fanfare didn't change that outlook. Nor should Blazer fans mourn last night's inaction. The franchise will be back to selling the other kind of hope next year. Depending on how the team fares, the draft might even seem critical again. I kind of hope not, though...or at least not soon. I could do with a different kind of excitement for a season or two.
--Dave email@example.com / @DaveDeckard